The “Law of Sin in our Members” is Sex
Starting from the assumption that Romans 7 continues Romans 5, I want to propose that the entire discourse about Law and commandment in this section of Romans has to do with sexuality. Of all the myriad interpretations that have been offered for the soliloquy of chapter 7, the one that makes the most sense to me, for all its problems, is the interpretation that the speaker of these verses is Adam. Watson has recently presented a strong argument in support of this reading. He presents a series of detailed comparisons between the speaker of Romans 7:7 ff. and Adam:
- Only Adam was alive before any commandment was given (v. 9).
- The commandment not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge came and gave Sin (the Serpent) an opportunity to bring death to Adam (v. 9).
- “Sin deceived me” (ἐξηπάτησεν) is the same term that Eve uses to describe what happened to her, namely, that the Serpent “deceived me” (ἠπάτησεν με) (v. 11; cf. Gen. 3:13).
- The result of the transgression is death, so “the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.” (Watson, 152)
Westerholm and other scholars had already rejected this interpretation, arguing that “You shall not covet” refers to the prohibition in the Decalogue and not to Adam (1988, 59). Watson, however, completely finesses this objection by interpreting the negative command involved as both the commandment to Adam not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the command against desire in the Decalogue. They are, as I shall suggest below, in a sort of type/anti-type situation. He is thus not constrained to ignore the obvious allusion to the Decalogue in the chapter in order to maintain his reading that the speaker is Adam, for Adam's commandment is a type of the commandment to all—In Adam, all have sinned. This argument that Paul could appropriately use the verse of the Ten Commandments as a sort of catchword referring to Adam's sin can be further strengthened. First of all, the commandment in the Decalogue refers precisely to sexual lust. In the version of Deuteronomy, this is the entire content of the verse: Thou shalt not desire thy neighbor's wife (οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου). To be sure, the verse goes on, in a separate sentence, to list other objects of one's neighbor that one should not covet as well. Furthermore, in the version in Exodus 20:17, where the Hebrew reads: Thou shalt not desire thy neighbor's house or his wife, the Greek has οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου as the first item and as a separate sentence, precisely as in the Deuteronomy version. It is thus entirely plausible that Paul has the sentence “Do not desire the woman—of your neighbor” in mind when he cites οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις. This verse of the Decalogue is the only negative commandment in the whole Torah that refers to desire and not to an action. It is thus the very anti-type, as it were, of the prohibition on Adam, if that prohibition is understood, as it most often was, as a prohibition against sexual desire (Wright 1992a, 197). Furthermore, as Watson argues:
The serpent's use of the commandment to deceive leads to sin: “Sin…wrought in me every kind of desire” (Rom. 7:8).…“Desire” means primarily sexual desire, and this may be linked with Gen. 3:7: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” This suggests that the “sin” of v. 6 was sexual in nature, and for this reason Paul can identify the commandment of Gen. 2:17 with the commandment, “You shall not desire,” just as he can identify the transgression of the commandment in Gen. 3:6 f with the awakening of “every kind of desire” (Rom. 7:7 f). (Watson, 152)
Watson's argument can be amplified. The story that Paul tells in verses 8 and 11—“But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of desire. Apart from the law sin lies dead.…For sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me”—seems most specifically intelligible as a gloss on the Genesis story. It was indeed the serpent (= sin) in that story who by subtly manipulating the terms of the prohibition caused Eve and Adam to eat the fruit and die. “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die.” Here we indeed see sin seizing an opportunity in the commandment! It thus seems to me that this reading makes the best specific and sharp sense of Paul's first-person narrative. Thus, although Westerholm's objection cannot be dismissed entirely, the other strong considerations in favor of Watson's interpretation should lead us to consider it very favorably. I believe that the speaker of Romans 7 is indeed Adam, the same Adam of whom Paul speaks in chapter 5.
If we take seriously the suggestion that the speaker here is Adam and that what he is speaking of is sexual desire, I think that we must also take into consideration the fact that Adam and Eve had been positively commanded to “Be fruitful and multiply.” In my opinion, only the interpretation that Paul is speaking of sexual lust, inflamed by the positive commandment to procreate, which “Sin” does indeed know how to exploit, accounts for such expressions as the “Law of Sin in our members” and all the talk here of inflamed passions. Sexual desire was referred to among Jews in the first century unambiguously as the ערה רצי, the Evil Inclination. As David Biale has written, “For other writers of the time, sexuality was dangerous because even if it began licitly, it could, once aroused, slide all too easily into sin” (1992, 40). This is how Sin has used the commandment to procreate in order to arouse sinful desire (Watson 1986, 152).