More on the unfallen creation

Thanks to Timothy Hicks for prompting this “update” on the “myth of the fallen creation”, and in particular on the aspect that it is not taught in Scripture. In fact, the extent of the Fall “in the natural world” shrinks even as you watch it.

Human sin is the undoubted effect of Adam’s taking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (if we take into account the context in Genesis and the biblical witness). Equally certain is that it resulted in human death as Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden and out into the land of Eden beyond. I’ll just point out in passing that, since this penalty is represented in the text by their loss of access to the tree of life in the garden, it cannot possibly have any bearing on animal death, unless we suppose that all the animals in the world regularly came to a single garden to eat from the tree of life, and were afterwards prevented (which the text doesn’t suggest).

So we turn to the rest of God’s judgement in ch3. Firstly, the serpent’s offspring are put at permanent enmity with those of Eve. Echoes of that occur throughout the Bible, of course. And it is told that it will eat dust (not meat!) and crawl on its belly. Creationists have sometimes said this indicates a loss of legs, but as John Walton points out, both phrases are idiomatic of humiliation – a serpent that’s not on its belly is rearing to strike.

The woman, in turn, is harmed in the area of relationships. Though the phrase about pain in childbearing might well be physical, albeit solely in the human sphere, it may refer more to the problems associated with the trouble the children themselves cause – in Eve’s case it was fulfilled in the double grief of Cain’s fratricide (resulting from her sin) and Abel’s death (ditto).

That just leaves, for Adam, the curse on the ground, whereby it will produce thorns and thistles and cause him to sweat for his sustenance until he himself returns to the soil from which he came. It is on these 3 verses that the entire edifice of the fallen creation is built – literally a house built on sand, or at least dust.

But in Gen 8, after the Flood, God is pleased by the sacrifice that Noah offers, and in response graciously says:

Never again will I curse the ground because of man (= adam), even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.

This he follows with a song that’s significant to me as the first part of the Bible I learned, for my first school harvest festival at the age of six (only to be replaced by my female understudy on the day because I had a cold!):

As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.

Now most commentaries seem to to take “never again will I curse the ground” as the same thing as the promise not to destroy all living creatures (and in effect reverse the process of creation again). But that’s actually not what it says: the first sentence is about “never again cursing the ground because of man” (leading us to ask when it was he did so the first time). And the second is an addition – AND no more Noahic deluges. The song likewise begins with the cycle of agriculture, before going on to the more basic aspects of creation that were temporarily reversed by the Flood.

Harvest-failure is not actually stated to be an issue during the Flood, though clearly at least one agricultural cycle would have been trashed by it. But it is mentioned in Genesis 3. Most naturally, then, the references to the curse, ground, man and harvest refer back to the curse given to Adam, and announce its rescinding after the Flood. That would make the curse a purely temporary exacerbation of the problems of putting food on the table for Adam and, presumably, his antediluvian descendants. One might even suspect it could refer back to some faintly-remembered period of famine before the Flood, now lost to history…

…or maybe not quite so lost. In the Sumerian Atrahasis Flood story, probably ultimately from the 3rd millennium BC, the gods are increasingly troubled by mankind’s “noise” (which may well have moral connotations) and they cut off nature’s gifts:

When the second year arrived
They had depleted the storehouse.
When the third year arrived
The people’s looks were changed by starvation.
When the fourth year arrived
Their upstanding bearing bowed,
Their well-set shoulders slouched,
The people went out in public hunched over.
When the fifth year arrived,
A daughter would eye her mother coming in;
A mother would not even open her door to her daughter. . . .
When the sixth year arrived
They served up a daughter for a meal,
Served up a son for food. (Dalley 25-26)

Incidentally, at this time the god Enli also says “Let the womb be too tight to let the baby out” (Dalley 25). Echoes of Eve there, perhaps, too. It is immediately after this that the Flood occurs.

The link between the two Genesis passages is so obvious that one must ask why so few commentators have suggested it. I would argue that it is due to the last five centuries of biblical exposition, in which the idea that creation has fallen was invented, and then developed until it dictated the pessimistic, even Gnostic, way most Christians have viewed the created world. With the assumption that the world is now cursed, and that Gen 3.17-19 is the explanation for it, commentators may well have something of a blind spot to a text that suggests the whole thing was put right after the Flood – one then has no explanation for (the perception that) “the slime of the serpent is on it all” (in John Wesley’s lurid, if scarcely Scriptural, words).

