The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall of humankind (incidentally, the term “Fall” is never used in the biblical account) can be interpreted in many different ways by its religious inheritors. In the world of Christian interpretation, there are some that take this story only at its most literal face value. Adam and Eve were two historical individuals who ate a fruit [not necessarily an apple, since the Hebrew word pri can mean any fruit] because they were tempted by the serpent [not necessarily the devil, since the serpent might represent any tempting, deceptive impulse], and were kicked out of a real geographical Eden for violating God’s one command not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Other Christians see this story as metaphor, a lesson on why life can be so far from the ideal world we are all capable of imagining. In classical Christian theology, it is a story (metaphor or otherwise) that details the arrival of imperfection and sin into the human experience, and explains why such things afflict all of us.
The Eden story seeks to provide the answer to some of life’s most troublesome realities: why childbirth, a joyous event, comes accompanied with unparalleled physical pain, and why a man can work in his fields until he has no skin left on his fingers and no sweat left in his body and the earth might still not yield enough to live on. And why even if it does, that yield cannot ever come forth without hard, physical dedication. In short, the Eden story recognizes that this world and that human life are imperfect, and seeks to tell us why. That, at least, is something on which both literalists and non-literalists can agree. Beyond that, literalists often believe the story is a straightforward one about how two people disobeyed God by giving in to greed and temptation, lost out on Paradise, and thereby doomed the rest of us to sin and the school of hard knocks. Non-literalists often believe the story is a quaint, perhaps somewhat embarrassing tale of origins that observes (1) life’s a bitch, and (2) why it’s a bitch.
To my mind, the essence of the story is neither of these. The Eden story is a sophisticated and multi-layered coming-of-age tale, a commentary on the point in time (and maybe that point could be a process over thousands of years) when humans came to know good and bad, truth and deception. That is to say, the point in time when humans became sentient as a species. When humans gained a knowledge and capability they had not had before: the knowledge that it is possible to deceive and to cause gratuitous harm with aforethought for one’s own gain, or worse, pleasure. The serpent, which I take to represent all those capabilities we have and wish we didn’t, tempted Adam and Eve — the prototypical humans — to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, even though God had warned them not to. And they did. The serpent’s “promise”? That they would become like gods, that they would become wise.
This is a story in which God finds out that Adam and Eve had eaten of the Tree when God goes for a stroll one evening to enjoy the cool part of the day. This is not a literal story and it was never intended to be, to my mind. God had told the humans they could eat of any tree except the forbidden one, for the day they ate of that one, they would surely die. It seems to me that they did die when they ate of the Tree, but not by a stopping of the heart. What died was the creature — the species — they had been before gaining such knowledge.
The Garden of Eden is a story that describes the loss of innocence; I believe, the loss of innocence as a species. Innocence is not the quality of being good all the time (any parent of a child can tell you that). Innocence is the state of not knowing — of not being capable of hurting someone or something as a result of deliberately intending to do so. And the innocent being is not capable of that because the innocent being does not even know such a thing is possible; such a being cannot think of doing that because that awareness does not yet exist within its mind. It is not yet wired for it. Most animals are innocent in this way: they might cause harm or kill, but they do so either to eat or to defend themselves, their group, or by extension their home territory. They do not cause hurt out of malice, deception, or for kicks.
Some of us are still in Eden, in a way. Among humans, innocence still lives — in very young children. This does not mean young children are always paragons of behavior. But it means that very young children do not think to themselves: “I want to hurt mommy’s/daddy’s/my friend’s feelings, so I will do x-y-z and hurt their feelings that way.” A very young child might do or say something that does hurt someone else, but they are not doing so in a knowing fashion, or for pleasure, or for some selfish gain. They are going on what they want or feel in the moment, without aforethought. I say “very young children” because eventually, children do get to an age — biologically, get to a point in their brain’s wiring — where hurting someone else because they want to, or because it benefits them in some way, becomes possible. At that point, they are no longer in Eden. Even if, hypothetically, they never intentionally hurt another being, they are aware that such a capability exists and that there are people who do it. That is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.
In that sense, it seems to me that the Eden story not only tells of a species’ development from innocence to knowledge of good and bad, but also of each individual within that species. Very young children are innocent, and it is our job to teach them how to treat other living beings in preparation for the time when they grow older. That job is a sacred responsibility. It is all the more sacred because another quality of the innocence of a young child is the implicit trust that child has. Children have a capacity for trust that humbles us. You could tell a small child the sky is blue because God colored it that way with God’s Crayola marker, and that small child could very well believe you. At night when I give my child her allergy medicine, it strikes me how completely she trusts that what I am giving her will cause her no harm. She has no apparatus for doubting that, and the sweetness of that trust speaks to me.
All of this, I believe, is what Jesus meant when he told the disciples not to prevent parents from bringing their little children to him. As recorded in Mark 10:13-16, the disciples thought the children would bother him, but Jesus’ response was emphatically the opposite. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me; do not stop them, for to these belongs the Kingdom of God. Very truly I tell you, unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, you will never enter it.” Then Jesus gathered the children into his arms and blessed them.
Knowledge of good and bad, in addition to all of the above, also extends to the awareness that bad things happen in the world. My young daughter accidentally caught sight of a photo of the Polish plane after it had crashed to the ground, and she said with furrowed brow: “Oh, the plane fell out of the sky! Oh, the plane is sad.” Then, after thinking another moment, she brightened up: “Slinky can help! Yeah, Slinky can help get the plane off the ground.” No knowledge of the tragedy involved — and at her age, I intend to keep it that way. Hers was a lack of knowledge of the scale of what had gone wrong, and hers was a sweet and simple desire to help, and then happily going to read her bedtime story with us. That is innocence, and I will preserve that for her as long as possible — even while teaching her how we as humans should behave in the world outside of it.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010