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What Does the Garden of Eden Story Really Teach?

D. R. Miano


The doctrine of “original sin” derives from an interesting interpretation of the story of “The Fall of Man” in the Garden of Eden, as described in the second and third chapters of Genesis. As the theory is explained, the whole human race is corrupted as a result of Adam’s sin, so that all persons are predisposed toward, and guilty of, sin. “Original sin” includes both guilt and pollution. The guilt aspect has to do with the fact that all humans somehow participate in the sin of Adam. By his very nature, man is an object of divine wrath. Furthermore, man's mind and body has been polluted, and he cannot understand the things of God. This inherent corruption in humankind exists from the very first moment of its disobedience. But does the Garden of Eden story really lend itself to such a doctrine? A close reexamination of the text will show otherwise.

We are most likely familiar with the basic outline of the story. God puts the first man and woman (Adam and Eve) in the garden, plants two special trees, and tells them they are not allowed to eat from one of them. A snake talks Eve into eating from the forbidden tree, and she, in turn, persuades Adam to do so. After that, God punishes all three of them, and the humans are expelled from the garden. How did the author intend us to understand this story?

The story is explicit that there is one tree from which Adam and Eve are not permitted to eat, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad (Gen 2:16-17). But elsewhere, Eve says that the forbidden tree is “the tree in the middle of the garden” (Gen 3:2-3), and it is only the Tree of Life that is explicitly spoken of as being in the middle of the garden (Gen 2:9). We can only assume that both trees are situated there. The fact that the author deals with only one tree at a time appears to be part of the narrative strategy. It seems obvious that the first thing anyone would do after eating of the Tree of Knowledge would be to grab the fruit of the Tree of Life and eat it too. But that would spoil the story. The author doesn’t want us to think about the Tree of Life until after the story of the other Tree is taken care of. So after it is introduced at the beginning of the tale, it is not brought up again until the end. But the question remains, If Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat only from the Tree of Knowledge, does that mean that they were free to eat from the Tree of Life?

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad and the Tree of Life both represent endowments which, at the beginning of the story, God possesses and humans lack. After the humans eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, God himself says to his heavenly entourage, “They have become like one of us” (Gen 3:22). This indicates that the humans gain a new capability, one which God and his heavenly companions have already (cf. 2 Sam 14:17). Similarly, we understand that God and the other spirits in the story have eternal life, but that the humans at this stage are mortal and subject to death. How do we know this? Because it is clear from the story that the fruit of the trees has to be eaten only once in order to induce the special effects. One might expect that, as with ordinary fruit, one has to eat regularly to gain the benefits, as the effect of eating wears off rather quickly in ordinary eating. But the narrative about the Tree of Knowledge makes it clear, or seems to, that eating once is enough to gain the permanent benefit. So, for example, when Eve eats from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Bad, the effects are immediate (Gen 3:6-7) and are also permanent, i.e., she does not have to eat from that tree continuously in order to retain the knowledge of good and bad. We should expect the same principle to hold true for the Tree of Life. Eating from its fruit once would give the partaker the gift of eternal life. They would not need to eat again. The fact that God blocks the way to the Tree of Life at the end of the story (Gen 3:22-24) shows that the humans had not yet eaten of it. Therefore, they must have been mortal at the beginning of the story, as well as at the end. They never ate from this tree. So Adam and Eve would have died of natural causes even if they had not disobeyed God. In the mind of the author, the trees represent the separation between animals and gods. Animals have no concept of good and evil, and they die. This story attempts to show how humans came to be in the intermediary position between animalkind and God, possessing the ability to discern right from wrong, but remaining susceptible to death.

There have been many interpretations of “the knowledge of good and bad,” but most have argued that this knowledge was (and continues to be) the sort of knowledge that humans should not have, i.e., it is a knowledge that rightfully belongs only to God. However, a reexamination of this story reveals that, although God initially forbids the humans to acquire this knowledge, he later agrees to allow them to have it. This knowledge is the ability to tell right from wrong (2 Sam 14:17). It is a faculty, not a right, authorization or privilege. In this story, eating from the tree enhances human nature; it doesn’t corrupt it.

The snake in the tale traditionally has been thought to be Satan the Devil (cf. Rev. 12:9). But this identification came many centuries after the story was composed, and the original author makes no mention of a divine adversary of God being involved. To be sure, the motif of a spirit putting his voice into an animal is used elsewhere in the Bible (Num 22:26-31), but there is no indication here that this is taking place. It appears that when the author speaks of a snake, he really means a snake.

