The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is one of the most symbolically important in the Bible. Coming right at the beginning of the pentateuch, it acts as a necessary set-up to much of the rest of the Old and New Testaments and the religions they have inspired. The story holds within it one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity – the inherent sinfulness of man – and therefore the entire justification for the sacrifice of Christ.
Being of such central importance, the Eden story is one of the best known of the Bible, taught early to young children. The story and its apparent message are ubiquitously known by anyone who has any knowledge of Christianity or Judaism:
God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden to take care of everything inside it. God told them that they could eat from any tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – if they ate that, they would die. A talking serpent then approached Eve, tempting her to eat the forbidden fruit and to convince Adam to do the same. God found out and punished them (acting extremely surprised considering his omniscience), casting them out of Eden and never again allowing them the pure and idyllic life they had been blessed with before.
It has seemed to me for a long time that the general interpretation of this story, that the serpent leads the naive humans to sin and therefore turn away from God’s grace, is extremely skewed and that an objective interpretation, unencumbered by our society’s ubiquitous framing of the story, would lead to a different conclusion.
I believe a useful comparison to this story exists in sci-fi literature. This may seem like something of a digression, but bear with me a minute and consider almost any dystopian future story you can think of.
In Orwell’s 1984, for example, the society is ideal. There is almost no crime or disorder. Citizens are patriotic and dedicated to their land and their leader. But the cost of this apparent societal harmony is the ability of its members to question, to enquire, to think freely. Thought Police exist to make sure that nobody starts to question their situation or to pull away from the herd. If anybody does, they are quickly disciplined and brought back into line, or quietly removed so that the greater peace can be comfortably maintained. In many ways 1984’s society is without many of the problems that mar all modern civilisations, but the cost is true self-knowledge and the freedom to question.
Consider also the 2002 film, Equilibrium. Here the society has left behind crime, war and dissidence. People are comfortable, ordered and productive. But here the cost is emotion. Children are taught to suppress feelings and emotions and anything created to invoke these emotions, such as art, music and poetry, is destroyed. Mood suppressing drugs are routinely distributed to keep people in line and any dissent from the rules is dealt with quickly and efficiently by a military service comparable to the Thought Police. As in 1984, from which the film clearly take great influence, an apparently perfect society is created and maintained, but at the expense of its members’ humanity.
The message in both of these examples is clear: that cost is too high. Order in society is not worth giving up the freedom to question and to express ourselves. While the ideals of crimelessness and concordance are worth striving for, the costs involved in these fictional worlds are too high.
It has long struck me that Eden is very much like one of these warning fictional futures. Adam and Eve live in happy and idyllic harmony, but the cost is self-awareness, inquiry, free thought, the knowledge of good and evil.
Think through the story again. Is the pre-fall garden really the blissful heaven Christians invoke, or the controlled and ignorant oppression of Orwell’s vision? Is God really the benevolent and loving father disappointed by his children’s harsh disobedience, or the watchful and unquestionable Big Brother, angry that his control has been questioned? Is the serpent really the evil tempter or the liberator? Are Adam and Eve fallen or enlightened?
The story is clear: God lied to Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate the fruit. The serpent told them truthfully that their eyes would be opened. If George Orwell’s disturbing versions of the future taught us anything, which many claim they have, then is it really sensible to go on trusting this God?