Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998) : 399-420
Copyright © 1980 by Calvin Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
Scholia et Homiletica
Eve's Answer to the Serpent:
An Alternative Paradigm for Sin and
Some Implications in Theology
P. Wayne Townsend
The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God
did say, `You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you
must not touch it, or you will die. "' (Gen. 3:2-3)
Can we take these italicized words seriously, or must we dismiss them as the
hasty additions of Eve's overactive imagination? Did God say or mean this when he
instructed Adam in Genesis 2:16-17? I suggest that, not only did Eve speak accu-
rately and insightfully in responding to the serpent but that her words hold a key
to reevaluating the doctrine of original sin and especially the puzzles of alien guilt
and the imputation of sin. In this article, I seek to reignite discussion on these top-
ics by suggesting an alternative paradigm for discussing the doctrine of original sin
and by applying that paradigm in a preliminary manner to various themes in the-
ology, biblical interpretation, and Christian living. I seek not so much to answer
questions as to evoke new ones that will jar us into a more productive path of the-
ological explanation. I suggest that Eve's words indicate that the Bible structures
the ideas that we recognize as original sin around the concept of uncleanness.
Scholarly Discussion of Eve's Words
Eve has very few complete defenders in the history of scholarship in
Genesis.1 Of those, only U. Cassuto explains why he is confident that Eve cor-
1 Among all the literature, I could locate only four scholars willing to grant that Eve's
words correctly describe God's will concerning the tree: Basil F. C. Atkins, The Book of
Genesis (London: Henry E. Walter, 1954); Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A
Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 trans. John C. Fletcher (
1959). 69; U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, part 1, trans. Israel Abraham
Press, 1972), 145; Leon J. Wood, Genesis:
A Study Guide (
CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 400
rectly stated God's will. After an analysis of the word meaning "to touch" (ng),
he concludes, "Hence in the final analysis the clause neither shall you touch it is
simply synonymous with the preceding clause."2 If we accept Cassuto's argu-
ment, Eve's words represent little more than a stylistic variation by the writer.
Robert Davidson openly adopts this position.3 Yet, the deviation so catches the
eye (as evidenced by Eve's many detractors noted below) that one could justly
wonder why the writer would insert such a variation here.
A second class of defenders accepts Eve's words as substantive variations, but
deflects criticism of Eve. Nahum M. Sarna suggests the possibility that Eve "is
quoting what her husband told her."4 But the lack of any textual support that
the writer of Genesis intended this conclusion gives this the appearance of des-
perate speculation. John J. Scullion and Phyllis Trible independently conclude
that Eve "builds a ‘fence around the Torah,’ a procedure that her rabbinical
successors developed fully to protect divine law and ensure obedience."5 But
this would imply that the writer of these words lived in a context where his read-
ers would be broadly familiar with such "rabbinical fencing," making these
words impossibly late additions to Genesis.
Occasionally, commentators omit any comment on the words at all, evi-
dently assuming that they are self-evident, as for example Walter Brueggeman.6
But the vast majority of commentators consider these words of Eve, at best,
unfortunate mental or emotional slips, and, at worst, deliberate distortions.
Writers as diverse as James Montgomery Boice, Nehamoh Liebowitz, Henry
Morris, Gerhard von Rad, Claus Westerman, and George A. F. Knight populate
this camp, indicating a broad tradition of commentary.7 All these join in cho-
2 U. Cassuto, Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 145.
3 Robert Davidson, Genesis 1-11 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 40:
"This addition to the prohibition as originally stated in 2:17 has led certain scholars to
suggest that the woman herself is not beginning to overplay God's strictness. It may,
however, be no more than a stylistic variation on the prohibition of eating."
4 Nahum M Sarna, Genesis (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 24.
5 John J. Scullion, Genesis: A Commentary for Students, Teachers, and Preachers
(Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1992), 38: "The woman, in defense, builds a
fence around it something God did not say." Phyllis Trible, "Feminist Hermeneutics and
Biblical Studies," Christian Century 99, no. 4 (1988) : 117: "If the tree is not touched,
then its fruit cannot be eaten. Here the woman builds a ‘fence around the Torah,’ a
procedure that her rabbinical successors developed fully to protect divine law and
6 Walter Brueggeman, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching
(Atlanta: John Knox, 1982).
Zondervan, 1982), 135: "a correct (or at least mostly correct) reiteration." Nahamoh Liebowitz,
Studies in Bereshit (Jerusalem: World Zionist Organization, 1981), 30: "Moreover, to the
prohibition of eating has been gratuitously added that of even touching." Henry Morris,
The Genesis Record (San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers, 1976), 111: "she both added to
and subtracted from God's actual words."
Gerhard von Rad, Genesis (
Scholia et Homiletica 401
rus in proclaiming Eve's culpability. Some even go so far as to delve into Eve's
psyche, finding resentment before the Fall.8 However, this tradition is fraught
with difficulties for anyone who wishes to take seriously the logic of the narra-
tive of Genesis 1-3.
The rabbis that Plant quotes are right in considering an "embroidery of the
truth to be the opening wedge of sin."9 Indeed, the Bible consistently con-
demns any addition to God's Word as sin.10 Thus, if Eve presumptuously added
to God's Word in her conversation with the serpent, she sinned, or began sin-
ning, prior to taking the fruit and eating it.
Yet, the biblical narrative will not allow this. The effects of the Fall (the
knowledge of transgression and the shame that drive them to hide first from
each other and then from God) occur immediately after their consuming the
fruit: "Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were
naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves"
(Gen. 3:7). The Fall is not a process, but a point of disobedience, after which
original sin takes hold, and before which we can assume only innocence.
Some commentators have attempted to overcome this difficulty by moving
Eve's motivation for the "addition" into her subconscious or emotions. They
paint a picture of an Eve who has harbored discontent over God's strictness.
However, emotions such as resentment or exasperation directed toward God,11
Genesis (Moody Press: Chicago, 1982), 26: "she ... added `neither shall he touch it."' Claus
1-I1: A Commentary, trans. John J. Scullion. (
1974), 239-40): "But while the command is being discussed, it is altered in the very act of
defending it the narrator makes this know by means of a slight refinement that the woman
introduces: ‘Neither shall you touch it.’... One who defends a command can already be on
the way to breaking it."
8 George A. F. Knight, Theology in Pictures: A Commentary on Genesis Chapters One to
Eleven (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1981), 36: "She shows her exasperation by adding that
she and her husband are forbidden even to touch the fruit." Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary
on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 74: "[she said it] to temporize, to give expression
to resentment against God's command by adding... 'neither shall you touch it."' Bruce Vawter,
On Genesis: A New
resentment lurking in the refinement that she adds to the original stipulation, namely that they
may not even touch the forbidden fruit?" [italics original]
9 W. Gunther
Plant, Genesis: A Modern Commentary (
Congregations, 1974), 37.
