In a previous post, I discussed an article by Oberon (Otter) Zell in which she argues that the Genesis account proves that there was a multiplicity of gods at creation. However, the central point of her essay was that pagans are not descendants of Adam and Eve and have no need for redemption because they do not suffer from original sin. Hence, she informs her Christian interlocutors that she is from “the other people.”
This is quite an extraordinary claim, and it is hard to tell whether the author seriously believes this claim or whether it is just an argument designed to rebuff the missionaries. Whatever her real motivations are, her mishandling of Scripture must be addressed. After the discussion of creation, her article zips through five chapters of Scripture in an attempt to prove that Yahweh is the God of Semites and thus, any sins and consequences of sins believed by Semites are not the concern of pagans. She ends her article with the following words:
Neither heaven nor hell is our destination in the afterlife; we have our own various arrangements with our own various deities. The Bible is not our story; we have our own stories to tell, and they are many and diverse.
Throughout Zell consistently ignores the philosophical consequences of her claims while simultaneously engaging in simplistic literalism, which hinders her ability to properly grasp the theological points being made by the Scriptures. For example, she says, “Cain left the presence of Yahweh and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. We can assume that the phrase ‘left the presence of Yahweh’ implies that Yahweh is a local deity, and not omnipresent.” Actually, no we cannot! Throughout the Bible, the phrase is used to mean not right now talking to God or trying to avoid God. But the same people who wrote this passage also wrote, “Where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). The 139th psalm beautifully describes how Yahweh knows our inner most thoughts and that even darkness is not dark for him. Yahweh is everywhere. Indeed, if Yahweh is the Elohim of Genesis 1, as I showed in my first post, He would have to be omnipresent to create the heaven and the Earth.
Zell’s literalism becomes a serious problem as she discusses the creation of Eve. We must always keep in mind that although Scripture is rooted in history, its primary aim, particularly in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, is not to offer a historical account but rather to make theological points through stories. She objects to the account of the creation of Eve, saying, “Yahweh God built the rib he had taken from the man into a woman, and brought her to the man. Right. Man gives birth to woman. Sure he does.”
Zell seems to understand this account as a birth narrative. This would be an unusually painless birth giving indeed. That is not what is being recounted at all. The fact that Eve is said to be made from the rib of Adam does not imply man gives birth to women. Rather, it is telling us that women are made of the same substance as men. The woman is a fitting counterpart to the man because she, unlike animals, shares the same nature. And thus, the man proclaims, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).
Also, in our English account of Genesis there are two different Hebrew words translated as “the man.” One is hahadam, which is would more accurately be translated “the human or humankind,” and ish, which specifically means a male human being. The word ish is used for the first time Genesis 2:23 after the formation of the woman, who is isha. Until then, the human creature is not defined as male. The same word hahadam is used to describe the creation of humanity in Genesis 1:27, who are said to be male and female (here generic words masculine and feminine are used). In other words, God creates one human race which is male and female and the woman is the counterpart to the man. Therefore, the appropriate sexual partner for a man is a woman. The narrator follows by saying “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is the thesis of Genesis 2 and sadly, many, including Christians, miss the point because they spend a lot of time focusing on ribs.
Moreover, it is evident from the snarky “Right. Man gives birth to woman,” that Zell does not believe that this is a true story. Thus, I am compelled to ask, why waste our time with an argument about how you are not part of Yahweh’s little experiment when you don’t believe it actually happened? Would it not be more intellectually serious to just say, “That’s ridiculous.” After all, does Zell really think that there are multiple strands of humanity, created by different deities, unrelated genetically to each other? Or since according to Zell, the guilt ridden, modesty-obsessed Cain married among the pagans, does this mean there are half-fallen humans running around? Also, since most pagans wear clothes does that not mean that they too feel shame when they are naked? Furthermore, what happens when a pagan converts to or from Christianity or Judaism? Does this person move from having original sin to not having it or vica versa? Did Zell consider all the ludicrous implications of this argument?
Of course, the real problem is that Zell does not understand the fall or original sin. It is actually the least objectionable of Christian doctrines. Even if one does not buy the Genesis account, it’s pretty hard to deny that human beings are sinful. Zell seems to think that a distinguishing feature of the fall is modesty and she says, “It follows that those who feel no shame in being naked are, by definition, not carriers of this spiritual disease of original sin!”
Even if that were true, that would only account for a tiny subset of humanity. Moreover, the author does not discuss the most important part of the fall which are the curses described in Genesis 3:14-19. As a result of the fall, there is spiritual conflict (the serpent is a symbol for Satan), suffering and difficulty, male domination over women, and of course death. By arguing that pagans are “the other people,” and “unfallen,” she is actually saying that pagans live painless, sinless, harmonious lives and that they are immortal. Of course, that is obviously not true, and if Zell understood what was being described in the Fall, she would never make such a claim.
After all, when the “gods,” as she claims, created the heavens and the Earth in Genesis 1 did “they” not say over and over again, “It is good?” Yet, we all know that there is much to life on Earth that is indeed not good. Genesis 3, the fall, tells how God’s good creation has become “not always so good.” The Judeo-Christian answer to the problem of evil, pain and death is that humanity rebelled and continues to rebel against God. If Zell thinks that only part of humanity has original sin, how does she account for the fact that pagans suffer equally from the consequences of the fall? Why were the other gods not around to protect their pagan creatures from the consequences of Yahweh failed project? Zell repeatedly points out that Adam does not die immediately after the fall but there is no denying the fact that he, like all of us, died eventually. Of course, there could be alternative explanations for why there is evil, pain and death but one of them cannot be, “We are the other (unfallen) people.”
Lastly, the Christian doctrine of original sin explains an undeniable datum of human existence, which is our inability to do the good that we wish to do; that instead, we opt for the evil that we actually we wish we did not do (Roman 7:14-25). Everyone who has struggled with something as small as trying to diet or something more serious like being faithful to one’s spouse and all the shortcomings that all of us experience daily know that this true. It is extremely difficult by our own power to tame our wills; to do what we know is good for ourselves and for others even when we want to. We are sinful. We are fallen. This is in essence the doctrine of original sin and there is only one rational explanation that anyone would deny it—she has never met another human being, including herself.