Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Evangelical Fall v. The Biblical Fall

One surprising aspect of “biblical” Christianity is just how much of it doesn't come from the Bible, and just how much can be refuted without looking at anything but the Bible. A perfect example of this is the Fall.

The Snake/Satan

What happens is that Satan appears to Eve as a serpent/enters a serpent and deceives her. Right? Actually, that's the evangelical version of the story, which is quite different than the biblical version.

The talking snake is to be contrasted with the talking donkey in Numbers 22:28. With Balaam's donkey, the text recognizes that donkey's don't normally talk, and thus it says that “the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey.” This story actually makes sense within the context of Bible. Now, I'm not saying that I just believe stories about a talking donkey just because a superstition scribe who believed in the power of curses wrote it down millenia ago. But at least it's internally consistent with the world of the Bible.

With the talking snake, there is nothing suggesting that Satan was behind this particular reptile's speaking gifts. It's a literal snake that was able to literally speak just because – well, because snakes can talk, I guess. Genesis 3 begins “now the serpent was more crafty than ...” Not, “now Satan was crafty.” The snake. The craftiness comes from the snake.

When the snake talks to Eve, the conversation proceeds without any mention of anything supernatural that allows the snake to talk, and without any mention of Eve thinking anything is unusual about this particular reptile's level of linguistic development. Personally, I think a good case can be made that even the ancient Israelites didn't take this literally, although I appreciate no longer having to care if YECs are wrong due to believing an ancient superstition or due to believing an ancient work of fiction.

The Curse on the Snake

When God hears about what happened, he's not mad at Satan for using an animal to enact his evil plan. God is mad at the snake. And so he curses the snake. The first part of the curse is directly targeted at snakes and they now have have to eat dust(!) and crawl on their bellies. The second part of the curse is about the snake's seed and Eve's seed, but evangelicals consider it to be a prophecy about Jesus' death: “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

Several things need to be stretched for this to be talking about Satan v. Jesus. First off, the snake needs to have something to do with Satan, when in fact, there is no biblical connection between the two. (Or a literal snake needs to talk to Judas...) But suppose for the sake of argument that in the biblical version, Satan had entered into the snake when it tempted Eve. Still, the curse is on the snake's seed. Satan still isn't the snake's seed. For the curse to be a prophecy about Satan v. Jesus, it should be enmity between “you and her seed,” not between “your seed and her seed.” The snake's seed is future generations of snakes, and Jesus hasn't bruised their head, and they haven't bruised Jesus' heal.

Next, there is no reason to think “her seed” refers to one person. Unless you're Paul and twisting the words to mean what you want them to mean, “her seed” is referring to future generations of humanity. The exact same arguments that I used in reference to Abraham's seed apply here.

(“He” in “He shall bruise your head” is not justified by the Hebrew words, unless one is operating under the assumption that the prophecy is true and therefore using the NT to guide the interpretation/translation of the OT. But for consistency, I'm sticking to the NASB, even though the KJV uses one fewer male pronoun.)

Finally, suppose that Jesus' heal was literally bruised as a significant part of his crucifixion in one or several of the Gospel accounts. We can be certain that Christians would consider it to be evidence that prophecy is accurate down to the exact detail. We know this because when Isaiah talks about Jesus' “stripes” or being “pierced”, this is seen as a prophecy about the particular details of the crucifixion process and evidence for the divine nature of biblical prophecy. If those literal details are seen as evidence that biblical prophecy has an uncanny accuracy, I think that the lack of a literal fulfillment of this detail should be seen as evidence that biblical prophecy is sometimes wrong.

Alternatives to Literalism

Of course, a good case can be made that none of these are literal prophecies and therefore none of these are evidence for or against the accuracy of biblical prophecy. But if you take this position, think carefully about whether or not Jesus fulfilled a single prophecy and just what prophecy is good for.

Similarly, as much as it complicates the case against Christianity, I actually still agree with position that much of Genesis was not meant to be understand as a literal account. IMO, Christianity's most intellectually robust form includes the positions that the beginning of Genesis is myth and the Gospels are historical. But it's hard to learn to respect the cryptic wisdom and “spiritual truths” of a fable after once having thought of it as “true” in the sense of “actually happening.”


  1. When the snake talks to Eve, the conversation proceeds without any mention of anything supernatural that allows the snake to talk, and without any mention of Eve thinking anything is unusual about this particular reptile's level of linguistic development. of course, Eve had been around for all of, what, an hour?, at that point, so what did she know? that also raises the issue of why punish somebody who couldn't know right from wrong until they disobeyed you, thus earning punishment- it gets a little circular.

  2. Genesis is silent on the time interval between the creation of Eve and her temptation. Biblically speaking, the only restriction I see is that Eve had to get out of the garden and give birth to Cain, Abel, Cain's wife, and Seth before Adam turned 130.

    For Christians at least, yet another problem with the idea that Eve was only an hour old is that I Timothy 2 uses Eve's failure to make the case for the stupidity of women. If she was only an hour old, we all would be a lot better off if Paul had said "I do not permit an infant to have authority over an adult."

    But if she's older, then my objection that snakes don't talk and most people are aware of this sticks.

  3. But if you take this position, think carefully about whether or not Jesus fulfilled a single prophecy and just what prophecy is good for.But...but...every Biblical prophecy has come true. I know this because a pastor told me! And why would a pastor lie?

    The funniest thing about it, and this is why I no longer call them "The Old Testament" and "The New Testament," but, "The Jewish Bible," and "The Christian Bible," is that all those prophecies that came true aren't really prophecies.

    I had a pastor once who told me that the Bible said things for the here-and-now and the future, so they had to be interpreted thusly. I'm, uh, I'm pretty sure that's complete B.S. just designed to reinforce Christian interpretation of the Bible. Still, it's amazing what otherwise intelligent people will believe if they feel they have no choice.

  4. This was one of the MAJOR issues that led to my ultimate deconversion. Even without the point by point breakdown you do so well here, it was clear if you just read the account that this could only be seen as prophecy in retrospect and through sheer force of will. But if you were to take it out of the context of the Bible, it just sounds like any of several dozen Aesop fables or Greek myths. How the Leopard got it's spots. How the constellations got their names. How the snake lost its legs. When I really stopped to think about, all I could see was a bunch of people making stuff up as they went along and never thinking to go back and fix the stuff that didn't make sense.