Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

Where a recovering ex-atheist skewers things with a sharp two-edged sword

Prelapsarian predation, part 4: the curse

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12 minutes to read Were animals bitey before the Fall? Or did they only start munching on each other afterwards? In the fourth part of this series I assess what we can infer about death and predation from the curse.

Continued from part 3, on the wildness of the world in Genesis 1-2

A staple of creationist theology is that death—all death—is a result of the curse on Adam. This is generally taken as self-evidently true, and if you question the logic, the pushback goes something like this:

In the context of sin, animal death makes perfect sense. The wages of our sin brought death, first to Adam, and then by extension to the whole creation, because he was its ruler and representative.

You can see how this seems reasonable in light of federal headship, which is of course foundational to both our inherited guilt, and our imputed righteousness. Without federal headship, there is no gospel. But in this case, something is quite amiss:

The Bible doesn’t teach that creation “inherited” death from us via something like federal headship—or by any other mechanism.

If it did, that would be fine. But it doesn’t. There are a couple of broad ways we can show this:–

1. Animal death is not part of the curse

This is really where we need to start: in Genesis, at the curse itself. If the curse brought death to animals, we should expect to find this spelled out in the curse, right? Yet what does it say?

Yahweh God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock, and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall strike your head, and you shall strike his heel.”

To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thors and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Then Yahweh God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand rand take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” Therefore Yahweh God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.Genesis 3:14-19, 22-24

I quote the whole thing just so we can be sure we don’t miss anything; and I’ve included verses 22-24 because they show us how the curse is actually effected by God.

First, let’s look at how the curse itself breaks down—notice the various things which are cursed:

i. The serpent’s rank

He is busted down to ensign: he no longer occupies the highest heavenly places, but the lowest pit; and he is no longer the most exalted, but the least exalted (cf Isaiah 14:12-20; 49:23; Ezekiel 28:12-19; Psalm 72:9; Micah 7:16-17 etc).

Now, on this point, some creationists interpret the curse on the serpent as being indicative of a curse on all animals, as the curse on Adam is indicative of a curse on all people. But there are a couple of insurmountable problems with this:

  1. It is exceedingly unlikely that the serpent was an animal at all. Genesis is not an etiological fable; the Hebrew term נָחָשׁ (nachash) is almost certainly a triple entendre: as a noun, referring to a serpentine being (cf שָׂרָףsaraph—Isaiah 6:2; 14:29; 30:6 etc); as a verb, referring to deceit and divination; as an adjective, referring to shininess (cf נְחֹ֫שֶׁתnechoshet—Daniel 10:6). If he were an animal, he should be condemned to eat meat rather than dust—but clearly this is metaphorical rather than literal, as in, for example, Micah 7:16-17.
  2. The point of the curse is to put Satan beneath even the animals, because he tried to usurp man’s position over them. God is not cursing the animals; he is cursing Satan. The point of the “above all livestock” language is to juxtapose his being more cursed (אָרַרarur) with his being more shrewd (עָר֔וּםarum). It is an ironic reversal emphasized by the play on words. So if the creationist wants to interpret Genesis 3:14 as implying that all the animals were cursed, with the serpent being the most cursed, then he should also interpret Genesis 3:1 as implying that all the animals were shrewd, with the serpent being the most shrewd. But this would commit him to saying that all the animals could talk and reason before the fall! Probably some creationists are willing to go there, but most are not.

ii. The relationship between the serpent’s offspring and the woman’s

The two parties are made permanent enemies. The serpent will wound him, but receive a fatal blow in return. This establishes the two “spiritual bloodlines” that are traced through the flood, through the conquest of the promised land, to the cross and into the spread of the gospel (cf Genesis 6:1-4; Numbers 13:25-33; Deuteronomy 3:1-22; Psalm 22:12; John 8:44; 12:31; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 2:14 etc).

iii. Having children

This comes with greatly increased pain—probably emotional as well as physical—prefiguring some notable events in various ways (eg Genesis 11:30; 25:21; 29:31; 35:16-18; Exodus 12:29:30; Luke 1:7).

iv. The harmony of marriage

The curse as a whole creates poetic justice in aspects of the creation order—Satan is made low for trying to usurp Adam’s rule, and now here, because Eve and Adam inverted the intended authority structure of marriage, Eve’s error is cemented as a desire to usurp (cf the same phrase in Genesis 4:7), while Adam’s intended authority is hardened into something more tyrannical. You can look up your own Bible references for parallels, but let me just say coughegalitarianismcough.