If, then, the curse on the ground was, as Genesis 9 literally teaches, a temporary penalty, then there no longer remains a single text in Genesis on which to hang the tale that the natural creation is altered from the way God first created it. That takes a key argument away from Young Earth Creationism, but also from those evolutionary heresies that blame “the fallen state of the world” on “selfish evolution”. There is, in fact, nothing to explain as far as the Bible itself is concerned.

But, someone will say, if there is no longer a curse on the ground, why are there still weeds and crop failures? I guess the answer would be, for the same reason that despite the promise never again to destroy the earth by a flood, there are still occasionally massive floods. The Flood, and the covenant with the earth arising from it, were about extraordinary judgements, not the patterns of normally operating nature. Yet mankind is still, but for Christ, under the curse of death – and God’s ongoing judgements are part of that, including nature’s occasional revolts under our violent rule. But that is very far from indicating a curse.

The earth is, indeed, still the “good earth”. It will, of course, be even better when it is no longer subject to the corruptibility of the perishable, but is renewed by the spiritual (1 Cor 15.54-55, Rom 8.18-21). But let’s not see problems where Scripture doesn’t.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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11 Responses to More on the unfallen creation

  1. Cath Olic says:

    “I’ll just point out in passing that, since this penalty is represented in the text by their loss of access to the tree of life in the garden, it cannot possibly have any bearing on animal death, unless we suppose that all the animals in the world regularly came to a single garden to eat from the tree of life, and were afterwards prevented (which the text doesn’t suggest).”

    I agree.

    But I think other verses DO point to animal death coming AFTER the Fall.

    “And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.
    And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.” [Gen 1:29-30]

    If these verses do not describe the vegetarian diet of man and beast before the Fall, what are the spiritual, “cosmic temple” lessons of these verses?

    Also,
    “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;
    for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope;
    because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
    We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now;
    and NOT ONLY THE CREATION, BUT WE OURSELVES, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” [Romans 8:19-23]

    I don’t think God created a groaning creation subject to suffering, disease and death. These ills came to man and animal only AFTER the Fall.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Yeah – I’ve covered both those points sufficiently in the past to leave them alone now. I’ll just add that if one is taking the lack of specific permission for animals to eat meat in Genesis 1as a denial of carnivory, then you should realise that lack of permission was never rescinded anywhere in Scripture, so it doesn’t explain carnivores now – still less anything else associated with “natural evil”.

      One omission in my post, though, was that I failed to notice that Lamech, in naming Noah, specifically prophesied that he would provide comfort in the context of the curse of the ground (Gen 5.29). Was the prophesy fulfilled? Only if Gen 8.21 is about the same curse.

  2. Cath Olic says:

    “Yeah – I’ve covered both those points sufficiently in the past to leave them alone now.”

    Would you at least tell me what would be the top “cosmic temple” point
    of Gen 1:29-30?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Top point: “Yahweh makes provision for his priests, and his creatures.”

      • Cath Olic says:

        “Top point [of Gen 1:29-30]: “Yahweh makes provision for his priests, and his creatures.”

        If Moses and the people who would come to read/hear his words didn’t already know about the concept of eating, then that might make some sense to me.

        • Timothy Hicks says:

          Hey Cath Olic,

          If I might add, picture yourself as a Pilgrim visiting the New World. You build yourself a cabin, start a farm, and at the end of the day everyone is gathered around the table, holding hands, and the man of the house says, “Lord, please bless this food for which we are about to partake.” … would someone say, why are you saying grace? Are they ignorant of the concept of eating? Don’t they know that they took the work to plant crops and harvest them?

          It sounds like a rather materialistic objection to say, “If they didn’t already know about the concept of eating,” Saying God provides for Man is very different than saying Man provides for God … and in that pagan culture that’s literally what they did: fed and clothed the gods for divine blessings.

          -Tim

  3. Timothy Hicks says:

    Thanks Jon for the reference!