10 Numbers 20:7-12; Deuteronomy 13:1-5; 18:22; Proverbs 30:3-9; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Colossians
2:22-23; Revelation 22:18
11 Robert S. Candlish, Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 62: "she
dwells on the prohibition, amplifying it and magnifying it as an intolerable hardship." Knight,
Theology in Pictures, 36: "She shows her exasperation by adding that she and her husband
are forbidden even to touch the fruit." H. C. Leupold, Exposition
of Genesis (
Wartburg Press, 1942), 148: "By this insertion Eve betrays the course her thought have taken.
She feels the prohibition was unduly sharp so unconsciously she sharpens it herself." C. H.
to Deuteronomy: Notes on the Pentateuch (1880; reprint,
Liozeaux Brothers, 1974), 28: "whether her misquotation proceeded from ignorance, or
indifference, or a desire to represent God in an
402 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
or a hidden desire for the fruit that exists prior to the temptation,12 imply a cor-
ruption or defect in Eve's character prior to the Fall; she harbored moral rebel-
lion in her heart while still "unfallen" and was therefore created evil. Nor does
it assist us to grant her clemency due to "alarm and foreboding" over the con-
niving of the serpent.13 Presumption driven by fear remains presumption.
The high commitment across theological lines to such a position suggests a
deeper foundation. Gowan notes that there is a history of sexism in the inter-
pretation of Genesis 3, in which commentators attempt to understand why Eve
was the target of the Serpent's temptation. To do so, they call her either the
weaker or stronger partner because of her gender.14 Perhaps a better explana-
tion may simply be theological inertia. The denigration of Eve's person, moti-
vation, and words in Genesis 3:2-3 has a long and venerable history, going back
to the Reformation and before. But, to do justice to both the text and the logic
of the text, we must accept Eve's words, "do not touch it" as significant, logical,
and innocent. To accomplish this we can do no better than to pose, regarding
Eve's words, the questions that Scullion poses regarding the Serpent:15
What is the function of the Story?
What did it symbolize in the ancient Near East?
What associations would it evoke in the minds of
the people of
listened to the story?
What Was the Function of the Story
Most commentators on Genesis seem to read Eve's words as if no other
revelation existed. If they refer to any other text at all, it is only Genesis 2:17 in
which the original command from God is first rendered. But such a reading
overlooks the way Genesis assumes the exodus from
arbitrary light, or from all three, it is plain that she was entirely of the true ground of simple
confidence in, and subjugation to, God's holy Word." Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, 74:
"To temporize, to give expression to resentment against God's command by adding ... 'neither
shall you touch it."' Vawter, On Genesis, 78: "Is there, however a touch of resentment lurking
in the refinement that she adds to the original stipulation, namely that they may not even touch
the forbidden fruit?" [italics original]
12 John W. Willis. Genesis (Austin, Tex.: Sweet Publishing, 1979), 118: "The woman's hidden
desire for the forbidden fruit is revealed in her overreaction to the serpent's question: `We may eat
of the fruit of the trees of the garden but God said, "You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which
is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die
13 Franz Delitzsch, A New Commentary on
Genesis, trans. Sophia Taylor (
what the serpent was trying to persuade her to, sought by this addition to cut off any further
14 Donald E. Gowan,
Genesis 1-11: From
15 Scullion, Genesis, 38.
403 SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA
Genesis was written to a redeemed people of God. Genesis, as received, con-
tains an apologetic for the
diverse humanity, culminating in the table of
nations and the
the table of nations, Genesis lays special emphasis
gies most extensively (Gen. 10:13-19). The remainder of Genesis focuses on
the selection of Abraham and his descendants as God's special people (Gen.
12:2-3;13:16;17:2, 4; 18:18; 22:17; 26:4; 28:3,14; 32:12; 35:11; 41:49; 46:3; 47:27;
48:4, 16, 19) and the land as God's promised possession (Gen. 12:7; 13:15, 17;
15:18; 17:8; 23:18; 24:7; 28:13; 35:12; 48:4; 50:24). In the process, Genesis 15:12-
21 provides a theodicy of sorts covering the entire experience of slavery-exo-
dus-conquest. Genesis 9:25 effectively authorizes the subjugation of the
Thus, Genesis assumes the history of exodus-conquest, in the midst of which
parts in the drama of Genesis. The story of Judah and Tamar assumes the
levirate marriage of Deuteronomy 25:5-6. And the flood depends in part on a
common understanding of clean and unclean animals and their respective
appropriateness for sacrifice. While such concepts did predate the exodus,17
the post-exodus context of the first readers implies that these passages were
intended to be read in the light of the law given at Sinai, including the clean-
ness code found in Leviticus.
In this context, the story of the Fall functions as a pretext for the exodus-con-
quest. Genesis 3 identifies the sources of evil that have led to the suffering of
slavery. It also justifies the conquest by expanding the division between the
woman and the Serpent to an ongoing struggle between their descendants
(Gen. 3:15).18 All of this relies on a separation from, and over against, the rest
of the nations--the very separation identified in the Levitical code (Lev.
16 I happily count myself among those whom Walter Houston derides as "biblicistic scholars
swallowing whole the Bible's own account of their [
Monotheism (Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1993), 120. I freely admit that I assume the validity of the
scriptural history that depicts God's giving the laws found in Exodus through Deuteronomy prior
to the entrance into the land. Such are the assumptions of faith, for which I make no apology,
except to note that the assumptions of criticism which allow others to give these laws a postexilic
(or at least Davidic) origin are equally grounded in presuppositional faith commitments.
17 G. C. Alders, Genesis, trans. William Heynen. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 1:167; 2:193.
18 Note that here the woman and her seed are identified with the side of holiness and godliness
over against the evil of the Serpent. This should surely add more stature to Eve in her conversation
with the Serpent.
404 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL. JOURNAL
Some will find this position naturally untenable. The hermeneutical descen-
dants of Wellhusen may object that any uncleanness reference must arise from
a late priestly source and therefore must be derivative of, not foundational to,
Old Testament thought. Traditionally, critical scholars designate Genesis 2-3 as
derived from the "J" or "Yahwist" document or source or tradition (commonly
dated to the Davidic or Solomonic era), whereas they place the whole of
Leviticus in the venue of the "P" or "Priestly" tradition (commonly proclaimed
to be postexilic).19 Furthermore, they give J a purpose distinct from P (cri-
tiquing royal authority versus salvaging the traditions and identity of a despair-
ing, postexilic community).20 Whether this prevented some commentators
from questioning the significance of Eve's words cannot be known because
they remain universally silent on the issue of any supposed source for the
phrase, "do not touch," separate from the rest of the text in which it sits.
