The Creation Narrative Needs a Makeover
One of the most basic things anyone learns in Sunday school is the story of Adam and Eve. It’s the story of how God created the world in a miraculous six days. Man and woman were created to be in perfect harmony with God and live running around naked in a garden while fulfilling their prime directive: to rule the earth and make lots of babies. Everything is perfect, Adam and Eve are employed as baby makers and animal namers, God comes and hosts cocktail parties, and life is peachy.
Then comes the inevitable twist, the conflict of our narrative: Eve eats the no-no apple. Eve tempts Adam to eat the no-no apple. Humanity is thusly screwed until Christmas leads to Easter and, one supposed unknown day in our future, Jesus appears again to apply the ultimate Band-Aid on Earth by glorifying the dogmatic faithful and throwing the rest of humanity into a burning pit of torture because he loves them.
The creation story (which, for this article, includes the “fall of man”) is the kickoff to the entire Bible. It sets the stage for the rest of scripture and, to be sure, a person’s view on the creation narrative colors their view on everything else in scripture, especially the Gospel. While I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with my retelling, the ideals I took away from this story as a kid were pretty awful: that woman is subservient to man and that science cannot be trusted because it goes against the infallible dictates of scripture. They have extremely negative psychological and practical applications. But, the “lesson” that really took the proverbial cake was that the whole of humanity is inherently evil by its very nature all because Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate an apple.
Hint: This is why the creation narrative needs a makeover.
Let me slam on the brakes for a moment to state that this is a fairly extreme set of principles taken from the creation narrative, but I was a fairly extreme Christian as a kid. I took things with a fanatic literalness. But I do believe that these ideas are often accepted to lesser degrees (and unfortunately some to greater degrees) among Christians in general.
So it is commonly believed that humanity is broken and inherently evil for no other reason than that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate a piece of fruit because Satan disguised himself as a snake and told them to. Wait, what? Personally I can’t buy that this is literal, but it’s pretty pointless arguing about how literal or figurative the creation story is. Whether real or metaphor, most of us can agree that everything in this account has meaning intended to relate to the state of humanity.
As I have mulled over the story of creation and the fall, it has never made sense that God would create this arbitrary tree in paradise and say “off limits.” Why? Why would God put the very gateway to evil right in front of Adam and Eve and then, being omniscient, act as though He/She was not an accomplice to their evil? Some say it was to test Adam and Eve, but I don’t buy it. If I put a cup of poisoned kool-aid next to my child and say “don’t drink it” and my child drinks it then I am responsible for her death! It is no different for God to drop the very gate of death into paradise and say “no.” This supposedly non-evil God knows full well what is going to happen and then puts the greatest possible temptation in front of those He/She loves and we are supposed to accept that man is purely responsible for their own fall? Something is not adding up here!
I’ve heard a wide range of arguments attempting to justify the pure goodness of God. It usually amounts to the adage “God’s ways are higher than our ways and we will never understand until the next life.” I have one thing to say: cop-out. There’s just no way to justify God’s supposed goodness in this case without straining gnats unless, of course, there is a different way to look at things.
So, I continued mulling. There are two trees in this garden. The Tree of Life is something Adam and Eve were encouraged to eat. God created life, God blesses life, thus God wants creation to partake of life. It’s sensible.
The other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I can, in theory, understand why an intimate knowledge of Evil might be the gate to humanity’s death. It’s the other half of this equation that doesn’t balance. Why would partaking of the Knowledge of Good destroy us? Seriously? If it had been only the Tree of the Knowledge of Evil then the supposed fall of humanity would be more sensible, but the Knowledge of Good is an inherent part of the Forbidden Fruit. The question, therefore, is what this implies.
