Every culture tells itself a story of the Fall. We all seem to have a vestigial memory of a golden age long ago when people lived in harmony with each other and with the world, and we need to reconcile that memory with the broken connections and dismal prospects of our present. We of the Judeo-Christian tradition have enshrined our best attempt to do so in our Bible, in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is the first story about humans to appear in the scripture. It is probably the best-known Bible story, and the least well understood.
The moral of the story, as it has been dumbed-down for children and remembered by most, is that if you do not obey God, something terrible will happen to you. God told them not to eat apples, they did anyway, and they got thrown out of their home. It is a perfect proverb for unruly teenagers and unreliable plant workers.
Not only is there more to this story, there is a totally different story hiding in plain sight.
There are at least two ways to think about the ordinances of God as delivered by scripture. For example, if God were represented as saying to you, “Take one more step and I will throw you from this cliff and dash you to your death on the rocks below," then you may be forgiven for thinking that God is a fierce and arbitrary guy, which is exactly how He seems in much of the Old Testament. But what if He is not really threatening you with retribution for disobedience, but rather warning you about the inevitable consequences of a certain action? What if He is really informing you that from where you are standing, a single step forward means falling to your death on the rocks below, under the influence of gravity (which, after all, is a law of God)? Similarly, when He says, “the wages of sin are death,“ he can be taken as threatening capital punishment for small transgressions, or as warning us about the effect of a law as immutable as gravity: the law that says if we behave badly, we cannot be happy. A great deal depends on the translation, the tone of the translator, and the condition of the listener.
The translator gauges his audience. If my audience is a small child with whom I am walking on a busy street, I might tell him sternly to stay on the sidewalk lest I smack him. I would speak thus not out of any desire to threaten him personally, or to punish him, but out of my calculation that his ability to comprehend the dangers of traffic was not sufficiently developed, but that he would likely understand the threat of getting smacked, and act accordingly. Years later I might rely on his understanding of the possibilities, and limit myself to advising him to be careful out there.
Is it possible, then, that when God instructed Adam and Eve about their behavior in Eden, he was not merely bullying them about eating fruit, but was warning them away from something harmful? They were very young, fresh from Creation, completely uneducated, and as such probably would not have comprehended anything more subtle than an order to stay on the sidewalk or get smacked.
But you and I are grown, and educated, and knowledgeable, and we need to know: What was the warning?
Let us return to the
scene of the crime.
And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2.8-9)
Thus did we all live when we were hunter-gatherers, amid plants pleasant to the sight and good for food. We think of early humans as club-carrying cave dwellers scrabbling constantly for meat, hunted by bears, trampled by mastodons, broken by the desperate and constant labor of finding food and keeping the cave warm. In fact, hunter-gatherers required only a few hours of work a week to gather all the food they needed from their plenteous surroundings, thrived in their tightly-knit, clan-based social systems, and were no more bothered by predation than we are by, for example, the 50,000 American lives claimed each year by automobiles. Nature as they experienced it was no more “red in tooth and claw,” in Tennyson’s benighted phrase, than are our highways.
And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Genesis 2.16-17)
There is the commandment. But is it a threat, or is it advice? If we are to understand the language literally, as a threat, we will shortly have a big problem: having been told by the Lord God that if they do this they will die, they do it, and do not die. Does the Lord God not mean what he says? Does He make empty threats? Or is the meaning deeper in the language, requiring a more subtle understanding of what was being forbidden, and what were the consequences of disobedience?
If it was a warning, what behavior was the warning about? What were the effects of eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? God did not say when He delivered His warning, but the serpent did, as he later urged Eve to do it:
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. (Genesis 3. 4-5)
This is much more than learning right from wrong. This is comprehension that raises one to the status of a god. But what is it?
It helps to know (and I am grateful to Daniel Quinn for pointing it out) that the Genesis stories gained currency long before their incorporation into scripture, at about the time that agriculture became the occupation of much of humankind. To be a farmer, you must know what plants are good -- wheat, barley, flax -- and which are weeds. Then you tend the good plants, and kill the evil ones. You know that bees are good and wasps are evil, and you do your best to kill the latter. Cattle are good, but wolves are evil. It is not just that you decide which plants and animals you like; you assemble the good ones in fields, and you kill those you do not like. Thus do you usurp the judgment of a god, having partaken of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
(The Bible is hardly the only holy text to convey this warning. In the Tao Te Ching attributed to Lao-Tzu, verse 29 reads:
As for those who
would take the whole world
To tinker as they see fit,
I observe that they never succeed:
For the world is a sacred vessel
Not made to be altered by man.
The tinker will spoil it;Usurpers will lose it.)
The first thing that Adam and Eve did upon grasping the knowledge of good and evil was to cover their nakedness. This was not necessarily an act of decency, of having judged nakedness to be evil; it can be seen as an act of separation, a way of setting oneself apart from and above the other creatures of the world -- sort of like the crimson cape of a cardinal of the church.