Thomas Kuhn has noted that theoretical paradigms, such as the documen-
tary hypothesis, serve not only to organize thought, but to set the boundaries
for what a theorist can possibly perceive to exist.
Surveying the rich experimental literature from which these examples are
drawn makes one suspect that something like a paradigm is prerequisite to
perception itself. What a man sees depends both upon what he looks at and
also upon [what] his previous visual-conceptual experience has taught him
to see. In the absence of such training there can only be, in William James'
phrase, "a bloomin' buzzin' confusion."21
Indeed, according to Kuhn's analysis, even major theoretical crises do not force
theoreticians to spot evidence that runs counter to their paradigm.22
This must surely condition the perception of those holding to the docu-
mentary hypothesis, for Genesis 3:2 lies at the heart of the theory. The docu-
19 Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 47-48.
20 Bruggeman, Genesis: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, 14.
21 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (
22 Ibid., 77: "Though they may begin to lose faith and then to consider alternatives, they do not
renounce the paradigm that has led them into crisis. They do not, that is, treat anomalies as
counter-instances, though in the vocabulary of philosophy of science that is what they are."
Interestingly, such a crisis may be in the offing, heralded by the likes of Scullion, Genesis, 6-7,
who notes Rendtorff's attempt to dispense with the documentary hypothesis as "tried in the fire,
found wanting, and leading to an impasse." Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters
1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 37: "In a book that is patently anonymous, and where all
original texts have long since disappeared, it is most likely that a project to determine Genesis'
authorship and mode of composition is doomed from
the start." and
the Book of the Covenant: An Anthropological Approach
to Biblical Law (
Press, 1992), 25: regarding the hook of the covenant the notes that source criticism has ceased,
form critics "have posited just about every imaginable origin and Sitz im Leben, but actually
have offered little information about the cultural context," and neither history nor redaction
studies "can offer much progress without accompanying knowledge of the relationship between
law codes and legal procedures."
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 405
mentary hypothesis originated in part in a distinction between the use of the
names Elohim and Yahweh in the text of the Pentateuch, such as found in
Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 and ascribing these to different eras and intentions.
Universally, this hypothesis has assigned Genesis 1 completely to P and 2-3 com-
pletely to J.23 Having made that theoretical commitment, one could easily over-
look any connection between any phrase in the Yahwist chapters 2-3 and the
Priestly book of Leviticus.
But even within the camp of criticism, room can be made to accept the valid-
ity of a Priestly insertion in this story. In reciting the basics of the Documentary
Hypothesis, von Rad notes that even P "contains an abundance of ancient and
very ancient material"24 and allows for "minor insertions from the Priestly
Document" throughout Genesis,25 though he does not identify this as one.
(This resonates with R. K. Harrison's criticism of dating P late: "Modern dis-
coveries have always shown that
priestly material from the
early rather than late in arising, and that priestly traditions are usually pre-
served in a meticulous manner."26 Moreover, Van Seter has recently suggested
that the Yahwist (J) is possibly later than earlier thought, perhaps in the early
postexilic period.27 Wenham further squeezes J and P together, noting that it is
difficult to maintain a postexilic date for Leviticus "in the face of abundant quo-
tations in Ezekiel and linguistic evidence that P's vocabulary does not resemble
that of late biblical Hebrew."28 Additionally, Anthony F. Campbell and Mark A.
O'Brien declare that the Documentary Hypothesis applies only to narrative
texts, and on that basis designate the uncleanness code of Leviticus as undated
"non-source text."29 Finally, though he holds to a late dating of Leviticus, Walter
nently compatible with it: it required no sharp changes in habitual dietary and
cultic practices general in the land and its environs since the beginning of the
Middle Bronze Age."30 Such being the case, one can hardly exclude the possi-
bility, even from within the structure of the Documentary Hypothesis, that
Eve's statements might be original to the story and indicative of the story's
dependence on the cleanness code found in Leviticus 11.
23 Westerman, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary, 186: "The generally acknowledged conclusions
that Gen.2-3 is to be attributed to a different literary source (J) from Gen. 1 (P) is assumed."
24 von Rad, Genesis, 25.
25 Ibid., 28.
26 R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary
InterVarsity Press, 1980) , 22.
27 John Van Seter, Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis
(Louisville: John Knox, 1992), 21, 129.
28 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 13.
29 Anthony F. Campbell and Mark O'Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch: Texts, Introductions,
Annotations (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 200 and 61 n. 26.
406 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Given such a dependence, the phrase, "do not touch," functions to draw the
readers' attention beyond the bounds of Genesis itself and into the cleanness
code. As I will show shortly, it raises in the mind of the original reader many
associations that enrich the meaning of the text and communicate more than
our present tradition of commentary suggests.
What Did the Words of Eve Symbolize?
With this understanding, we may revisit the words of Eve to the Serpent. She
specifies that "God did say ... you may not touch it [the fruit] " (Gen. 3:3). If we
restrict the context of these words to Genesis, then we must admit that God did
not say that (Gen. 2:17). But, if we allow that the writer of Genesis expected a
basic familiarity with the law of Sinai, we must allow a broader context for this
statement, including the Sinai laws found in the whole Pentateuch. In this
broader context the words, "you may not touch," take on deeper significance.
We find parallels to Eve's words in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
Leviticus 11 defines food that is lawful for Israelites to eat. Concerning unclean
land animals, verse 8 states, "You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses;
they are unclean for you" (emphasis added). The vocabulary and sentence
structure of this verse strongly parallel's Eve's words in Genesis 3:3: "You must
not eat fruit ... and you must not touch it."
This parallel strengthens when we realize that this is a special prohibition
against touching unclean (forbidden) food and is beyond the prohibition
against touching dead clean animals given in Leviticus 11:39-40. Furthermore,
this combined prohibition against eating and touching repeats throughout the
chapter (with certain stylistic variations) in reference to various forbidden
foods. Indeed, the prohibition against touching becomes a crescendo of
emphasis as the chapter proceeds: unclean water creatures--"And since you
are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their car-
casses" (v.11) ; flying creatures--"These are the birds you are to detest and not
eat because they are detestable [to you] ... whoever touches their carcasses will
be unclean till evening." (v 13, 24b); land animals (again!)--"whoever touches
the carcasses of any of them will be unclean ... whoever touches their carcasses
will be unclean until evening. Anyone who picks up their carcasses must wash
his clothes, and he will be unclean until evening" (26b, 27b-28a).
