They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
Oh, bop, bop, bop
Oh, bop, bop, bop – “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
Genesis 3 a fall story? You might be saying, of course it is! It’s what we learned in Sunday School. Why do bad things happen in our sorry world? Because Eve ate the fruit. Not only Eve, but her husband also ate (apparently standing by her side saying nothing; check out the text), and thereby hangs the tale. Up to that point human beings were sinless, innocent; after they had eaten the fruit, they were sinners and, because they were sinners, subject to death and all the other evils we count as part of life. That’s the story as we usually read it.
I’ll not ask if that reading of the story makes sense of our experience (which it doesn’t), of what it teaches us about what it means to be human. But what if that reading of the story doesn’t fit the text, either? What if the story, read in the context of other ancient literature, seems to have a quite different meaning? What if reading the story in the way that has become traditional for us not only misses the point of the story but leads in direction that has had and continues to have dire consequences for the human race? What if we have in our rush to theological conclusions gotten it wrong?
In the previous two posts I began to explore with you another way to read Genesis 3, a way that not only makes better sense of the story as we have it but enters into a conversation with other ancient stories. In this post, I hope to explore that conversation in more depth before in a subsequent post circling back to the biblical story as we have it in Genesis 3 (and to the New Testament and Paul’s reading of the story).
First, back to Genesis 3 and the story itself. The question the story puts to us is about Eve: what was she reaching for when she reached for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? The story hints at an answer. It says, “The woman saw that [the fruit of] the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eyes, and that [the fruit of] the tree was desirable because it made one wise” (3:6). The word used for wisdom here is capacious, large. It is sometimes translated “to have insight” or “to comprehend.” It points less to wisdom in the sense of content (wise words) and more in the sense of capacity: smarts, the ability to grasp how things work, intelligence.
So what was Eve reaching for when she reached for the fruit? Often in sort of interpretation of this story that you find in books of theology, Eve is presented as being feckless. I remember people saying, “If only Eve hadn’t eaten of the fruit, we would be. . .” But what if in reaching for the fruit she was reaching for what every human being reaches for? What if she is us? I think this is exactly what the story has in mind. Aside from whether she should have reached for it or not, she was reaching for that capacity for understanding that is the singular property of human beings. In the world of nature, we stand out not for our physical abilities. There are animals that are faster than we are and stronger than we are; we stand out for our ability to think.
Not only can we think in the primary sense—to do what needs to be done; we can reflect on what has happened, on our lives, our fears and joys, our living and our dying. Take the serpent in this story as a representation of nature—all the wisdom of nature. The story tells us that the serpent was the “cleverest of all God’s creatures.” But not so clever as we humans are. It’s as if nature itself leads the human race to the edge of a greater wisdom, and now the serpent says to Eve and to us, take that one more step that I cannot take. Reach for the wisdom that is beyond the wisdom of the animal world. Take the fruit. And, indeed, Eve reaches her hand and takes it.
What she could not have grasped is where this god-like wisdom would lead. As I said in a previous post and as the story tells us, it leads to death. Not death so much in the physical sense as the consciousness of death. Not the death of the body but the death of the soul, to use the sort of language we are used to. We who have this wisdom are aware that we will die. Death is part of human life.
It’s not just Genesis 3 that deals with these themes. In the post previous to this one in this series, I looked at the story of “Adapa and the South Wind,” an ancient Mesopotamian tale that surfaces some of the same concerns as Genesis 3, especially the way human beings are poised between the world of nature and the divine world, subject to death as are all animals but having the capacity in a way that no other animal has to destroy the very creation of which we are a part. In short, the knowledge of good and evil.
There is another Mesopotamian story that ponders these themes at greater length and in greater depth. It is perhaps the greatest literary product of the ancient Babylonian world, the story of Gilgamesh. Although it is the story of Gilgamesh—how Gilgamesh comes to terms with death, finding and then losing immortality—the story we need to tell is of his companion, Enkidu.
Poor Enkidu. We meet him first in all his innocence. He lives easily in nature among the animals. He protects them from hunters, and they welcome him into their company. Until Gilgamesh sends a woman out to the wilderness to seduce him—to open his eyes—he can run like the wind. But once his eyes have been opened, he is changed, and the animals no longer know him. He has no choice but to join the rest of the human race. (The language of this part of the epic echoes that of Genesis.)
It’s after he has joined Gilgamesh—a thoroughly nasty example of the human race—that he goes off with his new friend, against his better wisdom, to find and to kill the monster of the forest, Humbaba. Humbaba is not just in the forest; he is of the forest. He represents the living spirit, the genius, of the forest. When Gilgamesh and Enkidu succeed in hunting down Humbaba, they have effectively opened the forest to exploitation. In an act of singular stupidity, they cut down a huge old growth tree to make a door for the temple of the powerful god, Enlil. In at least some versions of the story, Enlil is properly appalled. But it’s what humans do. We destroy creation, and then in an act of piety offer the products of our destruction to our God as a gift.
By now, you see where this is going. Gilgamesh in a way that is surprising in so ancient a story describes how we as humans estrange ourselves from nature and from God or, in the case of the Mesopotamian story, from the gods. In the end, Gilgamesh comes to the same point as Genesis 3. He has to face his own death. The original title for the Gilgamesh story, when in Old Babylonian times it was still a sort of Marvel comics superhero story was “Surpassing All Kings.” He was the greatest of all the heroes. But in the retelling of the story that became the epic as we now know it a new title was given to it, “The One Who Has Seen the Depths.” As have we all.
This is the story that Genesis 3 is telling in its own way. It’s a story about who we are as human beings. No longer innocent, deeply flawed, having the capacity to split the atom, to create machines to do our work, to conquer all that is wild and original, but lacking the wisdom to use our abilities for good rather than evil.
Is this a fall? It’s the wrong word, “fall.” It’s not a biblical word. It was not so much a fall as an ascent, but an ascent to heights too great for us to stand. It’s this existential reality of the human race that the Bible puts at the very beginning. If you are going to get the rest of the Bible right, you have to get this right, the problem of the human race. The traditional telling of the fall story suggests that the fall was a sort of indiscretion, a mistake. If you look at the fall in that way, then you have not understood the problem. Or trivialized it, which is what has happened in much of popular Christian theology.
But in the 21st century we no longer have the luxury of not understanding the problem. We have used our capacities to alter the climate, to bring disaster on thousands of species, to threaten the destruction of the earth itself. The little story in Genesis 3 is not just a story about how one woman and her husband ate the wrong fruit. It’s about the powerful, twisted, and yet still wonderful creatures that we humans are. And how much we need help.
I’ll leave it here for now. As you know, the conversation continues and takes a turn with the New Testament and the Apostle Paul. We can hardly leave this subject without considering what he does with Genesis 3 story. We’ll turn to that in my next post.