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.