The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall 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 an 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 to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, 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 loincloths for themselves.(This and other passages quoted in this explanation are taken from the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. This reading is from 2:25-3:8, NRSV)
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.
People who are used to children's picture books, and Church and Sunday School, read this story with a mass of assumptions that confuse the situation. They think of a stone age caveman and his woman, both naked, and Satan coming out of the tree in the form a snake. The text is then overlaid with a doctrine of original sin which suggests that from this time onwards every single man woman and child deserves eternal damnation in the fires of hell.
So let's try coming to the story as if we had picked it off the Internet without ever hearing it before. We should let the story explain itself in its own terms. We certainly have an account of something that has gone very badly wrong among humans. That sounds familiar and rather relevant.
So we begin with the people involved. Are they savages, or angels from heaven, or ghosts, or fantasy characters from some ancient space fiction? The answer is given in the previous chapter. "The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." First there is a chemical definition. In modern terms these humans are made up of the hundred or so atomic elements of modern chemistry. And when they die they go back to being the dust from which they are made. "You are dust and to dust you shall return."
These humans are also defined zoologically. Like all the other animals, they need oxygen for the breath of life. "To every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life I have given every green plant for food." And, like the animals, the bodies of humans without oxygen inevitably die.
But in addition to a chemical and zoological definition the characters in our story are given a spiritual definition. "God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them."
We are unfortunately brainwashed by a definition of humans in terms or morphology or bone shape. Anthropologists tell us that various species of hominid have walked on two feet for a couple of million years. But defining humans by their bone shape is about as intelligent as defining computers by the boxes they come in. My first computer was a Kaypro, which admittedly had an ugly box. The second was a Panasonic lap top which was far more elegant than my later Compaq 486. Just now I am typing this on an IBM Pentium with Windows 95, but frankly the box at first sight looks rather primitive.
What defines us is not bone shape but what activities we can engage in. The ability to paint a likeness on a cave wall for example may not prove that Cro-Magnon man, whose bone shape was more or less the same as ours, was a genuine image of God human twenty thousand years ago. There are hundreds of software companies that could easily design a robot to take digital pictures of deer, and lions, and elephants, and then crawl into a long cave and print them in color on the walls.
But what if we asked Microsoft or Corel to make us a computer that could communicate with God? Say we specified that it should be able to discuss questions of right and wrong, talk back to God, praise what was beautiful and morally excellent, give thanks, worship, and be capable of resurrection for life in heaven. Just giving those specification proves that in addition to being dust of the earth and breathing oxygen like the other animals, the humans in our story require a totally different quality of spiritual life.
As we will see, the story also speaks of different kinds of death. The chemical construction of our bodies dies when the molecular structure reverts to dust. And the writer of the story may have laughed at the Pharaohs of Egypt who had their bodies embalmed and put in a vast tomb to prevent that happening. The writer of our story might laugh even louder at the billions of dollars spent by the medical establishment in our day to delay the death of our animal bodies.
God had said "In the day that you eat of it you shall die," but having eaten the couple did not die because a quite different kind of death was in mind. We might wonder why governments in their strange wisdom never think of putting even a dollar in the budget to prevent spiritual death and all its dismal results in our lives.
Next we should note the family setting. "A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." But we should remember that in the ancient world a family was not defined by who had sex with whom but by which people had a right to eat at the family table. Even in our world, especially for children, the family table is of supreme importance for their sense of belonging.
Here a man has left the home of his parents to eat with a woman, who was to be "a helper as his partner." But male Chauvinists should beware of using this text to treat their partner as subservient. Exactly the same word helper is used in the well known Psalm. "I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:,2, as in 70:5,6). The woman is partner in the same sense as we need God as our partner!
And in fact in the story it is obviously the woman who turns out to be the stronger person. "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 to be desired to make one wise, she took of is fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband." Here again we note the threefold symbolic description of the fruit as gourmet food, aesthetically beautiful, and the source of wisdom. This not ordinary eating.
The setting of what goes wrong is also important. In Hebrew the word eden means joy or rapture. So the man and the woman are set in The Garden of Joy. And by the end of the story they are pictured as both miserable on ruined land thick with thorns and thistles.
