If you’ve grown up being taught from bibles, then you were probably told the story of “the fall” in which once upon a time there were Adam and Eve, they did a naughty thing, and God decided to punish them with “the curse”. Assumed in this kind of interpretation are concepts such as God not being able to stand sin, the retributive theory of punishment (that God punishes not because it is remedial but because it is just to do so, and thus that by his own nature he is required to inflict punishment in order to serve justice), and that the story is a literal historical account.
In this post I consider two alternative understandings of this story that have benefitted me.
One way is to continue to read the story literally but reinterpret what took place relationally between God and humanity.
First of all, it is not the case that God can’t stand sin (see this myth dispelled here). It was Adam and Eve who chose to hide from God, not God from them (3:8). As Paul explains, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior” (Colossians 1:20, emphasis mine). God never distanced himself from humanity. Rather, people made up their own ideas about what God is like, thereby distancing themselves from him (albeit only in their minds).
Second, the warning God gave to Adam and Eve to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not a threat but a warning of what they will experience. God said “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (2:18). Notice God didn’t say that he would curse or kill them but instead simply said they would die. In other words, God did not threaten to punish them but instead explained the natural consequence of sin.
Further, the curse was not punishment for sin but simply a natural consequence of their behavior. After they eat the fruit God says “because you have done this, you are cursed…” to the serpent (3:14) and “the ground is cursed because of you” to Adam (3:17). They caused what happened to themselves; God didn’t need to do anything. As Paul explains, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a). Notice that God is not in that part of the verse? He only shows up in the second half: “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23b). It is only natural that when a person sows in sin they reap death. God doesn’t need to inflict divine punishment for that to happen. It was simply a result of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Another way to approach the Genesis account is to interpret it non-literally. One such interpretation as explained by Robert Capon is to take it “…as the story of your, and my, and everybody’s encounter with that same world in our own lives.” Specifically, we all face the temptation to choose the knowledge of good and evil (which is representative of the Law) over life (which is representative of Jesus).
This meshes well with the reinterpretation above. Within this interpretation, the negative effects of the “curse” are a natural result of certain kinds of decisions, acts, and mindsets, the root of which is identified as legalism. Consequences befall every person when they make choices such as Adam and Eve did, not because there is an ontological “curse” inherent within the world that makes things this way but because that’s how the world operates.
Incidentally, “the curse” as referring to the sin of Adam and Eve is not a biblical term, and I contend that it is not a biblical concept either. The only objective curse mentioned is “the curse of the Law,” and Jesus became that curse and destroyed it on the cross (Galatians 3:13). Under this interpretation, it makes sense why the Law would be considered a curse – it is the ultimate end of partaking of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.