In light of my previous post about the church’s interpretive exploitation of Adam throughout history, I want to briefly propose a more helpful and authentic approach to reading the material in question. By paying closer attention to a) what the text actually says and b) anticipated things that are actually not there, we might get closer to understanding something true about the strange, ancient stories we call Genesis. In the case of chapters 2-4 and the tales of the first humans, I’ll collect my observations under three subheadings.
1. Adam and Eve Are Israel
This aspect of Genesis 2-3 in particular seems so obvious, so explicit, and yet I had not even considered it back when I researched and recorded a podcast on the subject. The proposal is a simple one: the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a mythical encapsulation of the story of Israel in the Promised Land.
In the text, Adam and Eve inhabit an agricultural wonderland prepared for them by God, who dwells there with them and provides for all of their needs by the natural goodness of creation (not by magic or sorcery). There is a decree, a covenant by which Adam and Eve must abide in order to enjoy the full benefits of life in the good land. When they are tempted by pagan evil and break the covenant with God, they must leave the land. The abandoned land is guarded by cherubim (ancient symbols of divine authority), a sign that they cannot re-enter until God issues a new decree. This is the story of Israel and Exile.
Israel’s storytellers crafted this story, perhaps from ancient sources and elements, at the time of exile to explain and illuminate the defining crisis of their time. This does not mean that it cannot have more to say beyond its immediate context, but it does appear to be the primary setting of the story, a fact that should figure heavily in its interpretation.
2. Adam and Eve Are Exemplars of the Human Condition
The divine elements in the Garden story generate endless questions. Why would God make it possible for Adam and Eve to become more like Him, only to forbid it? How does God physically walk around in the world He created? Why does He promise them they will die “on the day” they eat the fruit, yet when they eat it they do not die? Why does God need to search around to find the humans? We’ll look a little closer at the portrayal of God in Genesis in the next section. For now, these questions appear to be unanswerable, and stand as major distractions from what these stories do offer with great clarity and insight: a distillation of the human condition. So much interpretive energy has been spent mining these stories for theology and cosmology while their rich anthropology has been largely ignored.
Before Adam and Eve eat the fruit, their life is defined by three realities: breath (a relationship with God), agriculture (a relationship with the earth), and sex (a relationship with each other). After they eat the fruit and begin to discern “good and evil,” the three beautiful relationships that shaped their idyllic existence turn out to be dangers and limitations. Life with God becomes contentious and complicated. Animals bite and thorns prick. Adam and Eve stand naked and vulnerable. In other words, Adam and Eve discover that they are human, they are just like us.
Christian interpretations, obsessed with cosmic notions of legal guilt (“original sin”) or Greek style dualism (“the fall of man”), can only imagine this condition as a divine punishment. But what if, as the text suggests, nothing changed for Adam and Eve but their perception of their own condition (“their eyes were opened”)? What is God’s “curse” (which targets animal and soil, not humans) after all but an adept description of what life is like on planet earth? What if this story is not about the crime that landed all of humanity in sin jail, but a frank and creative pageant of mortality, a song about the bittersweet realities of breath, food, and sex?
3. God Is a Friend and Protector, Not a Cosmic Judge
Finally, one of my favorite things whenever I revisit these texts is the fresh, strange, and fascinating implications of what they say and don’t say about God. I outlined some of the problematic oddities above, and now I’d like to highlight the unexpected goodies. In short, the God of Genesis 2-4 is a far cry from the angry cosmic punisher envisioned by Augustinian or Calvinist Christianities, for example. While the basic themes of disobedience and consequence are present here, God’s character and behavior are surprising at every turn.
In the Garden, when Adam and Eve breach their covenant with God, He is technically the offended party. But while most of Christian theology has focused on God’s offense and His just anger and retribution, that is not the focus of these early Genesis stories. This God does not damn Adam and Eve to eternal hellfire, nor does He demand that they appease Him with blood sacrifices. No, this God comes alongside them as a friend and guardian, explaining the natural consequences of their human fallibility. This is not the God of strict religion or fire and brimstone, it is the God of farms and families, the God of hard work and childbirth.
Likewise with Cain in Genesis 4, God’s role is not what we would expect. It is Abel’s blood which accuses Cain, not God. It is Cain who convicts himself and announces his own guilt, not God. And it is other humans who threaten Cain with retributive harm, not God. In fact, God only steps in to warn and protect the murderer. In Genesis, the greatest dangers faced by humans come from nature, society, and within themselves. God is a companion and provider who resembles the “Heavenly Father” of Jesus’ teaching more than the space tyrant imagined so often by our religion.
I’m not suggesting that these stories aren’t terribly strange and difficult to interpret, I simply want to suggest that there is more here than we have been willing to see. I want us all to feel free to revisit them again and again with our eyes, hearts, and minds open a little wider than they have been before.