So this is where it all goes wrong.
Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up with this text, from flannelgraph to grad school, but I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to appreciate how bizarre this story really is.
Two trees — one gives life, one gives knowledge of good and evil. God sets just one rule: don’t eat from the tree that gives knowledge. A talking snake arrives and chats up the woman (who shows no sign that talking with snakes is unusual). The snake convinces her that God doesn’t want to share his powers and gets the woman and her husband to eat from the knowledge tree. While waiting to become like God (as promised by the snake), the man and woman realize their clothing-optional lifestyle has become a source of embarrassment and decide to cover up. God shows up for a game of cosmic hide-and-seek, followed up by the world’s first game of “not it” — man blames woman, woman blames snake, snake eats dust. God sentences the woman to painful childbirth and the man to perpetual yard work. To be followed by death for all. God then padlocks the Garden of Eden because it turns out the snake was partly right: the man and woman have become like God. So God decides to put a safe distance between humans and the tree of life, assigning some unfriendly cherubim (who’ve apparently traded in their diapers and cupid arrows for a giant flaming sword) to block the way.
Anyway, Eve gets a lot of flack for misquoting God’s command. She understates the positive. God said, “You are free to eat from any tree…” which Eve downgrades to, “We may eat fruit from the trees…” And she exaggerates the negative, saying that they may neither eat from nor touch the knowledge tree. (God never said anything about touching the tree.)
But I think we’re a bit hard on Eve. Let’s not forget — particularly if you read Genesis 1-3 as literal, play-by-play historical narrative — Eve wasn’t there when God gave the command. She must have heard it from Adam who, according to one ancient Jewish interpretation, deliberately exaggerated the command to deter Eve from going near the tree.
In any case, at least Eve had the right idea, even if she got some of the crucial details wrong. The snake willfully distorts what God said, turning a prohibition on one tree into blanket, garden-wide ban.
Under the circumstances, I sometimes wonder why God doesn’t show up sooner — not to make up Eve’s mind for her, but to set the record straight. To make sure he’s being quoted properly, if nothing else. After all, he’s the one who’s being mischaracterized as an overbearing tyrant.
But he doesn’t step in. He lets Adam, Eve, and the talking snake carry on. Which doesn’t turn out well for any of them.
The traditional interpretation is that the tree represents a test, a choice between doing things God’s way and doing them our way. Between letting him decide what’s best or pretending we know better.
But maybe there’s another element to the test. Maybe God doesn’t step in because he’s testing not just their faithfulness to him but to each other. If the ancient Jewish interpretation is right, then Eve depended on Adam to accurately convey what God had said — both the positive (you are free to eat your fill of any tree) and the negative (except the knowledge tree). Once Eve takes a munch of forbidden fruit, the text reveals that Adam was by her side the whole time. Which means even here at the decisive moment, he had one last chance to set the record straight. To offer an alternative to the snake’s view of things.
Adam and Eve didn’t just fail God; they failed each other. Just how badly is obvious in the aftermath of the fruit-eating incident, when Adam blames God for for creating the woman in the first place. The same woman to whom Adam once said, “At last! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
One last thing about this test. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the importance of trusting God and how Adam and Eve failed to do so. I’ve only heard one sermon about God trusting us — and how much he risks to do so.
Think about it. To entrust his creation to us — a creation that’s better than good, it’s good seven times over. To put a tree that could ruin everything smack in the middle of it — a tree that gives the knowledge to become like God. Because that’s one point about which the snake apparently wasn’t lying. God himself says it: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”
We’ve come a long way, armed with this knowledge. We don’t have to wait long to read about the first murder (Genesis 4). Or the first war (Genesis 14).
In the last century, the phrase “mutually assured destruction” entered our vocabulary. It was an attempt to explain what kept the US and the Soviet Union from the brink during the Cold War: the understanding that a nuclear attack would lead to a series of escalating counterattacks, resulting in the total destruction of both countries and perhaps the entire planet.
God makes a world where we have the ability to destroy each other. Granted, he may intervene to keep the worst from happening, and maybe that’s the real reason the Cold War never went nuclear. Even so, we’ve shown ourselves capable of inflicting a lot of damage.
But if God gives us the ability to choose such a destructive path, then he must give us the option to choose another way, too. A path that leads away from the forbidden tree and toward all the other trees that are good to eat from. A path that leads away from violence and destruction and toward peace and life. A path that leads away from independence and autonomy (which is what Adam and Eve were after) and toward dependence and harmony with God, each other, and creation.