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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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FALL . The story of the Fall in Genesis 3:1-24 is the immediate sequel to the account of man’s creation with which the Jahwistic document opens (see Creation). It tells how the first man and woman, living in childlike innocence and happiness in the Garden of Eden, were tempted by the subtle serpent to doubt the goodness of their Creator, and aim at the possession of forbidden knowledge by tasting the fruit of the one tree of which they had been expressly charged not to eat. Their transgression was speedily followed by detection and punishment; on the serpent was laid the curse of perpetual enmity between it and mankind; the woman was doomed to the pains of child-bearing: and the man to unremitting toil in the cultivation of the ground, which was cursed on account of his sin. Finally, lest the man should use his newly-acquired insight to secure the boon of immortality by partaking of the tree of life, he was expelled from the garden, which appears to be conceived as still existing, though barred to human approach by the cherubim and the flaming sword.

It is right to point out that certain incongruities of representation suggest that two slightly varying narratives have been combined in the source from which the passage is taken (J [Note: Jahwist.] ). The chief difficulty arises in connexion with the two trees on which the destiny of mankind is made to turn. In Genesis 2:9 the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil grow together in the midst of the garden; in Genesis 2:17 the second alone is made the test of man’s obedience. But ch. 3 (down to Genesis 2:22 ) knows of only one central tree, and that obviously (though it is never so named) the tree of knowledge. The tree of life plays no real part in the story except in Genesis 3:22; Genesis 3:24; and its introduction there creates embarrassment; for if this tree also was forbidden, the writer’s silence regarding the prohibition is inexplicable, and if it was not forbidden, can we suppose that the Divine prerogative of immortality was placed within man’s reach during the period of his probation? The hypothesis of a twofold recension of the Paradise story, while relieving this difficulty, would be of interest as showing that the narrative had undergone a development in Hebrew literature; but it does not materially aid the exegesis of the passage. The main narrative, which is complete, is that which speaks of the tree of knowledge; the other, if it be present at all, is too fragmentary to throw light on the fundamental ideas embodied in the story.

That this profoundly suggestive narrative is a literal record of a historic occurrence is an opinion now generally abandoned even by conservative theologians; and the view which tends to prevail amongst modern expositors is that the imagery is derived from the store of mythological traditions common to the Semitic peoples. It is true that no complete Babylonian parallel has yet been discovered; the utmost that can be claimed is that particular elements or motives of the Biblical story seem to be reflected in some of the Babylonian legends, and still more in the religious symbolism displayed on the monuments (tree of life, serpent, cherubim, etc.). These coincidences are sufficiently striking to suggest the inference that a mythical account of man’s original condition and his fall existed in Babylonia, and had obtained wide currency in the East. It is a reasonable conjecture that such a legend, ‘stripped of its primitive polytheism, and retaining only faint traces of what was probably its original mythological character, formed the material setting which was adapted by the [Biblical] narrator for the purpose of exhibiting, under a striking and vivid imaginative form, the deep spiritual truths which he was inspired to discern’ (Driver). These spiritual truths, in which the real significance of the narrative lies, we must endeavour very briefly to indicate.

(1) The story offers, on the face of it, an explanation of the outstanding ills that flesh is heir to: the hard, toilsome lot of the husbandman, the travail of the woman and her subjection to man, the universal fate of death. These evils, it is taught, are inconsistent with the ideal of human life, and contrary to the intention of a good God. Man, as originally created, was exempt from them; and to the question, Whence came they? the answer is that they are the effect of a Divine curse to which the race is subject; though it is to be noted that no curse is pronounced on the first pair, but only on the serpent as the organ of temptation, and the ground which is cursed for man’s sake .

(2) The consequences of the curse are the penalty of a single sin, by which man incurred the just anger of God. The author’s conception of sin may be considered from two points of view. Formally, it is the transgression of a Divine commandment, involving distrust of the wisdom and goodness of the Almighty, and breaking the harmony which had subsisted between man and his Maker. The process by which these evil thoughts are insinuated into the mind of the woman is described with a masterly insight into the psychology of temptation which is unsurpassed in literature. But it is a mistake to suppose that the essence of the sin consists in the merely formal disobedience to a command arbitrarily imposed as a test of fidelity. There was a reason for the Divine injunction, and a reason for man’s transgression of it; and the reasons are unambiguously indicated. To eat of the tree would make man like God, knowing good and evil; and God does not wish man to be like Himself. The essence of the sin is therefore presumption, an overstepping of the limits of creaturehood, and an encroachment on the prerogatives of Deity.

(3) What, then, is meant by the ‘knowledge of good and evil,’ which was acquired by eating of the tree? Does it mean simply an enlargement of experience such as the transition from childhood to maturity naturally brings with it, and of which the feeling of shame (Genesis 3:7 ) is the significant index? Or is it, as has generally been held, the experimental knowledge of moral distinctions, the awaking of the conscience, the faculty of discerning between right and wrong? It is very difficult to say which of these interpretations expresses the thought in the mind of the writer. It is in accordance with Hebrew idiom to hold that knowledge of good and evil is equivalent to knowledge in general; though it is of course not certain that that is the sense in which the phrase is here used. On the other hand, there is nothing to show that it refers to the moral sense; and the fact that neither of the ways in which the newly acquired faculty manifests itself (the perception of sex, and insight into the mystic virtue of the tree of life, Genesis 3:22 ) is a distinctively ethical cognition, rather favours the opinion that the knowledge referred to is the power to discern the secret meanings of things and utilize them for human ends, regardless of the will and purpose of God the knowledge, in short, which is the principle of a godless civilization. The idea may be that succinctly expressed by the writer of Ecclesiastes: ‘God made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions’ ( Ecclesiastes 7:29 ).

(4) One specific feature of the story remains to be considered, namely, the rôle assigned to the serpent, and his character. The identification of the serpent with the devil appears first in the Apocryphal literature ( Wis 2:24 ); in the narrative itself he is simply the most subtle of the creatures that God has made ( Genesis 3:1 ), and there is not the slightest reason to suppose that he is there regarded as the mouthpiece of the evil spirit. At the same time it is impossible to escape the impression that the serpent is conceived as a malevolent being, designedly insinuating suspicion of God into the minds of our first parents, and inciting them to an act which will frustrate the Divine purpose regarding mankind. There is thus a certain ambiguity in the representation of the serpent, which may have its source in some more primitive phase of the legend; but which also points the way, under the influence of a deeper apprehension of the nature of moral evil than had been attained in the time of the writer, to that identification of the serpent with the Evil One which we find in the NT ( Romans 16:20 , Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2 ). In the same way, and with the same justification, the reflexion of later ages read into the curse on the serpent ( Genesis 3:15 ) the promise of ultimate redemption from the power of evil through the coming of Christ. Strictly interpreted, the words imply nothing more than a perpetual antagonism between the human race and the repulsive reptiles which excite its instinctive antipathy. It is only the general scope of the passage that can be thought to warrant the inference that the victory is to be on the side of humanity; and it is a still higher flight of religious inspiration to conceive of that victory as culminating in the triumph of Him whose mission it was to destroy the works of the devil.

J. Skinner.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fall'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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