Deuteronomy 14:8b repeats this pattern once, phrasing the prohibition
identically to Leviticus 11:8a, the closest Leviticus parallel to Genesis 3:3. While
it could be argued that Deuteronomy 14 was derived from Leviticus 11, such a
derivation does not lessen the strength of the parallel to Genesis 3:3. The very
choice of this phrase over others in Leviticus 11, whether by derivation or com-
mon source, points to it as a key phrase in teaching the prohibitions against
Read in this light, the original readers of Genesis 3 would have understood
Eve's words as a natural outgrowth of God's command in Genesis 2:17. The
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETIGA 407
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden food, and therefore
Obviously there are differences.
But then, Adam and Eve did not eat meat; fruit was the extent of the food
granted (Gen. 2:16). Furthermore, the consequences of even touching the
fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was death (Gen. 3:3), while
touching unclean food only made one unclean until evening (Lev. 11:24-28).
Yet the consequences of even temporary uncleanness were severe. It required
a sin offering for atonement (Lev. 5:2, 5-6), and cut one off from worship,
requiring death for the unclean worshiper (Lev. 7:21 cf. Ex. 31:14 for the mean-
ing of the phrase "cut off”). Following Meredith G. Kline, the Garden of Eden
was a holy temple-garden,31 a thought reinforced by the garden motif found in
the temple (1 Kings 6:23-35). Such an understanding would equate any unclean
person in the Garden of Eden with an unclean person in the temple or even
the Holy of Holies--a situation demanding death.32 But even if we ignore such
a connection between the garden and temple, if an Israelite ate unclean food
and did not cleanse himself, the ominous threat proclaimed "he will be held
responsible" (Lev. 17:16). And eating unclean food was a sin that subjected the
whole nation to exile (Lev. 20:22-26), an obvious parallel to the punishment of
Adam and Eve.
Finally, we must reckon with the repeated emphasis on evening. Temporary
uncleanness by touching demanded immediate cleansing and left one unclean
until evening (Lev. 11:25, 28, 31, 32, 39, 40; 17:15). Could this be why Genesis
3:8 notes that God came walking in the "cool of the day," that is, after sunset?
Does the narrative indicate that God is visiting them after the time when their
uncleanness should have been cleansed, a time when the offense of unclean-
ness should normally have passed?
In light of all of this one can argue that the original readers of Eve's words
would have understood the story in the context of God's commands concern-
ing unclean foods, and would have understood that the fruit of the Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil was unclean food. This has consequences for both
our reading of Genesis 3 and our understanding of original sin.
What Did Uncleanness Symbolize?
If we accept the connection between the words of Eve and the cleanness
code of the Sinai laws, then we can move on to Scullion's second question:
31 Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue, vol. 1 (
Theological Seminary, 1986), 37-38.
32 Note the careful preparation given the high priest for entering the temple in Leviticus 16,
including the atonement for sin, the bathing to cleanse, and the covering with holy garments to
cover any remaining uncleanness. Leviticus 16:2 makes death the outcome of any less careful
handling of the high priest's presence before God.
408 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
"What did it symbolize in the ancient Near East?" Here we run onto rough
roads. The exact nature of uncleanness continues to elude scholars. And, as an
added impediment to the evangelical scholar, the present theories assume a
secular, sociological stance. They assume that the dietary laws of Leviticus arose
solely from the culture surrounding the Israelites, the product of priests or
social consensus. This contrasts starkly with the evangelical church's confession
that the Scriptures have divine origin and the implication that any interpreta-
tion take seriously the testimony of Scripture concerning the historical cir-
cumstances that God describes in this revelation.33 Yet, these studies have shed
light on the cultural context in which God gave these commands.
Following Walter Houston, we may divide most theories into etic and emic
classes, or theories supposing that the meaning of cultural features arise to
explain historically prior practices, as compared with those supposing that cul-
tural features gain their meaning only in the context of currently held values
and beliefs.34 Without replicating his extensive review of the theories, a few
comments can be made. First we should take
that we need not "take sides," that "historical, material, and symbolic consider-
ations must all be taken into account" in seeking to understand the meaning of
a cultural symbol.35 As I stated
earlier, and is evident from
expansive survey, cleanness codes were widespread throughout the times and
cultures of biblical history.36 Thus, God merely appropriated that historical
phenomenon and utilized it to express his will in the Levitical code. The prac-
tice does, indeed, precede the explanation. The practice may even have some
origins useful for understanding the distinction among clean, unclean, and
However, the emic school must command preeminence. One can doubt that
any religious practice, however old, can persist in the face of temptation if not
reenforced by concurrent values and beliefs. And indeed, there must have been
temptation to raise and eat pigs and other unclean
the prohibition is meaningless. Indeed,
states, "Whatever the source of social tension, attitudes of contempt [toward
food] only develop into formal taboos when a religious factor intervenes."37
33 The Christian Reformed Synod of 1972 adopted the following pastoral advice which
expresses this implication well: "Synod encourages the churches to see to it that biblical
studies are carried on in a careful and disciplined way, submissively rethinking the thoughts
of Scripture itself, and accordingly warns against the use of any method of interpretation
which excludes or calls into question either the event-character or the revelational meaning
of biblical history, thus compromising the full authority of Scripture as the Word of God.
Acts of Synod 1972 (Grand Rapids: CRC Board of Publications, 1972), 69.
35 Ibid., 79.
36 Ibid., 176, 212.
37 Ibid., 212.
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 409
What is that religious factor? "The division into clean (edible) foods and
unclean (inedible) foods corresponds to the
division between holy
the Gentile world."38 Peter's vision in Acts 10 and his subsequent visit to
Cornelius confirms this concept as apostolic, since overcoming the Levitical
aversion to unclean foods becomes the symbol for overcoming the aversion to
evangelizing the unclean (Gentile) people. But current theorists display subtle
differences on how certain animals become associated with the unclean
Gentiles. Douglas (and Wenham following
and holiness designate conformity to standards of "wholeness and normality,"
which the unclean fail to meet.39
inal division between pastoral and agricultural society, where pigs (of little use
to pastoralists) would become abhorred as foreign animals and were therefore
symbolic of foreign peoples .40
Onto this original abhorrence,
matter of cleanness. She begins with the general assumption (deduced from
many cultural sources) that "uncleanness is a matter of place.... Uncleanness
or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained."41
This she then superimposes on the biblical text to determine the pattern that
uncleanness breaks. Viewed through this lens, she concludes that "all holiness
is exemplified by completeness. Holiness requires that individuals shall con-
form to the class to which they belong. And holiness requires that different
classes not be confused."42 She settles on methods of locomotion as the criteria
for the pattern, the frame into which various creatures must fit to be declared
unclean: hopping, jumping, or walking for land animals; use of fins and scales
for sea creatures.43 However, she admits that she cannot explain by this method
why some birds are unclean .44
Scholars have heavily criticized
these criticisms may be found in the work of Firmage and Houston.45 Without
repeating their extensive analysis, we can note
two basic defects in
theory. First, the criteria for uncleanness given in Leviticus does not limit itself
to methods of locomotion. Chewing the cud (for land animals) and scales (for
38 Gordon J. Wenham, "The Theology of Unclean Food," The Evangelical Quarterly (January-
March 1981): 11.
