There are lots of interesting conversations going on about the historicity of the first few chapters of Genesis. All of this seems rather silly to me since there is no way to prove anything about the narratives in Genesis up to at least Abraham. They are prehistoric and most likely were passed down orally from one generation to another until they were written down at some undetermined time. Although the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures are attributed to Moses, there is nothing in Genesis to indicate that Moses was the author and even if he was, he probably transcribed what had been passed down orally.
With all that being said, the narratives of creation, of Adam and Eve, of Noah are fundamental, core stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. You literally cannot understand the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures without understanding these stories. Thus, when we look to the doctrine of sin and humanity, we must start with Genesis.
The Beginning Narrative
God created Adam (אדם, “earth” or “soil”) and then created Eve (חוּה, “life”) from his rib. The two of them were told to live fruitfully in the garden of Eden (עדן). His only command was not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because they would die.
When the serpent (נחש) tempted Eve, he told her that she would not die but that she and her husband would become gods themselves. So she ate, and she gave it to her husband and he ate. The Scriptures say that were immediately aware of their disconnection, their nakedness.
There are lots of fascinating layers to this narrative, but I want to turn your focus to the curse (ארר) on man:
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;
thorns 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.
After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden (גן עדן), they were kept from re-entering by the presence of cherubim with a flaming sword. They are placed to the east of Eden (in the Hebrew Scriptures, sin always drive man east).
There, Adam and Eve have two sons – Cain (קין), who’s name means “gotten” or “gift” and Abel (הבל) who’s name means “breath”. Cain becomes a farmer, working the soil while Abel becomes a shepherd. The two of them bring their offerings to God.
God accepts Abel’s offering of “the firstborn of his flock and their fat portions” (Gen 4:2) but rejects Cain’s offering of “the fruit (פרן) of the ground (אדמה, the same word as his father’s name).
What is the difference between the two?
Living in the Curse
Go back and read the curse on Adam. There is no mention of animals, no mention of flocks. In fact, the Scriptures even say that animals had no fear of man until after the time of Noah (Gen (9:2).
The ground was cursed. The earth, that from which Adam came, was cursed for his sake. But the animals were not a part of the curse, except the serpent.
Cain lived within the curse given to mankind. God said the earth would be cursed, and man would get a yield from the earth through sweat and labor. Cain found his identity within sin. His offering came from within the curse, bound by the failure of humanity to seek God.
Living as God Created Us
Abel looked around for something good that God had created that was not in the curse and he found sheep (צאן). This is the first mention of sheep in the Scriptures, and it is a telling description. We know from studying the habits of sheep and their feral ancestor – the Mouflon – that sheep are relatively easily domesticated. It is likely that it took little work to convince sheep that being near humans was beneficial, since they are relatively defenseless and easy prey to large predators.
In domesticating these sheep, Abel was consciously stepping beyond the curse. Rather, he does not define himself by the curse but instead by God’s original intent for the human race – as stewards of the creation.
Abel binds himself not to the curse but to the Creator. As a result, unlike Cain’s offering which was bound by the curse, Abel”s offering is bound by grace. It is the fruit not of man’s labor but of God’s miracles.
A Filter for Viewing Righteousness
In modern theologies, we tend to speak of “sinner” as our default setting. It is true that we are all sinners and in need of salvation, but it is not true that we must define ourselves by that curse. We can, like Abel, reach back further than sin and define ourselves by God’s original intent for us.
Jesus came to seek and to save that which was lost – to restore us. I don’t think it is an accident that he is called the Great Shepherd, just as Abel, Abraham, and David were shepherds. Jesus’ offer of restoration to God is not an offer to let us live within the curse. It is an offer to live beyond the curse.
Whether we see this in terms of earthy and heavenly (1 Corinthians 15) or old man and new man (Romans 6, Colossians 3) or flesh and spirit (Romans 8), it is the same.
That which is of the earth, the old, the flesh – these things are our lives when defined by sin and sinfulness, restrained and broken by guilt and regret and fear.
The heavenly, the new man, the spiritual man – this is a life defined by God’s restoration to health, by entering into synergy with Jesus’ work and the Spirit’s leading, by freedom and grace.