This is a summary of thoughts on Genesis chapters two and three (the Garden of Eden). I simply present a list of propositions. I hope it is helpful.

  1. Forms of writing and instruction employed in ancient Israel included the use of story-telling and symbolic language alongside more literal language; this was, and remains, a completely normal and natural use of language, suited to achieving many types of instruction.
  2. Genesis chapter 2-3 includes much use of such a symbolic style. For example, it uses trees, fruit and eating to symbolize spiritual matters that are to do with how we behave towards each other and how we understand our relationship to God.
  3. The abundant evidence for the approximately three- to four-billion-year development of life on Earth is both entirely convincing, and also rather wonderful.
  4. The same goes for the descent of humankind within this natural order.
  5. Death and pain have existed as part of the natural pattern of life on Earth throughout this long history.
  6. This does not imply that all pains are equal. The lives of creatures with little or no ability to form conscious experience, such as insects, for example, can only by a large stretch of terminology be called either joyful or painful. On the other hand, as richer forms of life have appeared, so have deeper experiences of what it is to be alive, both joyful and painful.
  7. The evidence from artefacts such as art-works, tools, clothing, burial practices and so on suggests that a rich experience of life, and a rich consciousness, was present in the people who painted the cave paintings dating around 30,000 years ago.
  8. The behaviours of human ancestors around 100,000 years ago appear, on evidence currently available, to have been much more limited in artistic expression and sophistication of tool use.
  9. A tentative date, then, for the first humans who had an expressiveness and an interior life comparable to our own might be between 100,000 and 30,000 years ago. This does not necessarily imply an abrupt transition, but it is fast on the timescale of genetic change.
  10. The community that wrote Genesis 2-3 was not concerned with these archaeological details, of course. Their account expresses their God-given insight into human nature and what drives human behaviour.
  11. The Garden of Eden account is not a contradiction of Genesis chapter 1, but a close study of certain issues that are not addressed in Genesis chapter 1.
  12. It should be taken seriously, not literally; it is a symbolic story.
  13. For example, the opening verses 5,6, do dramatic work in setting the scene. They do not give us meteorological or horticultural information to be taken literally, but dramatic information that introduces a scene hushed in anticipation, and telling us the human is going to have work to do.
  14. The Hebrew “adm” is most commonly used, in the Hebrew Bible, for humankind in general.
  15. The phrase “breath of life” (verse 7) does not imply any body-soul duality; the Hebrew does not bear that reading.
  16. The description a “living being” is the same one used elsewhere for other animals; it emphasizes continuity with the rest of the natural order. On the other hand, the phrase “breathed into his nostrils”, and the whole pattern of the way God treats the man and woman, suggest a much more intimate relationship here than with any other animal.
  17. The rivers in vs 10-14 symbolize a rich and fertile world.
  18. There is no mention of a “tree of knowledge” either here or elsewhere in the Bible. The actual phrase is “tree of the knowledge of good and bad,” and the meaning of that phrase is not spelled out here or elsewhere.
  19. The lesson of that is that the story is not, on its own, going to tell us in simple terms everything we may want to know about its own meaning. Rather, we have to bring to it whatever wisdom we have managed to accumulate from our wider efforts to grow in wisdom.
  20. The mention of the initial loneliness of the first adm, and the naming of the animals, is about basic aspects of human psychology, and the deep sense in which we need one another.
  21. By paying attention to the Hebrew words, we can avoid patriarchal readings, or ones which place women in either an inferior and secondary role, or a superior and primary role, to men.
  22. In fact, the text proposes a God-like role for both the woman and the man, and the relationship implied by the text is consistent with an equal companionship brought about by two variations on a single theme. The document comes from a patriarchal society, but that is not strongly signalled within it.
  23. In view of Jesus’ attitudes to women and men, and in view of the tremendous importance of, and good achieved by, the full recognition of the equal status of women, such equality is the way a Christian ought to take it.
  24. The account is not, in any case, about gender roles, but mainly about spiritual life and death.
  25. The symbolic trees have got nothing to do with sex; they are about basic attitudes to life.