v. The ground

Because Adam despised the bounty of the garden by treating its great abundance of food as insufficient without the fruit of one more tree, God afflicts him with toil in eating from then on. This is especially relevant to the repeated descriptions of the promised land as a place of great abundance, a land flowing with milk and honey; it is a new Eden—an image of the eternal rest where the curse is reversed (cf Revelation 22:1-5).

vi. Immortality

As promised in Genesis 2:17, Adam will die. You could say this is the ultimate expression of the curse; all its other elements terminate here. But you notice it is specifically Adam who will return to the ground; animals are not mentioned. It’s easy to see that since Adam will die, all his offspring will die (cf 1 Corinthians 15:22)—but there is absolutely no hint in the text that all animals will die. None whatsoever. The only obvious reason to make that connection is because you assume animal death has to be explained as a corruption of the original creation; and the curse is the only place that could plausibly happen.

This brings me to the second part of the curse, which is how it is actually put into effect by God. You notice in Genesis 3:22-24, God specifically indicates that Adam would live forever if he ate from the tree of life. This is why he drives him out of the garden. In the process, he also ensures that Adam will have to toil for his food—because, as I discussed last time, the land outside the garden is not a cultivated sanctuary. Thus, Adam’s eventual death is assured, as are the other physical conditions of the curse.

What’s especially notable here is that in order to live forever, Adam has to eat from the tree of life. This is surely another way of saying that, if Adam did not eat from the tree of life, he would not live forever. But now watch carefully (I have nothing up my sleeve), because right here the creationist argument runs into another wall:

If Adam had to eat from the tree of life in order to live forever, what did the animals have to do?

Creationists typically hold that Adam was naturally immortal, and that this was stripped from him in the curse; his body underwent some kind of biological change that caused him to eventually die. And they hold the same of the animals.

But Genesis says nothing like this whatsoever. In fact, it seems quite obviously to repudiate this by indicating precisely the opposite. There would be no need for the tree of life if Adam were naturally immortal. Genesis shows us that Adam’s continued life was conditional on his eating from the tree of life—which in turn was conditional on his continued relationship with God.

The text thus implies that Adam was created in a kind of provisional state, where he could either choose death and separation from God by eating from the tree in the midst of the garden, or glorified immortality and union with God by eating from the tree of life. It was up to Adam to choose. So his situation was different to the situation of the saints in glory, who have already received union with God and therefore live forever.

But if Adam’s immortality was conditional on eating from the tree of life, this generates a dilemma for creationists:

  1. On the one hand, if they stick to their guns and maintain Adam’s intrinsic immortality, they’re on the wrong side of Scripture. The evidence of Genesis is clearly against this.
  2. On the other hand, if they attenuate their view to concede that Adam was not naturally immortal, this puts another internal strain on their position. If Adam was not naturally immortal, then why would the animals be? Did God create the animals better than him in this regard? Were they naturally immortal while the pinnacle of creation, the animal who imaged the immortal God himself, was not? (The creationist could concede that natural immortality was not part of the creation, and then say that all the animals were simply expected to eat from the tree of life. But you can see how this is like a square peg in the round hole of the creationist’s intuitions, as well as being yet another implausible, ad hoc solution to a problem that exists only in his mind.)

The tensions that arise in the creationist view at this point are a result of simply misunderstanding the nature of immortality in the Bible. Life itself is firstly something that inheres in God, (eg John 5:26), and secondly is therefore exemplified not in mere physical existence, but in union with God (eg John 6:53). In the Bible, the order of being goes from God to creation; from spiritual to physical. The spiritual governs the physical. This is why John can talk about permanent separation from God as a second death, even though the people so separated are physically alive forever. This is the whole point of John 1:4, where the first part talks about how life is in Jesus, and the second part talks about how that life is the light of men. Life is firstly spiritual, and then derivatively physical; we live physically forever because we are spiritually alive forever, being united to the source of life.

You might think this should entail annihilationism rather than the traditional doctrine of eternal hell, but that would only follow if humans were either purely perishable, physical creatures; or if human spirits could pass out of existence. But humans are not purely physical creatures, and the nature of spirit is imperishable. Thus, while eternal glorified physical life is a result of eternal spiritual union with God, eternal damned physical life is a result of eternal spiritual separation from God. The evidence for the traditional doctrine of hell is simply too strong, and the arguments for annihilationism are too nonsensical, to take any other view.

