Satan tempts Adam and Eve in the garden. A red apple is plucked from a tree. Original sin enters the world.
These are just a few of the images associated with the story of Gen 2-3—and many people are surprised to find out that neither Satan nor apples nor even the word “sin” are found in these chapters. Rather, these images are part of the story’s reception history, the way people have read and understood it over the centuries.
The first chapters of Genesis contain two distinct accounts of creation. The second account, found in Gen 2:4-3:24, focuses on the creation of humanity, the first act of disobedience, and its repercussions. The characters and events of these chapters have inspired imaginative and influential interpretations.
Genesis’ two creation accounts are written in significantly different styles. While the first account is poetic and structured as a list, the second offers a much more flowing narrative. This second account has proved ripe for interpretation. Think of the serpent that speaks to Adam and Eve; the text does not actually reveal the serpent’s nature or identity. In fact, many scholars point to the prominent, often positive position of serpents in other ancient Near Eastern cultures as a possible influence in this story.
However, during the Second Temple period the association of this serpent with evil would become common in Judaism (1 Enoch, Life of Adam and Eve). It was not a long stretch, then, for readers to equate the serpent with Satan. Indeed, one Christian tradition has long held that the Genesis story was the Protevangelium, the first prediction of Jesus’ victory over Satan (see, for example, the second-century writings of Irenaeus). Many other interpretive traditions have also fleshed out the narrative of the second creation account.
The interpretation of the second creation has also had far-reaching consequences in social and religious spheres. One such example can be seen in Gen 3, a scene often referred to in Christianity as The Fall. A concept that took root in the early church was that this act of disobedience led to original sin—the idea that humanity is born into a state of sinfulness.
However, this is not the only way to understand this story. Judaism, for example, extracts no such doctrine from this account. Some readers believe this story portrays the first in a series of events found in the primeval history (Gen 1-11) depicting humanity’s increasing separation from God and the created order. Other readers see it as an attempt to explain the introduction of mortality into the world, while still others read it not as a “fall” into sin but as a positive development in humanity’s maturation. Although the notion of original sin is prevalent, it is by no means the only way the story has been understood.
From the serpent as Satan to the fall and original sin, the reception of Gen 2-3 depicts a remarkable history of diverse and influential interpretation.