    While I can’t specifically comment to Cath Olic, regarding the Cosmic Temple view, I will say that I have at least two good alternative explanations for the “vegetarian passages in verses 29-30”.

    1) The Polemic Explanation. In this view you will have to read other Creation stories (especially the ones written by Israel’s neighbors). When reading the other Creation stories, along with their religious practices, you’ll notice a recurring theme. Babylonians and Sumerians, for instance, had the belief that it was the role and duty of humans to feed and clothe the gods, and in return they would get divine blessings. What we read in the Genesis account is the polar opposite. Instead it’s GOD who provides for HUMANS, in verse 29-30, he gives his creatures food, and in chapter 3:21, God gives humans clothing. Reading it from an ancient near eastern perspective, gives entirely new meaning to this passage.

    2) The Framework Hypothesis. In this popular view, their is a recognition of the Two Triad Structure within the Six Days of Creation. The first three days refer to realms / habitats: light and dark, sky and water, and lush land. While days 4-6 refer to the inhabitants of those created realms: the sun and moon that rule the day and night, the birds and sea-creatures that rule the skies and seas, and lastly the land creatures and man that govern and rule over the land. It is interesting that the words “rule” and “dominion” are specially used in days 4 and 6, while on day 5 it can simply be inferred. The Man (created on Day 6) is to have dominion over all other creatures, and God is to have dominion over the entire created order on Day 7. Seeing how days 1 and 4, 2 and 5, 3 and 6, are like “pairs” that correlate with one another, the passage in verses 29-30, demonstrates a further correlation: the plants that were created on Day 3 are a blessing and a gift for the creatures (man and beast) on Day 6.

    Those I think are two working explanations that is more consistent with the overall themes, structures, and so on, in the Bible.

    To add to Jon Garvey’s train of thought, about their being no passage in the Bible that says when the animals “started being carnivores,” of which we would have to arbitrarily assume a point when they changed their diet, I find the vegetarian view, a little bit inconsistent.

    It’s worth noting that the passages in question is a blessing and not a command. They were not forbidden to eat meat — (some creatures, like squirrels for instance, go both ways, and are actually omnivores).

    Also … What about the sea-creatures? What did they eat, and why were they left out?

    -Tim

  4. Cath Olic says:

    A reading from the December 1 Mass brought to my mind again the thought that, prior to the Fall, man and beast lived in harmony and had a blood-less, vegetarian diet. And that the next world will reflect a return to this original state.

    “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
    The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
    with a little child to guide them.
    The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
    together their young shall rest;
    the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
    The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
    and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
    There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
    for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
    as water covers the sea.”
    [from Isaiah 11]

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Cath

      Another text I’ve dealt with at length (and intend to again). Here.

      When push comes to shove, the Genesis text says only “You animals can eat green plants, and you man can eat seed-bearing plants.”

      It’s just wildly speculative to say, “That means not only that nothing was allowed to eat anything except plants, but that nothing ever died. And there weren’t any storms or earth quakes. But obviously that all changed when the man disobeyed God because… well, because it all changed, that’s all.”

      And in any case, animals species reproducing without death would make the earth uninhabitable and knee deep in insects within a year or two, and knee deep in worse, because all the dung beetles and bacteria were dutifully eating green plants instead of animal poo. The worms, too, were forbidden to recycle soil, but sucked away at green plants, like God said…

      …Unless they practised birth control, of course, which would be a flat disobedience to the very clear command to them to “be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth.”

      • Cath Olic says:

        “And in any case, animals species reproducing without death would make the earth uninhabitable and knee deep in insects within a year or two, and knee deep in worse…”

        Yes, perhaps within a year or two.
        But not within a week or two.
        God knows all things. Perhaps He knew that in a week or two things would change to the way we know them now.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Now you’re getting desperate!

          God spends a week creating a universe that will hit the buffers in a couple of years unless humanity sins, and then calls it “very good”!!!!!!

          Now ask yourself: which is better: a fantastic creation without a sewage system, or the one we have, with all the sin? God would be thanking Adam and Eve for pushing him into designing a system that worked (even though none of this redesign is even hinted at in the Bible) rather than punishing them.

          I have to say, my trust in God’s wisdom and perfection is greater than that.

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