Paul Morris and Deborah Sawyer, ed. A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of Eden. England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.
A Walk in the Garden
contains seventeen contributions by scholars about the Garden of Eden
story in Genesis 2-3. Why did I decide to read this book? The Garden
of Eden story has long intrigued and puzzled me. As someone who came
from a Christian background, I was taught that the Garden of Eden story
was about the Fall and original sin, which threw the whole universe into
a mess, and which Jesus Christ would later come to earth to redress.
But I would encounter other interpretations elsewhere. A professor in
biblical studies at my undergraduate institution taught and wrote that
the Garden of Eden story was not about a Fall, per se, but rather about
humanity moving from innocence into a state of intelligence and cultural
creation, as well as the struggle to demarcate the boundary between the
human and the divine. I heard from religious Jews that Judaism did not
believe in original sin but interpreted Genesis 2-3 differently from
The Garden story itself contained details that
perplexed me. Why, for example, did God not want Adam and Eve to eat
from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? What is wrong with
knowing good and evil? Isn't distinguishing between good and evil a
good thing elsewhere in the Bible? And does not God say that he himself
knows good and evil, as God laments that Adam and Eve now are like God,
knowing good and evil? Why is knowing good and evil bad for humans,
but a good thing for God? And why did God expel Adam and Eve
from the Garden? What would be so wrong with Adam and Eve staying in
the Garden of Eden, partaking of the Tree of Life?
I can't say that I found answers to every one of my questions in A Walk of the Garden (or maybe the answers were there, and I missed them!). But the book was still interesting. The
book covered a variety of topics, but, if I could locate a central
issue that encompasses most of the essays in the book, it would be this:
Was the "Fall" in Genesis 2-3 something negative, or something positive
(or at least not-so-negative)?
There were a couple of
essays that argued that Genesis 2-3 concerned the transition of humans
from a state of innocence to one of intelligence and cultural creation.
One article even stated that Genesis 2-3 is about how humans
became like God----in God's image, as Genesis 1 states. And, according
to the article, human beings after the "Fall" indeed resembled God in
the biblical narrative: God is at conflict with humanity, which was why
God sent the Flood, and human beings became rather alienated from each
other after eating the forbidden fruit.
Christianity treated the
"Fall" as something negative that Jesus Christ would fix with his
obedience to God. An article on feminist attempts to rehabilitate Eve
talks about how Christianity reinforced misogyny by blaming the Fall on
Eve, and by seeing sex as a means for the transmission of original sin.
The article quotes feminist theologian Mary Daly, who does not believe
that portraying Mary as a new Eve really corrects the problem, since the
Christian narrative still stigmatizes childbirth and women by making
Mary an exception among women.
Elements of Gnosticism regarded the
"Fall" as positive, as human beings attaining knowledge that a sinister
sub-deity wanted to keep from them, leading the sub-deity to expel them
from the Garden and to burden them with tasks that would distract them
from thinking about their spiritual identity. The article on Judaism
opened by saying that Judaism did not believe in original sin, and yet
it gave indications that prominent elements of Judaism still deemed the
events in Genesis 2-3 to be quite negative: within rabbinic Judaism was
the notion that the Torah would correct the ills that the "Fall"
brought, at least for the nation of Israel; and elements of Kabbalistic
Judaism held that the "Fall" was an event that disrupted the cosmos. At
the same time, in the endnotes to the article, there is a reference to a
modern Jewish interpretation that regards the "Fall" as something
positive, the same way that the exile of the Jews was positive because
it enabled them to carry the knowledge of God beyond Israel. According to a couple of articles, Christian theologian Karl Barth held
fast to seeing the Fall as negative. According to one of the articles
on Barth, the story of the Fall is about human attempts to judge good
and evil for themselves, as opposed to relying on God. And there was an
article about how Genesis 2-3 may relate to the Oedipus and Elektra
complexes: the story reflects how children enter maturity as they learn
that they cannot have whatever they want.
I wish that the
articles about the Fall being positive (or at least not as negative as
Christians say) would have dealt more extensively with a salient feature
of the story: that God was commanding the first humans not to eat from
the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the humans disobeyed God
on that point. In most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible, disobeying
God is a bad thing. Why would it be a good thing, or at least something
that is not so horrible, in Genesis 2-3? I'm not saying that the
traditional Christian interpretation lacks its share of problems and
inadequately answered questions, but I wanted to see more developed
arguments in the articles about the Fall being not-so-negative. For
example, it would have been nice had the historical-critical articles
tracked down possible ancient Near Eastern tales in which a deity could be
fallible, and disobedience of a deity can be something positive.
from the question of whether the "Fall" was negative or
not-so-negative, the book offered some interesting details. I learned
that Immanuel Kant was quite negative about human beings (in contrast
with the optimistic tone that theology was taking for some time), and
that the psychologist Carl Jung detested the historical-critical method
of interpreting the Bible. One article on Jung stated that Jung was
promoting an allegorical method of biblical interpretation, one that
looked for symbols in the Bible, as ancient Christian interpreters did
(though Jung's allegorical interpretation was most likely different from
that of ancient Christians). Some of the topics in the book did not
particularly interest me. I, for example, don't really care about how
Kavka treated the Fall. But I respect that there are people who are
interested in that.
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