Ronald Osborn’s  Death Before the Fall is two books in one, as the subtitle suggests: “Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering.”

Part of the book is a critique of “literalism,” especially as expressed in young-earth creationism, the other part is an exegetical defense of the notion that animal death was part of the original creation and an attempt to provide a theodicy regarding animal mortality (as Osborn says, a neglected topic).

I didn’t care much for Osborn’s treatment of literalism or creationism, and I’m not persuaded by his theodicy. Perhaps more on that at some later point. 

As for death before the fall, I think Osborn is exactly correct. He points out that Genesis never says that the original creation was perfect; rather, it was “very good.” The reason, he claims, is that when God completed His work it was still incomplete. He intended creatures, especially humans, to finish things up. In fact, as he observed, creation was already “assisting” during the creation week: God commanded earth to produce plants, and it did.

He notices that Adam’s task was something closer to “doing battle” than to “pruning hedges” (32). He was to guard the garden, which implies a threat, and to “subdue” the creation, which suggests struggle and a kind of violence. Besides, the world was filled with wild as well as tame creatures, and Adam was sent out to rule them (32-33).

Nowhere, he observes, does the text deny “the possibility that natural cycles of life and death involving plants and animals were . . . included in God’s good creation in the beginning.” It’s an “open question” whether predators were predatory prior to Adam’s sin.

The common view that animals were domesticated vegetarians at the beginning is the result of retrojecting prophecy back to Eden. Lions lying with lambs and bears eating straw - that is a vision of a future world, the end of history not the beginning, a vision of a world completed.

More on: Death, Genesis 1

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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