New Medieval Bible Meditation: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

March 3rd, 2014

Gen. 2:7-9, 3:1-7 (Roman Catholic); Gen. 2: 15-17, 3:1-7 (Revised Common); Gen. 2:4b-9, 15-17, 25-3:7 (Episcopal)

John Henry Newman says:

[Scripture] cannot be mapped, nor its contents catalogued; but after all our diligence, to the end of our lives and the end of the Church, it must be an unexplored and unsubdued land, with heights and valleys, forests and streams, on the right and on the left of our path and close about us, full of concealed wonders and choice treasures.

While this is true of all Scripture, it feels particularly true of the Scriptures for the First Sunday in Lent. Each has wondrous depths no preacher will ever exhaust. The Christian’s task is only ever to guide others into the saving wonders and blessed paths the Spirit has opened to him or her. With this happy and modest goal, let us turn to Genesis.

Join me in meditating on the story of the fall according to the fourfold sense of Scripture common in the middle ages: the literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical levels.

At the literal* level, Gen. 3:1-7 tells the story of humankind’s fall, our rebellion against God (Rom 5:15). The Holy Spirit speaks of a “serpent” who tempts Eve. The serpent symbolizes the fallen angel called the devil or Satan (“the accuser”). (It is sensible to read the serpent as a symbol; one may hazard to assume that even the Ancient Near Eastern human author of this text had not met a talking snake!) Angels (even fallen angels) are spiritual creatures; this one is already in rebellion against God, and now seeks to put humankind in bondage. Note that the devil’s question in v. 1 sows doubt, while his assertion in v. 4 is an outright lie (c.f. Jn. 8:44). In v. 5, the devil appeals to Eve’s desire to be “like God.” This is a good desire, and something God desires to give humanity (2 Pet. 1:4), but the devil tempts Eve to grasp it through disobedience and pride rather than inheriting it through obedience and love. Something that is at the deepest level a gift ceases to be itself if it is stolen. In disobedience, Adam and Eve inherit darkness rather than light, “good and evil” (v.5) rather than goodness alone. Since evil is a privation of good, Adam & Eve drastically damage their own goodness through disobedience.

Through their sin, Adam and Eve disfigure the divine harmony of the paradise God has created, and they become subject to death. They experience a fourfold disordering and disharmony, a fourfold state of injustice or unrighteousness. (1) Humans’ relationship to God is compromised. Humans no longer dwell easily with God in the garden of paradise. Just like Adam & Eve doubted God’s generosity and so disobediently tried to seize what God would have been happy to give them as a reward for obedience, so our vision of God is still doubtful and darkened to this day. We think of God as less than perfectly Good; we suspect God of evil (rather than ourselves!); we worship and serve idols rather than the Creator; we worry that God is out to get us; in all these things we have a darkened vision of God. We are found to be unjust sinners before God, and we also perceive God unjustly. (2) Human’s relationship to himself or herself is compromised. Our souls and bodies are out of harmony. We no longer enjoy inner peace. Our passions run amok and drag us toward sin. We are in a state of inner and outer disintegration, and our bodies and souls fully separate at death. (3) Humans’ relationships to one another are compromised. We do not love our neighbors as we ought. Injustice nags at even the best human affairs, and sometimes totally overcomes them. Nation wars against nation, and people against people. Even in the closest and best human relationships (friendship, marriage, family), the sinful desire to dominate others manifests itself in various ways. We fear one another; we fear our own violence and the violence of others. (4) Humans’ relationship with the rest of the created order is compromised. We no longer live in harmony with creation (as in the garden), but have a destructive effect on the world around us. Adam once named the animals in the garden, signifying the great closeness that governed the created order; now animals fear humans, and vice versa. Note that in the unfallen creation, humans did not eat animals (Gen. 1:29).

In all of these things it is manifest that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). We are sinners; we are dust and to dust we shall return; “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10; c.f. Mt. 25:31-46).

At the allegorical level, Gen. 3:1-7 shows us the source, and continual logic, of our own disordered passions. It can be read alongside of Rom. 1:18-32. There is a parallel between the disobedience of Adam & Eve and the causes of the fall highlighted in Rom. 1:18-32, namely, failure to honor God as God, and failure to give thanks.

Further, Adam and Eve (who choose disobedience to God) prefigure Christ and Mary. Look at the Adam & Christ typologies of Rom. 5:14 and 1 Cor. 15:22 and 45. See Christ’s obedience as he is tempted in the wilderness by the devil (Sunday’s text, Mt. 4:1-11). See Mary’s obedience (Lk. 1:38) in contrast to Eve’s disobedience. Consider that Mary’s obedience was a free human act, enabled by God’s grace, that allowed the Word of God to become incarnate in Mary’s womb. As Irenaeus of Lyons describes it, the obedience of Christ & Mary unties the knot tied by the disobedience of Adam & Eve (Against Heresies, 3.22.4).

