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The first time human beings have a conversation with God in Genesis they are making excuses, trying to shift the blame for what they have done. Taken with the proper skepticism, the excuses are very revealing: they tell us a great deal about what went wrong in humanity’s primal disobedience. They show us some of the character of the sin from which we need to be redeemed.

Adam’s excuse reveals the depth of his alienation from his Creator. He blames God and his gift: “The woman you gave to be with me—she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” The sequence of verbs is telling: “you gave . . . she gave . . . I ate” (Gen. 3:12). In Adam’s estimation, the whole problem begins with God (“you gave”) and is centered on the other (“she gave”) and only in the end gets to the self (“I ate”). It is as if God were wrong to say, “ It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). And as if his own speech—the first recorded words of humanity— the poem celebrating the existence of the woman (Gen. 2:23) was a mistake.

What the excuse omits is also revealing. Adam says nothing about his own thoughts and desires. He doesn’t say why he wanted the fruit in the first place, nor why he chose to eat what his wife gave. He doesn’t say why the woman gave him the fruit or what she said—an omission God points out later (Gen. 3:17). And he leaves out the serpent entirely, passing over the lie which motivated their disobedience. His excuse leaves everything about his own thinking and doing and desiring in the dark.

The woman’s excuse is not so evasive or so vicious: “the serpent deceived me and I ate” (Gen. 3:13). Like her husband, she has to admit in the end: “I ate.” But when she tries to shift the blame, she doesn’t accuse the God and his gift. She incriminates her husband only by leaving him out of the story. Again, the omission is revealing: It was his duty to be an active and vocal participant, warning his wife of God’s warning about the sentence of death (Gen. 2:17). By passing over him as if he weren’t a factor, she tacitly points out his culpable silence , without which their shared disobedience was impossible.

The two excuses together show us what went wrong. Adam speaks as if nothing he said or thought made any difference. His evasiveness is revealing despite himself: He has no real excuse for being so passive—not when he is the one who knows the word of God firsthand and can teach it. The woman reinforces the picture with her excuse, talking as if her husband had no role to play at all.

Adam has no right to make himself into a cipher. So it is fitting that we call this Adam’s sin. He is no cipher: He is the one who disobeyed the word of God that came directly into his own ears. He can only evade that fact by minimizing his own reality.

The flip side of this is that he magnifies the reality of the other so as to blame her and her Creator. In the biblical logic of otherness , the one is meant for the good of the other. But Adam was inert, not good for his wife, and his wife (he seems convinced) was not good for him. Also in the logic of otherness,  the one is not good without the other.  But Adam spoke as if the problem is precisely the other God gave to be with him. And the woman spoke as if the other were not there.

How shall God restore the logic of otherness in the face of excuses that undermine the good it is meant to achieve? It is a long story, but I think the beginning lies in a justice that makes the goodness of what these sinners have repudiated unmistakable and precious.

More on: Genesis

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