Another common view is that the snake in this story utters the first lie in the Bible. But does it really lie? Let’s take a closer look at what it says to Eve. It makes three claims about the consequences of eating from the tree: 1) the humans will not die, 2) their eyes will be opened, and 3) they will become like God (or gods), knowing good and bad. We can be certain that the last two claims are truthful. After Adam and Eve eat, the author says, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened” (Gen 3:7). Now we know that Adam and Eve surely already have the faculty of sight before they eat from the tree, so the expression ‘opening of the eyes’ must refer to a special sort of vision having to do with the knowledge of good and bad. Indeed, a new sense of modesty comes over them, and they make clothes for themselves to wear. We also are assured that the snake’s third claim is true when God himself says, “The man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad” (Gen 3:22). That leaves us to ascertain the truth of the first claim, which directly contradicts something that God said earlier, namely, “From the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat, for in the day you eat from it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). So do the humans die after eating it or not? Well, we can assume that they eventually die from old age some time later. But weren’t they going to die anyway, since they had not eaten of the Tree of Life? Much has been written over the centuries to try to show that God’s prediction comes true. Some have argued that Adam and Eve die a spiritual death that day, that they are no longer “alive” in God’s eyes. But God continues to take care of them as his own children even after this event, does he not? (cf. Gen 3:21; 4:1; 5:25). The author makes no mention at all of a “spiritual” death or anything similar, so are we justified in reading this interpretation into the text? Some argue that Adam and Eve begin to die physically on that day, and it just takes a while for them to finish dying. But it is interesting to note that the author never mentions their physical death. (A different hand composed Gen 5:5). So it would seem that he did not see any significance in this. Others have said that the “day” that God spoke of was not a 24-hour day. To God, a day could be a thousand years (cf. 2 Peter 3:8), and Adam and Eve die before a thousand years have passed. However, we should keep in mind that both God and the snake are speaking about immediate consequences to the eating of the fruit. Both of them use the expression “in the day” (Gen 2:17; 3:5), and they both no doubt mean the same thing, since the snake refers to what God said when he makes his own claim. God said that they would die in the day they ate it, and the snake says they will not die, but instead, in the day they eat it, their eyes will be opened and they will become like gods knowing good and bad. And in the day they eat it (literally), their eyes are opened, and they come to know good and bad. “In the day” clearly means in the day. So the snake is right. We should avoid twisting the tale to make it mean what we think it should mean or reading more into the text than what is there.

But then what is the author saying about God? The Creator doesn’t actually lie, does he? Well, there are only two possible conclusions to draw about this matter. If the death that God warns about is a simple consequence of eating, that is, if it is the effect the fruit produces, then he is not telling the truth. It doesn’t happen as he says it will. Both the serpent and the woman seem to interpret God’s words to mean a simple consequence of eating, which is how many interpreters take it. It is as though parents take a child on a picnic, and the child picks up an interesting-looking mushroom. The parents, fearing unpleasant consequences, might well say, “Don’t you dare eat that, because if you do, you will die.” But now if the death God speaks of is a punishment for disobedience, then he is not necessarily lying. He could have placed the death penalty on the act, but decided upon a different punishment afterward. (God is apt to change his mind in the Hebrew Scriptures.) The divine word (“You shall surely die”) regarding the consequence of eating the fruit is ambiguous and ambivalent. If the verb used in Hebrew were what we call the Hophal, the consequence would be clearly intended as judicial-style punishment. The Hophal is used regularly in the legal codes of the Bible for judicial execution. But here the verb is in the Qal, and the Qal can range in meaning from simple consequence to active punishment. So what does God mean when he says, “You shall surely die!”? The grammar will not help us.

I think it unlikely that the author would have portrayed God as a liar. Surely his readers would have had a difficult time swallowing this idea. On the other hand, we have several stories in the Hebrew Bible which portray God in the other manner. We often see him deciding on a harsh punishment for some criminals or offenders, and then changing his mind and showing mercy to them. For example, when the Israelites make the golden calf and bow down to it (Exod 32:1-6), God threatens to exterminate them (Exod 32:10). But, after reconsidering, “Yahweh repented of the harm that he said he would do to his people” (Exod 32:14). Similarly, when King David kills Uriah and takes Bathsheba as his own, God does not punish David with death, even though it is the penalty for what he has done. Instead, God takes David’s newborn son from him and puts a curse on David’s family (2 Sam 12:9-14). Whether we agree with the punishment or not is irrelevant. The point is that God does not exact the prescribed penalty. He shows compassion. We find another example in close context with the story under discussion here, and which was written by the same author. When Cain kills his brother Abel (Gen 4:8), God does not execute Cain. Instead he banishes him, and, when Cain complains that his life might be in danger under the circumstances, God shows mercy once again and sees to it that no one will kill Cain (Gen 4:11-15). It is interesting that Cain shows no signs of repentance, yet God is compassionate toward him. It would seem then, that in Adam and Eve’s case, the same holds true. God initially puts the death penalty on the crime, but he decides upon a lesser punishment when the humans actually commit the act. For the man, the punishment is hard work cultivating the land, and for the woman, it is birth pangs and male domination. Again, we may not agree with the justice delivered here, but the key is that Adam and Eve’s lives are spared. They do not die. Moreover, they retain the knowledge of good and bad. It is not taken away from them.

