Why Did Adam and Eve Sin?

According to the Book of Genesis, after God created the first human beings, Adam and then Eve, he issued a specific command that they should not eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2.17a). And he affixed to this command a sanction that, should they disobey the command, then on that day they would “surely die” (Genesis 2.17b). The narrative then goes on to tell the story of how Eve, tempted by a speaking serpent, chose to disobey God’s command by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3.1-6a). Moreover, we are told that Eve gave of the fruit to Adam, and he too then ate and thus disobeyed God’s command as well (Genesis 3.6b).

Why did Eve and then Adam break God’s commandment? Why did they eat of the tree he had forbidden them to eat from? God had generously given them all the other trees in the garden to eat from (Genesis 2.16), withholding only this one tree (Genesis 2.17). So clearly God was not being tightfisted, and just as clearly the couple was not in danger of going hungry. Why, then, did they disobey this simple command from their patently generous God?

If we are observant, the text of Genesis furnishes an answer. Two elements are presented. First, the text suggests that the serpent cast doubt into the mind of Eve, and presumably Adam as well, regarding the goodness of God. The serpent subtly twisted God’s words asking, “Did God really say you must not eat from any of the trees in the garden” (Genesis 3.1)? Of course God had not said that. He had told the human couple they could freely eat from all the trees of the garden except just one (Genesis 2.16). But the serpent did not stop there. He (it?) went on to directly deny God’s threatened penal sanction, telling the woman that she would not surely die if she ate from the tree God had forbidden and insinuating that God was holding back from the human beings, not wishing them to become like the gods, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3.4-5). All of this was an attack by the serpent on the goodness and trustworthiness of God, calculated manifestly to tempt the woman, and the man, to doubt God’s goodness and thus the goodness of his command. This begins to explain why the two disobeyed God.

But the text presents another element. After the dialogue with the crafty serpent, we are told that the woman saw, or considered, that “the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and also desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis 3.6). And with that, she took some of the fruit and ate it, and then she gave to her husband Adam who also ate (Genesis 3.7). In other words, the woman and the man indulged their desires, specifically, their desire for good-tasting and good-looking food, and their desire for gaining wisdom. The latter desire connects with the temptation of the serpent. He had succeeded in deceiving the woman, and presumably the man, into thinking that God was indeed withholding wisdom from the humans to be gained through the fruit of the tree. But both desires, the desire for appealing, tasty food and the desire for gaining wisdom or knowledge, were operative according to the text. The humans had indulged these desires by eating of the tree God had forbidden them to eat from.

So the text indicates clearly enough why Adam and Eve broke God’s command. Doubting, however slightly, God’s goodness (thanks to the serpent’s crafty temptation), they freely chose to satisfy their desires for good food and increased wisdom. They were not overpowered or overwhelmed by doubt and desire. On the contrary, all the evidence pointed to God being a good, generous God; and they had all the other trees of the garden to eat from to satisfy their desire for good food. As for their desire for wisdom, the reasonable thing to do was to ask of their God, whom the evidence indicated was surely able and willing to give to them wisdom and knowledge (James 1.5). So the couple was not overpowered or overwhelmed. They were tempted by their desires exacerbated by the serpent, but they were not overwhelmed. They did what they knew they ought not to do, what good reason informed them they ought not to do. But they disregarded their reason in favor of indulging their fleshly desires.

On one level, there is no answer to why Adam and Eve sinned except to point to Adam and Eve themselves and their choice: they sinned because they chose to sin, period. Indeed, this is true of any free choice made by rational agents. When we freely do what we do, we do it simply because we choose to do it. End of explanation. To ask for further explanation, for a further reason, is to implicitly deny genuine free agency. And to deny genuine free agency is to deny one of our most basic intuitions and the core axiom of moral responsibility. But on the less ultimate level, we can answer the “why” question regarding Adam and Eve’s sin. The text of Genesis itself offers the answer. The answer is the same for all sin: human beings sin when they indulge their desires outside of God’s circumscribed limits, the limits God reveals through his law written upon the heart (Romans 2.15) and/or through special revelation like he gave to Adam and Eve. Instead of doing what we know we ought to do, we allow ourselves to be “carried away and enticed by our lust” (James 1.14). This is why Adam and Eve sinned. It is why we all sin when we do sin.