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The God Squad: Finding truth in Bible stories

Q: I do not believe that by eating the apple, Eve committed original sin! I interpret this, in the history of humankind, as the first act of disobedience of a child against a parent’s directive. I do believe that original sin was committed when Cain killed Abel. It was only later that God commanded, via Moses and the stone tablets, “Thou shalt not kill.” We sin when we disobey one of the written commandments. – M.

A: I have frequently written that a biblical story can be true even if it never happened. The Garden of Eden story in early Genesis is a perfect case in point.

We do not have to stake our entire faith on the belief that God made a talking snake that seduced Eve into eating the forbidden fruit (never identified as an apple) of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God expelled Adam and Eve from the garden before they ate from the tree of life that was right next to or possibly intertwined with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was obviously a sin, although it is never referred to as an original sin.

Christian commentators on the Bible added this interpretation of the garden narrative in Genesis in order to understand Jesus’ sacrificial death. This is not a wrong interpretation of the story; it is just a different one, and it shows us how one ancient fable can generate many different interpretations and beliefs. Those beliefs are true for the faith and for its adherents, and they are true regardless of and independent of the existence of real talking snakes. The garden is a true story about human disobedience to a command of God, but it is also a story of how the first human beings acquired our most distinctive trait – a trait that is not shared with any other species on earth – and that is the ability to distinguish between good and evil through freedom of the will and free choice. So a true story emerges from a fanciful fable. It happens all the time, and it happened first in the Bible.

Let me just add that I cut Eve some slack here. In the biblical account, God only spoke to Adam (Genesis 2:16-17) and never spoke to Eve about the tree-eating rules. She obviously only learned about those rules from Adam, who may or may not have done a good job of explaining them, and we actually have some biblical evidence that Adam did a bad job by expanding God’s actual prohibition. When the serpent asked Eve about eating the garden’s fruit, Eve said, “Of the fruit of the trees in the garden we may eat; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it lest ye die’ ” (Genesis 3:2-3). The problem with Eve’s response to the snake was that God never prohibited touching the fruit, only eating it. Some commentators suggest that the snake pushed Eve into the tree and that when she saw that nothing bad happened after touching the fruit, she concluded that eating the fruit was probably all right, too.

Now, as to your other suggestion that the murder of Abel by Cain in the fourth chapter of Genesis is the real original sin, I agree with you in part. It was certainly a sin. The question about original sin hinges on your view of whether people need an intermediary or a surrogate to atone for their own sins, or whether they can seek and achieve atonement and forgiveness on their own. I believe that we are able to find forgiveness from God directly but I also agree that the spiritual greatness of our ancestors is a great help as God judges our every deed.

I am comfortable spiritually squeezing the pure juice of eternal truth out of a fruit that also has a bitter skin. The parts of the Bible that do not contradict reason and that support moral principles that are also rational and have stood the test of time – those are the parts of the Bible I believe God wrote with black fire on white fire.