Mi amigo Jim MacQuarrie recently posted an interesting & thought provoking essay on what really happens in the Garden of Eden story. It's a fascinating take on the old (and perhaps overly familiar) Bible story, seen with fresh eyes that strip away a lot of cultural baggage we've attached to it. I'm presenting here with Jim's permission after the jump, and my comments will be found after that.
There's been a lot of chatter online about gender issues lately, a lot of it centered on guys who have a low opinion of women or who think women "owe" them something. Women and the men who like them have sounded off about "rape culture," the societal double standards and attitudes that encourage men to think of women as objects that exist for their amusement; some others have posited that it's all women's fault, that women are manipulators who take advantage of men, that the burden is on women to not tempt men or behave in a way that causes men to not be able to control themselves. Some folks, as usual, point to the Bible, particularly the story of Adam and Eve as the source of a lot of all this conflict. I thought I would take a look at Genesis 3, and see what it says about all this. I think this passage is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted in ways that serve the agendas of those doing the interpreting. The traditional "Christianist" (which is a different thing from Christian) view is goes like this: Eve is lied to and manipulated by the serpent, eats the fruit, and instantly becomes a temptress who beguiles her hapless husband and leads him into sin. Once they both have eaten the forbidden fruit, they suddenly, magically become sinful wretches, and wracked by guilt, they put on fig leaves to cover their shameful nakedness. Then God shows up, reads them the riot act, spanks them and kicks them out. From that day to this, women have been leading men astray and causing them to stumble and sin. End scene. Now let's see what it really says.
We'll take the story as given, without debating whether or not it's true, whether or not God is real, or any other theological concerns. The people using the Bible as justification for their attitudes accept it as fact, so let's see if what they claim to believe is actually what they say it is. Whether Genesis is literal history is beside the point; the question is, does it say what these people say it does?
So at the end of Genesis 2, God creates woman and sets up the man with her. We can safely assume that Adam was expected to teach her the rules of the Garden, because we find early on in chapter 3 that she has some idea about them.
And now I'll ask a question: who told the first lie, and what was it?
On to the text:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
Hold it right there. The snake asked a question, a loaded one with an assumption built into it. Did God tell them they couldn't eat any of the plants? Of course not, but it plants the thought that maybe God can't be trusted, he's unreasonable and demanding. So the woman responds, and just like politicians do today, she immediately stakes out an extreme opposite position. She says that God said they couldn't eat from this one tree, and they couldn't even touch it, or they would die. Go back and look (Genesis 2:16-17), God never said anything about not touching the tree; they could touch it, climb on it, swing from the branches, build a treehouse in it, they just couldn't eat from it. So the first lie was told by Eve.
Snake calls her out on it...
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Snake didn't lie. If you pop down to the end of the chapter (3:23), God acknowledges that now the humans are like him, knowing good from evil. Snake told the truth about that.
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Wait a minute. She "gave some to her husband, who was with her"? He stood there listening to this conversation, and never felt like chiming in? Never thought maybe he should set them straight about the facts? Never thought maybe he should stop Eve from taking such drastic action? And then he ate. She didn't tempt him, didn't beguile him, did nothing but hand it to him and he ate it. This will be important in a minute.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Here's where it gets interesting. What does it mean that their eyes were opened? For Eve, it probably means this: She suddenly realized what kind of person Adam was. She looked at him happily eating and suddenly understood what had just happened. She's horrified, betrayed and angry: "You were going to let me die!" He didn't say anything to Snake because he wanted to see what would happen. When she didn't die, he knew it was safe to eat the fruit. He was supposed to love her, care for her, protect her and be her partner, and instead he uses her as his poison detector. What a guy.
When Eve realized she was naked, it wasn't about modesty or sexuality, it was vulnerability. "I can't trust you," she thought. She was afraid of her husband and felt exposed and helpless. She knew that her husband could and would use and exploit her without any regard for her safety, health or happiness, because he just had. She needed protection, so she covered herself up. Adam just followed her fashion lead. For Adam, it was the realization that he could lie, could do what he wanted without regard for whether or not it was right or good. He discovered he had free will. He also discovered that so did she, and she might want payback. Distrust was invented.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
They hid because they were afraid. Why? Because they suddenly had another thought; God had said "in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." They had assumed that this meant the fruit would kill them. But it didn't. But if the fruit wasn't poisonous, then that meant God was coming to kill them now. So they hid, but it didn't work. God found them. Adam had to think fast.
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Like the stand-up guy that he is, Adam does what comes naturally; he looks for somebody to blame. He doesn't even mention the serpent, because that might lead to awkward questions about his failure to intervene. "It was the woman's fault, she did it, she tricked me, and it's your fault for making her. So if you're going to kill somebody, you should kill her and leave me alone, because I was framed, it's not my fault, you should blame yourself for making that horrible woman who ruined everything, please don't kill me!"
So God turns to the woman to see if she can do better.
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
She, to her credit, doesn't try to throw Adam under the bus. She whitewashes her own end of the conversation a little bit, but the reality is that Snake had confused and upset her, leading into all this mess. Ultimately, she accepts the blame and whatever that brings. She's better than Adam, and he knows it.
There was nothing magical or supernatural about the fruit. What changed when they ate was their relationship with each other and God. Fear, distrust, and doubt were now a part of their lives. Vulnerability and openness were now dangerous liabilities.
Then we get to the punishments, or at least that's how it's usually described.