39 Gordan J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 169.
40 Mary Douglas, Purify and Danger (1966; reprint,
41 Ibid., 40.
42 Ibid., 53.
43 Ibid., 55.
45 Edwin Finnage, "The Biblical Dietary Laws and the Concept of Holiness," in Studies in the
Pentateuch, ed. J. A. Emerton (NewYork: Brill, 1990),
410 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
water creatures) have nothing to do with how a creature moves. (Note catfish
who, without scales, move in a way indistinguishable from other fish.) This
becomes especially apparent when discussing animals that swarm on the
ground. "It is not convincing to suggest that there is anything in common
between the modes of movement of a worm, a crab, a minnow, a butterfly, and
a mouse. The conclusion must be that while in reference to creatures confined
to the ground seres takes the place of remes and so has some connotation of
movement, it does not in general define a group by their "mode of propul-
apply them to their reality, thereby designating what is normal or clean or
acceptable. But people build their taxonomic systems in reality, classifying
everything that appears there in some place. It would be only when some alien
animal would invade an area with an already established classification system
that something might appear so different as to be declared abnormal or
unclean. And even then, people are likely to push something into a known cat-
egory or even make a new category.47 Take, for instance, children's seeing a bat
for the first time. They are likely to call it a bird until some closer examination
challenges their decision; or perhaps even consider it a hairy bird until cor-
rected. These two problems
But that does not as such disqualify her theory that uncleanness itself is that
which is out of place. It merely moves the grounds for that condemnation to a
Edwin Firmage applies this separation from Gentiles via the temple cult.
from impurity, but holy. They were to approximate the character of God.
Therefore, their diet had to be restricted to only such animals as were suitable
for sacrifice.49 As with most theorists, he runs onto rough roads once he leaves
the land animals behind and begins to explore swimmers and flyers. He finds
an extension from the land to the sea by noting that forbidden sea creatures
(such as eels and crabs) may resemble forbidden land animals (such as ser-
pents and crawling insects).50 Turning to flyers, he admits to the utter specula-
tive nature of his reflections and lands on the theory that those forbidden birds
fail to live up to the image of the dove, the paradigm temple bird.51 But he must
47 Ibid., 103.
48 Firmage, "The Biblical Dietary Laws and the Concept of Holiness," 185.
49 Ibid., 186.
50 Ibid., 189,200-201.
51 Ibid., 190-91.
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 411
wiggle under the strain that locusts have never been sacrificial animals and
therefore must represent some kind of concession to the poor.52
such as pigs, might have been associated with worship of the dead and of under-
world deities.53 In such worship the unclean animals may actually have been
eaten. This would associate unclean animals with foreign deities and with death
and evil. Eating such food would be an obvious offense to God.
Underlying this emic
wild and domestic animals. "Wild creatures refuse the dominion of
humankind, they tend to be violent and dangerous, and their diet typically
tends to include waste matter and blood."54
tions for "those large herbivores that had always formed part of people's diet in
this area ... certain wild beasts, because of their diet, behavior and mode of life,
could be seen as domestic animals in an honorary senses, as it were."55 In the
end, the diet is decisive for Houston, who connects the division between clean
and unclean to an ideal, nonviolent prefall vegetarianism that "stands for the
order and peace of civil society over against the disorder and violence of the
One might wonder what were the vegetarian fish to which the Levitical code
referred and why cattle and those wild herbivores were not excluded because
they will eat carrion and fecal matter. Indeed, if eating meat made an animal
unclean, why did that criteria not apply to man, and, therefore, why was the veg-
etarian ideal not commanded explicitly? Yet, this seems to be an extension to
the logic of his theory, an embellishment rather than a foundation.
If we delve to the core of each of these theories, we see some possible out-
lines to consider.
order. Firmage would concentrate on the separateness of holiness located in
the sacrificial "food of God." And
for separation from foreign deities and demons. Of
seem to promise the most fruitful interpretation of the forbidden fruit. But I
will consider all of them when examining Genesis 3.
Implications of the Fruit as Unclean Food for Genesis 3
deities would paint the words of Eve in Genesis 3 in black and white. We can
52 Ibid., 192.
54 Ibid., 199.
55 Ibid., 200.
56 Ibid., 258.
412 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
abandon the problematic idea that Eve added to God's command. Rather, with
Bonhoeffer, we can proclaim, "Eve's answer still remains on the plane of igno-
rance [of evil]. She does not know or recognize evil and she can therefore do
nothing but repeat the given commandment and put it correctly. This is a great
deal, she remains true to the commandment."57
In this framework, Eve's words signal a deeper, more troubling understand-
ing of the situation. The fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is
unclean in a Levitical sense. All the implications derived from those commands
can be applied to this passage.
First of all, the tree must be quite dangerous. It represents an embassy of
impurity, a locale under the dominion of forces alienated from God. Following
of God's dwelling. No one should be surprised to find the Serpent lurking
there--the foreign deity-wanna-be, calling the faithful to transgress, to fall into
the domain of death. The first readers, seeing the association of unclean food
with underworld deities would find in the tree the gate to the grave. Thus the
words of God, "when you eat of it you shall surely die," rang frighteningly true
in their ears.
Second, eating or even touching the fruit made Adam and Eve unclean
(Lev. 11:24-28). They had become disordered in creation (creatures striving to
be "like God"). They had debased themselves with the food of foreigners. They
had ingested the offerings of demons. Although the Scriptures only declare a
temporary uncleanness for touching and eating such food ("till evening," Lev.
11:24-28), eating unclean food in conscious rebellion against God's command
was grounds for being "cut off" from God (Lev. 20:22-26). Therefore, the death
penalty would certainly be expected.58 And, inevitably, God expelled Adam and
Eve from the garden, just as the Levitical law demanded (Lev. 20:22-26).
them out of place in the garden, an offense forcing their removal. Firmage
would find a human couple standing in the garden-temple of God, with alien
food on their lips, unholy. From
mitted idolatry, worshiping the serpent and submitting to his rule. They had
forfeited their rights as his servants and had to be removed from the promised
But, additionally, it becomes clear that Adam and Eve's uncleanness was not
temporary. For they were transformed: "The eyes of both of them were opened,
57 Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3,. 69.
