This is part 7 in a series of reviews regarding John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3, pt. 4, pt. 5, pt. 6). I have sadly not been paid, either in cash or book form, to read and review this book. I do so as an altruistic service to you, dear reader.
When last we left our intrepid hero Adam, we were exploring why it isn’t necessary to regard Genesis as saying he was the first human ever or that he was entirely alone on the earth. This raises a follow up question: What are we to do with original sin?
It’s a fair question. For ages the church has more or less believed that Adam and Eve were the first couple and that they introduced sin into the earth by eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrary to God’s decree. That is essentially how the Bible portrays it. But if Adam is not the first human, then wouldn’t we have to assume that those before him were sinless? And wouldn’t this contradict Paul’s understanding in Romans 5?
So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned – for before the law was given, sin was in the world, but there is no accounting for sin when there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam until Moses even over those who did not sin in the same way that Adam (who is a type of the coming one) transgressed (Rom. 5:12-14, NET).
Moreover, wouldn’t this jeopardize our understanding of Jesus as the only sinless human to ever walk the earth?
Troubling questions, indeed.
But Walton, for his part, raises counter questions. As an Old Testament scholar, he wonders about pinning the origins of sin on Adam and Eve, since the Hebrew Scriptures never do so. Instead, he cites Isaiah 43:27-28, which places blame on Jacob (142, n. 11).
In fact, Walton wants to shift the whole discussion away from the source of all sin (Who was the first to sin? Where did it come from?) and instead concentrate on a very different question—Given that sin is pervasive, what does it do? (This is similar to the dilemma we faced at the outset, asking Genesis 1 how everything came to be rather than what it’s all here for. Ask the wrong question; get the wrong answer.)
For this question, Walton takes his cue from Mark E. Biddle’s Missing the Mark, in which he gives this definition:
Sin is disequilibrium in this aspiration: humanity failing to reflect its divine calling, humanity forgetting its limitations (142, quoting Missing the Mark, xii-xiii).
In other words, the first couple’s sin was an attempt to be the locus of order, rather than God’s accomplices in bringing order. That is, their reach for the forbidden fruit was an attempt to fulfill their Genesis 1:26-28 mandate without the help of the Lord. Big mistake.
Splitting hairs? Maybe, but Walton’s redirection has two major advantages.
First, by shifting the question to sin’s effects rather than its source, Walton has allowed us to focus our attention on the result of Adam and Eve’s narrative—their banishment from God’s presence and the source of life. This is a classic case of keeping the main thing the main thing. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden—the prototype for the Temple, the singular place where the Creator resides among his creation—is exactly the point of Genesis 2-3. This disastrous result sets the stage for the rest of the biblical drama. How will Yahweh re-establish his presence among humanity?
Second, by defining sin as disequilibrium in the human-divine relationship, Walton has again centered our attention on humanity’s original purpose. For him, sin isn’t simply about making mistakes or even disobedience for disobedience’s sake. Instead, sin is entirely about the first couple’s effort to outgrow their God-given vocation to be his partners in ordering creation. In other words, sin is the attempt to usurp or, I would add, circumvent God’s position above the creation.
Does this cause us theological problems in conflict with Paul’s verdict in Romans 5? Actually, I don’t think so. This is where Paul’s earlier argument in Romans 1-2 comes in. Adam and Eve tried to climb onto God’s throne, that is their sin, which Israel perpetuates in breaking the covenant time and again. Gentiles, not having the Law, give God’s throne to various idols, putting themselves in the same shoes as Israel, with regard to the human-divine relationship. Walton might say that even if Adam and Eve weren’t the first people, then we can be sure that all people ever were doing one of these two things. There’s just no escaping sin, it seems.
Here’s the great point, though, about Walton’s work, whether you agree with his viewpoint or not. He is persistent in demanding that we allow the biblical text itself to define the questions we ought to be asking. The Old Testament doesn’t show much interest arguing over where sin came from (and really, neither does the New Testament, on the whole). So why ask Scripture that question? The Bible does seem very interested in its effects and, more importantly, just what God is going to do about it. So maybe we ought to focus our attention there, instead.