At the moral level, Gen. 3:1-7 raises especially the matter of obedience. The deepest meaning of obedience is something like “to hear so as to be willingly taught.” Adam & Eve disobey. Though God is God, they do not hear him obediently, and as a result they do not obey when tempted. Obedience is in many ways a matter of the heart. “Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). “Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding, / which must be curbed with a bit and bridle, else it will not keep with you” (Ps. 32:9). Is our heart inclined rightly to God and his commandments so that we joyfully obey them? Are we obedient to God in the things he commands and prohibits? In the moral sense, we are each Adam & Eve; we are tempted every day, and must choose Adam & Eve’s ungraceful disobedience or Christ & Mary’s graced obedience. We are each Israel. Moses speaks: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15).

In the anagogical sense, we remember that Adam is a type of Christ, who is both human and divine. In Christ’s perfect obedience, Adam & Eve & our disobedience is overcome. As members of Christ’s body the Church, we share in Christ’s perfect humanity and so participate by grace in his perfect divinity. We are surrounded by his holiness; let us worship him who is far beyond our understanding. Christ cross is the tree of life; let us taste the fruit of our redemption, and walk by the Spirit. Christ himself is the tree of life, for he says, “I am the life” (Jn. 14:6), in whom Adam’s race is welcomed into eternal life. Glory to Christ! Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Notes and Bibliography
*Historical critics may feel that my exegesis of the literal level above anachronistically reads it in light of the Church’s doctrine rather than in its original historical context. They think the literal meaning of a text reduces (perhaps?) to its oldest human meaning. But this is not obvious: why should the oldest human meaning of Genesis, insofar as we can reconstruct it, have priority over the historical context which shaped the interpretation of Genesis, say, in Second Temple Judaism, or Essenism, or rabbinic midrash; and if any of these, why not St. Paul’s reading and the Church’s reading as determinative “original” historical contexts? I can give a theological account of why I think the (most primary) literal sense is as it is: the most determinative and so “original” historical meaning of any Scripture must be one which reads it in the context of Jesus Christ’s historical humanity, for Jesus is God incarnate, the Word of God and sum total of divine revelation. Jesus Christ’s divine humanity is the origin, the ‘original context’ of all Scripture. Hence, Christians rightly read Genesis 3 in light of Jesus Christ (as in Rom 5:12-21 or Jn. 5:46). The Holy Spirit always testifies to Christ (Jn. 15:26). Hence, ‘literal sense’ does not mean “non-theological”; it means in accordance with the Catholic theological “system” or “hypothesis” (to draw again on the terms of Irenaeus of Lyons).

The Newman quotation above is from An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, rev. ed. (London, 1891), 71. It is quoted in Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 240.

In my exegesis of the literal level, I drew the exegesis of the fourfold injustice, and the point about the talking serpent, from Michael Dauphinais and Matthew Levering, Holy People, Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005).

Irenaeus’ of Lyons’ Against Heresies is in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series, and is online at

New Medieval Bible Meditations: Scripture Interpretations for Preachers, Nuns, and other Guilty Bystanders is Clifton Stringer’s contribution to the renewal of the Church’s reading and teaching of the Holy Bible. I try to pick a passage from the lectionary for the coming Sunday, ideally one shared by both Roman Catholic and Protestant (Revised Common & Episcopalian) lectionaries.

The premise of this method of interpretation is that Sacred Scripture, because it is divine revelation, has wondrous depths. That Scripture is ‘divine revelation’ means that Scripture is divine truth and wisdom graciously shown to us by God. Scripture is thus a created participation in the divine Word (Jn. 1:1) who is the second person of the Holy Trinity. Sacred Scripture is thus, and ultimately, a participation in God’s own knowledge, the very joyful eternal life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scripture is shared with us out of love that we might become wise and good, and be saved.

Since the infinite God is the author of Sacred Scripture, in addition to Scripture’s “literal or historical” sense, many passages of the Bible will have mystical senses (or spiritual senses). The literal sense is, as it were, the fountain and foundation of these mystical senses. These mystical senses are usually reckoned at three: the allegorical sense, the moral sense, and the anagogical sense.

Here is how St. Bonaventure describes these three mystical senses: “Allegory occurs when by one thing is indicated another which is a matter of belief” – like when one thing in Scripture prefigures another later thing, or builds on an earlier prefiguration. “The tropological or moral understanding occurs when, from something done, we learn something else which we should do” – like when Christ or an apostle does something holy that we must imitate. “The anagogical meaning, a kind of ‘lifting upwards,’ occurs when we are shown what it is we should desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the blessed” – that is, when we catch a glimpse of the glory of God.

Aquinas even notes that, since God understands all things through one infinite act of being, God can intend for there to be more than one meaning of a scripture at the literal level.

All four senses (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical) are effective for preaching, teaching, and training in righteousness, as the Spirit leads.

To reflect further on these senses consider, for example, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae 1.1.10 or Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, Prologue, section 4.

Also note that, in writing these meditations, I do not do any ‘historical critical’ research into the passages. If you would like to do this, it can add to your understanding of the literal sense, and even sometimes spur your imagination among the other senses. But many modern scholars focus on ‘historical critical’ questions almost exclusively; read their works, insofar as it is helpful for knowing and teaching Christ; there is no need for me to reinvent the wheel.

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