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Paradise Found: Why We Should Thank the Serpent of Eden August 22, 2010

Posted by John Salerno in Christianity, Religion.
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The subtitle of this blog is taken from the first two lines of John Milton’s work Paradise Lost and refers to the story of Genesis 3 — that of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God’s command not to eat the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:9). Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this story is literally true, it is meant to depict man’s “original sin” and the means by which corruption and death entered the world. However, it is questionable whether the actual act of eating the fruit (or even the act of disobeying God) was the cause of this corruption and death. Rather, God itself actively introduces corruption and death into the world because of the disobedience:

To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you;
In toil you will eat of it
All the days of your life.
“Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you;
And you will eat the plants of the field;
By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:16-19, NASB)

Notice the language used by God: “I will greatly multiply…” is declarative language of an action that God will personally perform. “Cursed is the ground because of you” is a curse being placed upon the earth by God, and the rest of the passage is full of further conditions of the curse that God inflicts upon humans. In other words, there is no reason, based upon the text, to believe that the actual, physical eating of the fruit or even the conscious decision to disobey God’s command not to eat of it is the cause of the suffering that subsequently entered the world. The sole cause of corruption, decay, pain, labor, death, etc. is God itself — God actively inflicts these things upon Adam and Eve and their descendants. God is not a bystander to the consequences of the disobedience; rather, God is the cause of the consequences.

But the above discussion is more or less a digression from the main point of this post, which is to question whether the disobedience of Adam and Eve was really a bad thing. First off, why was eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil considered bad in the first place? Apparently two reasons exist:

1.) Upon eating the fruit, one would die:

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:16-17)

2.) God’s command not to eat the fruit automatically makes eating the fruit a bad thing:

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’;
Cursed is the ground because of you… (emphasis added)

I will dismiss the first reason based upon the grounds given in the argument above, i.e. the actual eating of the fruit or the act of disobedience itself did not bring about the consequence of death, as is obvious by the fact that Adam and Eve did not die that day. As I argued above, it was God itself that introduced death as a punishment for the disobedience, which entails the conclusion that the act itself was not bad because the act itself did not have negative consequences.

It may be argued that the act had the negative consequence of making Adam and Even ashamed to be naked:

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings.” (Gen. 3:7)

But the association of nudity with evil is rather repulsive and I reject the idea that what made eating from the tree a bad thing was that they would realize that they were naked. This is a rather juvenile position to take, considering that the consequence was supposed to be death instead.

So that leaves us with the second reason for the disobedience to be a bad act: because God said so. God specifically forbade Adam and Eve (although in Gen. 2 God creates Eve after having told Adam not to eat from the tree, but I suppose we can assume the message somehow got passed along to Eve since she’s aware of it in Gen. 3) to eat from the tree but did not explain why. God told them what the consequence would be (death) but did not tell them why eating the fruit of the tree was a bad thing; therefore, it seems only natural to assume that God simply did not want Adam and Eve to have knowledge of good and evil.

However, this is something quite different than claiming that evil did not exist until Adam and Eve ate from the tree. Indeed, the very fact that the tree is called the tree of the knowledge of “good and evil” suggests that evil was already an entity present in the world. And although Satan is often identified with evil, it is important to notice that the serpent in Gen. 3 is never associated with Satan. In fact, it seems quite clearly to be a snake of God’s own creation: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made.” (Gen 3:1) We must then assume that God purposely created evil, or at least deceitful, creatures — thus, even before Adam and Eve ate from the tree, deceit was present in the world. The eating of the fruit could not have been the means by which evil entered the world.

Therefore, it is not the case that God wanted to protect humans from unwittingly unleashing evil into the world; it is simply the case that God did not want them to be aware of it. At the very least, God is guilty of suppressing knowledge and attempting to keep humans in a perpetual state of ignorance. This must be why God wishes no one to eat from the tree (though it introduces the simple question of why create the tree at all, if it poses such a threat), and a rather ignoble desire it is.

Furthermore, there is also mention of another tree from which Adam and Eve are not allowed to eat:

Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:9) (emphasis added)

The “tree of life” is also present in Eden, and although God does not specifically forbid Adam and Eve from eating from this tree, God states later:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”–

therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. (Gen. 3:22-23)

This passage is interesting for two reasons: 1.) God is not pleased that humans have gained knowledge and thus have become “like one of Us, knowing good and evil,” and 2.) it appears that eating from the tree of life may reverse the effects of God’s curse, i.e. humans would “live forever,” but that God does not want this and so banishes Adam and Eve from Eden.

Ultimately, what the disobedient act amounts to is the choice to live in a state of God-ordained ignorance or to embrace knowledge of the workings of the world, no matter if that knowledge may have negative consequences. I suppose there are those who would be happy to claim the former choice if it meant obeying and pleasing God, but without reservation I align myself with the choice of knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and the ability to be free to use those things in my own way.

Therefore, I consider man’s first act of disobedience to be a good thing. It was a rejection of a God who wanted to keep its supposedly free creation ignorant and subservient; it was an embracement of freedom and knowledge and the dawning of a world in which we could use this new-found knowledge to destroy the shackles that God had created for us.

But let me be clear — I don’t believe that the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is true, of course. And to highlight that belief, I’ll end this post by reminding the reader that the book of Genesis contains two different and incompatible creation stories, one found in Genesis 1/Genesis 2:1-3 (attributed to the “P” source) and the other found in Genesis 2:4-25 (attributed to the “J” source). Genesis 2 is where we find reference to the tree and God’s admonition not to eat from it. Genesis 3 continues the story by depicting the serpent tempting Eve, the eating of the fruit, God’s curse, etc. It is important to note that Gen. 3 is also attributed to the J source, meaning the author of these two chapters is the same and thus remained consistent with the details of his/her storytelling.

However, Genesis 1/Genesis 2:1-3 is a complete creation story that does not make reference to the tree:

Then God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit after their kind with seed in them”; and it was so.

The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed after their kind, and trees bearing fruit with seed in them, after their kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen. 1:11-12)

In fact, this creation story specifically states that man is free to eat from any tree in Eden:

Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;

and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food“; and it was so. (Gen. 1:29-30) (emphasis added)

Until discrepancies like this can honestly and sufficiently be answered by creationists, it seems silly to take sides over Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God, but given the imaginary consequences at stake, I will continue to proudly support the imaginary disobedience.

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