Excerpted from "Reading the Bible Again for the First Time" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001).

The term "the fall" does not occur in the Genesis story of creation. As a description of the events surrounding Adam and Eve's expulsion from paradise, it is largely a Christian label; Jews typically do not speak of "the fall."

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Within the Christian tradition, "the fall" has commonly been understood to mean "the fall into sin." It has also been associated with the notion of "original sin," which is not simply the first sin, but a sinfulness that is transmitted to every individual in every generation. This latter notion, which goes far beyond what the Bible says, is usually attributed to the brilliant but troubled theologian Augustine around 400 CE. So as we hear and read this history again, we should try to free ourselves of specifically Christian associations of "the fall."

Though the term "the fall" does not occur in the story itself, the story of Adam and Eve's accepting the temptation offered by the snake points to something having gone wrong. The consequences are vivid, evocative, and thorough. Adam and Eve find themselves living east of Eden in a world that must endure toil and sweat for one's bread and pain and suffering in childbirth. They are banished from paradise forever. The rest of the stories in the first 11 chapters of Genesis describe the deepening consequences. In the next generation, murder: Adam and Eve's son Cain kills his brother Abel. The violence deepens, until even the boundaries of the cosmos are violated: "the sons of God" are mating with "the daughters of men," with monstrous consequences. Things are so out of control that God sends a flood to destroy all life except for those on Noah's ark, so that creation can be renewed. But soon thereafter, the cycle begins again in the story of the tower of Babel: humans try to build a tower that reaches into the heavens. But God overturns their effort and humankind is fragmented into its "babble" of different languages.

Clearly the Hebrew storyteller is saying that something has gone wrong. Life began in paradise but is now lived outside the garden, in an exile of hard labor, suffering, pain, violence, and fragmentation. Though the world is beautiful, something is not right; we do live in a world of suffering and pain.

But what went wrong? What action, desire or deed led to such pervasive consequences? The language of the storyteller is evocative, not precise. It does not clearly point to a particular reading. Thus, over the centuries, a variety of understandings of "what went wrong" have emerged. Each leads to a somewhat different understanding of "sin"--that primal act that plunged human beings into a world of suffering--and each expresses nuances of "what went wrong."

The Primal Act as Disobedience. The first understanding is the simplest, though not necessarily the most perceptive. The act responsible for Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden was disobedience. God gave them a command, they disobeyed it, and that was that. The emphasis is on the disobedience itself, not on what the act of disobedience was. For this view in its most elementary form, it would have made no difference if God's prohibition had been, "Please don't eat the daisies." This view typically leads to seeing sin in general as a matter of disobedience: God gives us commands and rules and laws, and we break them. The human problem is disobeying God the law-giver.