With the story of the Garden of Eden, I think it’s important to take the story by itself and on its own terms without giving too much consideration to how the story came to be interpreted later. This means that, instead of seeing the story as one about the “fall” of the first humans, we will find it to be one about their “rise”—a rise that takes them almost to the level of the gods. This idea first came to my attention when reading Slaying the Dragon: Mythmaking in the Biblical Tradition by Bernard F. Batto, a professor at Depauw University in Indiana, which I had assigned for my course, Myth and History in the Bible. Batto deserves a great deal of credit for his articulation of this idea and for how his work has stimulated my own thinking and that of other scholars.
First, there is nothing in the story to indicate that the man, initially, and later the woman lived in a state of moral innocence or grace. They lived, rather, in a state of ignorance. They did not realize, for instance, that they were naked. In the ancient Near East, being unaware of one’s nakedness was not a sign of innocence as we might assume today when we see young children toddling around in the buff. For the ancients, anyone with the least bit of knowledge about civilized living knew enough to put on some clothes. That the man and the woman were not ashamed of their nakedness is not a compliment. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (versions of which have been discovered in numerous parts of the ancient Near East, including the territory that came to be occupied by ancient Israel), the wild or primitive man, whose name is Enkidu, behaves like an animal after he is first created by the gods, running with the wild animals, eating what they eat, and sleeping where they sleep. It also says that he is “dressed as the cattle are.” And how are cattle dressed? They aren’t. To be naked means to be living like an animal. It is only after he is inducted into civilized society that he begins to act like a human: he gets dressed, eats human food, and begins to live as other humans do. Wisdom and knowledge were highly valued in that world, and innocence (often rendered as “righteousness” in modern translations of the Bible) came from knowing the difference between right and wrong and choosing the right. It is thus improbable that any biblical author would have believed that innocence came from not knowing the difference between right and wrong.