Such hubris might have been understandable, even before the forbidden fruit, because God had told them upon their creation to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” (That is the King James translation. The New Standard version of the Bible changed one word: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” There is a substantial difference between the idea of replenishing the earth and just filling it up.) There have always been two ways to look at the idea of one thing having dominion over another. To some it means being able to do what you want with the subject. To others, the idea of dominion carries with it a heavy responsibility for the welfare of the subject.
If there had been any ambiguity on this point for Adam and Eve before the forbidden fruit, there was none after. They girded their loins with clothing and set out to take charge, pronouncing some things to be good and other things to be evil. “Behold,” said the Lord God, “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” (To whom, one cannot help wondering, was He speaking? What did He mean, one of us?)
It is universally assumed that God evicted Adam and Eve because of what they had done, but that is not what Genesis tells us. What He said in Genesis was that He was throwing Adam out “ lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” And when the couple was gone from the garden, God posted a guard over it, “to keep the way of the tree of life.” So while God had warned Adam and Eve away from the tree of knowledge, he was even more worried about them putting their hands to the tree of life.
We now have had 10,000 years of experience with the consequences of our god-like knowledge of good and evil. We have spread the good plants over the cultivated face of the earth and have waged an unending war against the bad plants. We have bred, crossbred and manipulated the good animals and have done our best to wipe out the bad ones. We have filled the earth, and we believe we have subdued it. And we believe we have done this on God's instructions.
We tell ourselves that our story has been one of constant and unbroken progress, from animal-hide capes to wash-and-wear synthetics; from charred mastodon meat to ready-in-a-minute microwave meals; from drafty caves to four-bedroom, all-electric McMansions on two-acre estates in idyllic suburbs.
But the fact is that there have been many hideous interruptions in this upward march. The fact is that we live on the graves of countless human civilizations that have failed and vanished -- which is to say they all died. Just in the Americas, we gape as tourists at the monumental works of the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Anasazi, missing the point that in their time they were us, living lives blessed by unprecedented technology, extending their dominion over the earth as never before, unable to imagine anything that could harm them.
Yet they are all gone. As we re-examine their stories with our critical faculties in place, it becomes clearer that they all vanished for a single, compelling reason: they ate out the resources available to them. They decided what was good and what was evil, they became as gods, tinkered with the world, and destroyed the natural web of life that nourished them.
Perhaps we should revisit the matter of the literal truth of God’s warning in Genesis: in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. In Genesis, the span of time indicated by the word “day” is a flexible concept. The creation of the universe, and all the populations thereof, took seven "days." Perhaps, in that sense, we are still in the day in which the forbidden fruit was taken.
It is easy to dismiss the fate of the Aztecs, for example, because they were so primitive compared to us. That for much of the 15th Century Mexico City was larger than Paris, with more canals than Venice and aqueducts to rival Rome's, simply does not register with us. We have surpassed them, we think, we have extended our dominion over the earth as never before, and nothing can get in our way. To us their graves are merely curiosities that confirm how far we’ve come.
Draped in the mantle of our knowledge of good and evil, we set to work converting our garden to a field, the fruitful jumble of creation of which we had been a part to an ordered world of which we were in charge. In search of ever larger reserves of food we invented the plow, an efficient guillotine for the living soil, and deployed it across the planet. Then we invented the internal combustion engine and gasoline, to pull larger plows faster, and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. We did not know until recently that all these things killed the multitudinous organisms that constituted a living organism whose life supports our own. Perhaps such ignorance, even on such a vast and deadly scale, could be forgiven if, in the light of knowledge, we changed our behavior. But we have not.
We did not know that there is only so much potable water on the planet, and that if present development trends continue we will run out. Now we do. We did not know that petroleum and coal and uranium exist in finite amounts that, however large, will be exhausted by our profligate use of them. Now we do. We did not know that what we were doing had the capacity to collapse the fisheries of the vast oceans, to warm the entire planet with myriad unforeseen consequences. Now we know, and we have not altered our behavior one whit. Most of us continue to cling to the belief that "growth" and "progress" and "development" are good, that their alternatives are evil, and that any consequences are trivial that cannot be measured in cash, now. It appears that the knowledge of good and evil we acquired from the tree in Eden, while godlike in its pretensions, fell far short of omniscience.
Now, in this ruined landscape, we are moving to a higher level of management. We are feverishly tinkering with the basic codes of creation, the awesome and mysterious genetic instructions that convert the will of the Creator to the flesh of the world. We are doing this, of course, for profit, to improve the "good" plants and animals, to cure the evil diseases that afflict us good guys, with a potential cash flow that would excite Croesus and with a cost of which we know nothing.
We have, in other words, done exactly what God said we would do after Eden: we have put forth our hands, and taken of the second tree, the Tree of Life, that we might live forever. We are beginning to comprehend the consequences of our first transgression in Eden. What the costs of this second sin will be, God only knows.