‘Original’ Sin

It has only taken us two weeks, and two portions of Torah to reach the situation we read about in this portion, a situation of such utter devastation and corruption. Adam and Chava had had it so good in the garden, everything was provided for them by God, there were trees of good fruit to eat, and ostensibly just one they shouldn’t touch, one single commandment to keep. They had warmth, food, every need was met and above all they had and experienced the constant presence of their Creator God in their midst, a closeness that we can only dream of. And yet despite all this, despite everything God had done and created for them as the pinnacle of His creation, in a moment of apparent madness Chava eats of the forbidden fruit and they are both expelled from the garden and from the presence of God. If that wasn’t enough, by the end of this week’s portion we learn that God destroyed all mankind and living things (fish excepted and the animals kept safe on the ark) except one man and his immediate family. It was a devastating judgement of the whole enterprise to that date.

Some may be pre-occupied with the technicalities, attempting to count the days or years in between the Fall and the flood, but actually, none of this is the point. Rather it was the utter inevitability of the judgement that counts, what was started had to end that way. Sin brought its just reward. The Torah teaches us that the soul that sins shall surely die, and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All therefore deserve the judgement that Torah outlines as He is a just God. What sin began in the beginning has infected us all.

What is sin? Can we define it? According to 1 Jn 3:4 it is Torahlessness. A breaking of the commandments of God, a rebellion against His order and directions. In Jewish traditional sources we told often enough that to break one command is to have broken them all, a thought echoed in the Messianic Writings. This too we can see in the garden. Yet it would be too simplistic to leave it there.

There is always something more to see, and the something more is this: if the judgement of God was inevitable, then was sin too? Was the decision to sin an inevitable outcome of being in a world where choices could be made and commandments given to be obeyed? Adam and Chava were created morally neutral in the garden, not sinning nor leading righteous lives. Both denote choices and conscious volition. And here’s the nub, given this neutrality, was their fall inevitable? Was a conscious decision needed to NOT eat the fruit also required to enable a righteous position to be taken?

Down the ages many positions have been taken theologically on this original choice. On the one hand we hear so much about ‘original’ sin and human depravity (voices coming out of the Protestant Lutheran camp over the centuries) and on the other hand the ‘traditional’ Jewish view espousing the innate goodness of humanity (although this too can be partly seen as a reaction to the above theology). Much could be said about this taking us into the realm of Moral Philosophy, which certainly goes beyond the scope of a short commentary. But some key questions must be answered and considered. The Torah seems to highlight that sin is passed on to each new generation; the effects of it are certainly felt and subsequent generations are disciplined and judged by God because of it. How is it that sin is transferred to each new generation? Is it inevitable? We again hear both extremes, a quasi biological DNA position of sin (a position never proven) where just being born introduces you to the worldwide family of sinners, or standing on the opposing side a tableau rasa view where all mankind is born morally neutral and it is societies’ ills (poverty etc) that cause sin and evil in mankind. From the basic (if overly simplified) structure outlined above, the battles have been fought over the millennia.

I believe that we can see the fall as inevitable. On a superficial level we could point to the Scriptures that tell us that the Lamb (Mashiach’s sacrificial death) was slain before time and God foreknew it. But it is more than that, it was inevitable because it sin is inevitable for us too. Whoever says he is without sin is a liar says Yochanan. The working assumption is that all have sinned, so the inevitability of sin is clear. The annual sacrifices at Yom Kippur remind us of that painful inevitability, every year we are commanded to bring the sacrifices again because during the year we will have sinned, inevitably. We may want to do what is right, but we see another rule living in our flesh, as Shaul would say. And already we begin to see a key emerge from the mist when we see Shaul use that word: flesh.

Chava looked at the tree and its fruit and saw that it was pleasant to her. What she saw overrode the commandment. Not for nothing do we then read that the consequence of the action was that their ‘eyes were opened’. Were they blind before? No, but they now saw creation in a new way, they saw the physical and tangible aspects of creation and the garden as a reality that would dominate them forever. Think how appropriate the judgement was on this action, to have to plough and sow seed, to work the land to live, to have to fight for survival and existence by the sheer dint of human force and ingenuity, to protect against animals that had been so friendly only a few hours before that now sought to kill you and eat you as prey.

What had been the reality before? Their eyes were on the Lord and His complete provision and sustenance. He was their Provider and giver of life. The garden merely provided the backdrop for this scenario, but it was not their focus and centre. To dwell with God, to be in His presence was to be alive. God sharing Himself with mankind, His love experienced every day, this was the focus.

