After the customary greetings, a fellow Unitarian Universalist seminary student and I began talking about “the fall” as an upcoming sermon topic at Groveland UU Fellowship, where I am interning this year.
Now, in Unitarian Universalism, it’s much more common to think of “the fall” as the season following summer, rather than the starting point of original sin. Especially since our denomination doesn’t officially believe in original sin. It is, in fact, rather rare to hear us speak of sin at all, and when we do, it’s generally with a laundry list of qualifications and disclaimers. We’re much more about the hope and love and justice kinds of messages.
So of course my curiosity was piqued when my colleague brought this idea up. And he clarified that when he said “the fall,” he really was talking about “the fall of man.”
At this, my ears perked up. He said specifically “the fall of man.” Not the fall of humans, or even man and woman, but just man.
This led me into a delightful mental exploration of whether it was all humankind who “fell,” or whether it was just man. (Of course, this is presupposing that anyone “fell” at all. And no, this isn’t going to turn into a man-bashing rant. Just go with me for a minute, here.)
We’re all familiar with the general story: God puts Adam and Eve into a garden with an apple tree and says, “Don’t eat them apples!” Eve eats one. Adam doesn’t want to, but Eve talks him into eating one, too. God gets mad and chucks them out of the garden. All humans forever after that are punished because of this original sin that Adam and Eve perpetrated. The end.
But let’s take a look at what actually happened in the story.
In Genesis 1:27, we read: So God created humankind in his image…male and female he created them.
So far, I see no evidence that one sex was favored over the other. In fact, this speaks rather strongly to a vision of equality. In the original Hebrew Bible, even God is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns—God-the-Creator using masculine, and God-the-Spirit using feminine.
Jump to Genesis 2. Here we read a completely different version of the creation story. (Did you know that there were two? Check it out sometime.) This is the one where we get God taking out the guy’s rib and turning it into a lady. But if we look more closely, we see another message of equality:
Genesis 2:18, 20, 22-23: Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” …but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner…. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh….”
In the Hebrew, the word that is here translated as “partner” refers always to an equal, if not a superior; never to an inferior. And in this story, man searched among all the creatures of the world, but could not find one that would be a suitable partner for him. In the end, only one who was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” would do. To me, this speaks to the ideal of equality between men and women, that the ultimately desirable partner would be one that shares the same essentials—not one that would be submissive to the other.
So with this basis for equality between the original inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, wherein is planted the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (not an apple tree!), we come to see them as true partners. Thus, it wouldn’t matter which one of them the serpent approached; as in any partnership, each bears a shared responsibility for the decisions and actions of the other.
When the woman (who isn’t actually named Eve until Genesis 3:20) decides to eat of the fruit from the forbidden tree, she isn’t acting out of an intent to do wrong. She is acting out of a desire to grow as a person, to shape her own humanity. In eating of the fruit, she is embarking on a quest for knowledge.
Genesis 3:6: So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate….
To my mind, I cannot see a sin here. I do not see that the woman “fell” from grace. She set out on a new and unexplored path, fraught with unknown dangers, but like any living thing, she sought ultimately to grow, to become more than she already was. The man, however, is a different story. But first, let’s take a moment to explore my notions about grace.
Grace, I think, is a matter of perception. We are all born with a certain innocence, a naiveté about the world. In this trustful, unharmed state, we have been gifted with the grace of childhood.
And somewhere along the way, most of us lose it. All of it. Gone. We become fearful or mistrustful, uncertain or jaded, protective or angry, or some combination. We realize that the world can hurt us. Or to use a metaphor, somewhere along the way, we eat of the fruit of knowledge. Our innocent “childhood grace” flees from us.
Yet it is possible to regain that grace, to earn back a measure of feeling at peace with the world. Some people would argue theology with me, saying that grace cannot be earned through works but only given as a gift of God’s love. Suffice it to say, I do not believe that. I believe that it is difficult, and it takes a lot of time and a lot of personal work, both inwardly and outwardly, but I think it is possible. After losing our “childhood grace,” we can strive to gain some measure of “earned grace.” And, ultimately, it is the “earned grace” that we have a chance of keeping.
Let’s return to the man’s choice to eat of the forbidden fruit. Genesis 3:6 continues: …and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.
The man made no move to stop the woman from eating; he was right there while she was speaking to the serpent, and he made no protest. And yet the quest for knowledge was not his quest; it was quite clearly that of the woman. Both man and woman knew that God had asked them not to eat the fruit from this tree, and they both decided to eat it anyway.
But in the case of the man, he seems to have harbored some guilt. When God returned to the garden and questioned them, in 3:12 the man says, “She gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” He is defending his actions by giving the responsibility to his partner. This is not an uncommon thing for us to do to each other—especially when we only did something because we were pulled along on some other person’s quest. The man “fell” in this scenario not because he ate of the forbidden fruit, but because he ate even though he didn’t want to.
So I think that this is what the idea of the “fall” is all about. When we seek to broaden our horizons by pushing boundaries, as the woman did, this can be a healthy avenue for growth. But when we break the explicit rules passively, because we are following a path that is not ours to follow, doing something even though we feel guilty about it—when we do these things, they are perhaps our own little “fall” from grace.
Does that spell out the end of the world? Of course not. We all “fall” sometimes. And if we can recognize that, and if we put the work into righting ourselves, we can earn back what grace we lost.
In my reading of Genesis 1-3, it doesn’t really matter whether it was the man or the woman who caused the other to eat the fruit; they were partners whose paths diverged. What matters is that when we are presented with a forbidden fruit, we must decide whether we are embarking on a quest or preparing to fall. What matters is how we move in the world, and how we will perceive our own grace and that of each other.
~ For all Biblical references in this post, I used The Peoples’ Bible, published by Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2009. ~