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Interpreting Adam and Eve – Part 1

2012 March 28
by Julie Clawson

In one of my classes recently I was asked to reflect back on the various ways I have encountered and interpreted the story of Adam and Eve over the course of my life. It was a revealing exercise because it helped us see not only how we have changed over time but also what sort of things influence how we read and interpret the Bible. I thought it would be fun to post what I wrote here to give you some background of where I came from (look for Part 2 tomorrow) and to hear about your experiences with this text as well.

As I reflect back upon my earliest recollections of being taught the Adam and Eve story (which always involved flannelgraphs), what stands out is the portrayal of Satan as the main character in the story. Before my Sunday School teacher ever began telling the story of the Fall of Man (and it was always the masculine term that was used), we were taught the story of the Fall of Satan. I vividly recall flannelgraphs of angels (all blue eyed, blond haired men in gold tinted robes) standing on clouds before a golden mansion in the sky. As the tale unfolded, Satan was too proud to obey God and so was cast out of heaven and turned into a serpent as punishment. The teachers were then quick to explain that like in the Chronicles of Narnia, in the Garden of Eden all the animals were capable of speaking and so Satan simply blended in with the other animals (which is why Adam and Eve didn’t find it odd when he spoke to them).

After establishing the history of Satan’s (the serpent’s) presence in the Garden, teachers would place the images of Adam and Eve onto the flannelboard. They were always conveniently situated behind bushes and trees, and while Adam was always blond, Eve was always a brunette. As best as I can recall from what I was taught, Eve (Adam was never involved) was persuaded to eat the fruit of the tree by the power of Satan. The story then moved to the scene of Adam and Eve fleeing the Garden into a world of darkness and an angel with a flaming sword being placed before the locked gates of Eden (which we were told still exists to this day, just concealed from human eyes).

The point of the story though was that it was powers beyond human control that caused the Fall – evil powers that are still in control of the world. Sin wasn’t so much the fault of people, but the outcome of a cosmic battle between good and evil that will not be resolved until after the Rapture and Tribulation when Satan is confined for a thousand years. After that time, as I was taught, he will be released and although he will try to then bring sin back into the world, God will finally send him into the fiery pits of Hell to be tormented forever. Our lives should then be centered around resisting Satan, which primarily means always obeying God, our parents, our teachers, and any other authority (especially the government and policemen).

As a child I remember wondering why, if Satan was the cause of sin, God didn’t send him to burn in hell right away. It also greatly confused me when in church I would hear that we are totally depraved since sin has been passed (genetically) to us from Adam and Eve. If Satan was the one to be blamed for sin, it seemed odd to me that the one act of Eve eating the fruit should affect all people forever as such. But this was the interpretation of the Adam and Eve story that I held to for most of my childhood. It actually came as a shock to me when I finally read Genesis for myself and realized that the story of the Fall of Satan was not part of the narrative. When I would ask Sunday School teachers about this, I was generally told that the Satan story was somewhere in Isaiah or Ezekiel. Since I believed that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God (i.e. had been dictated by God and was therefore without contradictions or mistakes) and if a passage talked about Satan being cast down it must be referring to an angelic being and not an earthy ruler, I took them at their word.

My perspective on the Adam and Eve story shifted in focus when I was in 6th grade and first encountered the creation vs. evolution debates. Whatever the theological spin I had been taught, underlying it was the assumption that the Genesis account was an accurate portrayal of historic events. In the modernistic epistemological framework of the churches I attended, if the Bible said God created the earth in six days, then it had to have occurred in six literal twenty-four hour days. If the Bible said that Adam and Eve were the first humans, then there could be absolutely no truth to the fairy tales of evolution. And since the Bible says, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), then to deny the historic reality of the Fall was to not only deny the truth of scripture, but to deny the reality of sin and blaspheme against God. One could not be a Christian unless one admitted to one’s depravity and one could not admit to such unless he or she believed in a literal and historic Adam and Eve. Essentially the message I was taught was “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ (and Creationism) and thou will be saved.”

I recall becoming confused when in sixth grade at my public school my teacher said something about the dinosaurs all being extinct before people existed, so I raised my hand to say “But the Bible says Adam named all the animals, so he had to have named the dinosaurs.” My teacher told me that she didn’t believe that the Adam and Eve story really happened, and I sat there appalled and convinced that my teacher was going to hell. I often challenged teachers in public school when they would teach evolution, and felt like I was being faithful to God and the Bible for being persecuted for my beliefs (i.e. having people disagree with me). I even went before the Austin school board to complain about the religious intolerance of having to be taught evolution in school – to which the school board replied that under no circumstances is evolution allowed to be taught in Texas schools so I must be mistaken in what I was hearing from all my teachers.

As I entered high school and then attended the conservative evangelical Wheaton College, I encountered interpretations that challenged my faith in creationism in small ways. Some suggested that the term “day” in Genesis might mean something different to God than our conception of days as twenty-four hour periods, since the Bible does say that to God a thousand years is like a day. Others went so far as to wonder if God perhaps used evolution to create life and then breathed souls into a specific Adam and Eve at some point along the way. At the time these views seemed extreme and liberal for to question scripture in any way was to me to destroy the entire foundation of Christianity. But hearing those questions from committed Christians started the long process of my rethinking what I believed regarding the Bible, theology and faith.

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