In Christian traditions, and most Jewish ones as well, the story of the Garden of Eden is the story of humankind’s estrangement from God. Jews and Christians differ about how we are to understand that estrangement. Many Christians see the fall as the source of original sin. Jews, on the other hand, typically reject the notion of original sin. Yet the dominant interpretation of Genesis 2 is that, in eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve are rejecting the authority of God. As a result God punishes them, and us. The most troubling circumstances of human life flow from the action of Adam and Eve. And only a return to God, in this world or the next, can free us from our predicament.
Against this traditional interpretation of the text I want to pose another, radically different and feminist reading, one that draws on some of the alternate views of the text found in ancient Jewish sources. On this view, the story of the Garden of Eden is not one of transgression but, rather, of maturation. Adam and Eve are not morally responsible adults who seek knowledge of good and evil so that they can be independent of God. They are more like children who, lacking in knowledge of good and evil, are incapable of fully understanding let alone following the commands of God. Adam and Eve do not surprise and disappoint God by eating the forbidden fruit. They do exactly what God expected them to do when he placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the center of the Garden–calling the strongest possible attention to it in doing so as well as in prohibiting them from eating from it–and then allowed the serpent to tempt them. Knowledge of good and evil is not something God seeks to deny human beings. Rather God wants Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil so that they can follow his commands not as children but as morally responsible adults.
On the traditional interpretation of the text, eating the fruit of of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is a terrible sin. It is a rebellion against the commandment of god, an effort to acquire knowledge of good and evil that God does not want us to have. But I want to suggestion a version. Adam and Eve are basically thoughtless. They are not motivated by a desire for knowledge of good and evil if only because without such knowledge they can have little understanding of why it would be good to have it. They are, at worse, curious and thoughtless. And that means their sin is not terribly serious. Adam and Eve are very much like children or higher animals in their lack of self-awareness and responsibility.gs as we emerge from pre-history and childhood
So why’d does God punish Adam and Eve? First, because unishment is necessary in order to create human beings who can be morally responsible for themselves.
To be morally responsible we must be able recognize that we can choose to act one way or another. Given the simplicity of life in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were barely aware of this. One must, second, be self-conscious and self-aware. We must be capable of looking at our actions or interpreting our own actions. We must be able to compare our actions to some ideal or standard of morality. And we must be able to stop and think before we act. Recognition of a failure to follow God’s command brings about these four capacities. In violating God’s commandment Adam and Eve come to learn that they can choose to live one way or another. Coming to recognize they have violated God’s commandment, is coming to have self-awareness. God’s commandments are the ideal or standard which we must come to meet. Punishment helps us remember the consequences of actions and the importance of stopping to think before we act.
On this account then, God creates a situation in which Adam and Eve cannot help but sin. He does it not because he wants Adam and Eve to have come to have the moral autonomy they did not previously have to accept or reject his commandments. For this is what it means to be in the “image of God” or “one of us.”
And if this process was intended by God then we must see also see God’s punishment of Adam and Eve in a new light. After all, if the sins are not only not so terrible, but necessary the punishment Gods says that on the day Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit they will die. But they do not die. Instead, they become aware of their mortality. The labor that Adam and Eve must do has to be understood not as an extrinsic punishment but, rather, as the intrinsic consequence of coming to have knowledge of good and evil. Adam must labor because, with knowledge of good and evil comes greatly expanded desires. And it takes much effort to meet those desires, even as the desires themselves and our effort to meet them lead to the expansion of our knowledge of the world around us and our place. That expansion of knowledge makes it possible for us to engage in labor that is rewarding and fulfilling not painful. Childbirth is painful because knowledge of good and evil makes it nearly impossible for women to respond to the stress of labor in the way common to animals. But with the growth of human knowledge comes the ability to ameliorate pain. And men rule over women because the conditions of life in a world of scarcity and conflict heighten the importance of the physical strength of men. None of these conditions are, however, permanent or ideal in the eyes of God. Indeed in treating them as punishments, the text suggest that they are awful and should be overcome. My suggestion is that the nerve of the Bible’s political and moral teaching can be found in a proper understanding of the conditions in which humankind lives upon leaving Eden. And the Bible as a whole teaches us that we should try to overcome these conditions.
