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The Genesis of Good and Evil

The Fall(out) and Original Sin in the Bible

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Westminster John Knox Press
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For centuries, the Garden of Eden story has been a cornerstone for the Christian doctrine of “the Fall” and “original sin.” In recent years, many scholars have disputed this understanding of Genesis 3 because it has no words for sin, transgression, disobedience, or punishment. Instead, it is about how the human condition came about. Yet the picture is not so simple. The Genesis of Good and Evil examines how the idea of “the Fall” developed in Jewish tradition on the eve of Christianity. In the end, the Garden of Eden is a rich study of humans in relation to God that leaves open many questions. One such question is, Does Genesis 3, 4, and 6, taken together, support the Christian doctrine of original sin? Smith’s well-informed, close reading of these chapters concludes that it does. In this book, he addresses the many mysterious matters of the Garden story and invites readers to explore questions of their own.

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Mark S. Smith is Helena Professor of Old Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary and Skirball Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He has also served as visiting professor at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. An award-winning author, Smith has written sixteen books, including The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel; The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’sPolytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts; God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World; How Human Is God? Seven Questions about God and Humanity in the Bible; and Where the Gods Are: Spatial Dimensions of Anthropomorphism in the Biblical World. His current research focuses on a commentary on the book of Judges, coauthored with archaeologist Elizabeth Bloch-Smith.

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“With a welcoming voice and his characteristic erudition, Mark Smith takes on some of the most profound questions in Western religions. As he readily acknowledges, this book raises more questions than it answers; it could not be otherwise. But for those interested in further explorations, it also offers a wealth of resources.” —Christopher B. Hays, D. Wilson Moore Associate Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Fuller Theological Seminary

“Smith cuts through the miasma of the history of interpretation of Genesis 3 and ‘the Fall’ with his characteristically incisive clarity. As readers hear this classic text speak afresh, they will rethink their deepest assumptions about the human condition and God’s will for us.” —Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Professor of Old Testament, Princeton Theological Seminary

“Mark Smith has taken up a most overworked, often misread text. He addresses a most vexed and insistent theological notion. He does so, moreover, with great attention to detail, patience with theological nuance, and wide-ranging critical awareness. The outcome of his work is a rich, fresh, and suggestive theological exposition of a very old issue. Smith cannot and does not seek to void the lingering over-read of the text by church tradition. But he does invite reconsideration of matters of sin and evil. He is, moreover, alert to the contemporary urgency of the issue and offers a most welcome interpretive encounter.”—Walter Brueggemann, William Marcellus McPheeters Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

“Mark Smith’s The Genesis of Good and Evilexplodes traditional assumptions that the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 is all about the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin.’ In its place, Smith offers a far richer and more compelling theological alternative by reading the combined chapters of Genesis 3, Genesis 4, and Genesis 6 as an exploration of human desire, goodness, sin, and evil. Taken together, these chapters deliver a far more complex, textured portrait of the human condition (for good and for evil). Smith also expertly guides the reader through a fascinating interreligious history of the doctrine of human sin (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) with profound implications for how we understand ourselves as humans in today’s world. Highly recommended!” —Dennis T. Olson, Charles T. Haley Professor of Old Testament Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary

“Smith has produced a thought-provoking, engaging discourse that clearly respects the mysteries of the divine/human drama portrayed in the Genesis 3–6 narratives. Smith’s book is as much about the subject matter—good and evil—as it is about interpreting the Scriptures: Smith invites readers’ awareness of the nature of the narrative, religious message, and the scope often used by Christian readers. Readers will be intrigued by Smith’s arguments and compelled to dialogue about their understanding of sin, human will, and the condition of humanity. This is a must-read book for scholars and churches and for anyone who seeks further understanding of commonly held beliefs. This book asks us as readers to reflect on who or what is the great nemesis or enemy—sin? the devil?—and how the Genesis 3–6 narratives contribute to modern views of sin, good, and evil.” —Mignon R. Jacobs, Dean and Chief Academic Officer, Professor of Old Testament Studies, Ashland Theological Seminary

“Genesis 3 is one of the most widely known stories in human history. At the same time, the tale seems buried beneath its huge reception history. Mark Smith masterfully analyzes both the biblical story and its reception history, uncovering the significance of Genesis 3 beyond its traditional interpretation and also reconstructing the logic of its later receptions.” —Konrad Schmid, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, University of Zurich

“Mark Smith’s The Genesis of Good and Evil is a tour de force by one of the best biblical scholars of this generation. He gives a fresh, original, and compelling reading of the story about the origins of good and evil. At the same time, he draws broadly on the long and rich tapestry of Jewish and Christian traditions in weaving his own vision of this central story of ‘original sin’ and the ‘Fall.’”  —William M. Schniedewind, Professor of Biblical Studies and Northwest Semitic Languages, University of California, Los Angeles

“Mark Smith’s latest book is an effort ‘to come to grips with Christian claims about the Fall and original sin in Genesis 3.’ He then sets off, in his inimitable way, to explore seven questions that lead him not only back to Genesis 2, and then forward to Genesis 4 and 6, but also beyond: to Augustine, Calvin, the Catholic Catechism, and seemingly every pertinent nook and cranny in the ancient Near East. Spoiler alert: Smith disagrees with a large swath of Christian tradition, finding not a fall in Genesis 3 but a fallout that comes about thereafter, though also remarkable possibilities for human goodness despite our ‘Adam-ness’ and ‘Eve-ness.’ Smith’s goal is to find out what Genesis 3 ‘really says’—which is a hackneyed and usually dubious claim, but not in the case of Smith, whose erudition will educate even the most serious scholar while his fluid prose remains intended for ‘anyone intrigued by what happened in the Garden of Eden.’ Smith ends his study in praise of theological mystery and human curiosity; there is equally also a great deal to praise in this book and in Smith’s work among us.” —Brent A. Strawn, Professor of Old Testament, Emory University


“Mark S. Smith draws from knowledge and insights in the works of ancient and premodern theologians and biblical commentators typically found on traditional Christian and Jewish bookshelves as well as from research found on the bookshelves of twenty-first-century historians and language experts, all specialists in different aspects of ancient Israel’s culture and the contemporaneous civilizations of the pre-Christian, ancient Near East. Smith, a highly regarded expert in the field, answers old theological questions for himself and for a new generation of questioners. The book reads quickly. It is an action adventure for the restless mind that has a satisfactory but open-ended conclusion. For those interested in how Smith pulls this off, he provides a large section of endnotes containing references and sidebar discussions.” —Ziony Zevit, Distinguished Professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages and Literature, American Jewish University, Los Angeles

“Was there a ‘Fall’? Was there an ‘original sin’? The prolific author Mark Smith offers insight and writes with clarity and profundity on these pivotal topics that are so vital to biblical theology. While not all will agree with every element of his analysis of the relevant texts, his reflections will provoke better understanding and further discussion. All those who are interested in these important questions will have to reckon with Smith’s perspective.”—Tremper Longman III, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Westmont College

“Smith has written a valuable book, providing detailed analysis of biblical (especially Genesis 3–4; 6) and relevant ancient Near Eastern literature, an exploration of broad theological issues such as the nature of humanity in Genesis and ‘the mystery of God,’ and an overview of the ways ‘original sin’ has been understood by Christian theologians. Smith concludes that it is better to speak of the ‘fallout’ of what happens in Genesis 3 rather than the ‘Fall.’ This is a volume that will prove useful to the general reader and the specialist alike.” —David L. Petersen, Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Candler School of Theology, Emory University

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