The Garden of
Good and Evil
One of the best known
stories in the world is the Bible tale of the Garden of Eden (the Book of
Genesis, chapter 2, verse 4, through the end of chapter 3). Many people
believe two things about this story that I think are not true. The first
of these is that Adam and Eve were actual people who lived in a real place
called Eden. The second is that the story tells us the human race is
sinful and that life is hard because God is punishing us. Let me explain.
The story of Adam and
Eve in Eden is not supposed to be history. The name "Adam" means simply
"human being." When people in a story have names like this, we are reading
a fable or a myth, not a story of facts. When we read further and meet
another character who is a talking snake, we have to wonder how anyone
ever thought this story could be historical fact!
So the story of Eden is
not fact but fable. Many fables teach important truths. Does this one?
Wait and see. But first, here is why I think the Eden myth does not teach
that the human race is sinful. God is another major character in the
story, but is he the "good guy" or the "bad guy"? We usually hear that the
snake is the villain, and that he is somehow the same as the devil. But
the story says nothing about any devil. The devil is a character in other
Bible stories but not this one. But not only is the snake not the devil;
he is not even evil! I say the snake is supposed to be the hero of the
story, the friend of the human race. Let's summarize the action.
God creates the man and
the woman and tells them to keep their hands off one particular tree in
the Garden they live in (2:16-17; 3:2). He warns them it is deadly poison:
if they make the mistake of eating it, they will drop dead the same day.
They assume this is true until the snake comes along and tells them God is
lying to them: the fruit of the tree is in fact not poisonous. Why then
would God say it was? Because the fruit will give them what he has:
knowledge of good and evil (3:4-5). And this God wants to keep all to
himself. As we read the story up to this point, we ask, "Who is telling
the truth? God or the serpent?" Most readers just cannot imagine the story
would show God as a liar. But the only way to answer the question is to
keep reading. What actually happens once they eat the fruit? Number one:
they don't die. Number two: their eyes are opened (3:7) and they gain the
knowledge of good and evil (3:22). Who would you say told the truth? God
or the snake?
God has knowledge, but
he seems not to know everything, because he only gradually pieces together
what happened (3:8-11). Once he realizes the humans have outwitted him he
condemns them to forfeit eternal life (though they do not die at once; he
only exiles them from Eden), and he makes life as difficult for them as he
can: hard labor, painful childbirth, alienation from nature. And he rushes
them out of Eden as soon as he can so they will not eat of the Tree of
Life. If they do this, if they get hold of the secret of immortality, Adam
and Eve will have pretty much become gods. God is already not the only God
(he speaks to the others at the end of the story, 3:22), and he doesn't
want even more competition! So out they go!
Who is the villain in
this story? Isn't it God? After all, he is the one who lies and wants to
keep the man and the woman in the dark. Who is the hero? Isn't it the
snake? God cuts off his limbs and forces him and all future snakes to
crawl (3:14). The poor snake seems to be the helper of the human race, and
he heroically pays a high price for helping us. God is like a slave master
who is kindly enough until his slaves decide they don't want to be slaves
anymore. Does the story say anything about human beings becoming evil or
sinful? Or isn't it about our heroic struggle to gain knowledge, to think
for ourselves about good and evil?
Personally, I think the
character of "God" in the story stands for those who are in charge of
religion and do not want us to think for ourselves. These are the
religious leaders who have opposed scientific discovery, jailed Galileo,
outlawed the theory of evolution, burned people at the stake for thinking
for themselves. Even if we have to pay a high price for it, it is worth
standing up for the right to think freely. People claim to be speaking for
God only when they want to frighten us into obeying them instead of
deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
Copyright©2009 by Robert
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