So the Lord God drove [Adam] out of the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken. Genesis 3 v23
Imagine a human life-style that involved no real work, that allowed mothers to give their children all the attention they needed, and that was free of the killer diseases. This ‘Garden of Eden’ is no myth; time was, before the beginnings of agriculture, starting about 12,000 years ago, when human life really was rather like that. For tens of thousands of years before agriculture, our ancestors had lived as hunter-gatherers, and in many ways it could be an idyllic life. The amount of time spent by men in hunting wild animals and by women in gathering food from wild plants was pretty minimal, since animals and plants were plentiful and human beings few. Mothers had their small children with them all the time, breastfeeding them on demand all day long. Because people did not keep animals or live in settled villages there was no sanctuary for the killer viruses to lurk in. Admittedly, there was what we at least would regard as a downside: for one reason or another at least a quarter of male children never reached adulthood. But on the whole it was a wonderful way to live. Given what we now know of back-breaking work in the agricultural fields, of women distracted from their babies for hours at a time to do new chores, of the development of smallpox, diphtheria and the rest, maybe forsaking the hunter-gatherer life was not a very clever thing to do. You can certainly see why lingering memories of these very ancient times caused some people to regret their passing, and to feel they had been expelled from paradise. They also felt that some explanation was needed for this disaster.
The explanation that Genesis offers is this: Our first ancestors were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they had sinned by disobeying God. In this account, being disobedient is what characterises humans, and indeed it is something in developing human nature that lies at the root of the expulsion – but it is something much more complex than simple disobedience. Language is certainly a vital element; for at least 40,000 years we have been able to discuss plans and share ideas, to give orders, and to deceive each other with words. Although the hunter-gatherer life-style lasted so long, developing glacially slowly, it now seems inevitable that intelligent hunter-gatherers who could speak to each other would eventually think up and implement some progressive ‘improvements’ to their life style that, as it turned out, had drawbacks they couldn’t have imagined. Among them were the invention of counting and the discovery of how reproduction happens, both of which were needed by agriculturalists, and both of which are regarded as problematical in the early Old Testament. We’re familiar with this pattern of course: we still often implement things that seemed good ideas at the time only because we hadn’t been able to imagine the problems they would cause; and then we come up with some new good ideas to overcome the drawbacks of the old good ideas. Yes, life today for us is immeasurably richer in almost every way than was that of the hunter-gatherers in their Garden of Eden, but it comes at a cost – the cost of having to run faster and faster just to stand still.
The Genesis story reminds us of that cost, and it is remarkably precise in doing so. Adam will henceforth gain his bread by the sweat of his brow, tilling the soil: he will indeed toil in the agricultural fields. Eve will bring forth her children in pain: in fact women had been helping each other to give birth for over two hundred thousand years, but certainly the rise of agriculture put new strains on motherhood. The couple will live in fear of death: at any rate, in their new agricultural villages they will have to face hitherto undreamed forms of death. Thought of in this way, the Garden of Eden story in Genesis offers a useful reminder of the reality of our lives, a reminder that we need because we can so easily share the unthinking optimism of the first agriculturalists. We easily forget that change is not always an improvement, because things can change for the worse as well as for the better; it’s never true that ‘Things can only get better’. And even when, on the whole, a particular change really is for the better, it will usually, sooner or later, reveal a downside; we shouldn’t expect to have unequivocal progress, and we shouldn’t always look for someone to blame when things go wrong. Of course we might try to predict and thereby avoid some of the drawbacks of the improvements we plan, but we mustn’t let this paralyse us; human history is at least as much the story of fixing yesterday’s fixes as it is a rational, mistake-free march ever onwards and upwards. These reminders have social and political implications that deserve thinking about, but they are no less applicable to our personal lives: your marriage may not be as successful as you’d hoped, but divorce may be worse; you may decide to move to what seems a better place to live, but you should anticipate encountering difficulties you hadn’t foreseen; you may not be entirely sure that you’re ready for parenthood, but if you go ahead and have children anyway, you can improve your parenting skills as you go along.
Which brings us to faith. Whatever was the reality of life for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in the nostalgia-laden account of the Garden of Eden in Genesis, faith isn’t much needed there, because life in the Garden is neither uncertain nor full of ups and downs. It is only after the expulsion that Adam and Eve and their descendants, including us, have to deal with the messy compromises and uncertainties of life, and do so, if we are to be successful, with the conviction – the faith – that we will be able to find a way through them, that life’s ups can outweigh its downs, that our lives can be worth living. That is why the meaning of the story for us is not about obedience: in the end, it’s about faith.