Genesis begins with the notion that humankind is created in the “image of God.” When Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God says that they have “become like one of us.” The Garden of Eden story is meant to be an account of the process by which we begin take on the image of God. The traditional interpretation is correct in this: The text points us toward a path by which we can more fully act in accord with God’s purpose for us. And it thus suggests that the process by which this is accomplished, the process of creation, has not ended.
God, it turns out is an Hegelian. The good of creation is not that the world starts off perfect. It does not. Indeed, what with the labor we must do, the pain of childbirth, and worst of all, man’s ruling over women, at the moment of its creation the world is pretty bad. But it is perfectible by us, if we understand what conditions we have to relieve and how to go about relieving them. It is perfectible that is, if we overcome the need to do physical labor, the pain of childbirth, and patriarchy. And, again in the vein of Hegel, the true nature of God’s plan and our place in it only come at the end of a long historical process of human cultural, technological, and moral evolution. (And perhaps we can see, with Hegel, that human consciousness of this plan and our place in it is the self-realization of God.)
In calling his creation good, God is not evaluating what he has done. (The punishments actually do that.) He is evaluating what he has set in motion. That does raise the question of why he couldn’t just create a world that is actually good rather than create one full of the potential to be good. The answer I believe, is that a moral autonomous and responsible being can only be created by a process in which they act and receive punishment. And that claim is connected to a set of arguments that ultimately go back to Hegel, Wittgenstein and Heidegger. Just as I would argue the adult human soul and mind has to be produced by a process of education and maturation–and, pace the Matrix could not be implanted in a creature all at once–I believe that God could not all at once create a race of beings that could first come to be moral autonomous and then develop the moral insight and technological knowledge to eliminate the bad of the world as it was first created. Our knowledge in all cases rests against a background of abilities and practices that can only be acquired through experience and training. What is true of us as individuals is also true of us as a species. Hand human beings of 50,000 years ago advanced technology or a moral guide book and they would have no idea what to do with it. The growth of moral insight and technique take time and experience. Human beings could not accept it all at once. (And it appears we are doing far better on the technical than moral side right now, a lack of balance we must correct.)
We are still in Day Six. But we have the power in our hearts, minds, and hands to create world that would, indeed, be good. And then we could rest.
If this is the correct interpretation, why did the patriarchal, sexist, punishing interpretation become so dominant? Because, I think, under the difficult conditions of human life after we left small hunter-gathering societies, and were in a constant struggle with nature and other peoples to sustain ourselves in the face of scarcity, human communities need the idea of a punishing God (or Gods). The need a God to keep people willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good, to pay taxes, to work hard even when life is difficult, to fight and die to protect their community. And while love of God does part of that work, there is no question that fear is for most people a more power motivation. Indeed, the view shared by most of us who have kids and Lawrence Kohlberg is that morality comes first in imitation of and fear of disappointing parents although ideally it blossoms into the shared love of ideals held by parents and children.
The idea of a punishing God is a useful idea when human beings are in their infancy. The hard physical work that allows us to meet our needs and satisfy some desires–and that is actually a product of human beings living under a state that controls unfree labor internally and protects us from other such states is impossible without it. And that hard work and the surplus it creates ultimate lead to expanding human productivity which makes that work less necessary. And as pained as I am to write these words, perhaps patriarchy is a necessary condition of human life before we have acquired the capacity to overcome scarcity and the endless war between one people and another. But hard physical work and unfree labor and patriarchy are, on my reading of the text, unquestionably bad. They are punishments, however necessary. And so, ultimately, is the idea of a punishing God. The perfection of creation comes when love of God, and other human beings who we see as being made in his image, becomes far more important that the fear of God, and of human beings who we fear because they don’t love or fear God in exactly the same way we do. The ultimate point of the text is that with the knowledge of good and evil that comes in the fullness of time we free ourselves from the necessarily bad start, which sets us down the path of perfecting the world.
So, now that we know, it’s time to act.