In the last several posts, I’ve discussed my view on various aspects of the story of the Garden of Eden. Given the resolution that the Pennsylvania House passed declaring 2012 to be the Year of the Bible, we ought to ask whether this story “teaches” (to use the resolution’s word) us anything. Actually, I think that’s a hard question to answer. Some would argue that it teaches us about original sin, the fall of humankind from grace, and where the basic problems of nature come from (pain in childbirth, difficulty growing crops). The story itself, however, doesn’t teach any of that. A particular reinterpretation of the story teaches that but not the story as it was originally told.
So, what does it teach? “Darned, if I know” is perhaps the most honest answer, but I’d like to suggest three things that might help with this question. First, the story shows us that not all biblical authors or storytellers thought about their god in the same way. The initial creation story (in Genesis 1) shows a super powerful and fully competent god (remember the 7 days of creation, “let there be light,” and so on? that’s only in the first story). The second creation story (the one about the Garden of Eden) shows a god that is very powerful, to be sure, but one that can’t seem to get anything just right and has to keep changing the rules to make sure that everything doesn’t go awry. Throughout the Bible, authors present a wide variety of views about what their god is like. If anything, this should put us at ease when we can’t agree with each other about what our god might be like. Second, the story shows us that telling stories like this was a common way for ancient authors to try to explain the world around them. Pain in childbirth, difficulty growing crops, and snakes crawling on their bellies had all occurred long before this story was made up. The story was simply one way of trying to explain how things got to be the way they are, with a focus on humans’ acquisition of what they called “knowledge.” We shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of stories like this in the Bible and in other ancient literature. Third, if we want some sort of lesson (I really don’t like that word) that we can apply (don’t like that one, either) to our lives, I believe that a discussion of this story can show us that we can’t always trust everything that we’ve heard or been taught. Everything can be subject to question and open to critique. And it might be wise to double-check our beliefs and motivations before we insist that we’re right and that we know “the right thing to do” (a favorite phrase of many of our political leaders).