Monday, January 31, 2011

Genesis as Icon, Part III: An Icon of What Went Wrong (And Still Does)


Are we supposed to accept the Adam and Eve in Eden story literally?

This is an open question in Orthodox Christianity. The Church has taken no position. Many of the Orthodox have taken the account literally and many have not.
In the end, the question is somewhat like wondering whether Shakespeare really wrote all those plays, or whether somebody else by the same name did. If the first man was not “Adam”, he was still Adam, because that is simply the Hebrew word for "man". In Genesis 5:2, God calls both the man and the woman, “Adam.” If the woman was not in historical fact called Eve, she was Eve anyway, because "Eve" means "mother of all the living." These are (or at least can be) generic names.

If our first parents did not literally eat any forbidden fruit, they still sinned. And their sin still consisted of what all sin consists of, trashing their relationship with God. And the earliest humans still acquired the knowledge of evil illicitly, namely by committing it. (Until they had done that, there was no need for them to know anything about evil.) Their sin still transformed the world in a tragic way. And they lost their chance for immortality.

And so on and so forth. Nowhere can you find as true or as profound an account of our beginnings as in Genesis – and this holds, whether or not it is literal history! Put another way, if it isn’t the literal history, for practical purposes it may as well be.

An iconic interpretation of Scripture, so typically Orthodox, does not necessarily deny the literal historicity of events, but does not require it, either. So yes, you may accept the Adam and Eve narrative as historical. Or yes, you may accept it as non-historical, but still a God-inspired interpretation of human history, conveying the truth about who man is and what his relationship with God is. Either way, it's an icon (really a series of icons) for us of spiritual realities.

What Happened in Eden

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, [it was] very good. (Genesis 1:31)

The creation today is not as it was when God first made it and found it “very good”, and neither are human beings. Something grievous has happened in the meanwhile. Here is the biblical icon of it, found in Genesis 3:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, "Has God indeed said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?"

And the woman said to the serpent, "We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, 'You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.'"

Then the serpent said to the woman, "You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.

Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, "Where are you?"

So he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself."

And He said, "Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?"

Then the man said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate."

And the Lord God said to the woman, "What is this you have done?"

The woman said, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate."

So the Lord God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."

To the woman He said: "I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

Then to Adam He said, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, 'You shall not eat of it': Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return."

And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made garments of skin, and clothed them.

Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever"-- therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.

***An aside: "Then the Lord God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of Us..." One of US. ***

Why the Serpent? Why the Forbidden Tree?

Perhaps the first point to note here is that God placed Adam in a garden of delights, providing everything he needed; and to make his first lesson in obedience as easy as possible, God gave him only a single commandment, not at all difficult to keep: "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (Genesis 2:16-17)

These words, our Fathers teach us, were a friendly warning, an explanation of why the tree was off limits, and were not a threat.

[God] did not say to Adam: “return to whence you were taken”; but He said to him: “Earth you are and unto the earth you shall return.... “He did not say:” in the day you shall eat of it, die!” but, ”in the day you shall eat of it, you shall surely die.” Nor did He afterwards say:” return now unto the earth”, but He said, "you shall return," in this manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what shall come to pass. We see that death did not come at the behest of God but as a consequence of Adam’s severing his relations with the source of Life, by his disobedience; and God in His kindness did only warn him of it. (St. Gregory Palamas, Physical, Theological, Moral, and Practical Chapters 150 (PG 1157- 1160)
The tree was there, then, and God allowed the serpent to be there, to give our first parents the opportunity to refuse his enticements, and thereby to begin the process of maturation. That is still why God permits the serpent to tempt us today, that by strug¬gling against him we may learn how to live as spiritual instead of natural men, that we may grow toward God, that each test through which we pass may purify us, and each struggle strengthen us, more and more.

The Fathers tell us that had Adam and Eve remained obedient, then in due course they would have been allowed to eat both of the Tree of Life (which Christians understand as a figure of Christ; see Revelation 2:77; 22:2, 14) and of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – when they were mature enough to be able to receive this knowledge without harm to themselves. Learning about evil by doing it, however, is the disaster.

And the tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, but the disobedience which had death in it. For there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge; knowledge, however, is good when one uses it discreetly. (St. Theophilus, op. cit., 2, 25)
Trouble in Paradise

Let us look closely at what Adam and Eve did, which ruined their relationship with God, with themselves, with their whole world.

  • First, Eve distrusted God, choosing to believe the serpent’s charge that God was a jealous, lying tyrant.
  • Worse, she next gave the fruit to Adam and induced him to disobey as well.
  • Neither of them honored their Creator even enough to observe a single, easy prohibition.
  • In eating the fruit, they were trying to usurp God’s place. God had made them to share in all His Life and in all His Glory, but this they tried to seize by themselves, as over and against Him, as rival gods.
  • Next, they hid from Him, hid from the Lover of Mankind, from their Benefactor and Friend, Who used to walk and talk with them in the cool of the evening. Could anything more graphically demonstrate their complete estrangement from Him?
  • Next, they failed to repent. They could have fallen on their faces and renounced their foolishness and turned toward God again; but they did not. They stuck stubbornly to their wickedness and folly.
  • Far from repenting, they tried to shift the blame. Adam, instead of acknowledging his responsibility, blamed Eve. Eve, instead of owning up to her guilt, blamed the serpent. Neither of them acknowledged his or her culpability.
  • Worst of all, Adam even attempted to blame God! "The woman whom You gave to be with me,” he said, “she gave me of the tree, and I ate." It was God’s fault, he meant, for having given him the woman. He who ought to have shown lifelong gratitude for the companion God had so graciously provided him now implied that God ought not to have made her. (This was not the wisest comment to make about ones wife in her hearing.)
So we see that it was not one sin our first parents committed, but a whole series of sins, each compounding the ones before until, by the end, their repudiation of God (and of each other!) could not have been more complete.

In the next post, we shall begin a consideration of the catastrophic consequences of sin, and it appears this discussion will require perhaps two more posts after that.


Marsha said...

"The tree was there, then, and God allowed the serpent to be there, to give our first parents the opportunity to refuse his enticements, and thereby to begin the process of maturation. That is still why God permits the serpent to tempt us today, that by strug¬gling against him we may learn how to live as spiritual instead of natural men, that we may grow toward God, that each test through which we pass may purify us, and each struggle strengthen us, more and more.

Very well put. I am enjoying this.

Robert Hagedorn said...

Apples grow on apple trees. But what fruit grows on the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Do a search: THE FIRST SCANDAL.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Robert, I did that and I have to say, respectfully, that what you write comes out of someone's imagination and is foreign to anything the Christian Church has ever taught.