What really motivates Adam and Eve to pick and eat the forbidden fruit?
Genesis 2-3 has long fascinated me. I don’t read it as history. I regard it as a religious myth. But as a myth, it says some important things about human nature. That’s why I continue to ponder it and honor it.
It is Genesis’ second creation story. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is that magnificent recital of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth by God’s sovereign word. It moves day by day, stage by stage, in a stately procession. It begs for a royal Handelian march as musical accompaniment.
The second creation story (Genesis 2:4-3:24) reads more like a family tale told by aunts and uncles over the dinner table at a family reunion. The cousins eagerly listen in. It has a folkloric quality.
A tale of great depth
But we would be very wrong to assume it is naïve and childish. Its theology is very sophisticated. It lays an essential foundation for everything else that is coming in the Bible.
For example, its understanding of human beings. In the story God creates Adam (the representative human being) out of the dust (or clay) of the earth. Human beings are constituted of the same atoms and molecules as the rest of the physical universe. Yet into this fragile figurine God breathes the breath of life.
God creates a magnificent garden as a home for this human being. When you consider that in the desiccated lands of the ancient Near East, gardens were prized as luxuries, a privilege primarily enjoyed by kings and nobles, then Adam is given a very royal home. And he is given a noble task. God makes him caretaker of this glorious garden.
God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. Human science with its methods of classification has continued to carry out that noble task ever since. And finally God creates for Adam a companion, Eve, who is complementary to Adam, but equal to him in dignity.
How this noble vision contrasts with the creation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. In those myths the gods create human beings to be their slaves. Human beings do the work of growing food so they can feed the gods through their sacrifices. Humans do the back-breaking labor of building homes for the gods, those stupendous ziggurat temples. All this so the gods can recline on their couches and enjoy their leisure.
Despite their privileged status in creation, human beings in the Genesis story remain creatures. They are not children of God by birth, but by manufacture. It is essential that they continue to recognize that fact of their existence.
In the myth they acknowledge that fact by obeying the one command that God places upon them. They are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
What is the danger of knowledge?
Now this is one part of the story that has long engaged me. What is this knowledge of good and evil that is such poisonous fruit to these creatures that if they consume it they will die? The text does not define the phrase. So we have to tease out its meaning by paying close attention to the context.
Scholars have offered four different understandings:
1.This knowledge of good and evil is moral knowledge. It enables humans to comprehend the distinction between moral good and evil. But given everything else written in the Bible on the great value of moral knowledge, why would God prohibit such knowledge?
2.This knowledge stands for sexual maturity, as when children move from their innocence into the sexual awakening of adolescence. After all Adam and Eve become first aware of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. But is not such sexual maturation a part of the God-designed plan for human beings? Why again would God prohibit it?
3. This knowledge represents a mature wisdom that is a part of adulthood. Adam and Eve are like innocent children, who have yet to grow up. They try to do so prematurely and now must bear the burdens and anxieties of adulthood before they are ready. But given the Bible’s constant praise of wisdom and the search for wisdom, why would God want to keep humans in a state of perpetual childhood?
4. This knowledge is a descriptive phrase for omniscience. The contrasting good and evil stand for knowledge in its entirety. If one can know everything, then one can make independent judgments about what is best for human welfare. Such knowledge would transform the creature into a god, for omniscience is a divine attribute.*
I find option No. 4 most persuasive. It makes the most sense of the serpent’s temptation in chapter 3. He tells Eve the lie, “…God knows that when you eat of it [the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The heart of the serpent’s seduction
His lie appeals to the human desire to be captains of our souls and masters of our fate. We seek that security because to live trusting in the goodness, grace, and merciful love of God can produce great anxiety and restlessness. Can we really depend upon the power and love of God to carry us through the many vicissitudes of life? Therein lies the key to the serpent’s seductive temptation. It triggers the spirit of suspicion that God is not all that he is cracked up to be. It undermines our full-hearted trust in God.
Adam and Eve therefore reach out and greedily grab at this great treasure of knowledge. (Human beings still do.) But when they do so, they violate God’s commandment and sever their intimate relationship with God. Trust has been thrown overboard.
The eating has the intended consequence that their eyes are opened, although now they realize they are naked (a symbol of vulnerability). The eating also has its unintended consequences. It separates them from the one who breathes the breath of life into them. They are exiled from the garden. And they begin their inevitable journey towards death.
The security from anxiety that they hoped to achieve by omniscience slips through their fingers.
Editorial Note: I continue my reflection on this passage in my next blog posting. Please read the two together to get the full drift of my reflection.
* I want to acknowledge my great debt to Nahum M. Sarna’s masterful commentary on Genesis for assistance in understanding this theme. The commentary forms part of The JPS Torah Commentary, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989. I also acknowledge the insight into the passage that Martha Elias Downey gave me in her essay, “The Original Choice: The Prohibition of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” posted on academia.edu. I have adapted her analysis to my own use.