Not long ago I discovered that one of my Facebook friends – a former student named Sean – had actually replied to a couple of my earlier posts on this topic. The last time that anyone commented on one of my posts was back in 2012, so I’d gotten out of the habit of looking for comments. So, first off, an apology to Sean for taking so long to respond.
Sean’s response was one of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking responses that I’ve ever received on these issues (but that’s typical of him). He recommended a book on the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas that will be, as of my next Amazon order, added to the Monster (There’s a time-eating monster in my basement composed of books that I want to read. It’s growing at an alarming rate.)
One of Sean’s assumptions (which he clearly labeled as such, thank you) was that God is all-good and perfect. From there he proceeds to the idea that when God created Adam and Eve, the only way that they could be different from God (who is all-good and perfect) is if they were in some way defective. I have a problem with that. It says that Adam and Eve were doomed from the start. No matter how well-intentioned they might have been, no matter how obedient they tried to be, they were going to fail. Taking them to task over that failure seems unfair to me.
I am something of a maker myself. Among other things, I have built model locomotives and written a few computer programs. More often than I would like (but less often as I’ve developed my skills), I don’t get things quite right: the drive train in the locomotive isn’t lined up just right and the locomotive doesn’t perform as desired or the code isn’t quite right and the program does some unexpected (usually undesirable) thing. The responsibility for those failures doesn’t belong to the locomotive or to the program. They’re simply performing as I built them. As their maker, I am responsible for their flaws. I can either go back in and try to correct them or I can learn to live with them. God’s response to Adam and Eve’s flaw – to hold them and all of their descendents responsible and punish them all (Genesis 3:16-19) – seems really unjust to me.
All of this led me to reread the story of the creation of humanity. My understanding of the story before now was that God created Adam and Eve. They lived in Eden – a paradise – where they could do pretty much whatever they wanted except to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They disobeyed that one commandment and as a result were driven from paradise into a world of sorrow, pain, and reality TV.
Rereading the story was an interesting experience.
So, God created Adam and plunked him down in Eden as a gardener (Genesis 2:15) and tells him that he can eat whatever fruit he wants, except for the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16). Interestingly, God appends what turns out to be a falsehood to the commandment: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” We find out later that not only does Adam not die right when he eats the fruit, but that he lives a good long life.
Then Adam suffers from a bit of mission creep. God now asks him to add taxonomist to his job description and he has to name all of the critters that God creates (Genesis 2:18-20). Let’s skip over the fact that this order – make a man first and then all the animals – contradicts what was said in Genesis 1 (plants and animals on days 4 and 5 and man on day 6) and just move on. Since none of the animals was a “suitable helper” for man, God created a woman (Genesis 2:21-24). Chapter 2 closes by noting that they were naked and were not ashamed (to which I respond, why should they be?). Given later material, the intent here was to show that they did not know good from evil, right from wrong.
Chapter 3 starts with the serpent speaking to Eve. The serpent asks about what fruits Adam and Eve may eat and in Genesis 3:2-3 she replies, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, or you will die.’” Once again that falsehood has been stated and the serpent calls it out: “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5).” Twice now the author of Genesis writes that God lied about the effects of eating the fruit.
We all know what happened next. Eve took the fruit, gave some to Adam, and they ate it. Thus, they broke God’s one commandment. But, think about this carefully. Yes, they ate the fruit they were told not to eat. But, what fruit was it? The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Prior to eating it, they would not have understood that eating it was wrong even though they had been told not to; they didn’t know the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong. To illustrate the change, the author notes that they now knew they were naked and covered themselves (Genesis 3:7). So their “sin” was committing an act that – within the logic of the story – they did not and could not know was wrong. How is punishing them for that act just? Even flawed human systems of justice get that: we treat children and those with diminished mental capacity differently.
And, as I noted above, God didn’t just punish Adam and Eve (and the serpent), the ones who actually committed the “sin.” He punished all of their descendants, too (Genesis 3:16-19). I just can’t understand how that qualifies as good or just.
Now, the way I’ve usually heard the story is that Adam and Eve were driven from Eden because they broke God’s commandment. That’s not, however, what is reported in Genesis. Chapter 3 closes this way:
22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. 24 So He drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden He stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.
So, Adam and Eve were actually driven from Eden to keep them from becoming immortal (which, incidentally, contradicts one of Sean’s claims about prelapsarian man).
I want to close with one thing I do understand. I understand Eve’s motivation. “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 desirable to make one wise [emphasis added], she took from its fruit and ate… (Genesis 3:6). She sought wisdom, she sought knowledge. I cannot fault that, the same seeking is at the root of why I do what I do. To learn, to discover, to – in John Denver’s words – “be part of the movement and part of the growing, part of beginning to understand…” What higher purpose could there be? To tell the truth, faced with the choice, I’d have eaten the bloody fruit, too.