Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Richard J. CliffordOctober 24, 2014
PARENTAL UNITS. Stained glass window depicting Adam and Eve in the cathedral of Brussels, Belgium.

Centuries of Biblical interpretation make it difficult for us today to appreciate Adam and Eve as characters in a well-told story that deftly probes the ways of God with humans. Yet the increasing availability of literary works comparable to Genesis 1-11 enables us to appreciate how seriously ancients took their stories of origins. Pope Pius XII’s 1943 encyclical “Divino afflante spiritu(Nos. 19-23, 31) urged scholars to appreciate “the manner of expression and the literary mode” of the stories in Genesis 1-11. Tryggve Mettinger of Lund University in The Eden Narrative clearly expresses appreciation for Genesis 1-11: “the conditions of real life in the present are seen, in a validating and explanatory perspective, as being founded on events between god(s) and man in primordial time.” The referential ambition of such texts is representativity; that is, they possess a validity that is greater than the individual case. Mettinger explains: “We do not ask about the factuality, the historicity of event narrated, but about the relevance of the narrative. How can it contribute to our understanding of what it means to be a human being,” and, one might add, what it means to be a married couple.

The Man and the Woman in the Garden of Eden

The Lord God creates the man (2:4-7), plants a garden in Eden with the tree of life and tree of the knowledge of good and bad, appoints the man as gardener and gives him leave to eat everything except the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad (2:8-17). Observing that it was not good for the man to be alone, God creates the animals from the earth. Observing again that no animal proved to be a suitable helper for the man, God creates the woman from his rib (2:18-24). On seeing her, the man rhapsodically declares her to be the one for him; the couple are naked without shame. Enter a snake (not a serpent, not Satan), wisest of the animals, who persuades the couple to eat the fruit of the tree, which, he says, will open their eyes and make them like the gods who know good and bad. (The translation “like God” in the NRSV is inaccurate.) The couple’s eyes are indeed opened, but they know only one new thing—they are naked (2:25-3:7). God investigates their transgression (3:8-13) and assigns penalties to the snake, woman and man (3:14-19). The man then gives his wife a second name, Eve, “mother of all the living” (3:20). God clothes the couple with leather, i.e., permanent, garments, and expels them from the garden (3:20-24), setting armed cherubim to guard against re-entry.

It may help readers to recognize two “before-and-after” scenarios shaping the story, one “agricultural” and the other “anthropological.” Before the couple’s sin, agriculture consisted in the man tending a vast garden irrigated by a mighty stream flowing up from the Deep and branching into four great rivers that fertilized the earth. After the sin, the couple was expelled into a new agricultural system in which the man will laboriously till the arable soil dependent on uncertain rain. The soil had been there from the beginning, of course, but it was dormant, for “there was no man to till the soil” (Gen 2:5).

The “anthropological” scenario concerns the couple’s human nature and defining tasks. Before their sin, the man and the woman enjoyed fullness of life and knowledge simply by being in the presence of the Living and Wise God. To be sure, they were not inherently immortal like heavenly beings, formed as they were from earth, nor did they have the wisdom of heavenly beings. But such limits did not matter as long as they were in God’s garden. After the sin, “death” in the sense of living outside Eden, the sphere of life, was imposed on humans. Humans now had a life span.

Narratives such as Genesis 2-3 invite many more questions. Here are seven.

1. Is the garden important in the story? Yes, for it is part of the palace of God. Gardens of gods and kings were exceedingly important institutions in the ancient Near East well into Islamic times; their plants and trees symbolized creativity and fertility. The four rivers fertilizing the earth in Gen 2:10-14 are essential to the story also, for they symbolize the intense vitality emanating from the garden. The man and woman did not need to go outside God to enhance their life. There was another reason the garden was important. It was sacred space, requiring strict protocols for human behavior. Expressions of sexuality and all vestiges of death were excluded, for God was eternal, beyond sex or death. The demand for such purity in sacred places is a feature of both Judaism and Christianity as Gary Anderson points out in The Genesis of Perfection (2001).

2. What is the meaning of the two trees? Though the narrator tells us there were two trees, the man, woman, and snake speak of only one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and bad. (In the same way, the narrator speaks of the “Lord God,” whereas the couple and the snake speak of “God.”) The best explanation for the discrepancy in the number of trees is not that the tree of life is a later addition (a common view), but the literary concept of voice (who speaks?). The characters speak from their limited perspective, whereas the narrator speaks from an unlimited perspective. 

