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(15) Romans 7: Sin and the Serpent
Of the 63 times Paul uses the noun ‘sin’ (hamartia), 58 times it is in the singular. For Paul sin was not so much the acts we commit as a principle within us. When Paul comes to reflect on the origin of sin, he does it by reflecting on the inter-relationship between law (or the commandment) and sin.
In Romans 7:7-13, Paul argues that while the concept of the commandment was not evil as such, nevertheless, it participates in evil. Is the law itself sin? “No way” Paul says. (7:7) but immediately goes on to indict the commandment or law inasmuch as without the law there is no knowledge of sin. What follows in 7:8-13 is a reflection on the Genesis 2-3 text. Ben Witherington III (The Problem of Evangelical Theology) translates it this way (his additions are in brackets):
“But the serpent [sin], seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, worked in me all kinds of evil desires- for apart from Torah, sin is dead. I [Adam] was once alive outside the framework of Torah. But when the commandment really encountered me, sin sprang to life, 10 and I died. The commandment that was intended to bring me life was found to be bringing me death! 11 For the serpent [sin], seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me; and through the commandment, sin killed me. (CJB)”
Notice as you read this section (7:7-13) that what you have is Paul observing that had it not been for the commandment sin would not exist. Paul had said as much in Romans 5:13, “where there is no law, there is no sin.” Sin only exists in the presence of law.
If Romans 7:7-13 is a reflection on sin in the Genesis 2-3 story, Romans 7:14-20 may be a reflection on the further story of Cain in Genesis 4. In Genesis 3 sin is not mentioned. This is important. Sin is first mentioned with regard to Cain in Genesis 4 where sin “is a croucher at the door.” Does this mean that Paul is wrong to connect sin with Adam. No. It does mean that what happens in Adam and continues on in Cain are inter-connected. In other words, the violation of the prohibition leads inevitably to violence. Or another way to put this is that Genesis 2-4 are to be read, not as isolated stories but as a process of ‘how did we get here?’ What Paul is reflecting on is the problem of mediated desire.
“Genesis 3 and 4 recount the beginnings of the descent of humanity into a world dominated by sin, violence and idolatry. Rather than trace the fall of Adam to the breaking of a covenant (which is not mentioned in the text) or to pride (which is not mentioned in the text), or to sex, which occurs after the problem in the garden, we can see the ‘fall’ as the human descent into violence, sacrifice and culture.
What then might the serpent represent? The serpent perfectly represents the mechanism of object-mediated desire. One can see the very psychology of human desire being played out in these few short verses. Remember monkey see, monkey think he do? Here it is, at the beginning of the whole story. It is all about imitated desire and its consequences. Not to mince words, but the devil is an anthropological category not a theological one. The devil is about us humans, our violence, our projection, our victimizing, our idolatry. It is not about some supra temporal being, that God created. No, we humans created the satan, the moment the male imitated in paradise. The satan dwells within us, creates our communities, rules our ideologies. It is the most terrifying ‘thing’ that exists because of its ability to keep us enthralled as a species for so long. The satanic has a highly developed sense of deception and a powerful voice that creates great fear. The satanic requires sacrifice. Human sacrifice” (from my book The Jesus Driven Life).
If we plan on understanding the nature of evil, we must recognize that Paul nowhere turns to the kind of account we find in the apocalyptic Enoch myth of a fallen angel outside of us who tempts us. Rather, for Paul, like the proto-rabbis of his time, sin is an anthropological principle. It has to do with the way we humans have learned to deal with the problem of intra-species violence. It is the origin of the process of using scapegoats, of deflecting our violence onto a victim. It is thus, the origin of religion, and religious zeal. All of this comes together in Paul’s thinking about the origins of evil: sin, death (real death, real killing), zeal, law, the satanic. They are all ways of describing a phenomenon that we much prefer to not see in ourselves. Tomorrow we shall explore this further with regard to the evil yetzer (desire) and then begin our journey as to how Jesus overcame all of this.