So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Since we haven't settled on a particular interpretation as to who or what the serpent is (pretty sure it's not actually a snake), I'm not going to bother with trying to figure out any particular meaning for this "curse," since it has nothing to do with humans. Shrug. Let's just accept that this isn't one of Kipling's "Just So" stories, it's not "How the Serpent Lost Its Legs," and the serpent is really the least important part of the story; we're looking at how this tale impacts men and women. Where it gets interesting is what comes next... To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
It sounds like he's a bit petty, but think about history for a minute, and you see that God's not cursing Eve at all; he's just stating the fact of what will happen. He's saying, "look, you guys have started thinking now; that means people's brains are going to get bigger with each generation, and those big brains need big skulls, but your pelvises aren't going to get bigger, so it's going to hurt when you birth them." He also touches on the conflicted nature of human relationships, the fact that women want to be with men, even though men are often unreliable and selfish.
Then we get to Adam.
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’
“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
I don't think he's literally putting a curse on the ground here; he's letting Adam know that everything has changed, entirely because Adam betrayed his wife. They can't go back to the carefree and innocent life in the Garden, eating when they feel like it, lolling around in the grass and being on permanent vacation. God tells him "sorry, bud, but you blew it; you broke trust with the girl and you have to repair that, and it's not a one-time deal. You have to devote your life and energy to making sure she feels safe, secure and protected, and you have to do it over again every day, because the thing she most needs to be protected from is you. You have to prove yourself to her, and keep proving yourself to her, or you'll die alone and unloved." Adam threw her under the bus, and now he has to build a better life for her by the sweat of his brow, because he owes it to her.
So where does that leave us?
Naturally Adam felt some resentment about this situation; most likely he still didn't get it, still didn't understand what he'd done wrong or why he should be punished for it, so he continued to tell himself (and anyone who would listen) about how "his old lady" trapped him. And for thousands of years, people who ought to know better have accepted and circulated Adam's lie; they have bought into the self-serving myth that Eve was a temptress who misled and deceived the poor helpless man that she was supposed to love and obey, adding their own self-serving myth that all women are heirs to Eve's sinful nature. Women are told that it is therefore good and just that men should force them to cover up lest they corrupt any innocent men. Women are taught that it is their responsibility to follow these dictates, but they are also taught that defying the rules gives them power over men.
Maybe it's time to rethink the old dynamic a bit.
Maybe instead of demonizing women as evil temptresses (and thereby teaching them that the road to success in the world is by being an evil temptress), we could accept them as human beings, and maybe instead of pretending that men are helpless slaves to their hormones who need to be shielded from the evil temptresses, we could teach them that women are just people like them.
The trouble started with distrust. Eve learned to not trust her husband. Perhaps it will stop when men are trustworthy and women don't feel endangered by them. God's "curse" on them was actually an attempt to push them to rebuild their relationship with each other, and through that, their relationship with him. But we are a slow and stubborn people. We only learn the hard way, and then only after we've exhausted all other possibilities.
Maybe if we ditch Adam's lie, we can start accepting women as equal partners, stop being resentful and childish when they don't act like the old rules say they should, and nutjobs will have one less excuse to go on shooting sprees. Just a thought, y'know?
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It's fascinating what we find when we rip away human traditions and see what the text actually says.
For instance, before God creates Eve for Adam, he tells him about the two special trees, the tree of life (which He put no prohibitions on) and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which He tells Adam "of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou dost not eat of it, for in the day of thine eating of it -- dying thou dost die." (Young's Literal Translation).
So, contrary to the Creationists, death apparently existed in God's plan for the Garden before the fall, else there would be no need of a tree of life which in the King James Version grants eternal life but in Young's seems to indicate an extraordinarily long life. God has apparently pointed out the tree of good and evil to Adam, but doesn't seem to have done so with the tree of life.
Could this be because God expected Adam & Eve to explore & experiment & learn, and eventually find which tree in the garden was the tree of life?
In any case, the "you will surely die" curse does not necessarily seem to be "I'm gonna git you, sucka!" (paraphrased) but "eat the wrong fruit and you won't get the really great dessert". So God seems to have biological death figured in from the git go & was holding the fruit of the tree of life for such time as Adam & Eve were ready to appreciate it.
Personally, I do not think there was any special quality -- not supernatural, not psychotropic -- to the tree of the knowledge of good & evil; I think it was any old fruit tree that God happened to pick. The key to the name is "knowledge" and by disobeying God and knowing it was possible to disobey God and knowing one had indeed willfully disobeyed God, then the knowledge of what was good and what was evil was imparted.
Once could say, in a like manner, that a rosebush is the bush of the knowledge of pleasure & pain. If one has led such a sheltered life that one has never experienced pain, then a rosebush will impart a knowledge of the difference between the two PDQ.
Finally, who or perhaps what was the Serpent? We've always considered him an autonomous character in the story, but if he is then that makes God kind of a stupe, doesn't it? Like letting a know child molester run a kindergarten.
I read an article a while back that raised an interesting possibility, that the Serpent is none other than our old friend Mr Johnson, and Eve was was lead astray by Adam (who, as is the case with far too many men, liked to pretend he was not responsible for decisions made by the little head). In this reading she is eager to please her mate, even as far too many otherwise rational women are to please the men in their lives even when it involved something ethically sketchy or even outright wrong or (worse yet) stupid.
This would fit with Jim's reading of the text, because once again it has Adam callously letting Eve take the risks so he can see what will happen and, when he thinks it's okay, he accepts the fruit she offers.