The story is reminiscent of the Greek myth about Prometheus: When the time arrives for mortal creatures to be created, the gods, after shaping them, charge Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus to deal faculties to each creature. Epimetheus persuades Prometheus to let him take care of the assignment himself, saying that afterwards Prometheus may check over his work. He gives the animals many different qualities and faculties, but because Epimetheus is lacking in wisdom and foresight, he distributes all properties suited for survival among the animals, but leaves humans unequipped. When Prometheus comes to examine his brother's work, he notices this terrible oversight and, in order to correct his brother's mistake, he steals special skills from the gods, along with fire, so that men can use those crafts, and gives all these gifts to humanity. For this audacious deed, Prometheus pays a high price, being severely punished by the high god Zeus. But among humans he comes to be called ‘benefactor.’

The snake resembles Prometheus. It gives the humans something that belongs only to the gods, something he believes the humans need for survival. It becomes their benefactor. The woman believes the snake. Why? Why is it convincing? The implication clearly is that it knows better because it may have gone through the same experience earlier. Maybe it took the fruit and ate, and that would also explain why and how the snake became the wisest animal in the garden. While the Hebrew word ‘arum is often rendered as “crafty, cunning” or by some other pejorative term, the truth is that, in the Bible as a whole, it is neutral and depends on the context for its coloring. No doubt the word is selected here because of the play on the root ‘rm (with the meaning “naked”), but the word meaning “cunning” can also mean “wise.” And in the events that ensue, the snake is proved to be right. Eating the fruit doesn’t result in the death of the man and the woman. It is only a desire to protect the good name of Yahweh that leads people to rationalize that the humans were made mortal after their disobedience, which in this story is nonsense. The wording and the timing are quite clear. The consequence, death, and the eating are connected immediately and directly, and it just doesn’t happen. They don’t die any more than the snake does. (The snake’s eventual punishment is also watered down.)

If all this is true, then the question is: Why does God leave the trees in the garden and give these trees special powers, if the inhabitants are supposed not to eat of their fruit? The answer centers upon God himself, who knows that the humans need to eat from at least one of the trees, and probably should eat from both of them, but he doesn’t think they are ready for it yet. God really wants them to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, because in order to cope with life they must have enough of the right kind of knowledge to make a credible stab at mature, adult living. At the same time, he doesn’t want them to leave the nest; that will change all the relationships, which is inevitable, but many parents would just as soon put off that evil day, especially if they love their children. So a lot of wasted energy and effort has gone into defending God and projecting scenarios in which he is exculpated. But the questions will persist, and in the end it is the strategy of the author that will concern us rather than trying to square the story with presuppositions and preconceptions about the Godhead.

So now we must ask the question: Does the story have a meaningful message for us? We readily see the primitive view the author has about God, and we find it difficult to accept his characterization of the Deity, as well as other mythological elements in the tale. But what about the overall message? Do we see any inspiration here? I think the most important message contained in the story is the idea that human beings are given a special endowment or faculty—the knowledge of good and bad, or conscience coupled with reason. And this capability, although presented as an illegal acquisition in the story, turns into a gift from God. It is a gift because he allows the humans to retain it and use it freely and fully later on. He accepts that humans have grown up and become less dependent on him. He no longer needs to oversee their every move. They are able to work out the details of rightness and justice for themselves. Why? Because they can! He wants them to. To be sure, they make mistakes, but it is a learning experience.  There is no shame in their possession of this faculty. (Remember that the shame that Adam and Eve experience is embarrassment over being naked, not shame for possessing knowledge of good and bad.) The New Testament picks up on the Eden motif and adds an afterword of hope, namely, the promise that God has decided to allow humans to eat from the other tree, figuratively speaking (Rev 2:7). Eternal life has been opened up to us through Jesus, another wonderful gift that shows that there are no residual ‘hard feelings,’ that both gifts were given to us freely and willingly, and that God desires us to take advantage of both. No guilt and no pollution. Only love. 

© 2003 American Unitarian Conference