The Garden of Eden as “childproof play area”?
For the next several blogposts, I plan to spend some time on the first part of the book of Genesis (the first book of the Bible both for Jews and for Christians). I am, ahem, of a certain age, and I have spent years, even decades, studying these most fascinating, frustrating, and ultimately fruitful chapters of the “book of origins.” I am not even going to try to link these chapters with science and scientism, so don’t worry about another amateur geologist weighing in, parading his ignorance. But there is still a lot to talk about, as we soon shall see.
I am an active grandparent of twin girls, now almost four years of age (the girls, that is, not me). So much of the following is informed by the adventures and misadventures of “active grandparenting.” The Garden of Eden is described in Genesis chapters two and three, and the story is well-known, and often depicted as resulting in humanity’s “first sin.” But I am going to propose another interpretation of these two familiar chapters of scripture. First of all, like the rabbis (I was going to type “Jewish rabbis,” but I think all rabbis, by definition, are Jewish), I have come to believe that the Adam and Eve story is a “coming of age” story, about people growing up and discovering the joys and travails of adulthood. Consider the following: they were naked “and felt no shame” (Gen 2:25, NIV), that is a perspective typical of children in the ancient Near East; and later when they did become ashamed of their nakedness, they tried sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves (fig leaves are large in size, but not all that durable—this is just the thing children would have done). Also, Adam back in the beginning of the story was formed specifically from “dust of the ground” (verse 7), and placed in a special (and presumably specially protected) “Garden,” where rivers nourished the ground, much gold was readily available, and all kinds of trees were specially planted (and, later, animals created) for his particular enjoyment (and remember, in the previous chapter, both men and women [plural] had already been created to bear the “image of God”). Also, the way that both Yahweh God and the human Adam discovered that no bird or animal, wild or domestic, would alleviate Adam’s loneliness (see 2:18-20) sounds like the discovery of a new parent with his or her child (in modern western terms, neither Cookie Monster, nor Big Bird, nor even Elmo could do the job). No, it takes another human, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” to serve as a “helper” for the solitary man (or boy), who was generically named “Adam” (Hebrew for “human, male,” and derived most fittingly from the term “adamah,” ground or soil).
Well, in any case, there was the proverbial “snake in the garden.” Presumably another special creation of God for Adam’s sake (compare 2:19-20 with 3:1), this snake proved to be clever indeed. He talks specifically to the woman (or girl), the one who probably heard only second-hand Yahweh’s strong prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge. “Did God really say . . . ?” (A sidenote here—the great Hebrew Bible scholar Brevard Childs was surely correct to label this Eden narrative as “anti-wisdom”—cautioning its hearers and readers to beware the pursuit of wisdom as very dangerous.) But what is adulthood? Surely, nothing other than the pursuit of wisdom “of the knowledge of good and evil”—in other words, the wisdom of independent discovery and personal experience! Often this time of life (in modern western terms, “adolescence,” or the teen-age years) is fraught with peril, as all parents come to know; but no child (or teen) can stay in the Garden of Childhood forever, even if nearly all parents wish he or she could. We will return to Eve’s three independent criteria for choosing to eat of the tree (see 3:6) in a future blogpost, also the resultant “curses” on her, on her male companion, and on the talkative serpent (“curses” only in the sense that they represent life as usual in the ancient Near East). Suffice it to say here that when children grow up, they must live in grown-up places. Childhood gardens cannot remain their protected domiciles any longer!
(And Yahweh God does provide them with much better clothing, “garments of skin” (3:21), for their post-garden adventures. He—like most parents saddened by their children growing up and leaving home (compare 2:24!)—wants still to do the right thing.
Well, stay tuned (and feel free to comment), as we examine these evocative ancient narratives more deeply in the next several blogposts.