  26. The text puts forward the view that sex is a good part of the natural relationship of people ready for the commitment that it involves. The text briefly signals this in verses 23,24 before moving on.
  27. The “tree of life” and the “tree of the knowledge of good and bad” are right next to one another, in the middle of the garden, but the second tree is highly dangerous. This signifies that wrong or bad attitudes lie close to—right alongside—good ones. This in an unavoidable reality of what loving behaviour involves. At every moment the option to stop loving and start judging is there. It must be resisted, however, because it is we ourselves who will die if we take that option.
  28. The tree of life is about life in all its fullness. This is primarily about love and wisdom and compassion, but it includes joyful exploration, and this includes learning and science and all that kind of positive knowledge.
  29. The tree of the knowledge of good and bad is about a type of knowledge that is possible for God but not for anyone else. This is the type of knowledge that can form an assessment of others, and thus earn the right to pass judgement on them. It looks on others as objects of ones own judgement of good and bad.
  30. The use of a snake signifies that the temptation to engage in that way of thinking, or the assumption that an all-seeing role is available to us, comes from an urge in us that is slippery and contemptible.
  31. The crafty words of the snake are mainly about the false idea that God does not have our best interests at heart.
  32. Nakedness signifies openness, and the freedom to be who you are without embarrassment. The use of fig-leaves as a covering signifies a desire to hide who you are, owing to a fearfulness of what others will think of you. The story tells us that a natural and full humanity was, in the beginning, nothing to be ashamed of, but our ancestors become ashamed because of how they chose to behave (and something similar can be said of each of us).
  33. It is stated in chapter 2 verse 17, concerning the tree not to be eaten from, that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die”. We can understand this if it is a spiritual death that is spoken of, not physical death, and indeed the two people in the story go through an abrupt transition from openness to fearful shame. Therefore it is spiritual death, not physical death, that is the consequence of eating from the forbidden tree.
  34. Similarly, it is spiritual death from which, says the New Testament, we have been liberated by Christ. We still have to die a physical death; that is how it must be if the world is to be good.
  35. The main consequences of this spiritual death are announced by God.
  36. We should not read into the text things that are not there, such as some sort of melodramatic anger or emotional outburst when we read the words attributed to God. This is not an uncontrolled reaction by a shocked deity, but an unsurprised reaction of a blunt truth-speaker, one who continues to care for the two people as he provides clothing for them and a world to live in.
  37. The text does not say pain is introduced by the act of rebellion, but that it is greatly increased.
  38. This is consistent with what we know about what makes pain worse in fact. Fear and anxiety contribute a lot to avoidable pain.
  39. This is not to say that all pain is avoidable. In particular, child-birth and raising children was always going to be a painful business, but not as difficult as we make it by our own fears. The same can be said of manual labour.
  40. Having said that, the really severe complications that can arise in child-birth are not about human attitudes, but about the fact that the world is not fully controlled and things can go wrong in it through nobody’s fault. The Garden of Eden story is not about this; it is about what ordinarily happens.
  41. The type of domineering relationship briefly sketched in verse 16 of chapter 3 is not how human relationships are meant to be! It is precisely how they are not meant to be, but all too often are. That is the very point being made.
  42. One should not read into the story some sort of magical connection between human beings and the natural world, because that is out of keeping with attitudes and ideas in the rest of the Hebrew Bible. Nor should one read it literally, because it is in fact figurative and symbolic through and through, and there is nothing wrong with that way of conveying truth.
  43. In particular, it is a mistake to deduce that there were no thorns and thistles before there were people on planet Earth. Verses 17 to 19 should be read together as one piece, painting a picture of difficult toil and the experience of being out-of-kilter with the natural world. But it is not the rest of the natural world which is out of kilter, it is we ourselves.
  44. The final lesson of the Garden is the flaming sword: the solution will be found not by trying to go back, but by going on.

I will comment on how more general Christian thinking relates to this in the next post.

 

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“Two Trees” by Sally Trace; https://www.pinterest.com/pin/399624166904640099/