Let’s go back to the question from my correspondent. So far, we’ve been speculating on the first sentence:
“Any thoughts on what the nature of this ‘task’ was to merit so severe a consequence?”
Now I’ve got a couple of comments on the second:
“It seems quite out of proportion.”
I think there is a confusion here between the words ‘consequences’ and ‘punishment’. And, yes, I know that St Paul and the early Fathers talked about punishment. But I’ve been looking at what they actually said – and it seems to me they drew a clear difference between the punishment the first couple earned and the consequences they and their descendants received. I think Adam and Eve earned punishment for their set of sins – for pride, for doubt, for failure to obey, for blaming one another. But what happened next was not a punishment but a consequence.
God had told them what would happen if they ate the fruit. “On the day you eat of it you will surely die.” This was the punishment they had earned. But what happened? He sent them out of the garden, clothing them first. He gave them mercy. He told them the consequences of their failure for themselves and their descendants, but He also told them that it would all come out right in the end. He gave them hope.
Consequences are not fair. A child that pulls his hand from his mother’s and runs ahead while she calls him to stop is likely to suffer different consequences in a park than on a busy highway. The consequence of being hit by a truck is quite out of proportion to the transgression of disobeying mother. Similarly, we’ve all heard of stupid actions followed by lucky escapes – ‘you should have been killed’, we say. Again, the consequences are out of proportion (in the other direction) to the transgression against good judgement.
And our faith history tells us that there was a real job that Adam and Eve needed (and failed) to do to make us sons and daughters of God – a job that Jesus came to do instead.
So, in a sense, the task is irrelevant. The consequences – a failure to evolve to the next stage, to put it in modern terms – were not a punishment so much as a continuation of the status quo for our precursor species, but with the promise that the chance would come again.