Sunday, January 13, 2013

Revisiting Biblical Stories You Think You Know: Adam and Eve

I've been working on a short story inspired by Genesis.  It's gotten me thinking about Biblical stories that have gotten a bad rap or been misinterpreted throughout the years.  I thought I'd post about a few of them, and I'm starting with the most obvious one.  After all, you might as well begin at the beginning.  Adam and Eve, specifically, the eating of the apple.

I can't tell you how many times when I was in college I heard people reference this story as a demonstration that Christianity and the Bible was, at heart, anti-intellectual.  Now, if you're a thinking person, that struggle between the intellectual and the spiritual is a pretty big struggle, and this story is often at the heart of it, this idea that God is so anti-intellectual that he doesn't want Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge.

The thing is, it's not the tree of knowledge.  It's the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  And that's a whole different thing.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Think about it for a minute.  It's the awareness of morality.  That's what gets Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise.  That's what makes them ashamed of being naked.  That's where all the trouble begins.  The development of morality.

But there's more.  The reason Eve eats the fruit.  Eve gets the biggest bad rap of all in this story, but the reason she eats that apple isn't because she's stupid or easily tricked.  It's not because she's evil (she doesn't even know what that is yet, remember?).  She thinks she's doing the right thing.  She eats it because she sees that it is "good for food, pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom."  Gaining wisdom.  She's making the best decision she can with the information available to her.  And remember, she doesn't know about good and evil.

It makes you wonder.  If Adam and Eve don't have a sense of right and wrong yet, then why are they punished?  They're punished just for disobeying.  But if they don't know good and evil, then they don't truly know disobedience as a wrong.  To me, this is the part that makes the story troubling.

Still, it's troubling to me in a good way.  It forces me to meditate on the ethical questions of our decisions and choices.  What weight should be given to obedience as opposed to wisdom or nourishment?  What would be involved in decision-making if you had no notion of good and evil?  Why would a loving God want to protect us from the knowledge of good and evil?  Was it an effort to protect the kind of childlike innocence we see in a newborn child?  And why, through the ages, has Eve been given such a bad rap when she was seeking wisdom?  The Bible has many, many other passages that indicate that the search for wisdom is a good thing.

I don't have answers, but I do believe these questions are worth contemplating.  Like Eve, I am seeking wisdom, I guess.  That quest may mean losing innocence, being cast out of a paradise of contentment.  The questions ruffle the smooth waters of the mind.  So be it.  After all, that's how the journey of humanity begins.  


  1. McGean! After 20 or more years, I've just started this month an attempt at a read-through of the Bible, with my own worksheet of notes, questions, etc. Slow going with the first several chapters of Genesis as I find myself noting down a fair few questions, such as these you've raised. Aside from the stranger/broader questions about the universe, I'm most interested in the matter of the choices we make, our innocence or complicity, etc.
    Of Eve you write “She's making the best decision she can with the information available to her”, and you also suggest something similar of Cain. I’m thinking the story implies they may not have. Whether or not, though, I agree it does present a conundrum.
    Not sure, but I suspect it may be more helpful to replace ‘obedience’ with the word ‘trust’, emphasizing the matter as originally more personal than moral or meta-ethical. Still, this raises questions, but I think the task of wrestling with that is part of what we must do outside of Eden.
    That, and there is this related, mysterious matter of the Tree of Life. There seems to be an odd sort-of revisiting of this with the Tower of Babel… but now I am getting ahead of myself and maybe you. I’ll wait for when/if you post on that that one! Please, carry on!
    Gary M

    1. Funny you should mention Babel. It's on the list of coming attractions. :-)

  2. Cindy,

    Hello from your distant past! And to you, too, Gary!

    Came across this when trying to find the quote (from Macbeth) that you posted after the Sandy Hook tragedy. (And also came across and read your The Battle of the Pewhasset Pie Palace story; very enjoyable; congratulations, from someone who remembers your long-held earnest desires to publish.)

    This passage (and your quote) has some relevance to a sermon I'll be doing in church next Sunday about Sandy Hook.

    Kudos for pointing out that it is not "the tree of knowledge". That has always bugged me in the same way.

    Nonetheless, "the tree of knowledge of good and evil", to be frank, is not exactly much clearer in what it means. A thought occurred to me during the preparation of my message, though, that potentially clears it up a bit.

    Re-title it "the tree of defining good and evil", and then re-read the story, especially "you will be like God, defining good and evil". That would suddenly make it extremely consistent with a -- perhaps "the" -- theme that permeates the Bible from end to end: will you decide for yourself what you should do (and die), or trust and obey God (and live)?

    By the way, Eve only believes it is desirable for gaining wisdom because the serpent has convinced her of that. If "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom", the serpent may have been wrong (surprise, surprise).

    I would also note that Eve must have had some sense that disobedience was wrong and would lead to punishment, or she would not have confirmed God's instruction to the serpent, "You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die." That's another reason why I think "knowledge of good and evil" can't quite mean "awareness that there are two concepts called 'good' and 'evil'".

    Best regards,