[Disclaimer: This post is not the result of hours of scholarly study. These are some thought I typed up in response to questions from one of the ladies’ Bible study groups at my church.]
What was the first sin? Anyone familiar with the Bible will immediately think of the account in Genesis 3 in which Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That was the first sin, right?
However, on closer inspection the question is a little more complicated. Was the fruit itself evil? It seems unlikely that there could be anything inherently evil in fruit — even fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. After all, God and the serpent agree that the fruit makes the eater more like God (Gen. 3:5,22), and Eve acknowledges that the fruit makes one wise (Gen. 3:6).
Perhaps, then, it is the act of eating the fruit that is sinful. But it is difficult to see how, if the fruit is not evil, the act if eating it could be evil. The only thing that seems to make the act of eating sinful is that it is something God commanded Adam and Eve not to do. This leads a lot of people to say that the first sin was disobedience. Adam and Eve disobeyed a command of God. It is this direct disobedience that made eating the fruit a sin.
It may seem like the hunt for the first sin ends at disobedience, but there are many people who try to look beneath the surface. What were the underlying heart motivations that result in the outward act of disobedience? Didn’t Jesus say that the heart is the source of all evil (Mat. 15:18-19)?
Examination of the account in Gen. 3 reveals multiple options for root motivations. In Gen. 3:6 Eve sees that the fruit looks good and desirable. Is this gluttony or greed or pure selfishness? In the same verse it says that she recognizes the ability of the fruit to make one wise. Is this greed for knowledge or ambition? In Gen. 3:5 the serpent tempts Eve with the thought that this fruit will make one like God. Is this also ambition or pride or a desire to supplant God? It might be possible to go even further back in the story to Gen. 3:1,4 where the serpent questions the words of God. Does this lead Eve and Adam to doubt the goodness and truthfulness of God?
That is quite a list: disobedience, gluttony, selfishness, greed, ambition, pride, and doubt. Certainly with further time and study more sins and motivations could be unearthed. Maybe even every other sin could find its beginnings in Gen. 3. But what you will find in different authors is a tendency to home in on one sin or motivation in particular. It is often the sin that they believe to be the root of all the other sins. They will sometimes try to prove that it is the root sin by turning to Gen. 3.
Personally, I think it is difficult (probably impossible) to identify one root sin. Many of the sinful heart motivations listed above are similar and interconnected. One person will see pride as primary, and another will see selfishness/self-centeredness as primary. Probably it is best to look at all of those sins as one interconnected and multifaceted whole.
A related question is just as tricky: when exactly did the first sin happen? When would God have considered Eve to have been sinning? Was it when she touched the fruit, or picked it, or ate it? Or was it before that? Was it when she decided to eat it? Was it when she began to look at the fruit and desire it? Was it when the serpent’s questions led her to begin to doubt God?
It is important to remember that there is a distinction between temptation and sin. It is possible to resist temptation without sinning. Jesus was tempted in Mat. 4, but he was perfectly sinless. Temptation does not automatically make you guilty of sin. Furthermore some temptation actually comes from our own desire (James 1:14-15). This means that sometimes a desire to do something wrong may be a temptation, not a sin. However, if we do not immediately reject that desire and if we let it grow and strengthen, we stray from temptation to sin.
So at what point in Gen. 3 did Adam and Eve stray from temptation into sin? It is hard to say with any certainty. It is even more difficult to determine in this case because Adam and Eve had not yet been corrupted by sin. We would assume that they had no dark recesses in their hearts influencing their thoughts and actions towards evil, so it is difficult for us to imagine their internal thought processes at this stage.
We may find some help if we take the account in Gen. 3 at face value. There is no definitive indication in Gen. 3:1-5 that Eve accepts, believes, or agrees any of what the serpent is saying to her. It is not until Gen. 3:6 that Eve seems too look at the fruit, and her heart changes. I would surmise that she moves from temptation to sin at the beginning of verse 6.
It is vital not to make the mistake of separating the thoughts of the heart too far from the action. Verse 6 appears to say that as soon as Eve decided to eat the fruit, she went ahead and did it. It is a package deal. The sinful thoughts of the heart inevitable lead to sinful actions. So all of those sinful motivations we uncovered are a package together with the disobedient action of eating the fruit. It all together makes up the first sin.