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The Garden of Eden story--source of often mis-read wisdom: a Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The first three chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, are an amazing repository of wisdom about the meaning of life, which for centuries has been fundamentally distorted in ways that have had disastrous results to the present--and will continue to have into the future. I am not talking first of all about the fundamentalist distortion that naively assumes that the Genesis account is the historical report of some mythical pre-creation New York Times reporter describing what happened ab initio, from the beginning. Today one can perhaps only sigh at such a claim. Rather, I am talking about the distortions that had real effects in human life, such as that the story is about the fall of humanity into the state of being a sin-sotted soul or that the man was created superior to the woman.

The first question relates to the Western Christian doctrine of Original Sin, which is not present in Judaism and, hence, is the source of a potentially creative dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. The second, about the relationship between women and men, as laid out in Genesis 1-3, provides a very enlightening and creative dialogue possibility concerning that relationship for both Judaism and Christianity--and, indeed, for Islam and the rest of the world.

I wish, then, to reflect briefly on these two distortions and offer what I believe are more plausible understandings.

I. Whence Cometh Good and Evil?

A. The Origin of Good and Evil

All the cultures and civilizations of the ancient world had their various explanations of reality and, especially, whence evil. Basically, their answers were that good things came from good gods or spirits and evil things from evil gods or spirits. It was not so with the ancient Hebrews. They came up with a breakthrough theory, namely, that everything was created by one God, and this one God created everything good, tov in Hebrew. In the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, the first chapter describes the creation of the various parts of the universe as taking place in six phases, "days," and at the end of each day it states that God saw that what God had done was tov. At the end of the last day of creation, what God had done was mod tov, very good.

Now, this story posed a problem, one that my then-three-year-old daughter Carmel posed very starkly. She was then speaking only German, having been born and raised in Germany till then. We were out for a walk after a very warm rain, and the sidewalk was covered with earthworms, Regenwurme, which for her were definitely icky, "evil." She very seriously asked: Ist Gott gut (Is God good)? I responded, Ja. She then asked, Hat Gott alles gemacht (Did God make everything)? I, now becoming somewhat wary, answered, Ja. Then she sprang the trap: Wer dann hat die Regenwurme gemacht (Who then made the earthworms)?--the problem of evil. Well, the ancient Hebrews were also aware of that problem and had their answer: the "Domino Theory."

During the Cold War a "Domino Theory" concerning the fall of countries into the camp of communism was frequently used to justify political or even military intervention. For example, if Vietnam fell to communism, then Cambodia would fall next, and Laos after that, and then Burma, etc., like a row of dominos stood on end next to each other, knocking each other over one after another. Perhaps the first version of the "Domino Theory" was developed in Genesis 3. As seen in the first chapter, everything that God made was tov, and hence everything was acting according to its good nature, that is, tov, good, as it was created by God (Latin, natus, born). However, when the acme of God's creation, women and men, disobeyed and no longer acted according to their good nature, they stepped out of the good relationship with their creator: The first domino fell, and consequently everything else fell out of its originally good relationship to humanity. Hence, the various "curses" in Genesis 3, wherein weeds grow amidst the plants, childbirth is painful, and wives become subordinate to husbands (more on this below). It might be best, however, not to pursue the Regenwurme matter in this context.

B. A "Modern," "Irenaean" View of Human Life

Often the way early Christian thinkers posed the question of moral evil to themselves was to juxtapose the All-Powerful, Omnipotent, God on the one hand and the radically free human on the other. The Irish theologian Pelagius favored humanity's free will, whereas St. Augustine (who is credited with "inventing" the doctrine of Original Sin)--and largely the Western Christian church after him--favored the omnipotence of God. After breaking my head over the question for many years, I decided that the problem was not primarily with the irrational answers given by Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and others, eliminating human free will and blasphemously describing God as creating the majority of humans just in order to cast them into hell for all eternity. Rather, the problem was in the silly forming of the question. We were here dealing with two "unknowns" and were then asking the silly question of what the relationship between the two was. It reminded me of our boyhood smart aleck question: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? Clever answer: An inconceivable reaction. As in mathematics, one cannot rationally expect rationally to answer the question of the relationship between two unknowns.

If we humans are not able "rationally" to explain to ourselves the antinomy between an omnipotent Creator and a radically free human, if we cannot rationally explain the looming contradiction between "Evil and the God of Love," (1) as John Hick titled his 1966 book, we can nevertheless find a less pessimistic, dark direction of a response that was offered in earlier Christian thought, as well as in traditional Orthodox Christianity. Hick has laid out that approach in great detail in the above-named book and, subsequently, almost forty years later in his 2004 book, The Fifth Dimension. (2) Hick found a more positive interpretation of this dilemma several centuries before St. Augustine, first of all in St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-202)--who, despite being designated by a city of present-day France, Lyon, where he eventually served as bishop, was originally from the East and was Greek-speaking.

