Fruit is good for you, we’re told. That is, unless it’s the only forbidden fruit on the planet. One bite of this and the whole human race will suffer.
Most attempts to depict the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 look embarrassingly silly; inevitably, it seems, we end up with images in our minds of strategically placed foliage and sly-looking snakes. And why did God put the forbidden fruit temptingly on display? Was he trying to catch Adam and Eve out? It’s like leaving a tin of sweets within your children’s reach and telling them not to eat any while you’re out of the room. The whole description of a protected paradise with two special trees and everlasting gardening sounds more like a fairy tale than an important account of early human history.
Many people find a strictly literal interpretation unacceptable and the text is often, of course, seen as an allegory about how sin or death entered humanity or the world. However, by updating the language a little, we can still read the account in a literal way. The ancient audience for whom Genesis was written knew nothing – or perhaps I should say they knew far less than us – about cloning or the causes of aging. Here’s an attempt at a literal understanding of Genesis 3 as it might have been written if its first readers lived in the 21st century:
God selected one of the upright, large-brained mammals that he had slowly and lovingly nurtured from the dust of exploded stars over billions of years and gave that animal a spirit. This transformed the mammal into a human capable of communicating with God. His spirit also enabled the man to think about the future, and to make voluntary moral decisions.
This first human lived in Eden ? a literal garden in which he was protected from death. This protection was necessary because, as part of the perfect cycle of life and harmony in a ‘good’ world, all living things had a limited lifespan. Death and new life are implicit in the seasons of autumn and spring, and adaptation to new environments requires offspring with new abilities. Eden was special because, for humans, death was prevented. The garden boundary kept out carcinogens, dangerous animals, and all other sources of harm; inside there was healthy food and useful plants that needed tending.
God wanted humans to live forever, so he selected a male who had perfect genes and no congenital diseases. He then made a female ‘clone’ who was identical to the man except for the Y chromosome. Inside the garden they were protected from natural dangers and death, unlike the rest of creation. And to prevent them from aging, God provided a ‘Tree of Life’? a source of life-preserving supplements.
This description of the creation of the first humans has certainly lost the poetic beauty of the ancient text, but it helps see a literal interpretation. And while previous generations wouldn’t have understood this particular language, future readers of Genesis may retell the text with even fewer problems than us. However some details, such as the snake and the other special tree (the forbidden ‘Tree of Knowledge’), are difficult to retell in modern terms. So, as we don’t yet have scientific terminology for the evil side of spirituality, we’ll have to finish this retelling by including some theological language:
The first two humans, like us, had the ability to make wrong choices, although there was little to tempt them to do so because they felt no danger and had no needs. However, this ability could lead to absolute rebellion against God and so God provided a minor prohibition to act as an early warning signal: they should not eat from one particular tree – the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. This tree didn’t give them knowledge, but eating from it signalled that they now had knowledge of evil as well as good. If they broke that one God-given rule, it meant they had become capable of doing any evil thing – including harming animals or even harming each other. In time they did sin and were expelled from the garden. Outside Eden they became subject to death like all other living things.
Death didn’t come immediately to Adam and Eve. Their perfect genes gave them a lifespan of hundreds of years, though by the time of Abraham this had gradually reduced to roughly the length of our lifespan today. Adam was responsible for bringing death to the whole human race because his sin meant that we no longer lived in Eden where humans could live forever.
How much can we blame Adam for? Romans 5.12 says that Adam introduced ‘death’ and that this spread ‘to all people because all people sin’. Some interpret this as meaning the death of all living things – that plants, animals and bacteria did not die before Adam sinned. But Genesis describes the Tree of Life existing only in Eden. This implies that outside Eden the world was a place where animals and plants were destined for the cycle of generating life and death, but God wanted his new humans to live forever. Although they were the first to sin I don’t blame Adam and Eve for human death because, as Paul said, we all sin. If I’d been in Eden, I’d have fallen, and if I’d been at Jesus’ trial, I’d probably have shouted “Crucify!” We all individually deserve death – each of Adam’s descendants inherited the potential for rebelliousness and each one individually decided to disobey God.
Following its mention in Genesis 3, the Tree of Life becomes part of the human story again in the last chapter of the Bible. The intervening chapters describe how God wonderfully provides restoration to everlasting life for the descendants of those first two humans. Now he lovingly invites everyone to live in the new world created for those who accept his remedy for their sin. The whole new earth will enjoy the perfection of Eden because the Tree of Life will no longer be confined to a garden (Romans 8.21; Revelation 22.2).
The story of the first humans is an ancient one, but also one that is very personal. It is reenacted every time someone is born, when eternity holds its breath for a short time to see if this individual, too, will sin as all others have. And the end of the story also becomes personal each time someone returns to God and becomes part of his new creation.