58 The garden certainly represented living in the presence of God. God commanded that the
garden be symbolically worked into the
guarding the entrance-Ex. 26:31 cf Gen. 3:24), which Solomon expanded or repeated in the
the temple (I Kings 6:29-35). Indeed, focus on the garden in Genesis 2-3 may have evoked
a sense of humans living in the
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETIC 413
and they realized they were naked" (Gen. 3:7
cf. 2:25). In her theory,
displays to us Adam and Eve as deformed creatures with no proper place in
God's world, warped away from God's creational standards. Firmage sees them
as alienated from God--common less-than-holy
alienation, declaring them genetically aligned with foreign deities of darkness
and death, permanent residents of the unclean world.
Uncleanness as a Paradigm for Original Sin
The "natural" uncleanness of Adam and Eve would naturally transmit to all
their offspring. Unclean animals give birth, according to their kind, to unclean
animals. Likewise, unclean humanity gives birth to unclean humanity.
It may amaze some to apply this logic to people, but Paul applies it in
1 Corinthians 7:14. There, in arguing against a believer's divorcing his or her
unbelieving spouse, Paul notes that the unbelieving spouse has been sanctified
(made not only clean, but holy, for God's purposes). And he gives as proof that
the expected outcome of such a union would be unclean children but con-
tends that the children of such a union are holy.
Thus, to answer Scullion's third question, in Eve's words, we mark the warn-
ing that eating the fruit will change the holy stewards of God's creation (and
therefore all their descendants) into unclean creatures because of eating
unclean food. Our parents ate, and we are unclean. Their uncleanness (viewed
as deformity or alienation or both) becomes ours by birth. Uncleanness
describes that which we call original sin.
At this point, I urge caution. I do not suggest that the Bible declares that the
cultic uncleanness found in Leviticus 11 and echoed in Genesis 3:2 equals orig-
inal sin. Rather, in communicating the Fall to his people, God utilized the con-
cept of uncleanness (common to the cultures of the time), molded by his
specific use of the concept in the Sinai code, and applied it to Adam and Eve as
a way of communicating what original sin is like. God expounds the history of
the Fall through the metaphor of uncleanness.
Note also that I do not suggest that the Fall became the primary picture
through which God discussed that which we call original sin nor sin in general.
The Fall narrative fades quickly from Scripture's discussion of sin, even inside
Genesis, and does not arise again until Romans 5 and then only indirectly as a
foil to Christ's role in salvation. Rather, I suggest that the fall narrative is built
on the Levitical doctrine of uncleanness, a doctrine that is the primary para-
digm for Scripture's discussion of original sin. This doctrine permeates the Old
Testament, as one can show by any cursory review in an exhaustive concor-
dance of the words unclean, clean, and holy. As I have begun to show and will
show later, it plays significant roles in the New Testament as well.
Indeed, one step forward in the doctrine of original sin may be to simply
view it as the doctrine of congenital spiritual uncleanness. N. Kiuchi has noted
that in the view of Leviticus "sin [the Hebrew word ht'] is a kind of uncleanness,
414 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
produced on a dimension different from that of natural uncleanness, namely
by breaking a divine prohibition."59 Here, we can distinguish the biblical dis-
tinction between original sin, on the one hand, and rebellion/sin [ht’]
described in the oft cited exemplars of sin in the Old Testament, including the
golden calf incident of Exodus 32, Baal of Peor of Numbers 25, and the grum-
bling at Meribah of Numbers 20. These were used as symbols of active rebel-
lion,60 a category separate from natural uncleanness and related only indirectly
to the innate sin-fullness understood by what we call original sin. Here the
prominence of uncleanness stands unchallenged. Therefore, what the Bible
declares about the nature and spread of cultic uncleanness in the Sinai code
grants us insight into the nature and spread of original sin.
Cultic Uncleanness and the Imputation of Sin.
If this interpretation holds, the puzzle concerning the imputation of sin
deserves a reinvestigation, for uncleanness points to a different biblical para-
digm for addressing the issue. Uncleanness defines original sin as a culpable
state of being. The unclean person was unclean not so much because of what
they had done but because of what they were. And that uncleanness accrued to
Israelites in situations beyond their control. If someone died suddenly in the
presence of a Nazarite, the Nazarite became unclean and "sinned against the
Lord by being in the presence of the dead body" (Num. 6:9-12). If, during the
night, someone died in the tent in which another Israelite slept, the Israelite
became unclean (Num. 19:14). Atonement required not only a sin offering
(Lev. 4:1) but also the water of cleansing (Num. 19:11-12, 14). Failure to seek
cleansing meant being "cut off” from God's people (Num. 19:13b).
Further, Israelite women became unclean every month during their period
of menstruation (Lev. 15:19-23). Again, this required a sin offering (Lev. 19:28-
30). And the penalty for ignoring this state of uncleanness meant sexually
being cut off (Lev. 20:18). In addition, a descendant of a priest who had a phys-
ical defect was, in a sense, unclean (or at least incapable of holiness). Even
though they could eat the holy food (Lev. 12:22),61 they could defile [yihallel
from hll] the tabernacle or altar merely by their ministry at them (Lev. 21:23).
Such defilement implies uncleanness, since this is what unclean food does to
one who eats or touches it (Lev. 11:42-43).
When we view these examples of God's holding people culpable for a state
of being over which they had no positive control, the question of alien guilt
becomes more concrete. Rather than wrestling with it simply via the interfer-
59 N. Kiuchi, The Purification Offering in the Priestly Literature: Its Meaning and
Function (Sheffield, U.K.: JSOT Press, 1987), 65.
60 See Joshua 22:17; Psalm 81:7; 95:8; 106:19, 26, 32.
61 I take this to be a concession by God to the deformed descendants of priests,
since the) had no other means of subsistence.
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 415
ence of Romans 5:12-17, we are controlling it with a fully developed system of
guilt by uncleanness that is tied into the Fall directly.
Furthermore, this system does not fit the theories of federalism, realism, or
even mediate imputation. In opposition to Federalism, uncleanness declares
that we are guilty at the point of conception due to our state of being, not
through delegation of authority to Adam. Unlike Realism, uncleanness traces
our guilt to our present culpable state of being, not to historical actual actions
by us in Adam. And uncleanness eliminates the need to mediate guilt for
Adam's sin through the accompanying depravity, since our guilt resides in us
apart from Adam's actions because, by effect of Adam's actions, we are unclean
of ourselves. But uncleanness still resounds with the reformation understand-
ing of sin as "a corruption of all nature--an inherent depravity" (Belgic
Confession, art. 15).
