The Origin of Death: Early Genesis

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September 1, 2003
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By Jan R. Uhrbach

The two accounts of the creation of humanity in the opening chapters of Genesis present two different understandings of the origin of human death. According to the first narrative (Genesis 1:1 through 2:3, and Genesis 5:1 ff.), human beings are created in their final form, without need of further evolution. From the beginning, the continued existence of humanity is to be achieved through a series of individuals who will be born, procreate, and die, rather than through a single individual who will be immortal. Thus, male and female are created simultaneously. God’s first command is to be fruitful and multiply, and it is assumed that individual humans are to live for some number of years, and then die.

In contrast, the second account of creation (Genesis 2-3) describes the creation of human beings in evolutionary terms. Initially, there is no concept of a series of individuals; rather God creates one single human being, Adam, who will exist forever. Thus, in this version of the story, there is initially no gender, no procreation, and no death. With the creation of Eve, the species evolves in two ways. First, “Adam” becomes gendered, and therefore capable of procreating. Second, with Adam’s recognition of Eve as a being “like” himself, human beings become capable of empathic relationship.

The next steps in the process are accomplished when Adam and Eve eat the fruit that has been forbidden to them. Through this one act, they acquire two additional qualities: moral consciousness and free will. Until the moment that Eve and Adam acted in contravention of God’s command, they had only the capacity for free will – not free will itself. Thus, by the single act of eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve acquired both free will and the moral consciousness with which to guide the exercise of that will.

With each of these steps, Adam becomes more fully human, and also more “like” God. Unlike the first creation story (Gen. 1:26-27, 5:1), in this story there is no suggestion that Adam was created ab initio, in God’s image. Rather, Adam undergoes a process of change that culminates in the acquisition of moral consciousness; at this point in the process, God declares that Adam and Eve have become “like one of Us.”

It seems, however, that this process has a price. The essence of humanity is to be “like” God, but not God. Thus, the necessary consequence of Adam and Eve’s final step of acquisition of moral consciousness – of evolving into beings who are “like” God – is that they have become too much “like” God. Therefore, they can no longer be immortal, and through the same evolutionary process by which Adam and Eve acquire their “God-like” attributes, they also acquire their “animal-like” attributes: procreation and death.

The consequences of this are threefold. First, they can no longer remain in the Garden with access to the Tree of Life. Previously there were no restrictions on eating from that tree, and the text is ambiguous as to whether or not Adam and Eve had eaten of it prior to their expulsion from the garden. Perhaps the first two human beings initially took their nourishment from the Tree of Life, and so long as they stayed there and ate of that Tree, they would continue to be nourished and replenished; their bodies would never deteriorate and they would never die.1 Now, however, they must be cut off from this source of eternal life, and become subject to death.2

Second, because they no longer have access to the nourishment within the Garden, which would have replenished them, they require other foods. This explains the nature of God’s explanation that human sustenance would now have to be attained through labor and what, precisely, that new diet would include.

Third, because they will no longer live forever as individuals, Adam and Eve will need to procreate to ensure that the species “Adam” will survive eternally. God’s response to Eve is similarly appropriate. For the first time, there is a need for a species, and thus the birth of new individuals. Eve is therefore told that she will bear children, and will do so in pain.

Was human death, then, part of God’s original plan, or was it introduced only as a punishment? The first creation narrative can be understood as portraying how God “intended” humanity to be. Thus, death was indeed part of the original plan. The second narrative, however, describes the process by which we evolved into becoming what God intended us to be. Significantly, that process required us to participate in our own development, and to become “like” God – active participants in the process of our own continual creation. Only through that process could we as a species become fully human and made in the image of God; to do so, however, each of us as individuals became subject to death.

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Rabbi Jan R. Uhrbach, a Wexner Graduate Fellow, received her ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in May 2003. At the Seminary, she was awarded the Dr. Michael Higger Prize in Talmud, the Rabbi Jacob S. Minkin Prize in Jewish Philosophy, the Aaron Friedenwald Prize in Jewish Theology, the Rabbi Alpert Pappenhein Prize for Professional Skills, and the Rabbi Phillip Book Scholarship Award.

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