This is my second week of writing on Personhood. Last week, I wrote Part One: Personhood—Relational Being. Today, I will focus on Part Two: Personhood—Fallen Individuals. Next week, I’ll write Part Three: Personhood Redeemed.
In part one, I talked about what it might mean to think of the human person as a relational being. This week, I will talk about the Fall, how it corrupted our most important relation, the one that most defined who we are as persons, and the consequences of that corruption.
“You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
With these words, God outlined the relationship between Himself and Man. At first, it sounds like an “I make rules and you follow them” situation, but think what the relationship would have been without this statement.
God was Man’s Creator, just as He was the Creator of all things. When He says this, however, he makes a pact with Man, placing Himself in a relationship of trust. Man must trust that God knows good from evil.
Knowledge of good and evil
To our modern ears, “good and evil” sounds like a moral code. “Good” is just another word for “what God decided He wants Man to do”, right? And “evil” is what He forbids him to do? But that cannot be what is meant by this passage; God has just told Man what He wants. So what knowledge is He forbidding?
The true meaning of “good and evil” in this passage is what will be good for us and what will harm us. The knowledge this tree promises is actually the knowledge of what is good for us and what will harm us.
Father to friend
When God said this, then, He was telling Man to trust Him. He was saying that He has Man’s good in mind and will order things towards his good. Man, for his part, only has to trust.
God calls Man to a relationship deeper than that of creature to Creator. God did not ask the plants or the fish or the stars to trust Him. This pact of trust is the relationship of child to father. Just as the child comes to understand what is good and evil (what will do him good and what will harm him) from listening to the wisdom of his father, so Man would learn from the commands of God. Just as the father, in time, considers his child a friend, so Man, in time, would become a friend of God.
Each human person was made to have this relationship to God, the relation of child to father. The more we grow as God’s children and friends, the more we become a person.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The serpent directly contradicted God. God said, “You shall die.” The serpent said, “You will not die.” This denial of the truth of God’s words undermines the relationship of trust God seeks with Man.
For the first time, Man’s trust in his Creator is tested. The question presented to the man and woman is precisely about good and evil: what will be good for Man and what will do him harm? God asks that Man trust His knowledge; He says the fruit is evil. The serpent says it is good for Man; it will allow him to know good and evil.
In looking at this passage, we naturally ask what is meant by death. The serpent—if there is any truth in what he says—speaks of physical death; when Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they won’t keel over, as if poisoned.
When God speaks of death, however, He speaks more profoundly. Eating the fruit would undermine Man’s relationship with Him. The trust that defines Man’s personhood would die.
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.
Looked at under this light, the serpent’s lie boils down to a half-truth. He was emphasizing the individuality of the human person. He was saying, “To be most fully yourself, you must prove your independence. You are an individual who must chose what is good and harmful for yourself.”
In truth, this is a denial of what it is to be a human person. To be a human person is to rely wholly on God, to trust His word. When Eve chose to eat the fruit, and Adam chose to follow her rather than God, they participated in that lie, the lie of who they were as persons. That is true death, to no longer be what you were.
Every sin is an assertion that individuality is more important than relationship. First, it destroys our primary relationship to God; second, it harms those around us, those who should be considered as brother and sister, children of the same Father. It is a choosing what we believe will make us happy rather than trusting what God tells us will make us happy.
Our first parents listened to the serpent. Today, we hardly need that hissing voice; the lie is self-continuing. They chose not to trust their defining relationship with God. Now we live our lives as though we were the center, as if there were no connection between us, God, and our neighbors.