There are a few different ideas on what the knowledge of good and evil means. I tend to think the meaning is multifaceted, but there is one idea I would like to focus on in particular. Some commentaries recommend that “good and evil” is in the form of a literary device that is inclusive of a full spectrum. For example I can say that I have searched high and low for something. What I am telling you is that I have looked everywhere. Therefore, the knowledge of good and evil may very well mean the knowledge of everything pleasing, everything horrible, and everything in between. Literally everything. A number of commentaries tend to agree.
The next question, then, is why a knowledge of “everything” matters. Here it’s important to consider the conversation between Eve and the serpent (which, again, I think is a metaphor).
*Time/dimension warp* *wooooooooooooosh*
The Fall of Man
“1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ ” 4 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Gen 3 NIV
*back to reality woosh woosh woosh woooooooooooooooooosh*
Allow me to paraphrase using my own lens. Humanity’s natural flaw, it’s weakness, is to decide that they are capable of knowing everything. They can know exactly what is right, exactly what is wrong, exactly what gives life, and exactly what brings death. Consider this: the wars of history, the kings and emperors, the corrupt and deadly religious regimes frequently ruled by a supposed “divine right,” or held jihad and crusade because they “knew” that their understanding of God gave them that authority. I’m sure most people can think of several examples off hand of people so certain that their ideas of God or reality are right which, therefore, gives them the authority to persecute or put their rights above others or… the list can probably go on a long time.
Doesn’t it seem interesting that a knowledge of good and evil is precisely what any given legal code tries to define? When the law is used properly it can be a good thing, but often it is abused and becomes a source of pain and even death.
Scripture seems to have a major unifying theme summed up, in my opinion, in the following passage:
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant–not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Cor 3 NIV
If you read the whole chapter Paul talks about how the law, though “glorious” because it set Israel apart from its neighbors, was a minister of death. The law brought death. The letter is death. Clear as crystal. *Que montage of crusades, jihads, etc…* The knowledge of good and evil, the law, brought death.
This brings us to the tree of life. What is life? What does it look like? I think the best illustrations we have are in the books of 1 Corinthians and Galatians. I’ll sum them up.
The Corinthians were excessive. They were the church people that thought the louder you were, the richer you were, the bigger the hair you had, then the closer to God you were. This came at the expense of caring for others. It was less about authentic community and more about the sparkly bling that made you look “holy.”
The Galatians were the stuffy church people who barely moved in the pews. They were the “modest is hottest” Christians who gasped with horror at the notion that anyone would skip church. “Don’t smoke or drink or chew, or go with girls that do.”
In both instances culture becomes a law. The way the community decides that God appears present becomes the shrine of their society and the things that matter, like caring for those who are needy or sick, feeding the poor, or loving someone in a rough place, all take a back seat to making sure that the “law,” the “good,” is upheld and “evil” is deftly pushed away.
It is in these books that the most powerful passages on love and the character of God appear: the famed fruit of the spirit and the love passage. (Galatians 5 and 1 Corinthians 13 if you’re interested to read them). Paul’s intent, his passion, was to ensure that the people were acting in a way that ensured life in the community instead of falling prey to a mindset of appearing close to God by following rules or showing God’s supposed blessing.
I think Exodus 2 is the most poignant example of the spirit vs. the letter or of life vs. the knowledge of good and evil.
“15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?” 19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” 20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.” NIV
Later we find that it is clearly a violation of the commandments to lie, but God blessed the midwives in this story. I submit that it was because they made the loving decision, the decision that gave life. For those who helped Jews during the Holocaust, telling a lie to the Nazis was a life giving decision. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.
So back to the Genesis account. Adam and Eve have two choices: to try and be like God by knowing the blacks and whites and following them, or to simply live life in a way that gives life. One is death for all involved and the other is freedom for everyone. Is there more meaning than what I’m suggesting wrapped up in the passage? Probably quite a lot. But it’s fair to say that when right and wrong are the basis of your concern then you will, almost necessarily, become a judge of moral character. When life giving and love are the basis of your decision making then you will, almost necessarily, see a person who can be valued and lifted up. Maybe that’s why Peter said “above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8