Rather than understanding the Genesis story of the first woman and man as a "fall" into evil from which all subsequent humans cannot escape and are consequently punished--as did Augustine and almost all later Christian thinkers--Irenaeus saw the situation much more the way a "modern" evolutionary thinker does. Hick noted that Irenaeus
   suggests that man was created as an imperfect, immature creature
   who was to undergo moral development and growth and finally be
   brought to the perfection intended for him by his Maker.... instead
   of the Augustinian view of life's trials as a divine punishment for
   Adam's sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a
   divinely appointed environment for man's development towards the
   perfection that represents the fulfillment of God's good purpose
   for him. (3)


Irenaeus used an exegesis of Gen. 1:26, which no modern scripture scholar would accept, but it was a way for him to find a biblical basis for his understanding of human life. He asked what the biblical author intended by saying that humanity was made in God's "image and likeness." Why two synonyms, imago and similitudo in the Latin Vulgate, and eikon and homoiosis in the Septuagint translations? The answer according to Greek Orthodox scholar P. Bratsiotis was
   The eikon is related, according to these Church Fathers [he is
   referring first to Irenaeus, then to Clement of Alexandria, Origen,
   Methodius, and St. Gregory Nanzianus], to man's spiritual nature as
   a rational and tree being. But the homoiosis means, according to
   the same Church Fathers, man's longing and positive striving toward
   God, and at the same time man's destiny, which is to come into the
   likeness of God. (4)


This, of course, is the famous Orthodox Christian doctrine of theiosis. One must be careful to note that the Greek term does not mean "becoming God," as in pantheism, which would be theosis, but "becoming God-like"--hence, not "deification" but, more accurately, "divinization."

Hick referred to this Irenaean "evolutionary" understanding of human life as "soul-making." "[T]his world must be a place of soul-making. And its value is to be judged, not primarily by the quantity of pleasure and pain occurring in it at any particular moment, but by its fitness for its primary purpose, the purpose of soul-making." (5)

II. Not of "The Fall of Man" but "The Rise" of Homo Sapiens

In Genesis 3 the serpent tells Eve that, if she eats the forbidden fruit of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil," she will not suffer some dire consequences as predicted by God but will in fact become "like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5).

According to the story, the serpent was not lying, for Eve saw that the fruit "was good for wisdom" (3:6) and that after she ate it her "eyes were opened" (3:7), and she and Adam learned to know the difference between good and evil. Further, even God says of Eve and Adam, "look, they have become like one of us, knowing good and evil" (3:22). Since earlier in the text it is stated that humans were "made in God's image" (1:27), it appears that "becoming like God," as the serpent promises, means "knowing good and evil."

Hence, here is a story that shows that the difference between humans and animals is to be found in humans' knowledge and free choice or love. Further, the text tells in story fashion how this came about. Our Western technical term for humans, Homo sapiens, gives us a clue of this development. "Sapiens," which in Latin means wisdom, comes from sapere, "to taste." Hence, wisdom is not theoretical knowledge but the kind of knowledge that a person gains from experience, from "tasting" life. Thus, in the Genesis story, how do Eve and Adam become "wise"? How do they come to know good and evil, that is, come to be human, to be Homo sapiens? By "tasting" (sapiens) the fruit of the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil."

They are different from the animals, which operate only on instinct, whereas humans can, and should, operate by learning what is good and what is evil and then choosing, loving, the good. It is not as a result of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that we humans are now going to die. We were always going to die. However, now we humans know that we are going to die, whereas, as animals we did not know. Thus, both my dog and I are going to die; the difference between us in this regard is that I know that I am going to die, but my dog does not know. Again, the difference between the animals and humans is knowledge, though, perhaps unfortunately, here there is no question of choosing not to die but of choosing how to deal with that fact.

Hence, the Genesis story is not the story of the "Fall" of humanity but of the "Rise" of Homo sapiens, the human knowing (sapiens) of the difference between good and evil, and thus being able freely to choose to love.

III. God Did Not Create Man Superior to Women--Rather, Perhaps, the Converse

A. The Man Not Created Superior to the Woman

To begin with, it must be noted that there are two creation stories, one in Genesis 1 and a second less full one in Genesis 2. The latter, written by the so-called Yahwist writer, probably in the tenth century B.C.E., doubtless existed far earlier in oral forms. The Genesis 1 creation story was written by the so-called Priestly writer, probably in the fifth century B.C.E.

In Genesis 1 it is clear that humanity was created female and male simultaneously from the beginning: "And God created humanity, female and male he created them" (1:27). There is no priority of time of creation. What about the much older Yahwist Genesis 2 story of the creation of humanity? Is it not clear that the man is created first and then is put into a deep sleep and the woman created from the rib of the man? No, that is definitely not what the text says--the deuteron-Pauline's later faulty exegesis notwithstanding (1 Tim. 2:13-15).

