An Alternative Interpretation of Genesis’s Account of the Fall of Man

October 27, 2006

To a Christinan, zen teaching provides a fresh perspective on the account of the fall of man recorded in Genesis.   Perhaps the most insightful interpretation by a Buddhist of Genesis’s account is the one sketched by S.T. Suzuki in the context of a discussion with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite.  The following very brief interpretation is inspired by Suzuki’s view. 

 The serpent tempts Eve, saying that if she eats of the fruit of the tree she will be “like God, knowing good from evil.”  Typically in Catholic parishes today the serpent’s temptation is interpreted as the temptation to determine for oneself what is good and evil.  In other words, it is the temptation to do whatever one wants and justify it as good because one chooses to call it good, even if it is objectively evil.  But from a zen perspective — I write as a practising Catholic who has recently become interested in zen and done some reading and practice — the story can be seen in a radically different light. 

The serpent’s temptation is two-fold, and it is based on two fundamental lies.  The first is that Eve is not already like God or, in other words, that she needs to do something or undergo some transformation in order to become like God.  In fact, not many verses before the account of the fall, the sacred writer of Genesis informs the reader that man is made in the image and likeness of God.  Scripture thus teaches that in the beginning man was like God by virtue of God’s grace and that he needed not grasp to become something he already was by nature.  Thus, the first part of the serpent’s temptation was to sow doubt in man about his fundamental identity as one made in God’s likeness and image.

The second part of the temptation from this zen perspective as a second dualism: separation of good and evil.  In other words, the temptation is not so much that of choosing for oneself what is right and wrong  — that interpretation assumes of course that the two exist separately — but of separating the two in the first place. 

An understandable Christian objection to this last statement might be that it is wrong to call good evil and evil good, to identify the victim with the oppressor, etc.  This is true, yet perhaps it is not really relevant to the question.  The question, after all, is why what we know as good and evil appear to us to exist, and why we do things that are indeed properly called evil.  This zen-influenced interpretation of Genesis suggests that one reason may be that under the spell of delusion we have divided a world that was, and in its essence is, one, into a a dualistic world: God is there, we are here; God is God, we are men; do these things, avoid those things, etc.   Again, the argument is not that good and evil have no existence for us and certainly it is not that wicked actions are no different from good actions or that justice is the same as injustice.  Rather the argument is that the reason for the existence for us of these categories, and the reason we even think of committing evil acts, is our delusion of wanting to think of reality in terms of good and evil. 

This is not an easy concept to articulate, and I doubt that it is one that, if true, can be grasped through logic alone.   Perhaps an unlikely example from scripture will illuminate it: St. Paul writing about the Mosaic law.  What does Paul say about the law?  He says that God gave it to men so that sin might abound!  In other words, God gave man the law knowing full well that man would not follow it, and indeed that the very knowledge of the law would lead man into greater sin.  God did this, Paul explains, so that grace and mercy might abound all the more; in other words, so as to draw a greater good out of greater sin. 

Isn’t it interesting that St. Paul would argue that knowledge of the law — that is, knowledge of good and evil, of what to do and what to avoid — would lead to an increase of wickedness and guilt?  It’s consistent, though, with the zen-influenced interpretation of the fall of man: we do wrong because we know good from evil.  If we were like little children, not knowing good from evil, we would not do wicked things or, more accurately, whatever we did would not be wicked. 

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One Response to “An Alternative Interpretation of Genesis’s Account of the Fall of Man”

  1. cristyparkersmith Says:

    EXCELLENT points!


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