Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Did God's Clothing of Adam and Eve Involve a Sacrifice?

I was taught for years that when God “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21) it implied the sacrificial killing of an animal. This is still a fairly popular belief in many Christian circles. D. A. Carson is his recent release, The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story, says this about the passage:
“At this stage in the Bible’s storyline there is no system of sacrifice; that comes later—a priestly system with prescribed sacrifices and ritual. But God knows that they need to be covered. They have so much shame to hide. . . This is the first sacrifice in the long trajectory of bloody sacrifices that reaches all the way down to the coming of Jesus. . . Here in Genesis 3 the death of an animal to cover the man and the woman is a picture of what is to come, the first step of an entire institution of sacrifices that points us finally to the supreme sacrifice and what Jesus did to take away our sin and cover up our shame.” (39)
But while I was a student at the Moody Bible Institute a new professor arrived and I took a class from him on Genesis. His name was John Walton (who now teaches at Wheaton). The Old Testament began to look significantly different in a number of places and this was one of them. Here’s how Walton understands the passage in his commentary on Genesis:
“It is a serious error to read sacrifice between the lines of verse 21. The institution of sacrifice is far too significant an occurrence to leave it entirely to inference. Again we stress that it is our objective as interpreters to understand what the author wished to communicate, not to piece together answers we would like to know from reading between the lines. The author is clearly not communicating anything about sacrifice here, for he does not address that issue. What is his point then?”
“In some contexts, clothing someone is an act of investiture. Kings and priests were clothed in installation ceremonies. Joseph was clothed by his father with a special coat and was clothed by Pharaoh on his appointment to high office. But all of these constitute elevations of status, whereas Adam and Eve are ready to be demoted. In the Tale of Adapa, after Adapa loses the opportunity to eat from the bread and water of life, he is given clothing by the god Anu before being sent from his presence.”
“For lack of other alternatives, this provision should probably be seen as an act of grace by God, preparing them for the more difficult environment he is sending them into and providing a remedy for their newly developed shame. Insofar as animal death is likely already in the system (see comments on pp. 183-84), there is nothing unusual about using an animal skin for a garment.” (229-30).
And this year we were treated to a “theological” commentary by R. R. Reno who gives the garments of skin yet another look. He says,
“God seems to express care by providing the fallen man and woman with clothing to replace the woven garments of fig leaves. These clothes prepare the man and woman to live under the burden of their transgression. But what, exactly, are these garments?”
“The leather clothes suggest a thickening or toughening of the human condition. Human life takes on greater density and weight. The Catholic tradition calls this weight concupiscence, the condition of disorder within the human soul caused when the lower appetites, what Paul calls ‘passions of our flesh’ (Eph. 2:3), push us in directions contrary to our rational desires. For example, I want to study for a test or practice a musical instrument, but hunger distracts or sleepiness overwhelms or an attractive woman has me off and running. This added weight or sluggishness blunts and reduces the power of the human will by dissipating it into the desires of the moment. What we plan for the future is corrupted by what we want in the moment.” (95)
Reno explains that the Council of Trent teaches “that concupiscence is not itself sin, but rather ‘comes from sin and induces to sin’ (session 5.5)”. He asks then, “in what sense could this sluggishness and capacity for distraction be an act of divine care?” He answers:
“Human beings are poised halfway between animals and angels. We are embodied rational animals, capable of long-term projects and sustained loyalties. As a result, the original transgression has momentum. As Rowan Williams observes, ‘The corruption of the human will is more far-reaching disaster than the corruption of the animal will.’ We can follow through with our decision to be loyal to finite reality. For this reason, ‘a wicked human is an immeasurably greater problem than a wicked hamster.’ In order to restrain the effects of sin, God makes the garments of skin. Concupiscence places a governor on the intensity of the human will. It makes us more like hamsters, seeking the pleasure of the moment, and less like the devil, who has no body to limit the intensity of his perversely formed will. Clothed with the garments of skin, we remain incapable of fully focusing our minds in order to completely follow through with our ill-fated plans.” (95-96)
The first two interpretations recognize an actual animal skin. Reno seems to interpret the garments as a symbol of a change in the human condition. No animal needed for that. Thirty-four years ago I would have dismissed Walton and laughed at Reno. Twenty-eight years ago I accepted Walton and would have dismissed Reno. Today I’m sticking with Walton but have respect for Reno’s interpretation. It’s a simple passage but my journey with its interpretation illustrates the possible changes in one person’s study of the Bible and my growth with respect to the various interpretations that are possible. (By “simple” I don’t mean “problem free.” My post should show that. But rather that its interpretation is minor compared to some other passages. In other words, I don’t lose any sleep on this one.) My youthful arrogance and over confidence has lessened (I hope) and my respect for the work of scholars from a broader perspective than just my evangelical up bringing has widened.  Do you have stories like this of your own? 

Here are the three titles I referenced:


Andrew said...

Louis - Wow, what a post!

The short answer is yes, I have a story, or maybe two, like this. Though I don't think I can as easily or as eloquently sum up my stories as you have yours.

Also, I wonder if I'm still in the midst of a few stories (interpretational journies?) right now. But then, maybe we all are, to some degree, all the time....just musing.

Understanding gender roles in the church, the church itself (what is it after all?) and how Christians should engage the Bible, have all been topics I've changed my view on in some way over the last few years.


Louis said...

Thank you Andrew,

You're right, I'm definitely not done and I think that it is healthy. I hadn't intended the post to be so personal but by the time I finished I thought, 'I've had quite a journey with this one.' God bless our journies.