Rethinking the Garden of Eden Story
A book review by Shirley Dixon
I have been reading The rise and fall of Adam and Eve: The story that created us by Stephen Greenblatt, and how St. Augustine regarded the Garden of Eden story as a literal account of the first humans.
I acknowledge that St. Augustine (C4-C5) was an intelligent and learned man but, not only was he a man of his time, I believe that he had several major character flaws that he, inevitably, brought to his Biblical interpretations. Augustine was a misogynist, he had an ambivalent attitude to his own sexuality, and he was preoccupied with sin.
Augustine formulated the doctrine of Original, or Ancestral, Sin, which became the Christian belief that humanity has existed in a state of sin since Adam and Eve’s disobedience in Eden.
Even before Augustine, and following on from St. Paul’s contention in Romans 5 that: "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me", the theologian Tertullian (C2-C3) regarded Eve, and all subsequent women, as 'the devil's gateway' and told them that ‘your sin meant that even the Son of God had to die’. But Augustine was the first to add the concept whereby an infant was damned at birth.
I believe that the doctrine of Original Sin was one of the worst things that could have happened to Christianity, and that it was hugely detrimental to the lives of millions of people over the following sixteen hundred years.
So, I decided, perhaps somewhat perversely, to also take the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis at face value; that is, to read it as literally as possible, while acknowledging that I, too, would bring my own opinions, experiences, attitudes, prejudices and ignorances to the task.
My literal reading of the Garden of Eden story is based on the RSV translation - but with significant adaptations.
There was once a god who created for himself a beautiful garden, with a river flowing through it, in which he could relax after his day's work was done. The god called his garden Eden and he made to grow in it every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food; as well, in the midst of the garden, there were two special trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Every evening, the god enjoyed the peace and quiet of this garden, but then he found himself longing for company during his time of relaxation. He didn't want the company of any of his staff - his angels - that he worked with during the day as that would just be like an extension of the working environment. Nor did he find the company of any of the animals that he had created and which lived in the garden fulfilling.
So, the god made man out of the earth and breathed life into him, so that he could be his companion-pet. Then, realising that the man would be better with a companion, the god paraded all the animals before him and, while the man named then all, a suitable helper and companion was not found among them.
Even though the man had the ability to speak, by expecting him to find a companion among the animals – especially after his own failure to do so - implies that the god regarded the man as little more than just another animal. But the connotations of this statement are problematic. Perhaps the god expected the man to select, may be, a dog - 'man's best friend'. However, if the god intended the companion to be a mate for the man, then the mind boggles at the connotations.
So, not having found a companion for the man, the god then made a female version of the man to fulfil this role.
In a second version of the story in Genesis, the god created two beings, together: a male, whom he called man, and a female, whom he called woman.
These companion-pets were neither gods nor angels and although they were male and female and naked, they were not ashamed. By telling us only after Adam and Eve had been expelled from Eden that Adam 'knew his wife and she conceived', the story implies that, while they were in the garden, they had no understanding of sexuality and lived together chastely. Although they could speak, they had no ethical understanding of such things as good and evil. Perhaps they could be characterised as physically mature but, intellectually and ethically, like young children. Thus, they could not be considered to be fully developed humans.
The god found the company of these companion-pets congenial as he walked in the garden in the evening and, as a bonus, during the day when he was working, they were kept busy tilling and keeping the garden. The god commanded them saying, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die".
The meaning of “You will die” is ambiguous. Does it mean you will drop down dead immediately, or that you will not be immortal but die at the end of your life? The Biblical story never said that Adam & Eve were immortal, which implies, that they were mortal. Certainly, they had not eaten of the Tree of Life in the Garden - which appears to have been able to bestow immortality. Therefore, as mortal creatures, being told “You will die”, implies that you will drop dead immediately.
Now, one of the creatures that lived in the garden was the serpent, which was more subtle than any other wild creature that the god had made. The serpent said to the woman, “Did the god say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?”
To have a serpent capable of speech would suggest that this was not an ordinary snake, but rather, a literary device - which is another factor that makes it difficult to read the Genesis story literally. Although not mentioned in Genesis, the serpent has traditionally been interpreted as the devil.
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but the god said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
The serpent replied to the woman, “You will not die. For the god knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like the god, knowing good and evil.”
