Posted by: HAT | March 17, 2010

Bad Exegesis

'Expulsion from the Garden of Eden' by Masaccio

Note the column to the left

What was the sin in Genesis 3?

Maybe no surprise this has bugged me for a long time. Aside from the fact that none of the Hebrew Bible’s terms for sin show up in the chapter. That argument never goes anywhere, since it seems clear that whatever happened in the story, “sin” or not, caused a problem. So the response seems to be, “OK, let’s not do that again.” But what was “that?”

Identifying the “that” in the story is where the exegetical tradition seems to run into problems. When people identify the “root” of “sin” (the “that” of Genesis 3) as X, whatever is in the position of X becomes fundamentally important. So if X = pride, then pride is the WORST thing, if it’s disobedience, then disobedience is the WORST thing. Or doubt (isn’t this especially bad theology?), or reliance on the evidence of the senses (bad, bad body), or whatever it is.

Is it a coincidence that whatever has been assigned to X in the long tradition turns out to have had an especially negative implication for anyone who is trying to resist authority? If it’s pride, then the clearest expression of pride is setting oneself up against what the authorities tell you is mandatory for you. If it’s disobedience, well, it’s disobedience — not doing what the guys in power command. If it’s trusting the clear evidence of the senses, it’s opposing arguments like “you’re hurting me” to the authorities’ claim to be doing what they’re supposed to do. Etc.

It has been clear to me for a long time that the real problem (the “that”) was “bad exegesis.” Trusting the commentary, so to speak, over the text — that is, taking the serpent’s word for it.

As opposed to, say, running back to God at that critical point and saying “Guess what, Serpent says we won’t either die if we eat that fruit! So can we, huh, can we?”

But recently I have begun to put this together with that other commonplace of liberal protestant sermons, “sin is separation from God,” by emphasizing the verb-al origin of “separation” — as in, “separate-tion” in the sense of something that people actively do, not something people passively endure. Although it might be possible to give an account of people’s being subjected to separate-tion institutionally as well, one of the forms of original sin.

I like this idea, because it works as an indictment of Kantian autonomy (“Hey, Big Guy, thanks for the jump start, I’ll take it from here . . .”) without just invalidating experimental procedures, curiosity, risk taking and resistance to bad authority on principle.


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