In this post, I want to talk about what the task Adam and Eve were given might have been, how we might understand the central object – the tree.
From what I’ve been able to find out, Jewish and Christian scholars have historically taken two approaches to the task: the first, that the task was irrelevant in itself – an arbitrary boundary that gave them the opportunity to show obedience; the second, that the task was to obey a warning about a danger that needed to avoid for good reasons that they could not yet understand.
I also found a modern scholar musing that when you combine the knowledge of good and evil in an unstructured and unguided way, without faith in God, what you get as the fruit of that action is doubt – so the sin of Adam and Eve, in his view, was doubt.
This theory is that Adam and Eve were in this great place designed to be perfect for them, with everything they wanted ready to fall into their hands, and there was no reason why they should ever change. Without change, without challenge, there is no growth. So God deliberately picked a tree, perhaps at random, or perhaps one he specifically planted for the purpose, and told them not to eat its fruit. There was nothing special about the tree. As long as they didn’t think about the tree, they learnt nothing. Once they started to think about the tree, they had to change – to learn about good and evil. Adam and Eve learnt about good and evil from the inside, by doing evil; that is, by choosing to deliberately disobey. They also could have learnt by doing good; by choosing to deliberately obey.
I think it fair to suggest that in this scenario, the serpent might be representing itself as doing God’s work – after all, God wants Adam and Eve to think about the tree. The boundary is no good if they never notice that it’s there. There is an ancient tradition that angels took animal form – or possessed animals – to communicate with humans, so why not? Eve is confronted with a talking serpent or dragon that claims an intimate knowedge of what is being discussed in heaven. “Eve was deceived,” St Paul says. She thought the serpent was on the level. Adam was not deceived, but he chose to eat the fruit anyway.
In this scenario, it doesn’t much matter what the tree was – anything would have done. Scripture does say a tree, but some ancient sources suggest it might have been a fig tree (which later supplied the leaves for the aprons), and some that it might have been wheat. Very large wheat, apparently.
Warning of danger
There have been various theories about what the danger was – in most of these, the tree is taken to be symbolic. The two front runners involve sex, agriculture or both.
Sex and original sin
St Augustine thought the task was to avoid all sex. The first sin, by his account, was that Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse. My own thought is that this tells us quite a lot about St Augustine, but seems to ignore the reality that God had commanded humankind to be fruitful. However, maybe Eve was underage and Adam was supposed to wait?
Our correspondent Robert partially agrees with St Augustine, but thinks that natural sex was fine (and specifically commanded, in fact), but he rather coyly points out on his website that two trees growing closely together, one that gives life and one that gives knowledge of good and evil, could symbolise two passages that are found at the centre of something else that has from time to time been referred to as a garden. I’d like to avoid pussyfooting around, but don’t want to be banned by WordPress or targeted by spammers, so I’ll have to leave the rest of it to your imagination. Think ‘cities of the Plains’ and the fate planned for Lot’s guests.
Robert doesn’t explain on his website how throwing Adam and Eve out of the Garden to keep them from the Tree of Life was going to work if Eve was carrying it between her legs – and, indeed, the population explosion since that time would tend to suggest that the Tree of Life has been producing immortality of a sort for humankind ever since.
Various Jewish and Christian writers, both ancient and modern, have suggested that first Eve and then Adam had intercourse with the serpent, and that this was the forbidden fruit.
And at least one writer believes the first sin was rape – Adam raped Eve. In this scenario, Eve was introduced to the idea by the serpent, but Adam, who was listening, decided to take action.
These theories have a certain appeal.We know that sex is an awkward area in human relationships, that the physiological clocks of men and women are out of sync, and that when sexual appetites go amiss they cause huge problems. I can see why many theorists have looked at how messed up we are and figured that a misuse of sex had to be part of the cause.
In addition, the first reaction of the guilty pair was to look for a way to cover their nakedness – and modesty usually implies an effort to avoid giving rise to sexual temptation – and one of the consequences for Eve also implies sex: ‘your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you’. History and personal experience are full of examples of women who allowed their infatuation with a man to overrule their good sense, their commitment to their children, and their moral judgement.
The other idea takes its hint from one of the consequences for Adam. He’d been able to collect food whenever he wanted – all of the plants in the Garden provided him and Eve with sustenance. Now he’d have to struggle to wrestle a meal out of a ground that also produced thistles and other weeds. Was the great sin the invention of agriculture?
Think about that one. Hunter gatherers go from place to place, collecting the food that occurs naturally. In contrast, farmers stay in one place and change the environment to try to make it produce next season’s food. Agriculture, then, is a vote of no confidence in God.
And look at what happened. Wherever agriculture has been introduced, social stratification has followed. Palaeontologists tell us that pre-agriculture humans were taller and fitter than their post-agriculture descendants. They lived longer, and kept better health. Today’s hunter gatherers have been pushed into marginal land, so that benefit doesn’t still apply, but still the average hunter gatherer society has less social stratification and less inequity between the genders than the average primitive agricultural society.
So it’s certainly an idea. The timeframes don’t fit very well though, unless you assume that agriculture has been invented several times in human history and then forgotten again.
The blame game
There is one more thought I’d like to ponder with you. Was the sin completed with the eating of the fruit, or could they have backed up at that point, said they were sorry, and moved on? The blame game that followed was a prototype for the rest of human history. Adam blamed Eve and God “It was the woman you gave me”, Eve blamed the serpent, the serpent lost his suspiciously apt voice.