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."
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."
But in this context it means more than the everyday meaning of the word "pride," as in the sentence, "I was proud of myself when I did that." Hubris means exceeding one's proper limits; it means giving to one's self the place that belongs to God alone; it means making one's self the center. Hubris can take many forms, ranging from a world-conquering arrogance to a self-preoccupied malaise. What these forms have in common is a life centered in the self and its concerns. Sin--the human problem--is thus hubris understood as self-centeredness.
The Primal Act as Sloth. A third understanding is almost the opposite of the pride discussed above. The word "sloth" does not mean "laziness" in this context. Rather, it means "leaving it to the snake"--letting something else author one's existence. It means uncritically accepting somebody else's ideas about how to live one's life. In this view, sin--the human problem--is heteronomy: living the agenda of others.
The Primal Act as the Birth of Consciousness. A fourth understanding also focuses on what the primal act was, but it emphasizes the second half of the serpent's temptation: "You will be like God, knowing good and evil." "Knowing good and evil" is understood broadly to mean having knowledge of opposites, a capability that is intrinsic to the birth of consciousness. Consciousness involves distinguishing one thing from another; above all, it involves the self/world distinction, the awareness that the world is "other" than one's self.
The birth of consciousness is something we all experience; all of us become aware of the self/world distinction very early in life. Thus, we cannot avoid the primal act. Indeed, this understanding emphasizes not the disobedience and sinfulness of "the fall," but its inevitability. All of us begin life in the womb with an experiential sense of undifferentiated unity; we begin in paradise. But the very process of growing up and the birth of consciousness that is intrinsic to it propels us into a world of division, anxiety, and suffering. Living "east of Eden" is intrinsic to the experience of being human. We all go through "the fall" and live in a state of exile and estrangement; it cannot be avoided.
Moreover, whatever the storyteller's sense of what went wrong in paradise, the story's picture of the consequences is persuasive and compelling. Most of us most of the time live "east of Eden." What this means is vividly portrayed in the painting The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by the 15th-century Italian artist Masaccio. As the first couple is driven out of Eden, Adam's head is down, both hands covering his eyes; Eve's face is upturned, but her mouth is open in a howl of pain, her features full of grief and sorrow. At least some of the time, life outside of Eden is like that.
Given the richness of meaning that a historical-metaphorical reading of Genesis reveals, the creation stories strike me as profoundly true. Critical thinking leads to an understanding of why the details of Genesis are as they are and also makes clear that their truth is not to be understood in literal, factual terms. Rather, their truth is expressed in the nonconceptual language of myth and metaphor, and no particular reading can exhaust their meanings.
But I can hear the truth of their central claims. "This"--the universe and we--is not self-caused, but grounded in the sacred. "This" is utterly remarkable and wondrous, a Mystery beyond words that evokes wonder, awe, and praise. We begin our lives "in paradise," but we all experience expulsion into a world of exile, anxiety, self-preoccupation, bondage, and conflict. And yes, also a world of goodness and beauty: it is the creation of God. But it is a world in which something is awry.
The rest of the Bible is to a large extent the story (and stories) of this state of affairs: the human predicament and its solution. Our lives east of Eden are marked by exile, and we need to return and reconnect; by bondage, and we need liberation; by blindness and deafness, and we need to see and hear again; by fragmentation, and we need wholeness; by violence and conflict, and we need to learn justice and peace; by self- and other-centeredness, and we need to center in God. Such are the central claims of Israel's stories of human beginnings.