Things always go wrong for humans in a particular setting. Living in a forest with pigmies might sound idyllic, but we know that hatred, greed, and sexual abuse will be as common among them as among us. To a city dweller a village in the country looks quaintly appealing till you go and live there, and soon discover the petty cruel meanness of some of the nicest people. Every new government, every newly created company, and college, and hospital, and new human institution of any kind, begins with a vision of joy. And so does every marriage. But why, why do things go so badly wrong?
In our story the suggestion of evil comes from a snake. In village India a woman cooks under a thatched roof next to the house. Suddenly she is fascinated by a cobra moving gently as if talking to her. In many areas the cobra is worshipped for that reason. On Bay street in Toronto, or a modern hospital, or a subdivision family, the first suggestion of evil won't come from a snake. Each situation will have its own means of insinuation.
Nor does evil grow on trees. "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." What goes wrong is not from poisonous fruit but being infected by moral evil.
Temptation has a sequence. First there is a half truth. "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" And the woman corrects the snake to point out that God allowed them to eat from any of the beautiful fruits which were there in the garden for their joy. The one thing they must not do is to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was deadly.
What really got to the woman was the sneering suggestion that God didn't really love her. "God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil." Having forbidden her something, God was holding back what made life worth living. It is true that God knows the outcome of both good and evil, but humans easily get the idea that they cannot know like God till they actually do what is wrong. Among head hunters you don't know anything till you have your first scalp. In North America there is the idea that a virgin knows nothing till he or she has had sex. A new gang member cannot know without joining in a gang rape. And others say that until you feel the inrush of heroin shooting into your veins you know nothing.
With a minimum of words the story tells us the result. We now know that guilt is the most pervasive and destructive of human conditions. It makes us hide from relationships with others, and with God, and even with ourselves. In the Garden of Joy the couple had been naked and unashamed. Now "the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." If anybody has ever tried, they will know that it is totally impossible to stitch a pair of panties from fig leaves. But the metaphor is an exact fit for the misery of trying to cover up one's own guilt.
Guilt always results in blaming others for what has gone wrong. Adam first blamed God for being so stupid as to give him a partner, and then blamed her for what had gone wrong. "The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate." The woman's explanation is more subtle. "The serpent tricked me and I ate." In our day we have a billion dollar industry of people who are paid to give us explanations for what has gone wrong in our life. We can blame our mother's toilet training, or the coldness of our father, or abuse of one kind or another. There is certainly sexual and every other kind of abuse in every country of our world, but guilt is never healed by finding others to blame. In a moment we will see that the story offers a cure which seems too simple to be true. That's what makes it worth trying.
But first we should note some social consequences of what has gone wrong. "In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Child rearing has become the miserable chore that some women experience. And instead of a partnership of loving mutuality, patriarchal male chauvinism has downgraded women into subservience.
In the work place of government agencies, corporations, universities and schools, hospitals, sports and the arts, people find to their horror that their best efforts often produce exactly the opposite of what was intended. Instead of a garden, "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you." By the next chapter we have the first murder with Cain killing his brother Abel.
So the bad news is rather too modern for our comfort. But the story also suggests some very good news. "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze." God has made us in his image, and the astonishing fact is that he wants to walk with us. Instead of hiding and wallowing in guilt, God would prefer us to go for a walk with him. Except in our concrete jungles, going for a walk with someone is a sign of beautiful intimacy. It is an opportunity to share heart to heart alone. And as we open ourselves to Him, we find ourselves healed, forgiven, loved, and given the strength to begin picking up the pieces to live again.
Some suggestions for further reading around this story can be found on this site. In the Essays section "The Cake" deals with creation and evolution. "The Late Date Genesis Man" suggests that true image of God humans came suddenly on the scene much later than we imagined. Under Books there is a fuller explanation of the mutuality God has in mind in Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage by Robert and Mollie Brow. The chapter on "Advent" in the book on Model Theology suggests that the eternal Son of God has kept making his advents among true humans, and still comes to us in many ways. The book titled Living Totally: Without Guilt discusses what guilt is and how we can live without it.