God and Nature Summer 2021
The Genesis Inquiry
By Mike Clifford
This weekend I’ve eaten a meal in a restaurant, worshiped at a church service, taken communion, been to a gig in a pub, and watched some live theatre. Fitting all of that activity into 48 hours would have been pretty unusual for me even pre-Covid, but after what seems like an eternity of lockdown, it’s been a super-busy weekend.
The theatrical performance was the premiere of The Genesis Inquiry written by Alina Hughes. I was intrigued by the publicity for the performance, which described the show as “A musical comedy about something that STILL really matters!” and “A fun, satirical interpretation of the Genesis story.” Hughes comments that “Eve’s assumed guilt for the original sin and the fall from grace established women’s inferior status in the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic world, but now the time has come to look again at the Biblical source and examine its message.”
The play considers whether it is right to blame Eve for the “original sin” of eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eyewitnesses are called to give testimony, including Adam, Eve, God, an angel, the devil, the snake, and various other creatures. Various points are made from the Biblical account:
- God gave the command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam, before Eve had been created (Gen 2:17)
- Adam was with Eve when she took the fruit and gave it to him (Gen 3:6)
- Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden, not Eve (Gen 3:23)
Although the acting was of the highest quality and I enjoyed the performance, it made for some uncomfortable viewing, particularly a musical number where the other characters dance around the stage and accuse God of “lying”. Incidentally, there was a storm brewing during the evening, with some ominous thunderclaps. The play raised some important questions for me.
If my article has made it past the editor, I can picture some readers of God and Nature covering their ears, reaching for whatever is the online equivalent of a Very Heavy Stone, and rushing to type their rebuttals to the rather simplistic reading of Scripture. (Please note that I don’t really think that readers have three pairs of hands each.) But, before you close the tab, hear me out…
In the book The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, distinguished theologian James Barr interprets God’s words to Adam “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen 2:17) as a warning that the action would have negative consequences, rather than as a promise of instant judgement. But he notes that “God comes out of this story with a slightly shaky moral record” and that the traditional reading of the story of Adam and Eve as the 'Fall of Humanity' cannot stand up to close examination of the text. He also cautions against judging simply whether the serpent’s words were “true” or “false”. Although the snake’s forecast of the immediate future was accurate in that Adam did not die that day, “the serpent’s theological analysis [that people would become like God] [was] not so good”.
Barr categorizes the above as the “Liar Argument”, which has a long history in biblical criticism. It can be summarised as “You are saying that things in the Bible are inaccurate, but God wrote the Bible or spoke the words that are in it; therefore, you are saying that God is a liar.”
I was born and raised in a church where the Bible was often interpreted in a literal way, especially the Old Testament. The “Liar Argument” could have destroyed my childlike faith, but over the years I have grown to hold to a more figurative interpretation of the Genesis account. The “Liar Argument” loses its power when we realise that the Bible is both the Word of God and the word of humanity.
Perhaps the play was less about challenging the goodness of God and more of a challenge of the way that the Genesis narrative has been used to blame women for “the fall of humanity”. When we read scripture, we need to remember the cultural context in which it was written; seeing a familiar story interpreted in a new and challenging way was certainly uncomfortable, but a valuable experience.
After reading a draft of this article, the play’s author and director, Alina Hughes, comments: “The finger pointing to Eve was indeed very much the subject of the inquiry [but] I now see how God’s case coming implicitly under scrutiny could indeed partially obscure that primary focus for those attached to prior conceptions of the biblical God. Following my own research I’ve come to understand that ANY examinations based on biblical translations alone are likely to be, at best, impoverished in the extreme.”
Mike Clifford is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Nottingham. His research interests are in combustion, biomass briquetting, cookstove design, and other appropriate technologies. He has published over 80 refereed conference and journal publications and has contributed chapters to books on composites processing and on appropriate and sustainable technologies.