Does the Eden story in the Hebrew bible explain “original sin”?

I cover this in the lecture, but I always like to stress that according to the Hebrew bible, the episode with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was not a “sin,” and certainly not an “original sin.” Instead, God says they will be “cursed from the ground,” referring to their inability to grow crops because of their relationship to the soil. This is a big deal in Jewish history; the subset of Canaanites who eventually saw themselves as Jews were geographically separate at key times, occupying the hill country where they relied on goats and sheep rather than farming because the desert land could not grow crops.  Some of the most disputed areas of the land in biblical history, such as the coastal plain and the Arad-Beersheba valley in the eastern Negev region, were the places with sufficient rainfall to grow crops. 

The word “sin” vs. the word “cursed” in Hebrew

The word “sin” is first used to refer to Cain’s killing of Abel, and is later referenced in reference to the violations of host-guest rules in the city of Sodom. Why is that important? Because Original sin is a Christian idea, not a Jewish one. In the Hebrew bible, the story is etiological–it explains the origins of some bad things–but it never suggests the whole race is sinful because of the episode. Rather, the emphasis is always on the struggle with the arid soil of the region. Genesis 3 says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground for your sake. and you will eat of it in sadness.”  When God warns Cain to avoid sin, which he says lurks and waits for him like an animal, Cain kills his brother anyway, and God reiterates the “curse”: “And now you are cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive your brother’s blood.” Noah, whose name means “rest” or “resting place,” was said to be named “rest” because he was a relief from the labor resulting from the “ground that God has cursed.” 

Where did “Original Sin” come from?

The idea of “Original Sin” is a Christian idea that was created in the 3rd century CE by Augustine of Hippo. He got it by mistranslating Paul 5.12, which did say that “sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all,” but he immediately added that sin spread to all humans “because all have sinned.” The key for Paul was that we are all guilty because we all ALSO commit sins. We aren’t just carrying Adam’s burden.

Augustine really formulated the idea of “original sin” and its connection to women and sex. He believed that  people use to have perfect sexuality before the fall, but since we disobeyed god, the post-lapsarian body disobeys (that is, human bodies after the fall betray us, divorcing desire from good sense and causing the man’s sexual organ to rebel against him). He says sin results from unfulfilled desire and is not a quality but the absence of good, like a wound. He formulated the notion that “the human” or “adam” contained  all of us and therefore when he and Eve sin, we all sin. That was a very new idea that even Paul didn’t intend (read more about his idea here:

So what does this episode mean in Christianity? Well, of course, that’s complicated, but again, a lot of it starts with Paul. According to Bart Ehrman’s blog, which I subscribe to, Paul was highly preoccupied with sin:

For [Paul,] the forces that are aligned against God. . . . are great powers that hold sway over the world, including the powers of sin and death.

Sin, for Paul, was not simply an act of transgression, an action that was opposed to the will of God.  It was that, for sure; but Paul had a view of sin that was much bigger and all-encompassing.  Sin for Paul was also a kind of demonic power that existed in the world, a force that was trying to enslave people and make them do what was contrary both to their own will and contrary to the will of God.   Sin came into the world with the transgression of Adam, and it dominated the human race.  Everyone was enslaved to sin, which is why people were alienated from God.  This did not simply mean that everyone did things that were wrong.   It meant that they were helpless to do otherwise because they were under the power of an alien force opposed to God.

Bart Ehrman Blog,

So for Paul, Jesus defeats sin by being crucified, and other followers of Jesus can participate in this escape from sin by being baptized. The original sin concept comes in because the simple act of baptism allows you to undo Original Sin. Other Christians believe sin is “the loss of God.” So in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan (now a fully-fledged archdemon) exists in a perpetual state of sin. But Sin appears to him as a really gross snake lady being raped by her own son, Death, until hellhounds come out of her lady parts (the clinical word is Hoo-hah). Satan doesn’t recognize that she is also his daughter, not realize that Death is his grandson. No one else encounters Sin this way. But Satan’s reality is distorted because he is fallen (also a Christian concept).

Did Adam and Eve “sin” or do something else?

As I mentioned above, Adam and Eve were “cursed,” but the word “sin” is not used in the tree of knowledge episdoe. The Hebrew Bible has lots of words that get translated into English as “sin,” but their distinctions are important. For a language with a small vocabulary, Biblical Hebrew used lots of different words to describe badness: 

Our own culture doesn’t have that many words for impurity and violation, but the literary language of the Hebrew bible was highly preoccupied with different ways for you to be wrong, cursed, unclean, disobedient, cursed, and otherwise nasty.

Sin vs. Towebah (Abomination)

Without getting too complicated, I’ll add that the idea that a person can commit “a sin,” that is, disobey one of the commandments or have sex before marriage, is perhaps the most widely known meaning of the word. But Jews would call most violations of their laws “abomination,” or Towebah, a word that sounds best in the original Klingon.

And it wasn’t an apple

P.S. Eve definitely didn’t eat an apple, since they did not exist in that part of the world. Many think a pomegranate. Persephone eats a pomegranate offered her in a similar Greek story. I don’t think that the story would be influential at all if a man had eaten the fruit. Behind this innocent story is a sexualized fall in which Eve betrays Adam with the serpent (Eve’s name might be related to the word for serpent, is what I’m reading). Women’s sexuality is a the heart of many ancient near eastern stories. Pandora opens a box and lets loose misery on the world, for example. 

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