Monday, 22 April 2013


But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’  Genesis 3, vv4-5

We all know the story of the Fall, how the Devil tempts Eve to do what God has forbidden: she eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and gives it to Adam as well. As a result, they are ashamed of the nakedness of their genitals and cover them. As punishment for their disobedience, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden, and must now labour for their food. From St Paul onwards, the church has taught how this original disobedience infects all humans with sin, from the results of which, including death, we may be saved by the obedience of the second Adam, Jesus. And too often Eve’s part in the story has led male theologians to see woman and therefore sex as the source of humanity’s troubles. We are so conditioned by this interpretation of the story that we generally don’t attend to what it actually says. In fact it’s a complex narrative which shows an acute psychological understanding of aspects of the human condition.
                Perhaps the place to start is with the untruth that God tells Adam: at Genesis chapter 2, verse 17, God tells him that he will die on the day that he eats of the forbidden fruit. The Genesis story itself makes it clear that this is not true: it goes on to tell how Eve and Adam eat the fruit and yet do not die. It is the serpent, not God, who tells Eve the truth: rather than dying if they eat the fruit, they will themselves become like gods. Why should God be made to lie in this way? Where have we heard this kind of untruth before? Perhaps most of us can recall how when we were children our parents told us that dire things would happen to us if we disobeyed their instructions. In the story, God is treating Adam and Eve as children, and so long as they are not ready to question the parental lie, they can enjoy their childhood, playing naked together in the Garden, feeding on the abundant fruits there.
                But in healthy growing up, there comes a point at which the child ceases to accept the parents’ well-meant untruths. At that point, something tells the child what in effect the serpent told Eve: ‘Grow up. What you have been told is not true. It’s intended to keep you as a child.  Don’t accept these parental stories any more. When you dare to disobey your parents, you will become adult as they are adult. You will cease to be a child’. Whether it is because parents know that it is helpful for growing children to struggle for their adulthood, or because they fear their own mortality, or simply because they are taken by surprise by their children’s maturation, parents sometimes tend to resist children’s assertion of independence. An act of rebellion is then required. The forbidden fruit has to be seized and eaten in defiance of parental prohibitions.
The point at which rebellion is needed and natural comes around puberty, when sex rears its wonderful head. How appropriate a symbol for this is the serpent in the Garden! And for most young people the forbidden fruit is sexual behaviour – to that extent at least the traditional interpretation of the story is right: it is about sex, though not in itself but as the driving force in growing up. Notice that the story suggests how girls turn into young women before boys turn into young men, and how the girls bring to the boys their knowledge, what old English called their ‘cunning’. Eve is the hero of the story, for she dares to accept that what the serpent is telling her is true, and dares to act on it.  And she is right to trust her intuition! Not only does she not die, but by doing so she becomes a woman, aware of right and wrong, not as rules to be childishly kept but as an understanding of what is good and true. But there is, as we all know, a price to be paid for growing up. We no longer feel able to play naked together in the garden. We must learn to earn our living by hard work in the harsh real world. We become aware that we must die. All this is there in the Genesis story.  It is indeed obvious in the Genesis story, yet we have usually failed to read it as a myth about growing up, so obsessed have we been by the sex-sin-fall-redemption interpretation.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if we sometimes misinterpret myths. But this myth of all myths is of such critical significance in European thinking that its misinterpretation has done enormous damage to societies and to individuals. It matters that we get this myth right, even now. Getting it wrong, accepting the sex-sin-fall-redemption interpretation, leads to real difficulties, because the significance of the story as a myth about growing up is sub-consciously so hard to miss that if we overlay it with the usual church interpretation, we get a thoroughly damaging message. In brief, we learn that growing up is sinful, even if it is unavoidable.  We learn that we are supposed to try to remain in a state of childish obedience for the whole of our lives, trying to deny our adulthood, and especially our sexuality. We need to be saved from this misinterpretation and the sorrows it causes.
The Garden of Eden story can help all of us, adults and children, accept what is going on as children grow up. We have to see that growing up and beginning to have a sexual life are not sinful. We have to see that the defiant crossing of childhood boundaries is needed if we are to reach maturity. We have to see that women’s earlier development and self-knowledge are not a source of trouble for humanity but part of the wonderful difference between men and women. We have to see that whatever it was that Jesus did, it was neither meant nor needed to blot out the effects of what is recounted in the Garden of Eden story.

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