So although creationists assure me that it makes perfect sense for human sin to lead to death in all the creation, I am compelled to ask for a more specific explanation. A mere appeal to intuition is no replacement for a theological mechanism. How does our sin naturally lead to animal death? Given that the Bible explicitly links human death to separation from God, the source of life—such that “death” itself is actually a description of our spiritual state, ultimately ending in physical death—how does mankind’s becoming separated from God lead to animals dying? Are the animals under judgment? Are they separated from God?

The only theological explanation to hand is that Adam federally represented all animals, as well as all humans. So let’s briefly look at that.

2. Federal headship doesn’t imply universal animal death

You can see how there is a kind of logic to animals dying because their federal representative, Adam, dies. But when you cash it out, it starts to make a lot less sense. Federal headship revolves around community, and around covenant. Since animals are not members of any covenant community—they cannot enter into covenant, nor form communities in anything more than an instinctual way—it cannot be that they are straightforwardly represented by Adam. No matter how close our affinity may sometimes be, it just isn’t reasonable to imagine that animals are legitimate members of our covenant community; and this is obvious when you think about who Jesus represented on the cross. Since he died for his covenant community, if animals can be part of that community, we would have to say he died for our pets. That seems not only very silly, but also rather close to blasphemy.

But perhaps there is a way to salvage animal death through adamic headship. In Genesis 6:7, God determines to destroy mankind, “from mankind, to animals, to creeping things, and to the birds of heaven.” He appears to draw the animals under the rubric of mankind itself, as if they are part of the same group. Furthermore, in Genesis 9 we read an extraordinary ratification of this concept:

“As for me, behold, I am establishing my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and every animal of the earth with you, from all that came out of the ark to all the animals of the earth. I am establishing my covenant with you, that never again will all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, nor will there ever be a flood that destroys the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I am making between me and you, and between every living creature that is with you for future generations. My bow I have set in the clouds, and it shall be for a sign of the covenant between me and between the earth. And when I make clouds appear over the earth the bow shall be seen in the clouds. Then I will remember my covenant that is between me and you, and between every living creature, with all flesh. And the waters of a flood will never again cause the destruction of all flesh. The bow shall be in the clouds, and I will see it, so as to remember the everlasting covenant between God and between every living creature, with all flesh that is upon the earth.Genesis 9:9-16

Clearly there is some legitimate sense in which man represents “all flesh,” such that God can punish him in a way that entails destruction for all the animals of the earth; and make a covenant with him in such a way that it encompasses them also. Thus, it seems to me that the creationist has a legitimate point here: the animal creation certainly can suffer and die because of Adam’s sin.

However—and this is a big “however”—this does nothing to show that the animal kingdom was subjected to universal death when Adam was cursed.

What it shows is that animals are not necessarily excluded from destruction when God chooses to punish man; and that animals can be brought under covenants made with man. But what you can’t infer from this specific instance (or any other) is the general creationist principle that animals were subject to death at the curse. You can certainly say that such a principle would be theologically reasonable: the animal kingdom could have been subject to universal death because of Adam’s sin. But there’s just no way to validly make the leap from there to showing that this actually happened! The Bible doesn’t give us any evidence of it—and in fact, as I’ve argued above, it seems to presuppose quite the opposite: animal death preceded the curse. (In the next installment I’ll canvass the other passages creationists appeal to to bolster their case here.)

The first “sacrifice”

One final point on this theme: creationists often appeal to Genesis 3:21, where God makes garments of skin for Adam and Eve, to show that animal death follows immediately from the fall. But this is a very puzzling appeal because the text gives absolutely no indication that this is supposed to be theologically significant. It does not describe the event in sacrificial terms, and it makes no fuss whatsoever about the fact that God killed an animal. If this were intended to be an illustration of the consequences of the fall—whether in terms of sacrifice or merely in terms of death—we should expect the text to at least hint at it. But no such hint exists; the only way to get there is to presuppose a creationist view, where any instance of death is assumed to be theologically significant. Given the evidence we’ve seen so far, that seems to be a question-begging reading that rubs precisely against the grain of Genesis.

Moreover, given the lack of emphasis placed on this event, it strikes me that a neutral reading of Genesis 3:21 comes out in favor of the predationist view. What it is showing, simply in passing and without any intended theological significance, is that God models for Adam and Eve how to use the animal creation as he intended. Animals are there to serve mankind in Eden, just as they continue to serve him in Israel, and into the present day—often through death.

To be continued in part 5, on the evidence from other scriptures

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