The trees are metaphors for the two qualities that in the ancient Near East chiefly distinguished earthly from heavenly beings—immortality and super-wisdom. Two second millennium Mesopotamian stories, Gilgamesh and Adapa, tell how the gods gave humans a certain degree of wisdom, but withheld immortality. Like the protagonists of those two stories, the biblical couple gains a certain knowledge of primordial things, but not the heavenly knowledge they aspired to.

3. Why did God forbid the couple to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad? God’s prohibition is usually seen as an assertion of divine will, reminding the couple that humans’ first duty is to obey God even when no reasons are given. But an explanation that is more closely tied to the story is also possible. God’s command was meant to safeguard the wisdom the couple already had simply by being in God’s presence; there was no need for them to acquire knowledge outside of God. The tree of knowledge was therefore forbidden to them. In the Bible, God sometimes issues a command (“You shall not eat!”) instead of giving a reason. In Deut 16:18-20, for example, God describes the duties of judges by a series of commands: “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality,” instead of simply saying (as we might do) that judges must judge fairly.

4. Why did the man and woman not die when they ate the fruit? God said to the man, “on the day you eat from it you shall surely die” (2:17) On the day” is simply a Hebrew idiom for “when”; it should not be taken literally. “You shall surely die” cannot mean that the man will die upon eating the forbidden fruit, for he lives to be 930 years old (Gen 5:5)! Nor does it mean “you will become mortal,” for the man was already mortal by reason of being made from earth. The meaning can only be that the man’s sin will end that nearness to God that made him fully alive despite his being made of earth. When he leaves God’s garden where life abounded, death will eventually come to him, as 3:19 says, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

5. Is the Woman a temptress leading the Man into sin? Christian tradition has often said yes, but the short answer is no. We need to know why the snake approached the woman rather than the man. When God noticed that none of the animals was a suitable helper for the man, he created the woman from the man’s body. The snake was passed over and planned revenge. He addressed the woman to expose her as an unsuitable helper. And so he asked, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” The snake first overstated the prohibition (“from any tree?”), provoking the woman to another overstatement (“or even touch it”) and awakening in her, it seems, a sense of the arbitrariness of the command. To the woman’s generic reference to “the tree in the middle of the garden,” the snake supplied specificity: it is not just any tree, it is the tree that God doesn’t want you to eat from, for its fruit will make you “like gods knowing good and bad.” The woman looked at the tree again—its fruit was delicious, alluring and imparting secret knowledge. She ate and gave the fruit to her husband standing at her side. (Unfortunately, Jerome’s Latin Vulgate omitted “at her side,” creating the impression that Eve approached him later as a temptress.) The eyes of the man and woman were indeed opened, but they learned only that they were naked.

6. Why are the Man and the Woman naked and not ashamed (2:25)? It is often noted that Eden depicts the childhood of the race, for only children are naked and unashamed. Yes, the couple’s sexuality has not yet been awakened, but that fact must be put in context. In the agricultural scenario mentioned above, the soil outside the garden was originally dormant, because “the Lord God had not caused rain to fall upon the earth and there was no man to till the land” (2:5). But when the man left the garden to till the soil, the soil was activated by the man’s tilling it and rain began. The same thing happened to the procreative aspect of the couple’s sexuality. It was dormant at the beginning of the story, indicated by the couple’s unashamed nakedness. As long as they were in God’s garden, they did not have to worry about procreation of children, for life bloomed everywhere. Indeed, they could not have exercised their sexuality (in the Bible, the remedy for mortality) because no elements of sex and death were permitted in the sacred dwelling of the eternal God. But once expelled from the holy garden, they had to exercise their procreative powers and beget children, for they no longer were in the life-imparting presence of God.

The interpretation just stated, while not a common one, has the advantage of explaining a puzzling feature of the story: the man names his wife twice, the first time in 2:23, when he names her “Woman.” (The phrase “the two of them become one flesh,” in 2:23 does not refer to sexual union, but to the woman’s joining the man’s family.) He names her a second time in 3:20, “Eve” when “she became the mother of all the living”; she must henceforward bear children in view of human lifespans.

