Commonly in Christian theology, the agreement between Adam and God (the Adamic covenant) and the agreement between the Israelites and God (the Old Covenant of Moses) are contrasted (the Noahide and Abrahamic covenants are given varying significance depending on who’s talking). Many, such as those holding firmly to the Westminster Confession, argue that the Adamic covenant was a “covenant of works”, the Mosaic covenant was “of grace” at heart but administered through works, and that the New Covenant is thoroughly a covenant of grace. It’s almost as though God kept trying different ways to maintain a relationship with humanity, and finally managed to get it right with Christianity.
Reading the Eden story as an historical account gives us the impression that there was a covenant with humanity that got broken. Successive attempts at reconciling God and man were necessary, each in the form of a new epochal covenant that had to hold up at least temporarily until Jesus came and brokered the final version. But we get a slightly different picture if we understand the early Genesis accounts as etiology, an origins story, offered by later Israelite theologians to replace the errant myths they were familiar with, some lingering from their ancient past and others absorbed from surrounding cultures.
Did you see the Indiana Jones movies? Everyone knows him as the swashbuckling archaeologist who displayed his uncommon daring, epic bravado, and quick thinking to rescue relics and precious artifacts from those who sought to exploit them for nefarious purposes. We learned all that about him in the first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and saw his awe-inspiring knowledge, skill, and good luck in action once again in The Temple of Doom. We intuited that these were not two isolated occasions. We could tell that he’d been at this for quite awhile, and was an “old hand” at it.
At the beginning of the third movie, the filmmakers included something commonly appreciated by fans of such recurring tales: an origin story. Now this is interesting: those who see him as a young man might have expected to see some decisive moment that transformed him from a typical kid into the legend as we know him. Whereas a young, carefree, and well-adjusted Bruce Wayne experienced something that sharply reversed his course and sent him hurtling toward the brooding, dark, and psychologically scarred Batman he became, Lucas and Spielberg took a tack that’s in many ways much more interesting — and ancient.
To our surprise (and satisfaction), when we first see him as a teenager, despite the absences of his only known phobia, the scar beneath his chin, and his iconic fedora, he’s already Indiana Jones. By my count, four separate etiologies are presented in this short story prefacing The Last Crusade, but what’s remarkable is what remains the same: here at our first glimpse, what do we see but the same idealistic adventurer that we’ve known all along, who believes that precious artifacts “belong in a museum”, knows his archeology, is bravely tenacious, and stands his ground even when cornered. We find that what makes Indiana Jones Indiana Jones is…well, he’s Indiana Jones.
I think that’s one of the primary things the Genesis story of the Fall was meant to convey: God initiates relationships with men, and their pride and self-interest routinely cause the severing of those relationships. Now, I’m not sure how “Moses” arrived at this conclusion; God certainly may have revealed it, but since He didn’t reveal how it happened (via the evolutionary processes that created us), I tend to think it was acquired by more proximate causes. For one thing, as seen in etiologies across the ancient world, uniformitarianism seems to have been generally taken for granted; they formed their etiologies based upon assumed continuity between what is observed in the present and what happened in the past.
No matter, one of the most profound revelations to us in the Genesis story, one we can take to the bank, was that humanity was human all along. The unfaithfulness the religious leaders of Israel were warning against the Israelites repeating is seen as part and parcel of the warp and woof of what people have always been. “You’re just like your muleheaded Grandpa Adam.”
An interesting result of this interpretation is that it redirects one view of the Fall popular among Christians who understandably want to make sure that accepting evolution and a non-historical view of Genesis doesn’t throw out any more than necessary. These take up an allegorical or parabolic interpretation in which Adam and Eve aren’t necessarily two historical people, but whose Fall as depicted actually did take place in history among a certain population of humans. This view has been championed by theologians from C. S. Lewis to Keith Ward. The idea is that there was a period of time, probably in the thousands of years, in which humans were doing just fine, walking in the Garden with God in the cool of the evening, until by the influence of some catalyst they rose up and rebelled. I think this misses the point of the story, which was that humans have been humans as long as they’ve been human. In fact, what the story seems to be saying is that humanity is in a sense defined in contradistinction to other creatures by our simultaneous knowledge of God and the moral law and our inability to acknowledge God and live up to that moral law.
I tend to see a bit more continuity throughout human history in what God expects from those with whom He is in covenant: He expects love and faithfulness. The fantastic aspect of the New Covenant is the demonstration in Jesus’ self-sacrifice that God’s love covers our unfaithfulness and inadequacy to love. And as we consciously submit to Him and subjugate ourselves to His order, an ability to live and love Him faithfully and adequately are given back to us by His grace.