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Death Before the Fall: Reflections on Genesis and Cosmic Conflict (Part Two)

In Part One of this article, I ended with the question: Could a very good but untamed creation that still needed to be “subdued” by Adam have included death or animal predation of any kind? And how could we possibly reconcile such an idea with Paul’s statement in Romans 5:12 that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin”? I will return to the New Testament in the final part of this series. For now, though, I want to wrestle with Genesis and the Hebrew Bible on their own terms, paying careful attention to what they actually say—and do not say—about death and the creation.
In the book of Job, which is the most extended commentary on the creation in the Bible outside of Genesis itself, God not only claims such ferocious creatures as lions and eagles as glorious examples of his creative power but also says that he, God himself, guides them to their prey to feed their young (38:39; 39:27-30). When God speaks to Job from out of the whirlwind, he takes responsibility for animal predation and there is no hint that it is anything other than very good.
Earlier in the book, Eliphaz the Temanite—the spokesman for a false theology claiming to justify the ways of God to man—describes God as the one who breaks the teeth of young lions, scattering their young so that they perish “for lack of prey” (4:11). But when God speaks for himself he declares that he is the one who provides prey for the lions, guiding them in the hunt. The fact that these statements are metaphorical and poetic should not prevent readers from seeing them as developing an important theology of creation. The God of Job is not a God who glories in defanged lions, which is to say, un-lions.
Isaiah 11:1-9, by contrast, envisions a future peaceable kingdom in which “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” and even “the lion will eat straw like the ox.” But the Isaiah passage, unlike Job 38-42, contains no parallel language, allusions, or references to the Genesis creation. Its orientation (which is certainly no less poetic or metaphorical than Job) is strictly apocalyptic, anticipating a final transformation of the creation without providing any commentary on its origins.
The Earthiness of Existence
Careful readers of Genesis therefore cannot rule out the possibility that natural cycles of life and death involving plants and animals were included in God’s good creation in the beginning. Such an idea—that the creation was originally neither immortal nor cursed but very good, mortal, and free—does not conflict with any clear verse in the story or the rest of Hebrew Scripture. Reconciling this idea of creaturely mortality with the idea of a loving God is much less difficult, in any case, than reconciling the idea of a loving God with the picture of a deity who orchestrates genocidal violence (which we find in the book of Joshua, a problem to be wrestled with another day). Minimally, the inclusion in the creation of seed-bearing plants made for human consumption should dispense with the question of whether or not the God of Genesis allows for organic death of any kind. Only a torturous scholasticism or fideism will say otherwise.
Even with regard to animals, the idea that death in nature is, tout court, “cruel,” “vicious,” “sinful,” and “evil” seems to be alien to the Hebrew mind. Genesis is completely silent on the question of whether or not part of the wildness and freedom of the creation included predatory animals before Adam’s fall. Yet this very silence may itself be powerful evidence that predation at least of a kind was indeed part of the original creation process/event.
If predators like lions and eagles were not part of the creation and the fact of their existence in the present as predators was perceived as a problem by the biblical writers, we would expect Genesis or subsequent books to provide some clues as to their origins or transformation, whether by divine curse or by demonical re-engineering of nature on a massive scale. But neither of these ideas is remotely hinted at in Genesis or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The only creature that is altered or “cursed” by Adam’s fall is the serpent that was directly responsible for it, and it is not by becoming a predator. It is by being forced to crawl on its belly and “eat” the dust of the ground (3:14 – clearly a verse meant to be taken figuratively rather than literally).
We must be very careful, then, about introducing non-biblical speculative theodicies that impose our own notions of perfection and goodness onto the text and onto nature in the name of defending God’s character. These readings may pose far greater theological and moral dilemmas than the idea of death of a kind before Adam’s rebellion. The concept of demonic or satanic supernatural re-engineering of animals for carnivorousness is especially problematic, introducing essentially Gnostic notions of a malign counter-creator with massive powers over the created world. This is no part of Genesis.
To say that seasonal changes and cycles of birth, life, and death in nature are “satanic,” “evil,” and things we will someday escape by leaving this veil of tears and illusions behind, may actually be an expression, in Jewish perspective, of ingratitude for God’s good creation and the earthiness of material existence. It may even be that God intentionally inscribed principles of death and life into the creation, at least as far as non-sentient plant life is concerned, to reveal something of his own character as a self-emptying God who gives of his own life so that others may live (anticipating John 12:24). This would clearly open the door to the possibility of “theistic evolution,” with believers seeing evidences of redeeming purpose at work in a universe of freedom were Darwin saw only laws of iron-clad necessity (competition) and chaotic chance (random mutations).
My own view, however, is that the idea of “very good” animal predation (at least at the level of higher order creatures with nervous systems susceptible to pain, fear, and suffering) poses insuperable problems for Christian theology. I am not a theistic evolutionist. At the same time, I think there are clear hints in Genesis that death already existed before Adam sinned. How could we possibly reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideas?
In Genesis 2, the reality of death comes directly into the foreground of the narrative. Adam and Eve are placed in a “Garden”—a place of fertility and safety—that is spatially and qualitatively set apart from the rest of the creation. The Garden is a sheltered environment while the world beyond—the world from which Adam was created out of the ground—is inhospitable if not hostile territory. Where Adam originally came from will, ironically, become the place of his banishment. East of Eden is his original “home”—that is, the place “from which he was taken” (3:23). When Adam is expelled from Eden it is therefore simultaneously an exile and a return.
There is a tree in the garden that contains knowledge of good and evil. Adam is told that if he eats its fruit he will “surely die” (2:17). In order for the divine command to have gravity for Adam (no less than for us), he must understand what death is. Otherwise, God’s words would for him be the semantic equivalent of “you will surely X.” Is the command intelligible to Adam because he has observed death elsewhere in the creation, perhaps in the land East of Eden “from which he was taken”? Or has God revealed death to Adam in some other way? We do not know. But the shadow of death, as an understood potentiality if not an observed fact of nature, is already a palpable presence within the Garden. Thus, when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit their eyes are opened not to death but to their own nakedness, to their vulnerability and dependence.
The first unmistakable death is recorded in 3:21—and it is by all indications God who is responsible for it. “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” Why skin and not wool? The traditional answer is that God’s act of animal slaughter is a form of moral pedagogy. Adam and Eve must learn that the consequences of their sin are death. But an equally plausible (and perhaps not mutually exclusive) reading would be that God knows that Adam and Eve’s coverings of fig leaves will not be enough to protect them in the unsheltered, untamed world outside of the Garden. He mercifully gives them the kind of clothing they will need for their new environment.
In the final part of this series I will explore the possible meanings, in Adventist theological perspective, of the clear distinction drawn in Genesis between the Garden and the rest of the creation.

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