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Understanding Genesis and the Fall with Denis Alexander

Understanding Genesis and the Fall
Conversation with: Denis Alexander

In this video clip, Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, discusses the description of the Fall found in Genesis. Alexander suggests that the picture we might have of the story owes more to the imaginative expansion of the narrative as found in Milton’s Paradise Lost than what is actually present in the biblical text itself.

To join the conversation on this video, see the post "Understanding the Fall and Genesis" on our blog Science and the Sacred.

Video Transcription

I think that sometimes when people read Genesis and talk about The Fall, the pictures that come into their mind are more from Milton's "Paradise Lost" than actually from the Genesis text.

In fact, when you go to the Genesis text, it's fairly spare on the detail. It doesn't give you a huge amount of detail. It doesn't answer all the questions we would like to know. But it has the essential storyline there very clearly. Here is humankind with a relationship with God. They disobeyed God. They put themselves in the place of God and they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. That's the bare bones of the story.

And of course, they ate of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which I think many Biblical commentators would take as referring to the fact that humankind put themselves in the place of God. They wanted to take the choice upon themselves about what was right and wrong, which is really a choice that only God could make. God had given them Commandments which they disobeyed. In a sense, it was the first example of Secular Humanism, where humankind goes off and says, "No, I don't want God. I want to go my own way and do my own thing." That is what the full narrative is about.

It's not really about whether there was physical death before The Fall. I don't think that's really the central part of that narrative. Of course, people have pointed out that Adam was warned by God that, "On the day," in Hebrew it says 'Yom', "On the day that you eat of The Tree of Good and Evil you shall surely die." The interpretation is that physical death didn't exist. It came into being when Adam and Eve disobeyed.

What I find interesting, actually, is at that moment, they didn't drop dead. If you want to take the day literally - and the Hebrew text is pretty clear, "On the Yom," - on the day that you will eat of The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you will surely die, well, they ate of the tree and they didn't drop dead in the narrative. In fact, they went on to have a big family and have lots of children.

Clearly something else was going on there. I think many people would see that as spiritual death that came into being. Alienation from God came into their relationship, very sadly, and they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, representing the presence of God. That's where The Tree of Life was, so they were excluded from The Tree of Life.

You have this amazing picture of a flaming sword being put up so they could no longer have access to The Tree of Life. In other words, humankind cannot find its way back to God through our own efforts and our own strength and our own works. Then, of course, you have the message of God's grace coming, and so on.

God walked and called out, "Adam, where are you?" You have God seeking after Adam and Eve who were ashamed and were hiding themselves. They were ashamed because of sin, and God seeks them out.

The whole graphic story, I think, is told in figurative language but it's about a real happening. It was a real alienation from God that had huge fallout in terms of the earth. No longer was humankind able to look after the earth properly and be good Earth-keepers. They made a mess of the Earth.