Take & read: New books in Old Testament

Climate catastrophe, economic inequality, and the way we treat our dead

Biblical scholarship has traditionally been far more concerned with the text and its historical context than with how the Bible has been interpreted. In recent years, however, that tendency has been challenged by scholars who are thinking seriously about the history of interpretation. In The Genesis of Good and Evil: The Fall(out) and Original Sin in the Bible (Westminster John Knox), Mark S. Smith pursues questions about the text in its ancient context in a quest to find out what Genesis 3 “really says,” but he also takes seriously the readings of theologically invested interpreters who worked before the advent of critical biblical scholarship.

Smith begins with the claim common in Western churches that Genesis 3 is primarily about the Fall of humanity and original sin. He wonders how this story, which features no language of sin, evil, fallenness, or punishment, came to be the proof text for this doctrine. He concludes that Genesis 3 does not support the idea of humans as inherently sinful, although the fallout of the Adam and Eve story (which extends into Gen. 4 and 6) does introduce the possibility of human sin and evil.

That said, sin and evil are not inevitable. The tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9) captures, metaphorically, two possibilities for humans: to be good or to be evil. Smith concludes that Western churches have failed to appreciate that the stories in Genesis 1–11 do not present humanity as utterly and universally fallen. Indeed, Abel (Gen. 4:4), Enoch (Gen. 5:22, 24), and Noah (Gen. 6:8) suggest that humans may “act with good, prior to and without any communication with God.”