Whether you believe in in a literal talking snake, a tree that conveys a sense of guilt and another that allows you to live for ever, the point of the story of The Fall is to confirm that humankind at some early stage stepped out from under God’s rule and deliberately and knowingly decided to go its own way. The Hebrew writer is less concerned about whether God could see it coming, how the “snake” got to be evil in the first place, and why God allowed it all to happen, than he is to graphically illustrate what is wrong with the world.
Of course we can philosophise about such questions, which is fine, as long as we don’t lose sight of the proposition that when we step away from our intended purpose and place under God, things rapidly fall apart.
For Adam and Eve it involved guilt and fear (3:7-10), blame (3:12-13), alienation from the Creator (3:10), pain (3:16), damage to the environment (3:18) and loss of Eternal Life (3:24, which I take to mean the rich quality of life lived in harmony with God which goes on for ever.) We don’t have to look far to see that this has been the human condition for every age and race ever since.
The clue that God would do something about it is found in the last part of 3:15 as God addresses the snake. An offspring of a woman would crush its head, which we take in retrospect to be a reference to what Jesus Christ achieved in his death and resurrection.
What follows chapter three is the spread of evil.
I recently played the rather addictive video game, Candy Crush. Yes, trivial I know but it’s light entertainment rather like completing a puzzle, but more colourful. At one level there are squares occupied by chocolate. Each time you fail to eliminate a chocolate square, it increases its occupation by one square. The result can be that the whole screen becomes gradually and insidiously occupied by chocolate, swallowing up all hope of completing the level and moving on to the next. You have to start the level again. Now I like chocolate, but not in this game!
As I read the chapters up to the flood, that’s what it seems like, only absolutely miserable and deadly. Cain and Abel, the vengeful Lamech, and the statement of 6:5 “…and every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” lay out the insidious occupation of evil over the minds of humankind.
Even then God has not entirely abandoned people. Enoch is a brief bright spot (5:21-24) and the genealogies placed through the chapters serve to show that God blesses humanity with children. But it is not without The Flood.
Once again we could argue about whether this terrible story is to be taken as a literal world-wide flood, or a more local devastation (hyperbole – exaggeration is not unknown either in the Bible or in everyday speech, there are millions of examples!). The point is that evil could not be allowed to prevail or there would be no hope for a humanity finding its way back to its intended relationship to God the Creator.
That last point cannot be over-emphasised, but is often lost in the cutesy renderings of Noah’s Ark with giraffes heads sticking out of windows in the roof. It is an horrific disaster laying out the fatal and pervading results of evil, and yet holding out the mercy of God for those who avail themselves of the way of escape.
In that story the future of God’s Kingdom for humanity was enclosed and preserved in that floating space and the Covenant of Creation (the conditions laid down by God for the first people) was refreshed and renewed with Noah, and signed off with a rainbow.
Again the genealogies show the blessings of God, in the subsequent multiplication of people, but have they changed? No, they have not! The Knowledge of Good and Evil was carried in the Ark by the eight people who are said to have repopulated the earth, leading us to the Tower of Babel (Chapter 11).
I often wondered, even in my more Fundamentalist days, whether this story might have been a representation of the loss of something like a telepathic ability to communicate, the remnants of which are said to exist amongst some indigenous people. It’s a speculation that has some problems in trying to marry it to this story. The underlying message, however, seems similar to Genesis 3. When people disobey God (here, by failing to fill the earth and stopping in one place) then the result is scattering and disunity.
Chapters 1-11 of Genesis outline pre-history. Despite the genealogies, it is hard to know the length of time involved, because we don’t know whether they are complete – that was not the purpose of their inclusion. The chapters do establish a warning and a foundation introducing us to the need of someone to save us, since humanity is obviously unable to save itself!
And that is where Abraham comes into the picture.