Paradise and Humanity

May 28, 2007

Genesis 2.16-17:

16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but 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.”

And after the fall, Genesis 3.22-24:

22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

I was reminded at church last Sunday, by an old white man, that the “main point” of the creation story is human disobedience against God. He was comfortable with this main point. In fact, his faith is probably based on the idea that our disobedience occasioned God’s gift of Christ to the world, a gift which in turn leads to his moral code: be obedient and good out of thanksgiving for that gift. He might be exactly right.

I was so reminded because, thinking outloud, I had questioned this main point of the creation story. In the garden of Eden, as it is presented to us in Genesis, Adam and Eve live in a land where there was no need for suspicion. If all the animals were good and sin had not yet entered into the world, then how could Eve or Adam possibly know what obedience or disobedience was? There were no moral decisions in the garden of Eden. I imagine that it was natural and automatic for them to keep the only command they had received, i.e. to eat not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, it seems that before eating of that tree, it would be impossible for Adam and Eve to make an informed decision on whether to eat of it or not–they had no knowledge of good or evil. They simply did not eat because God so intructed them. This was not obedience because no other option was possible. In other words, disobedience was impossible. Likewise, when the snake puts forward additional information, that the fruit of the tree will make them wise, they have no reason to doubt this. They had no way of recognizing bad, spiteful, or sinful information.

Adam and Eve then eat the fruit for two reasons. First, their sensory apparatus has shown them that the fruit was beautiful and looked nutritious. This information was always available to their animal senses. They didn’t need knowledge of good and evil to know this about the fruit. Second, they base their decision to eat on the new information about the fruit given to them by the snake. The snake tells them that the fruit is also good to make one wise and like God. There is a subtle implication in the text that the two will want to be like God, and might even be angry with God for not telling them up front that this fruit will make them like God. The only way they could have these desires in the garden of paradise, however, was if God planted these desires within them. These are not the desires of people who don’t know what jealousy, anger, deceit, and self-interest are.

Adam and Eve were singularly unprepared to make moral decisions by their previous experiences in Eden. They were little more than animals, with no ethical faculties whatsoever. The fact that they eat makes sense given that the last piece of information that they receive before eating the fruit comes from the snake. They had no way of weighing the snake’s words against the previous ones spoken by God. They had no values, no sense of scale, no ability to know right from wrong. They, in my estimation, were not humans as we know them. A possible exception to this would be if God had planted human sinfulness and judgment in them all along, thus equipping them for the confrontation with the snake. If this is the case, then the fall happened before the decision to eat; the fall happened at creation itself.

All of this is speculation, as is the original recording of the events in the garden. We don’t know what paradise looks like. The writer of Genesis didn’t know either. The problem with the scriptural depiction of paradise, as with many others, is that we have no idea of how to imagine humanity in Eden. We are sinful. That is who we are. In a place with no sin, we seem not to fit. Adam and Eve either don’t belong in Eden, or they are not human. True, sinful humans in paradise seem to be very threatening to God. God sends them out where we belong–out here in the world. How strange to be creatures that come from a place where we can no longer exist as we are.

(Sculpture is “Temptation” by Edgar Tolson, 1970)


5 Responses to “Paradise and Humanity”

  1. One of my favorite takes on the Genesis story comes from Irenaeus (sic) who imagined Adam and Eve being created as children and the serpent’s temptation was to get them to grow up too fast: God told them they were not ready to eat the fruit and the serpent convinced them they were grown up enough. Seems like a pretty good take on human history as a whole.


    PS — the main point of the creation story to me is God did it and thought it was good.

  2. Matthew Says:

    I like this Brett. Of course I have the season finale of Lost on my brain (just re-watched the tape last night) and wonder if there are not hints of this same dynamic. Jack want to go back to the island, but he doesn’t know how. He thought he wanted off, wanted to go “home” but discovers too late that his desire has betrayed him.

    yes, I know I am reading way too much into a TV show. But it is the one I am completely hooked on at the moment.

  3. sheepdays Says:

    Milton, I go for your idea of the “main point.” The main point generally is God and what God is doing. God called it good, but as humans wrote it, there is some real and understandable ambivalence about the inherent goodness of it. Where did that snake come from?

    Matt, I haven’t seen even one episode of “Lost” I’m sorry to say. But I think you’re probably on to something. This paradise/fallenness narrative is foundational in our culture.

  4. Charles Says:

    Sometimes I think I’m the only white American male who is going to hell — and then I read your stuff and realize I’ll have the company of one more! (tongue FIRMLY planted in cheek!)

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Yeah, I’ll meet you there. I hear that’s where all the good bands are anyhow. 😉

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