Inquiring minds will no doubt ask: if the couple had remained forever in Eden with their procreative powers dormant, how could they have had descendants and the human race expand? The answer lies, I think, in understanding the way that God chose to relate to the couple—by observing and responding. God observed that it was not good for the man to be alone and so created animals from the earth to be his helpers; but observing that animals did not satisfy the man’s “aloneness,” determined that the helper would have to come from the man’s body. But why did God not foresee the man needed a woman? Even more pressing, why did God not foresee the human race would become totally corrupt and avoid the bother of even creating the world? It took ten generations before God “regretted making man on the earth, and his heart was grieved,” and that “he was sorry he made them” (Gen 6:5-8).  Philosophical notions of divine omniscience cannot be applied to God in these stories. In a sense, God enters so deeply into human temporality and finiteness that he must wait to learn what these new creatures are capable of doing before responding. God has a learning curve.

7. How should we understand the divine punishments inflicted on the snake, the woman and the man (3:14-19)? “Punishment” is probably not the right word. Rather, God imposes on them a new state, or more accurately, announces the new state their actions have created. The snake, the woman, and the man become the beings we know today. Previously, the snake aspired to be a suitable helper to humans and was able to stand and speak face to face with them. Now he must crawl on the ground as humans recoil at the sight of him. The woman can no longer live simply by her nearness to the Living God. She will now “live” by giving birth to the next generations, a process attended by pain and danger. Because the husband listened to her instead of God, she now must listen to her husband, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you.” The man will longer tend a well-watered and fruitful garden, but struggle to farm resistant soil.

The man accepts the couple’s new state when he names his wife Eve, “the mother of all the living,” 3:20, and God accepts the new state of affairs with a gesture of his own—replacing the couple’s hastily made fig leaves with leather, i.e., permanent, garments. God’s final act is to put the tree of life beyond their reach, a mercy in view of their mishandling of the tree of knowledge of good and bad. God’s sarcastic comment (3:22) can be paraphrased: If they made such a mess of their life with the tree of knowledge, think what a mess they would make with the more potent tree of life.

What Do Our First Parents Teach Us?

Living in the very dwelling of God proved too much for our inexperienced first parents. They had to leave it for a less intense environment. But they—and we—cannot forget that living with God in Eden was what God originally intended for them. And we, poor banished children of Eve, ought never to forget God’s original intent or to lose hope that one day that intent will be realized.

If the story teaches us about God’s high hopes and generous intent, what does it teach us about our parents’ sin? When the snake urged the woman to eat the fruit so that she and her husband could be wise like the heavenly beings, he invited them to go outside their relationship with God to acquire something belonging to another order of beings. Their act was an everyday thing—eating fruit—but it was representative. It was at once an act of disobedience and an act of idolatry. Disobedience is more obvious. God had commanded them, using the commonest Hebrew verb of commanding. The Hebrew verb šāma‘, “to obey,” is profoundly personal; one “listens to” a person rather than carries out a command. In 3:17, God accuses the man of “listening to the voice” of his wife rather than listening to God. The couple refused to let God define their life.

Their act was, more subtly, also idolatry. The couple went for the gift and bypassed the giver, illustrating vividly Hos 2:8: “[Israel] did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished upon her silver and gold that they used for Baal.” The prophet Hosea indicts the people for seeking from other gods the benefits that were in reality gifts of the Lord. The man and woman in Eden sought to be wise with heavenly knowledge instead of living on earth with God.

