Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Pentateuch, Day 7: The Fall of Man

The Fall of Man, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The Fall of Man

     There is so much to consider in Genesis 3 that I have had to break it down into three posts:  

           1.  The Ancient Serpent
           2.  The Nature of the Temptation
           3.  The Consequences of the Fall

Even these barely scratch the surface, but hopefully you will glean some insight and food for thought from these topics as we discuss them.

I.  The Ancient Serpent 

A few years ago, when I was out weeding in my garden, I noticed a strange shape up in one of the crabapple trees.  I went closer to investigate and I found that a large black snake had crawl up into the tree.  I was startled to find this snake draped along the branch;  why was it there?  Three large lumps that ranged down its body and an empty robin's nest at the end of the branch told the tale.  The snake had climbed the tree in order the eat and destroy the robin's eggs.  

In Genesis 3, we also see a snake in a tree.  This snake is attractive and does not seem to be very intimidating;  it is persuasive and does not seem to be evil.  The next time this same word for serpent is used in Scripture is in the Revelation to St. John. When we see this serpent again in the last pages of the New Testament, it's true nature is fully revealed.  It has grown to enormous proportions and is a being of unimaginable wickedness, cruelty, rebellion, and evil.  Not only is the serpent's identity as the Evil One clear, but its purpose and plan are plainly seen.  It is intent upon only one end--destroying Christ:

And another portent appeared in heaven;  behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads.  His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth.  And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron...Rev 12:3-5

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman, William Blake
Genesis uses the image of the serpent to portray the deadly evil lurking in the trees of the Garden of Eden.  This serpent is intent on one thing--the destruction of the children of Eve.  More specifically, the destruction of the Son who will be descended from Eve and will ultimately defeat him.  He climbs into the tree, just as the snake in my garden did, to devour Eve's offspring.  If he can tempt her to sin, then he can introduce sin and selfishness into the world and, he hopes, eventually destroy the possibility of the Messiah's birth.

It is interesting that the serpent is portrayed as "subtle", in fact, "more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made." In the ancient world, the serpent was usually a symbol of wisdom and healing.  The great statue of Athena in the Parthenon in Athens was accompanied by a large serpent (just to the left of her shield).  The healing god Asklepius also was depicted with  (or even sometimes as) a serpent  Even today we see this positive representation of serpents  in the caduceus, which is a commonly used symbol of medicine.

In the surrounding Sumerian culture, snakes were also worshipped.  The god Ningizzida, who was a Sumerian god of the underworld, was represented as two snakes entwined around a rod.  His name means literally, "lord of the good tree".  Perhaps it is an echo of the true memory of man's original encountered with the serpent that in these and in many mythologies the snake is associated with a tree of some kind.

In the Hebrew writings, however, the snake is not a positive element. It is not wise, it is subtle.   It is deceitful, a bringer of temptation and death.  It is a usurper of God's rightful place, persuading Eve to turn from her proper relationship with God.  It speaks with a wisdom which is not from God and which ultimately, fueling our pride and rebellion, leads to rupture in our relationship with God and to death.  Throughout the Bible this worldly wisdom, which counsels us to seek fame, glory, and power of various kinds for ourselves, is contrasted with the "foolishness" of God, which calls us to lay down our very lives for the sake of others:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God..  For it is written,  
     "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
     and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart."

Where is the wise man?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe...we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men... Let no one deceive himself.  If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.  For the wisdom of this world is folly with God.  For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."  --I Cor 1:18-25; I Cor 3:18

So, the pagans who surrounded Israel deified snakes, seeing in them the source of that wisdom which would bring them power and domination over their fellow man and would make them craftier even than the gods.  In the Hebrew Torah, however, the true nature of this deceiver is portrayed, along with the real consequences of rebellion against the God of Life.

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.  But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed?  The end of those things is death...For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of god is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.--Rom 6:20-21, 23 

To deify means to exalt something or someone to the position of a god, to imbue them with god-like qualities and powers.  It comes from the Latin words deus, meaning "god, and facere, which means "to make."

The Church teaches us that behind this "wisdom" and these serpent images lies a reality--a spiritual being who is himself in rebellion against God:

The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God:  "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing." (Lateran Council IV)--CCC 391

These defiant angels rose up against God, attempting to be like God and assume His power and reign.  St. Michael, whose very name means "Who is like God?", defeated Satan and his minions and cast them out of heaven.  These rebellious angels, which we call demons, continue to "act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus"--CCC 395But their power is limited and they can only operate in the world by permission of the Divine Providence, which "with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history.  It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but 'we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him."--CCC 395
Altarpiece of St. Michael defeating Lucifer,  Gerard David

Saint Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host -
by the Divine Power of God -
cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

'"May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle we are told about in the Letter to the Ephesians: 'Draw strength from the Lord and from His mighty power' (Ephesians 6:10). The Book of Revelation refers to this same battle, recalling before our eyes the image of St. Michael the Archangel (Revelation 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid recollection of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to St. Michael throughout the Church. Although this prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask everyone not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world."'--Blessed John Paul II

Next lesson:  The Nature of  the Temptation

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