Having said all of this, I recognize that we still face the problem of alien guilt.
Indeed, the reader's anxiety over alien guilt may have heightened as a result of
these musings. In a context of Western jurisprudence, where one is considered
innocent until it is proved that he did something wrong, the concept of being
born in a state of culpability grates against our sense of justice.
First of all, we should note that the guilt is no longer truly alien. Using
uncleanness as a paradigm for original sin, we note that the guilt is our guilt for
our corruption. The source of the corruption is alien to God's original intent
and act of creation, but even the corruption is "natural" and "normal" for us as
descendants of Adam and Eve. Our discomfort has shifted from the source of
the guilt to the reason for the guilt.
Second, we can note our own natural loathing of that which is grossly
deformed or polluted. In our continued reflection of the image of God (how-
ever warped) we instinctively pull back from that which radically departs from
normativity. In response to physical norms, we reflect God's judgment when
(before compassion can take its course) we recoil at gross deformities in babies,
the severely mutilated bodies of accident victims, or the festering wounds of
lepers. In nature, the ratty remains of a cat-killed robin, the stench of a massive
fish die-off from industrial waste, and the bloated body of a road-killed raccoon
all repel us. We abhor the obvious moral degradation of physical torture, per-
verse sexual practices, and massive political corruption. There are also limits to
our ability to accept ugliness in the place of beauty. (Even the most loving par-
ent can be challenged by a fifth-grade band concert.) In all of these, and many
more, we show that tolerance of the abnormal has its limits.
Finally, we can console ourselves by noting that even this is, at best, a proxi-
mate analogy to reality. Nothing can truly describe the offense of a finite creature
against the infinite, holy God of the universe. The proportions will simply not
416 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
allow a balance that we can easily grasp. God talks down to us with uncleanness,
and in the process must simplify things that lie beyond our comprehension.
In such a context, we must not so much ask how this can be, as ask what we
can do in response. The unclean person in
uncleanness. But he could seek the cure in sacrifice and unction. Although
guilt comes on us unbidden from our birth, a just God has provided release: the
infusing righteousness of Christ and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The Imputation of Righteousness
As John Murray points out in his discussion of the Roman Catholic view of
imputation of sin, the definition of imputation of sin affects the interpretation
of imputation of Christ's righteousness in Romans 5.62 Here again, the Levitical
doctrine of uncleanness illuminates the topic with a new light.
Often Christ came in contact with unclean people: lepers, the woman with
the flow of blood, the dead daughter and son.63 In each of these instances, con-
tact with them should have made Christ unclean.64 This would have implied
separation from God and defilement of Christ's person. Instead, contact with
Christ makes the unclean person clean (i.e., the cause of uncleanness is
removed). Thus, the holiness of Christ reverses the common spiritual order
where unclean things can contaminate, but holy things remain powerless to
purify (cf. Hag. 2:12-13).
This, of course, reflects the efficacy of Christ's sacrifice: becoming sin for us
that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Con 5:21). Indeed, our
righteousness comes from being dead, resurrected, and ascended "in Christ"
points to the assumption of Christ's identity in contact and communion with
him. Does this make us contagious carriers of Christ's righteousness? Perhaps
the apostle Paul attaches such significance in his argument against a Christian's
divorcing his or her unbelieving spouse in 1 Corinthians 7:14, as mentioned
Applying these reflections to the classic passage on immediate imputation
suggests the following interpretation. Adam's sin and "all sinned" in verse 12
may reflect the understanding of Adam's sin as the cause of the culpable state
of being that we call the sin nature or original sin. This sin nature bore the con-
62 John Murray, The Imputation ofAdam'c Sin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 16.
63 Luke.5:12-14; 7:11-17; 8:43-48; 8:49-55.
64 Leviticus 22:4-6; Haggai 2:12-13; and by implication Leviticus 13:45.
65 For an overview of various concepts of being "in Christ" see Lewis Smedes,
Union with Christ (1970; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 417
sequences of death up to the time of Moses despite the absence of law (v. 14)
because it was and/or is a transgression of being, not doing. As such, it consti-
tutes sufficient grounds for condemnation without further transgression of the
law. This reflects the Reformation understanding of original sin as "a corrup-
tion of all nature ... so vile and enormous in God's sight that it is enough to con-
demn the human race" (Belgic Confession, art.15). Due to Adam's
transgression, this sin nature extends to all who descend from him, as does the
consequent judgment, death, and condemnation (vv.15-18). Again, this
accords with the Reformation understanding of original sin as an "inherited
depravity" (Belgic Confession, art.15) spread "byway of the propagation of
[man's] perverted nature" (Canons of Dordt, third and fourth main points,
In parallel, "by the grace of the one man" the "gift of righteousness
... through the one man" overflows to all who are in him. Christ's contagious
righteousness mediated through union with him eliminates the uncleanness
and brings redemption.
Other Possible Areas of Application
Moving beyond a purely theological understanding, uncleanness as a para-
digm allows us to enter into cultural discussions of depravity and culpability. In
response to the question, "Is alcoholism or any other addiction either sin or
sickness?" the uncleanness theory responds, "Yes!" Sin resides not simply in the
moral nature but in the whole being of a person. It should hardly surprise us
that such depravity of being might manifest itself in physical defects leading to
a vulnerability to addiction. Yet, the addict remains culpable for that deformed
nature because that deformity, in itself, is an offense before God against which
he must seek remedy, for which only Christ can atone, and from which only the
Holy Spirit can liberate. Any form of physical deformity that affects moral deci-
sion making cannot not detract from our culpability before God.
Again, the uncleanness theory alters our understanding of being salt and
light. If the righteousness of Christ is contagious in the relationship of mar-
riage, it implies that other relationships may sanctify the partner for God's pur-
poses. This calls us to reflect on how the presence of a Christian, living in
Christ's holiness, sanctifies the unbelievers with whom they work so that the
results of their collaborations become holy to God. Does the call by Paul not to
be unevenly yoked identify distinct limits to the sanctifying effect of a Christian
in relationship with an unbeliever, or is it a more practical exhortation on the
dangers of freely entering into collaboration with someone who is unclean?
And how does this affect the urgency of our witness in all forms of mission?
Of course, all of this will be sterile rambling it we cannot communicate the
concept to the average believer. From the perspective of immediate imputa-
418 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
tion, the bridge was the "representative nature of Adam's headship." From
there we could appeal to analogies of presidential or fatherly decisions that
bear long-term consequences for those for whom they act. Uncleanness seems
very alien to our culture and therefore will need massive translation. Several
homiletic hooks can catch the imagination of the hearer and transform this
concept into a useful doctrine.
