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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.




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