Genesis 2:15 – 3:22 tells a story of Adam and Eve, supposedly the first humans to exist. In the story God puts these first humans in a garden. There they have plenty of food for only one tree is off limits to them. This one tree, God says, is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He says the humans will die the day they eat that fruit.
Then a crafty serpent speaks to Eve and tells her that eating from that one tree will not kill her but open her eyes and make her like God. She eats it and gives some to Adam. They realize they are naked and sew fig leaves together to cover themselves.
God comes walking in the garden and calls to them. They say they were hiding because they were naked. God asks who told them they were naked and whether they have eaten from that one tree. Adam says that Eve, the woman God gave him, had given him the fruit, and Eve says the serpent tricked her.
Then God tells the serpent he will crawl on his belly all the days of his life. He tells the woman she will suffer pain and childbearing. He tells the man he will have to toil for his food. Then the man and women are sent out of the garden.
Share this story with children who have not been taught to blindly accept that the Bible is good and you get some interesting responses.
“Why did God plant the tree right there if he didn’t want them to eat it?”
“If God was all knowing, didn’t he know they would eat it?”
“Why doesn’t the fruit kill them the day they eat it? Did God lie to them?”
“Why doesn’t God want people to know good from evil? Did God want to keep them ignorant?”
“God sounds mean.”
“How could all people come from two people? Where did their kids find husbands and wives?”
The story of Adam and Eve is a myth. It is a story people wrote to convey something about how they understood the human experience, but it isn’t real. Something being a myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing though. Myths can have lots of different meanings and speak to people in different ways.
Some people pointed out that in the story Adam and Eve don’t just disobey God, they also blame others for their own decisions. Adam blamed Eve for coaxing him to eat the fruit and God for creating Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. The writers thought that Adam and Eve should have accepted responsibility and pleaded for mercy instead of trying to defend themselves. They wanted people to accept responsibility and plead for mercy whenever they do wrong.
Yet the same story some use to argue is a sign people need to take responsibility for their actions was at times used as an excuse for why people misbehave in the first place. Some Christians the idea that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve mean we share in their guilt and are frail and prone to mistakes like them.
Some Christians saw the myth of Adam and Eve as being just one part of a larger story, like one Star Wars episode in a trilogy. To them the story is that the Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden of Eden but Jesus came later and fixed things so people would go into a heavenly garden after their death (or, to some of them, that Jesus fixed things so someday there would be a paradise again on Earth). In medieval times people said that the cross Jesus died on was a parallel to the tree in the garden of Eden.
Some Christians thought the myth of Adam and Eve wasn’t the first part of the story, but the second part of a three-part story. They patched together several different myths, saying that before humans were created there was an angel in heaven named Lucifer. In heaven there was only one restriction on Lucifer and his fellow angels. They were supposed to worship God and recognize God’s authority. Lucifer didn’t want to do that, so he tried to set up his own kingdom in heaven. God was angry, cast him out of heaven and made him into a demon. Then when he saw God created humans, he became jealous, worried that God would give them the kingdom that God had denied him. So he purposely found out what God had forbidden Adam and Eve from doing and encouraged them to do it so that they would get kicked out. However, God decided that Lucifer shouldn’t have the last word so he promised that one of Adam and Eve’s descendants – Jesus – would have the kingdom in heaven that Lucifer was denied. In that version of the story Adam and Eve are minor characters, almost pets of God, manipulated as part of a cosmic power struggle between divine beings.
What did it mean that Adam and Eve realized they were naked? According to one interpreter, Adam and Eve knew that they had disobeyed God and hid because they were scared of him, but they didn’t want to admit that to him so they blamed the fact they had no clothes on! But that interpretation still doesn’t explain why they got the idea that they should have clothes. Why did they say they realized they were naked instead of saying they realized they weren’t wearing any diamond rings or hats?
What does the tree of good and evil mean? Some say it means the power to tell which actions are good and which actions are evil, but there is another interpretation. One medieval Christian interpretation was that when they were in the garden of Eden humans could only know good because they were surrounded by good. They had everything they wanted and no way of suffering. So they didn’t know what evil was. Eating the fruit resulted in them suffering, so and then they knew what evil was. It was things that caused suffering.
Why did God kick them out of the garden? This is like asking why does Zeus throw lightening bolts? We should ask instead, how did people writing or reading the story explain why the character of God would kick Adam and Eve out? In the Bible it says that after they ate the fruit God said “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also form the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” We didn’t hear about the tree of life in the beginning! We didn’t know they were forbidden to eat that tree. Or maybe they weren’t forbidden to eat it at first, and only forbidden after. Maybe once Adam and Eve felt bad about having broken God’s rule, eating the tree of life and living forever with that guilt would be a bad thing. Maybe only after they were capable of evil would it be a bad thing. Or maybe God didn’t want competition from others being too similar to him. Did the authors mean it to be a punishment or protection that humans were kicked out of the garden?
Why would people write a story about God kicking the first humans out of a garden? Maybe the story was first written to explain why life can be really hard. We might buy our food at a grocery store but imagine if you had to farm it all yourself. Think of the work that would go into digging, weeding, harvesting, etc. Now imagine if you lived in an area like the Biblical writers did, where they were on a hillside where they had to use rocks to build little walls to keep the dirt in place so they could grow food, and they had to dig deep pits to fill with rainwater so there would be water when the rain stopped. Maybe they had vague memories and stories of living before in a place with a river, where growing things wasn’t quite as hard.
Like most myths, the story of Adam and Eve lends itself to multiple interpretations. Around a thousand years ago someone wrote an interpretation of it to try to explain how kings should be wise and just in their decision making. In that piece of writing, called The King’s Mirror, a father explains to his son that when God had to decide what to do with Adam and Eve he had four sisters helping him. The sisters were Justice, Truth, Peace and Mercy. When God pronounces judgement, the sisters hug one another happily. When human kings made decisions, they must try to balance those same four virtues.
The myth of Adam and Eve has also been used for bad things. When God pronounces judgement he says that Eve will suffer in childbearing. Some people think that explains why a woman feels pain while a baby is born. Some even think women deserves to feel that pain as punishment for what Eve did and that using modern medicine to get rid of that pain is bad. However, that might not have even been what the original authors meant. They might have meant just that women have extra work. Like Adam they toil for their food, but they also do the work of being pregnant and nursing their babies. They have double the responsibility! Or maybe the authors of the story really did believe that women should suffer physical pain during pregnancy…. but if they did, does that mean we have to believe that now? I don’t think so!