To understand the offensiveness of our depravity we can again appeal to the
image of God referred to above (see "Alien Guilt"). We, too, find gross abnor-
mality offensive. But we can take it further. We are not merely objects out there
but the personal creation of God. We, too, would be aggravated by a creation
that refused to respond. For instance, suppose one of us invents a lawn mower.
We engineer into it the finest in grass-cutting tooling. We pamper it with the
finest of fuels, lubricants, and protectants. We store it carefully and keep the
blade sharp. It runs efficiently, but cuts not grass. How would we respond?
The Gospels abound with imagery that may assist us. We can point to Jesus'
responding to the offense of our unclean nature in cursing the fruitless fig tree
in Mark 11:1-25 or in the parable of the unfruitful tree in Luke 13:6-9. These
not only represent calls to repentance but question whether those addressed
even have the ability (nature) to produce fruit. If not, they represent an offense
to the maker/owner that calls down the curse of death. Indeed, Christ points
in this direction when he notes that, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a
bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Matt. 7:18). John the Baptist, too, warns
about the consequences of unfruitfulness (Luke 3:9).
A second bridge will be needed for the concept of being born in a culpable
state of being. Our culture is inclined to think of infants as innocent until they
do evil, and equally liable to consider infant acts as infantile rather than evil,
born of ignorance and immaturity rather than depravity. Here we might cau-
tiously borrow from interspecies comparisons. I have a personal theory on the
difference between cat lovers and dog lovers. Dog lovers love dogs because they
can represent (at their best) what we fantasize people might be at their best:
loyal, friendly, loving, willing, teachable. As a cat lover, I accept an animal that
more closely resembles fallen humanity: aloof, self-centered, irritable, unteach-
able. Such characterizations, of course, caricature reality. But no sensible per-
son really expects a cat to achieve the personable nature of a dog. By nature,
cats display behaviors we would find unacceptable in humans. And if they were
people, they would offend our moral sense, pouncing and scratching and
doing pretty much what they please from birth. Our first parents were created
as dogs, but they became cats, and so we are born cats, with all the offense that
Again, the Bible supplies an opening in Paul's phrase, "We were by nature
objects of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). Our nature (who we are from birth, not what we
do after birth) offends God to the point of judgment. Here, too, the image of
circumcision from Genesis 17 comes into play. The infant male child, by
SCHOLIA ET HOMILETICA 419
nature, has an aspect that must be cut away to be acceptable before God. Any
child whose unclean foreskin is not removed, God rejects (Gen. 17:14).
Finally, the concept of Christ's contagious righteousness steps us beyond the
pedestrian evangelical shibboleths of salvation such as, `Jesus paid for my sins."
The sacrifice of Jesus covers over our consistent offensiveness and, by the
indwelling Holy Spirit, his presence works to decontaminate our nature. Lately,
geneticists and doctors have increasingly discussed the potential of gene ther-
apy for undoing latent genetic inclination to disease. What better analogy to
the effect of the Spirit in our spiritual nature?
This transformation of being echoes in several passages. "If anyone is in
Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come" (2 Cor. 5:17).
The concept of "new birth" (John 3:3; 1 Peter 1:3) holds latent the concept of
a renewed nature. Indeed, Paul's opening salvo regarding the life of gratitude
in Romans 12:2 calls on us to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind."
Such transformation and renewal indicates that the nature-renewing power
lies within us who are in Christ Jesus and in the Spirit.
The Bible supplies several analogies to this renewal's being contagious
beyond us. Christ's claim that we are "the salt of the world" (Matt. 5:13) sets us
firmly in the center of contagious renewal. Images of detergent and antibacte-
rial soaps that, by nature, cleanse what they touch, might be modern equiva-
lents. We might use this with Paul's discussion of Christ's contagious
righteousness sanctifying the unbelieving spouse (1 Cor. 7:14). The antiseptic
flow of righteousness in the relationship cleanses (at least outwardly) the
spouse of the offensive stench, making him or her suitable in the relationship
and rendering the children clean before God.
Introducing a new paradigm also leaves us open to new dangers. We cannot
allow our explanations to confuse the shadow for the reality of things that have
come. In the uncleanness codes of the Pentateuch, many types of people are
singled out for exclusion. The sick, the deformed, and the menstruating all
found themselves excluded in various ways from fellowship with God and his
people. In using these categories, we must guard against letting people think
that the concept of "culpable state of being" implies that such obviously dis-
eased and genetically distorted natures offend God greater than the rest or
that such physical signs of human depravity indicate greater sin and condem-
nation. Such was the error of the disciples in John 9:2, "Rabbi, who sinned, this
man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Although I have stated that phys-
ical genetic defects that affect moral behavior cannot detract from culpability,
this does not imply that it adds to that culpability. And amoral defects, though
emblematic of our inner culpable state, merely expose in some what all of our
nature's resemble before God.
420 CALVIN THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Similarly, we must guard against the sorts of theonomistic thinking that
would resurrect the food regulations. Any use of these texts should clearly indi-
cate the provisional and tutorial goal of these passages. A heavy emphasis or
the vision of Peter (Acts 10) will clearly display that such are merely metaphors
and have not enduring spiritual worth.
An easy triumphalism could creep into any exposition of Christ's contagious
righteousness. We must always make explicit that in all our theology God "talks
down" to us, describing a greater spiritual reality with limited human-scale
metaphors. The image of Christ's instantly vanquishing diseased uncleanness
and death cannot imply that every believer finds themselves instantly beyond
depravity. Nor can we imply that those we "sanctify" by our alliance or marriage
become less depraved. We must emphasize that the instantaneous healings
and/or cleansings reveal the thoroughness of Christ's saving work but not its
timetable. Sanctification still transforms our natures slowly and incompletely
until death or Christ arrive.
The words of Eve in Genesis 3:2, "you shall not touch it," have been grossly
misrepresented. They are not the expression of prefall apostasy or weak-mind-
edness on the part of the first woman. They communicate to God's redeemed
people that the Fall and original sin can be understood through the metaphor
of uncleanness. Thus, our guilt resides, not first of all in what we do, but in what
we are. In the same light, our redemption does not reside, in what we do. It
resides in who we become identified as in Christ Jesus and transformed into by
the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as the uncleanness of depravity is contagious
and spreading, so the righteousness of Christ to, in, and through us can conta-
giously roll back the sin of the world.
I have endeavored to raise questions in this article to spur us to further
reflection on original sin and to suggest some ways of communicating this new
paradigm homiletically. If I have accomplished nothing else but to generate
renewed interest in the reality of sin and our culpability before God, I will be
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Calvin Theological Seminary
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