One of the earliest posts I did on this site was about the story of Adam and Eve. I argued that if eating the forbidden fruit was really what gave Adam and Eve the ability to distinguish right from wrong, it was unjust for God to punish them for actions taken before they had such knowledge, and if the fruit did not grant them such knowledge, it seems completely bizarre and arbitrary for God to have set up this strange game in the first place.
The Christian blogger Canterrain has addressed some of my points in the post Apples, Death, and Punishment. (A while back, I found and commented on his earlier post on the topic, which started this back-and-forth.)
The first thing Canterrain discusses is an aspect of my summary. I wrote:
God lies to Adam and Eve and tells them that eating the fruit will cause them to die that day. (We know it’s a lie, because they do eat the fruit and that’s not what happens.)
I don’t think this is at all a central aspect to my key complaint about the story, the unjustness (or, alternatively, arbitrariness) of God’s response. However, Canterrain’s answer to my parenthetical note is actually a common excuse Christians offer for scriptural oddities, and I think it’s ultimately very telling, so I’ll take a moment to respond to it.
Canterrain writes, “The problem herein lies in that NFQ is working from an English translation of the Bible.” And that is undoubtedly an issue. I certainly can’t read the Bible in its original Hebrew. The fact that most of the people reading the Bible today are reading a translation of a translation of a translation is definitely a problem, as far as conveying the (alleged) word of God is concerned.
If we agree on this much, though, we should move on to the next natural question: why is anyone reading the books of the Bible in anything other than the languages in which they were originally written? Teaching people the contents of the Bible in their own native languages seems like asking for trouble; you’re bound to misrepresent things and give them the wrong idea about God. Is it ever okay for me to read the Bible without the oldest known texts in front of me, and without years of training in ancient cultures and their languages’ idioms? It would seem not. It seems that only a very small percentage of people on the planet, real Biblical scholars, are at all qualified to read the Bible.
Remember also that even the Hebrew texts we have today are understood (by these same scholars) to be assembled from several different versions of the stories that make up the Bible. Only written down after generations of oral tradition, they were then lost and rewritten and edited numerous times. Sections were added in, and sections were tossed out. Even if you accept that God revealed the stories in the Torah directly to someone using Hebrew words, there’s really basically zero chance that the Hebrew we have today is perfectly representative of that original revelation. Even the most learned scholar couldn’t truly glean any certain knowledge from it.
But Canterrain wants to argue about the Hebrew anyhow. He says that the Hebrew corresponding to the last few words of Genesis 2:17 (KJV: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”) is more like “dying you shall surely die.” That string of words doesn’t actually make sense to me, but he says it essentially means that they became mortal, that they were now the sort of people who would die. Perhaps. I’ve heard this angle argued before. However, if this is the case, what’s up with Genesis 3:22, where God basically says, “We’d better get these humans out of Eden before they eat from the tree of life too, or they’ll be immortal!” — doesn’t this make it sound like they were mortal already?
Anyhow, he builds his case for this interpretation by also arguing that the word “day” in the Bible sometimes doesn’t mean a real day, and points to Genesis 2:4 as an example; here, “the day” seems to refer to six days. Except Genesis 2:4 is actually the first line of a second creation story in Genesis. You might notice that God already made people back in Genesis 1:27 — in fact, made man and woman at the same time — but for some reason apparently has to recreate the first man and later the first woman in chapter 2. (This is a good example of how the Hebrew we have reflects different stories, pieced together.)
Ultimately, I do think I get what Canterrain is going for, and I appreciate the fact that ancient languages sometimes have idioms that don’t translate well and which modern readers might miss. I’m not sure, though, how we’re ever supposed to be able to tell the difference between a “day” in the Bible that’s an actual day and a “day” that means something like the modern expression “back in the day.” (I’ve explained before why I don’t think “context” is a satisfactory solution.) It’s clearly quite a difficult problem.
The key difference between Canterrain and me here is that I actually think the millennia of retranslation and the impossibility of interpretation are grounds to reject the entire text as any kind of reliable basis for religious beliefs; it’s pretty clear to me that we can’t discern any definitive facts from it.
Nevertheless, people still do base their religious beliefs on the Bible, including Genesis. And even if those people have found a way to justify for themselves that God was not in fact lying to Adam and Eve, this is really separate from the real question I was raising about the Adam and Eve story: whether or not God’s reaction to them can be considered just.
I’ll continue with that question in my next post, Is God unjust?.