As what the serpent said to Eve was true – even though the devil is not renowned for truthfulness - I see the snake in the role of a mentor who gave Adam and Eve the information they needed to grow up, to develop beyond their pet-companion status.
So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband, and he ate.
The Genesis story relates that Eve was beguiled by the serpent, but he must have done this without deception as everything the serpent told her was the truth. Also, the Biblical story fails to acknowledge the gods' culpability in what happened after he had deceived them about dying if they ate the fruit.
Traditionally, the Eden story has been regarded as the origin of human sinfulness and - worse - as the origin of Original Sin. I do not think this is valid as, until Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they had no awareness of sin - so the actual act of eating was done in a state of naïve innocence with no understanding that disobedience contravened the will of the god.
After they had eaten the fruit, the eyes of the man and the woman were opened.
An obviously metaphorical rather than literal statement!
The man and woman realised that they were naked, so they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons to cover their genitals.
Rather than seeing the making of aprons as an awareness of sexual shame, I suggest that they could now recognise their nakedness because it was in contrast to the (presumably) clothed god - otherwise, how would they know about clothes? This episode is a significant marker in Adam and Eve’s transition from companion-pets to human beings.
That evening, when they heard the sound of the god walking in the garden the man and the woman hid themselves from the presence of the god. But the god called to the man, saying, “Where are you?” The man replied saying, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”The god then said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man replied (honestly) “The woman gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate". Then the god said to the woman, "What is this that you have done?” The woman replied (honestly), “The serpent told me about the fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
The god then had a major fit of temper.
Firstly, the god vented his anger and frustration on the serpent. He cursed the serpent saying that because of what it had done it was cursed above all other animals and that it would live its life on its belly and eat dust all the days of its life. And that he would put enmity between it and the man and the woman and their descendants.
However, all the serpent had done was to tell the truth – and for this, the god cursed it.
The god then turned on the woman saying that because of what she had done he would make her sexually desirous of her husband, and cause childbearing to be painful, and that the man would rule over her.
To the man the god said that because he had listened to the [truthful] voice of the woman, and had eaten of the tree, that the very ground would be cursed, and that it would bring forth thorns and thistles, and that, in toil and sweat, the man would eat of the plants of the ground all the days of his life, until he died and was, himself, returned to the ground.
The god’s punishment of Adam and Eve reads very much like a just-so story – as a post-event explanation of the realities of human life.
The man adopted the name Adam, which means 'man', and he named the woman Eve because she was the mother of all living. As Adam and Eve’s fig-leaf aprons were rather flimsy, the god made them garments of skins.
However, the god said that as they had now become god-like in knowing good and evil, in case they also ate from the second forbidden tree, which would mean that they would live forever, and become "like one of us (gods)" they would be banished from the garden of Eden and sent into the wilderness.
The god 'condemned' the man and woman to mortality. However, as they never were immortal, as the god never wanted them to eat of the Tree of Life, the belief that humans are mortal because of the sin of Adam and Eve has no validation in the story.
The god drove the man and woman out of Eden and, at the entrance, he placed one of his angels, with a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the Tree of Life and ensure that no human being could enter the garden and eat its fruit, and thus acquire the attributes of gods.
While I am sure that the interpretation developed by anyone who attempts a literal reading of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden would differ considerably from both my and St. Augustine’s, it would nevertheless require them to tie themselves in intellectual knots.
It is, and was, a serious error to misunderstand the Genesis story as historical fact. As Karen Armstrong reminds us, a creative story - a myth - must be approached in an appropriate mode of consciousness and read and understood according to the rules of its genre. And reading and analysing a myth as if it was a literal account is not an appropriate methodology.
So how would I now read the story of Adam and Eve?
I would follow Karen Armstrong’s advice and acknowledge that a myth didn't just happen in the past, but is continuously recurring, so we should not be satisfied with a superficial reading of scripture, but should continually elicit new meanings from the text. I would thus take themes from the story and use them as points for exploration and discussion in my own life and in contemporary society. For example:
• can the most unlikely sources sometimes convey the truth?
• how do we cope when someone who we trust deceives us?
• what can be the consequences of reinforcing a rule with a lie?
• is something a sin if it was done in ignorance or by accident?
• if an understanding of ethics is essential for maturity, then how should this be conveyed and taught?
• how do we cope with living in the big, wide, harsh world?