But as they discovered, living to survive becomes a hard taskmaster. We are slaves to our own continued existence. As an aside, the pattern in Shabbat is instructional here; it is a return to the garden. We have to trust in His provision: we don’t work or cook; the two themes that are key to our personal survival.

Adam and Chava chose to replace God as Source and Provider with the created order instead, and it began with a ‘flesh’ decision: the fruit looked good to them. Suddenly they ‘saw’ that they were naked. An odd thing you might say? No, they suddenly became attuned to the physical earthly reality and took their eyes of the Lord. They suddenly realised they had ‘needs’ (clothing) and wants, desires etc. Their lives took the form of meeting those new needs and desires, and of course with one’s own needs paramount we suddenly discovered that we were selfish and ego driven. Worse was to come, personal survival becomes the most important aspect, so conflict and strife starts. The rest is history.

The difficulty we have as humans, as created beings, is that we are ‘flesh’ orientated, time bound and most importantly of all, profoundly unspiritual, physical people. We are unspiritual in the sense of not knowing God and seeing the reality of His existence in our daily lives.

In the garden, the created order, Adam and Chava were at home in the physical nature of the place as physical people too, yet were spiritually alive and walked with God every day. Yet the sheer physicality of that experience built in an inevitability that would drag the pair to a single life changing and shattering false conclusion: the physical world was the source of provision and life, it was more real than God. The fruit ‘looked pleasing’. Was that important? Surely the spiritual connection was more important, valid and affirming? No, to them it wasn’t. What could be seen and delighted in seemed more important, regardless of the command not to act in that way.

The basic human impetus to see the physical fleshly world as the ultimate reality lies at the root of so many human spiritual problems. It’s the mantra of modernity, ‘what I can touch, smell or prove in a lab experiment can only be true.’

We see this divide between physical reality and the spiritual reality reflected occasionally in the Torah commands too. There are some that just simply defy rationality, there appears to be no human logic to them. The rabbis have stumbled over these for centuries, some trying to explain them away, others merely resigning themselves to never understanding. Yet the Torah is NOT rationally discerned but spiritually understood. It actually makes no sense to someone who simply doesn’t understand that reality is not just what we see. All the Torah commands (mitzvot) are there to determine WHO is your Master and Lord and cause you daily to make choices reflecting that key concept. Which domain do you live in? Do you see the world as a place where you are free to decide what you do, what seems pleasing to you alone, based on the physicality and fleshly nature of your experience? Or does God decide?

The Torah sees another way. It is the lack of faith in the unseen that causes us problems. See how the writer in the open letter to Jews everywhere puts it ‘Faith is the essence of the unseen’ (Heb 11). It is saying I put a higher value of reality on what God says than on what my fleshly and physical experience tells me is true. As difficult as we find this, and we do, we nevertheless have to take a step of faith. Faith puts the ‘flesh’ to death.

See how the writers of some of the letters to the Jewish communities put it 2000 years ago: 1 Jn 2:15-17 where we are encouraged to have an eternal, spiritual perspective. We were destined to be eternal beings from the start. In 2 Cor 4:18 we read again of the eternal framework, free from time, that which binds us to fleshly physical reality, and finally in Yeshua Mashiach’s own comments in Jn 20:29 to Thomas who needed to touch and see the wounds of Yeshua’s body to actually believe and have faith.

As hard as it is for us, we have to move beyond the physicality and fleshly realms of existence to one of faith and trusting God. All of which brings us to Noach and the portion in front of us. In Heb 11:7 we read that he was righteous man in his generation because he was able to go beyond the physical and move in faith, so it (his faith) was accounted to him as righteousness. He was back in the garden zone, not walking by sight or what seemed pleasant to him.

Have you ever wondered why the flood (and not some other kind of judgement) happened? Because the flood waters covered everything, even the highest mountain top, as the Torah is very careful to say. Was it because the animals had sinned? Or the earth itself? No. Noach learnt the lesson he had been living all his life par excellence as he sat in the ark: the physical world is not your provider or source. There was no earth to look at for sowing and reaping, no fresh drinking water cascading down a rock face to drink, just water meeting on the horizon with the sky. He had to utterly trust God for food and water. In fact God brought him the animals by number; He after all knew how long the flood would last, not Noach. Noach learnt to trust God and have faith, not walking by sight.

The question for us all is this, what must God remove from your life in terms of the physical fleshly reality to teach YOU that faith and trust is the key and not sight?

The inevitability of sin has its root for each new generation in our physical world and how we see ourselves in it. As the commandment comes in we reject it, preferring what we see, and so rebel against God. Sin goes on. It may not be ‘original’, but it certainly is inevitable.

Parashat Noach