Here’s something I’ve been wrestling with over the past few weeks, and I wanted to share it with you (and get it in some form of writing for my own sake).
I’ve always grown up with the impression that the Garden of Eden was the perfect world as God intended it to be, where man could walk and talk with his Creator, where man and woman would live immortal lives, where all was as it was originally planned. That is, until everything went horribly wrong: Satan (the figure we know from the NT, disguised as a serpent because serpents are evil) lied to the woman about this one Tree in the Garden that God had planted. The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was put there simply so God could say, “I created humans to have free will. They can choose to disobey me whenever they want!” The woman took to “apple;” ate it; went and found Adam who was completely clueless; he ate it; they realized they were naked; and hid from God because they were guilty for what they had done. God then curses all three of them with all these horrible curses and punishments, banished them from Eden, and mankind from that point on is “fallen.”
That is the primary Christian interpretation of the Garden of Eden, thanks in part to the Catholic Church.
But what if we were to look at the story through a different set of lenses? Forget everything we heard in Sunday school, and let’s take a fresh look at the situation of the first humans in the Garden of Eden.
First, maybe we should begin by viewing Eden as a Temporary Training Facility, not a Permanent Paradise. There is no indication that God planned for the Garden to be a permanent dwelling for mankind. There’s a whole world outside the Garden. This particular Garden in Eden in the East was set up by God to not need any human input. Everything was taken care of – the plants were watered, the fruit grew in its season, the animals lived in peace with each other. Adam didn’t have to take care of anything except learning – about himself, the animals, the woman, and ultimately about his Creator.
Second, the fact that man had to eat from the Tree of Life indicates that he was not created to be immortal.
Subsequently, the other tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, was not there simply as the presence of temptation. It was not there so that God could give the humans free will. I think, and you may disagree, that there would come a time when man would be ready to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man could only grow so much in the Garden. But just as there comes a time when a child must leave home, so there would come a time when man would have to leave the safety and protection of the Garden to make a life for himself and his family. When that day came, he would no longer be able to eat of the Tree of Life. (“Good and Evil” is an example of a literary device in ancient Hebrew which uses the two extremes to mean “Good, Evil, and everything in between.”)
Next we come to the serpent. It’s important to understand that at the time this was written, the Israelites had no idea or knowledge of Satan (the Devil, Beelzebub, etc.) as we see in the NT. That type of personification of evil wasn’t developed until the time between the Testaments. Therefore, the serpent as we see him in this story is nothing more than a serpent. The fact that he can talk might be indicative of the relationship between man an beast in the Garden. It does say that he is more crafty or cunning than all the other creatures. He indeed tells the truth to the woman – and the man who was there with her.
So the man and woman ate the fruit and everything happened just as God and the serpent had said. They gained vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom, for which they were not ready. I believe that they learned a lot of things that God wanted to teach them when the time came, but that time would never get to come. Their eyes were open and they saw that they were naked. God was the one that wanted to tell them that – you can hear it in his voice when he asks, “Who told you that you were naked?”
Their eyes were opened and their mind was full of a world outside the Garden – where chaos was yet to be domesticated, where evil could take hold of them, where life was hard and pain was an everyday reality. I get a sense that when God is addressing all the guilty parties, he is no scolding and cursing them out of anger, but rather out of disappointment. He is reluctantly having to describe to them what life outside the Garden is like.
He doesn’t overreact. He doesn’t turn his back on his children. He is still committed to taking care of them. He even makes them proper clothing out of animal skins – the first instance of any created thing dying.
This is where I am right now. I know these thoughts aren’t new, and they definitely are perfected in my head yet, but this way of encountering the Garden makes sense to me. It’s a much more moving, touching, relate-able story.
Will we one day return to the Garden of God, be in his presence, walk with him among the trees, and be naked yet unashamed? I think so. I think that’s what heaven is for.