The theme for this month’s e-bulletin is transforming our lives. Probably the most famous statement of self transformation in western culture is the Yahwist narrative of Eve and Adam in the Garden of Eden. The story describes what we might call a negative transformation- the pair “fell” from a state of childlike innocence and were banished from paradise. Understanding that transformation, however, can help us to reverse it. Here’s the story.
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”
To begin with the obvious, this is a myth, and not a statement of historical fact. Eve, Adam, the tree, and the serpent, are symbolic. The writer, whom we call the Yahwist, was a faithful and intelligent analyst of the relationship between God and humankind. S/He relates this narrative in order to describe some fundamental dimensions of human life. Further, as we shall see, both the divine prohibition and the temptation of the serpent represent a dialogue that Eve is having with herself. Some cosmic force of evil, embodied in a satan now manifest as a serpent, is not the cause of human corruption. There are only three characters on stage here: woman, man, and God.
The scene opens with Eve, apparently alone in the midst of the garden, pondering her existence. Adam may have been there, but plays no role in Eve’s deliberations. She is alone. Eve is caught in the paradox of a strange prohibition: that which is forbidden is also most desirable. Consider the circumstances: the tree of which humans are not to eat is the tree of the “the knowledge of good and evil”. The phrase in Hebrew does not denote a moral awareness of good and evil, but rather a full and practical knowledge of all matters, from right to left, top to bottom, front to back, good to evil. In other words, the tree and its fruit represent total knowledge of the full range of human experience.
It is commonly assumed at this point that eating the fruit made Adam and Eve “like” God, and that God, in turn, for some unknown reason having forbidden knowledge to them, now cast them out of the garden. This interpretation, however, is not without great difficulty. In the first place, could the Yahwist actually have believed that full knowledge was or is attainable by human beings? This is doubtful. Secondly, why would God prohibit such knowledge, which is not morally bad, but simply extensive? Such a prohibition is inconsistent with the previously given divine command to have dominion over the creation, a dominion which, if exercised properly, would require the “knowledge of good and evil”.
It is impossible that anyone could know and experience everything, even in a state of innocence. The act of eating the fruit, therefore, does not symbolize that Eve attained full knowledge, but that she now acted as if she did. That’s the point. She was no wiser at all. One moment Adam and Eve are innocently open to their environment. The next, they are imposing on their environment their own artificial and self-contained world-views. It is an existential transition that symbolizes the loss of contact with the real world, and the enclosure of Eve and Adam in worlds of their own construction. Eve, alone and pondering her existence, represents a fateful transition from innocent openness to the world to the creation of a little world with Eve as ruler. Her transition is our transition, the end result is our result: we shape reality to suit our taste. We make reality fit our notion of what it should be.
In this sense, the serpent was absolutely correct: to eat of the tree will make you believe you are all-wise. But sadly, of course, we are not. Humankind’s temptation is to assume that our experience is all experience, that our little world is the real world. The temptation is inescapable; we are created tempted. The problem is that we give in to the temptation. Having given in, dire consequences follow. We lose peace with ourselves: Eve and Adam are ashamed. We lose our openness to the universe: they hide when they hear God coming. We lose our respect and love for one another: Adam puts the blame on Eve. Lastly, we lose our harmony with the earth and its creatures: Eve blames the serpent. The consequence of fitting reality to our pattern is the total disordering of human life.
The story of Eve and Adam underscores the fact that we universalize on the basis of our solitary existence. The human being, symbolically incarnate in Eve’s solitary and fateful decision, becomes encapsulated in their own little world, a process of which we are unaware.
There is no tree and God has not forbidden the pair to eat of it. What we have is the Yahwist describing a dichotomy of human existence, a pulling in two directions. On the one hand, there is the desire to be all-wise, tempted not by the devil, not by God, but just by the conditions of life itself. We are bombarded constantly by sensory experience, and we want order. We need order. We want things to fit, so much so, that we would impose order where there is no order. We create our own world.
On the other hand, we ought to know better! This is where the divine prohibition plays its role. We ought to realize that our experience is limited. We ought to realize that our mind is shaping experience to fit preconceived notions. But we don’t. We are inclined to give in to the temptation.
Surprisingly, it was Eve’s very desire for fulfillment that caused her downfall. Rightfully seeking wholeness and meaning in life, she mistakenly begins to fit everything into her little world, thereby losing touch with reality. We want to be whole, but our experience is limited and fragmented, so we try to encompass everything in our framework, and in the process become closed in upon ourselves.
Amazingly, the root cause of human corruption, therefore, is not the pride of “trying to be like God”, which would only call for further clarification. Nor is it sex, or the devil, or predestination by a whimsical god. It is, rather, our very struggle to be human which causes our inhumanity. We create the void because we seek fulfillment. It is our search for wholeness and happiness that is the cause of our undoing because the search takes a wrong turn and we begin to absolutize.
Finally, one last element to consider. Eve’s downfall was precipitated neither by the serpent nor by the fruit, for the temptation was always there. Rather, it was the fact that she was alone that facilitated her giving in to the temptation. Whether or not Adam was physically present is immaterial. The point is that he had no function in the existential deliberations of his partner. Eve, alone, ate. Then Adam. They did not correct one another. They were not critical of one another. The Fall, it would seem, was precipitated by one person being ethically absent from the other. Mythically represented in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden is the fact that in the struggle of life, human beings cannot stand alone. Striving for wholeness, without the lovingly corrective or supportive presence of another, we fabricate a oneness that does not exist. We create a view of reality that seems good, but does not correspond to the way things actually are. The fruit is eaten. Alone one falls. The absence of human beings one to another, the loss of loving community, is the ultimate source of the misery we impose on one another as we fall into the void.
If there is any lesson to be learned from this, it is that we need continually to overcome our temptation to behave as though our interpretation of realty is reality itself. In part, we are blind. We are provincial. We do live in a box, in the dark. In our little world.
Of course, worlds can and do change, especially as we open ourselves in dialogue in community. We are capable of learning, of expanding our horizons, of challenging our own assumptions. But no matter how much progress we make in this endeavor, we never reach the end of the road. There is always more of our “world” that needs to be unraveled and transformed. That’s what makes life so exciting: we can continually grow into our higher nature. There is always more to be and to learn and to experience, and that is the essence of life.