Though the pair (and all whom they represent) missed out on the fullness of life and wisdom that was originally intended for them, they did come away with a lesser version of each. They continued to live, but not in the Garden of Eden. And as for knowledge, they had seen what happened in the beginning, and they also learned how to farm the soil and beget the next generation. The story ends with a loss, but not an irreparable one, for it is possible for their descendants to access the garden and the tree of life in the present, albeit in a diminished mode, by visiting God’s dwelling, seeking wisdom, and living according to God’s word. Expulsion from the Garden of Eden may have pushed the man and the woman into a harder existence, but it provided the human race with an indelible image of a future life with God. No wonder that the Christian vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22 includes the tree of life.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
9 years 6 months ago
A question. Is is absolutely indefensible to suggest that the primal parental genesis of the First Family of God, Adam and Eve, was taken from the existing human gene pool and did not happen in a separate creation, who were then super-abundantly endowed in Grace, commencing therefrom the Divinely predetermined Family of God, evolving further in various Revelation-types to the Church, which is the most perfect image of the Family of God, concisely expressed in the Lord's words, "Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven"? What about the "Garden?" It is nothing other than the Human Soul, the human capacity to choose good and evil, right and wrong, the "Tree of Life" nothing other than human freedom, the "Serpent" nothing other than Satan's circuitous wrap-arounds common to human experience ever since the Fall from Grace, Augustine's "Original Sin" of the First Parents of the Original, the First Family of God. Is all of this unbearable speculative folly to the better instructed, to the more erudite, or might there be something to it? Do I hear the fire crackling? St. Joan, pray for me!
Steven Krause
9 years 6 months ago
I sometimes interpret this story as follows, but would appreciate others' comments: The snake "sells" the woman the idea of eating the forbidden fruit by stating that it will "make them like gods." In other words, he encourages people to reject their rightful human place, to find their humanity unacceptable, and to aspire to become divine. They do so, but find that in their attempt to become divine, they can no longer feel comfortable in their humanity. Suddenly their human bodies and nakedness become a source of shame, even though they hadn't been before. Discord and blaming begin between Adam & Eve. Eventually, throughout Genesis, this alienation ripples outward into the family (Cain & Abel) and the larger society (Tower of Babel, where again an effort to reach the heavens causes people to become alienated from each other.) Might the author be trying to tell us that we can live peacefully in our status as human beings, in loving communion with our creator, but if we try to exceed our humanity and become our creator's peers, we will then find ourselves alienated from God, ourselves, and each other?
Bruce Snowden
9 years 6 months ago
Steven, I cannot answer your questions adequately, perhaps I may even do so wrongly, but as best as I understand, there are no theologically certain answers to your inventive and speculative theorizing, interestingly I think the same general style used by Holy Spirit in at least the First Five Books of the OT. St. Augustine said, the Bible doesn't tell "how the heavens go" but "how to go to heaven." In other words the Bible is not scientifically declarative, being instead a profound moral guide. This "moral guide" needs an authoritative explanatory voice. As a Catholic I believe Jesus took care of that in perpetuity by saying to the fledgling Apostolic Magesterium, "He who hears you, hears Me." If you want authoritative moral teaching listen to t he Catholic Church. , Incidentally, when Satan urged our First Parents of the First Family of God, Adam and Eve to become "like God" through disobedience the Evil One would in time get the shock of his life chagrined to hell by Jesus who through obedience to God would make all "partakers of the Divine Nature" trough Grace! It's helpful to remember that the Bible is a library of stories, a story book written by God with human help to clue us in on his great Plan for humanity - REDEMPTION and all that goes with it.
Edward Stansfield
9 years 6 months ago

Professor Clifford

In the article you claimed that the snake (synonym for “serpent”) was, “not Satan.” What are you basing this on? Saint John the apostle would appear to disagree.

In Revelation 12:9 John says, “So the great dragon was thrown out—the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” The “ancient serpent” from Revelation appears to be a pretty clear reference to the snake from the Garden of Eden. Likewise the judgment that he “deceives the whole world” calls to mind the deception of Adam and Eve. Thus, it would seem that the serpent represents the Devil within the context of the story.

Exactly what benefit is there in claiming that the New Testament interpreted the Old Testament wrongly and incorrectly? Is there any evidence to support such an interpretation?

Henry George
8 years 6 months ago
Fr. Clifford, S.J., Your exegesis reminds me of the sermons that I heard as student at the JSTB. Erudite, but more Sociological than Salvational. The Serpent/Snake is not there to help humans and could never have been a proper mate for Adam. Adam is not standing right next to Eve when she is tempted by the Serpent. Would Adam & Eve have been immortal and/or have children had they not sinned ? Why would God ever be sarcastic since being so insults the listener and what need hath the Good Lord of insults ? ! ? Are we to conclude that God does not have infinite wisdom and did not fully understand what He was doing when He created humans ? Tree of Good and Evil - not "bad", please.

The latest from america

At center: Republican U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson sits beside Democratic President Joe Biden during the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Feb. 1, 2024. (OSV News photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters)
Your enemies are children of God—and that includes the presidential candidate you can’t stand and his supporters.
“Brothers and sisters, humility is everything. It is what saves us from the Evil One,” Pope Francis said at today’s general audience, concluding his cycle of catechesis on virtue.
Pope FrancisMay 22, 2024
“Authentic palliative care is radically different from euthanasia, which is never a source of hope or genuine concern for the sick and dying,” the pope said in a message to the first International Interfaith Symposium on Palliative Care in Toronto.
Pope Francis greets Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, S.J., and Julie Sullivan, the president of Santa Clara University, on March 18, 2024. 
Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator is the first dean of the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley born outside of the United States.