In my last post I introduced the thesis of Richard Beck’s book The Slavery Of Death, namely, that death, not sin, is at the heart of the human predicament. It’s no wonder that the first place Beck turns to flesh out this contention is to Genesis 3 where we find the story of Adam and Eve, their disobedience and subsequent exile from the Garden of Eden.
In the Western church we have traditionally read this story as the foundation of what we call the doctrine of Original Sin. This doctrine states that because of the disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, all of humanity has inherited a moral stain and sin nature that renders us inherently rebellious toward God and his purposes. In short, the West has read the problem that this story narrates as a moral one. Sin is the causal agent responsible for bringing death into the world.
The Eastern Church has come at this story from a bit of a different angle. In short, the Eastern Orthodox church understands the introduction of death into the world as the primary focus of Genesis 3. The question that is being answered here is not, “Where did sin come from?” but rather, “Where did death come from?” What can we glean from this passage when we approach it with this question in mind?
First, we notice that death was not a part of God’s original intention for creation. It’s seen as an invasion, as something that is attempting to thwart God’s purposes for his good creation. Beck quotes the following passage from the book of Wisdom* to add to the discussion: “For God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world” (2:23-24a NRSV). This fits nicely with what we find in Genesis 3: it’s the serpent who tempts Eve to disobey God hence, “the devil’s envy.”
But this is not the whole story. As Beck quickly points out, the devil needed willing participants in this story. Again, the book of Wisdom:
Do not invite death by the error of your life, or bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them, and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him… (1:12-16a, NRSV).
Thus, in the Eastern reading of this story death is the result of both the devil’s envy as well as humanity’s summoning of death. Beck summarizes:
…the primary purpose of Genesis 3 might be to provide a story about the origins of death rather than the origins of sin. Phrased another way, Genesis 3 might be less interested in explaining why humans are “depraved” than it is in explaining why we die. We do inherit a predicament from the Primal Couple, but what we inherit isn’t a moral stain. Rather, we inherit the world they have left us. We are exiles from Eden. The world around us is not as God intended it. Death exists, but this was not God’s plan.
This is the key to understanding why the Eastern Orthodox church reads Genesis 3 as the foundation of what they call the doctrine of Ancestral Sin (rather than Original Sin). Placing the emphasis on death rather than sin, the doctrine of Ancestral Sin says that the reason why death is in the world is because of the Primal Couple’s disobedience (our Ancestors’ sin). As their offspring, we now live in a world that is riddled with death and decay. Thus, the condition we inherit from Adam and Eve is, in Beck’s own words, “less moral than mortal.”
Beck concedes that in the Genesis 3 story sin precedes death but with death now introduced into creation and Adam and Eve’s offspring now infected with mortality, death becomes the operative force behind humanity’s sin. Beck:
As mortal creatures, separated from God’s vivifying Spirit, humans are fearful and survival-driven animals, easily drawn into sinful and selfish practices. Because we are mortal and driven by self-preservation, our survival instincts make us tragically vulnerable to death anxiety–the desire to preserve our own existence above all else and at all costs.
Paul’s use of the Greek word sarx carries this idea, that death is the cause of our sin, into the New Testament. Sarx is used ninety-one times throughout the course of Paul’s letters and so, given the multitude of contexts in which this word is used, it is somewhat difficult to pin down a meaning. The word is often translated as “flesh” but Beck provides his readers with a helpful list of possible interpretations: “human limitation,” “natural limitation,” “weakness of the flesh,” “the weakness of our natural selves,” “the weakness of our human nature,” “the weakness of our sinful nature,” “sinful nature,” “fleshly desires,” and “sinful flesh.” Citing the work of New Testament scholar James Dunn, Beck brings us to 1 Corinthians 15 which he sees as an important passage when it comes to understanding Paul’s use of sarx. In this chapter Paul is discussing the resurrection and the nature of our bodies after the resurrection: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power, it is sown a natural body [soma], it is raised a spiritual body [soma]” (vv. 42b-44).” According to Paul, embodiment is not lost in the resurrection. The Greek word soma, meaning “body,” is used to describe what we will have post-resurrection. What is done away with in the resurrection is the perishability of our bodies (v.42b). Beck again: “While soma/body will be carried forward in the resurrection, sarx will be left behind. As Paul explains in verse 50, ‘flesh [sarx] and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.'” In short, sarx, which according to Paul will be shed at the resurrection, is human frailty and mortality, the very thing that Paul sees as the root of human sinfulness.
* The Book of Wisdom is a deuterocanonical (literally means “belonging to the second canon”) book which is read as inspired scripture in both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions but is relatively unknown in the Protestant tradition. It’s important to note, as Beck does, that the book of Wisdom informs most Christian’s understanding of Genesis 3 as is clear from our discussion above. I’ve written a bit on canonicity and what it means for a text to be “authoritative” here.