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Red herrings and the Garden of Eden

A story handed down from the beginning of the Abrahamic era
A story handed down from the beginning of the Abrahamic era

On the first Sunday in Lent, the weekly reading from the Old Testament recounted the story of the Garden of Eden. As I listened to it I was thinking about what it is about, really, not just the iconic children's tale that is rattled off to provide proof texts about women or whatever.

The first thing we have to realize about the Creation story is that there are two separate and distinct accounts of how God made human beings. The one about God making Adam and then taking Eve out of Adam's ribs is the better-known one, but aside from literalist confusion, the following will do:

"Then God said, 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'

"So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." [Genesis I: 26-27]

The only thing I want to point out is that, in the Hebrew, it says that God created "mankind" and not just one man and one woman. This ought to dispel all controversy over who may or may not have existed in the world outside Eden.

It looks to me like we can take one of three attitudes towards the story of the temptation in Eden, which is the real point of the story and comes later. The only thing different about Adam and Eve in the Garden was that they were apparently in a "gated community," which they discovered when they were expelled from it and found an angel with a sword guarding against their return. But the story can be any of the following:

It could be a true story about a man and a woman.

It could be a morality tale made up to explain something about human nature.

It could hearken back to theories about prehistoric extraterrestrial visitors who were tampering with the human race, making or remaking humans "in their image."

The idea of the temptation story is that God told Adam and Eve--that is, man and woman alike--not to eat of the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This command was refuted by the serpent, who reasoned with Eve that anyone could see that the fruit was good to eat, that is, not poisonous. God had not given them a good reason not to eat the fruit, or so the serpent convinced them.

But this is where it becomes increasingly obvious to me that the story is a morality tale, with a far deeper meaning than whether the man and woman should have obeyed. And this basic portrait of human nature needs no "ancient aliens" to explain what was going on. It appears that the injunction against the fruit was arbitrary: you can eat this, but you can't eat that. And the obvious question--"Why not? What's wrong with it?"--was not answered, at least not satisfactorily. So the humans ate the apple.

The Book of Genesis says that the first thing that happened after they ate was that they noticed that they were naked. After covering their bodies, they also hid from God, with whom they had previously enjoyed a very casual relationship. God quickly finds them in the story, and deduces that they have eaten the "forbidden fruit" by their behavior. He pronounces a punishment on them and they are driven out of the Garden. The story of the Temptation ends there, but the point of it becomes clear: you can never go back to the state of blissful innocence.

I have written about human morality in many previous articles, in that we know very well what our code of conduct is, encapsulated in the Golden Rule, but we do not actually follow it. The discrepancy between actual human behavior and human morality is a mystery. We do not know why it is that we behave badly. But at the same time, like Adam and Eve, we live in the constant, tormenting knowledge of what should be.

Everyone who has alienated a loved one through jealousy or fear is tormented by the memory of what their love once was. Every parent who has handled their child badly and lost his or her love knows, with their heart broken, what they intended. And as the saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." We want the object of our failure to understand what we really meant, why we really did what we did wrong. If they could understand, we think, everything would be all right. But it never is. We learn what the emotions of remorse and regret feel like.

So the story of the Garden of Eden is not about eating an apple, but about the failure to understand, as C. S. Lewis dramatized in his book, Perelandra. In it, the Eve of that world does not succumb to the temptation. In explaining, she says that refraining from breaking her command was the way to show their love of God--that in doing something that seemed against common sense, for no other reason than that you were asked to refrain, was the way to demonstrate the love that she and her still-unfallen mate would keep perfect between themselves and God.

This makes powerful sense to me. To take a frivolous example (comparatively), when I was married to my first husband he was a powerful government official. At that time we had an agreement that I would not call him at his office during working hours. Of course occasions came up when I wanted to call him--good reasons like the time I returned from school and found that my daughter, then a toddler, had a high fever. Should I call him or not? Well, it depended on the circumstances.
Over time, I called less. I became more self-reliant--just transferred my daughter to my car and took off for the hospital. He got the word from my mother-in-law when he got home. There were no cell phones in those days, and he called the emergency room and learned that we were on our way home.

So my decision to refrain from interrupting my husband's work day was made in his interests, not mine. And that is the lesson from Genesis, the truth that haunts us to this day. We do not have the right to second-guess and overrule that wishes of others, whether they are God or mere human beings like ourselves. There will be consequences for certain acts that go too far.

Worse, we do not know just what constitutes "going too far" in the minds of our significant others. I have a second husband now, and the fact that my first husband failed me in a moment of crisis accounts for that. He didn't know that one simple act would be a fatal blow to our marriage, but as it turned out, I left our garden, turned my face to the great big world out there, and took my chances rather than stay in that garden.

Of course that is not to say we know what the human race's life would have been if that fall from grace had not occurred. According to Genesis, there were other people out there, and sooner or later the occupants of Eden would have begun to deal with them. So if you take the story literally, it fails to keep its believability. But believability is not the point. The point of Eden is that we no longer live there because we know who we are and how we can fail. But we also know how to succeed. That is the good news.

We can sustain unbroken trust. We can do the right thing when it counts. We can listen when someone who is important to us tells us that something is important to them. We can work at a relationship, guard it, preserve it, protect it. And we can ask for God's help to do that, and what we are promised by Christianity is that God's endless, boundless love, power and compassion will answer.

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