The Yahwist story of human creation is in Gen. 2:6, where it states that "God Yahweh took a bit of earth [adamah] and formed the human [ha adam--"the earthling"; ha is the definite article, "the" in Hebrew, so that in conjunction with it, ha adam is not a proper name, "Adam," but the earthling] and breathed the breath of life into it." In the Yahwist story the first human being is as yet ungendered, neither female nor male. Perhaps the Yahwist wished to stress that, while the human being was from the earth, it was God who was the source of its life. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Yahwist does not say that the male was created first but an initially sexually undifferentiated "earthling" (ha adam) taken from the earth (adamah).

But, then, how do we account for the fact that there are men and women? In answering this question with an etiological story (etios, Greek for "origin"), the Yahwist takes a wide detour by having God first create the Garden of Eden (including many geographical specifics, such as the names of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of present-day Iraq). God then sends the earthling (ha adam) in to tend it. However, God then said that "It is not good for the earthling [ha adam] to be alone," and so God created the animals and brought them to the earthling to be named. Thus, in the Yahwist story God created all the flora and only one fauna, namely, the earthling; only then did God create the rest of the fauna--an odd sequence, but indicative that what the Yahwist writer was after was not to present a kind of primitive evolutionary picture but, rather, a "story with a point," that is, an etiological story to explain the origin of something, in this case, of gender.

Next, God sees that all the various animals are good in themselves, but they are not a "like" partner (2:18) for the earthling. It is important to note two things at this point. One is that the partner God sought for the earthling was a like one, and, hence, the other animals would not do. The second is that the Hebrew term here, "ezer," is most often translated as "helper" and thereby is often assumed to mean "less" than the earthling--which assumption, of course, the additional use of "like" invalidates. Moreover, ezer is also used elsewhere to describe God as humanity's "helper"; hence, ezer clearly does not denote an inferior.

God then places the earthling in a deep sleep and takes out a rib and forms it into a woman and brings this "cloned" creature to the earthling, who at the sight of her describes her (in the first word-play or pun of many found in the Bible) "as woman (isshah), for she was taken from the man" (Hebrew for male, ish--2:23).

Thus, the Yahwist storyteller states that God first created the earthling, then the woman, at whose sight the earthling was transformed into the (male) man. The Priestly writer, on the other hand, has God creating humanity simultaneously as male and female. In neither case is any inferiority implied. This point is further reinforced by the fact that in Genesis 3, as a so-called curse, woman is made subordinate to the man; it could not be a curse if she were created inferior to the man.

B. The Image of the Woman Superior to That of the Man

I hinted in the heading of this section that perhaps, contrary to the usual patriarchal traditions, at least the image of the woman in the Garden of Eden story (the Yahwist story) is superior to that of the man.

In Genesis 3 the serpent engages the woman in a heavy conversation about good and evil, life and death, being like God. She holds her own in the conversation with one who is said to be the most cunning of all the animals created by God. In the end she is persuaded--and, as we saw earlier, correctly so--that eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would not cause her to die (she was going to die eventually anyway) but, in fact, would make them "as God," which proves to be the case, as God acknowledges in Genesis 3. In fact, 500 years after the writing of the Yahwist story, the Priestly writer stated it straightforwardly: "God said, let us make humanity (ha adam) in our image and likeness" (1:26).

Thus, the image of the woman is of someone who engaged in a profound philosophical-theological dialogue, thought things over, made a decision, and acted on it.

What is the image of the man? The Yahwist simply states that the woman gave some of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to her man (ish), "and he ate" (3:6). No heavy dialogue with a cunning partner, no reflection, no executive decision--just "and he ate," as if he were just appetite and stomach. The next time the man appears is when God is walking in the garden in the cool of the evening and asks him whether he had eaten of the forbidden fruit: "And the man said, 'The woman whom you gave to be with me gave me of the Tree, and I ate.'" My grandchild would probably characterize his brave stand as that of a wimp and buck-passer.

The two starkly different images of the man and the woman in the text stand out very clearly, not in need of any profound analysis or special background knowledge to discern. Why then has the Christian tradition almost overwhelmingly, until most recently, not only not seen the seemingly obvious but, indeed, insisted on some sort of inverted distortion whereby the man is the superior--because he was created first? Psychological projection? Internalizing of the patriarchal myth and code? Nietzsche's Wille zur Macht! (will to power)? Whatever the reasons, today more and more Christians are hearing the voice of the little child saying that the "Emperor has no clothes."

IV. Conclusion

Hick, after deeply exploring both the Christian and other major world religious traditions, has concluded:
   All that we know, if our big picture is basically correct, is that
   nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be
   lost.... We do not know how the sufferings and sorrows of life, the
   agonies and despairs, can become steps on a long journey leading
   eventually to that fulfilment, as they will if the cosmic optimism
   of the world religions is justified. We have our theories, but they
   are only theories. However we do not need at this stage of our
   existence to know the solution to these mysteries. (6)


We can only live in trust that in the end, somehow, as Lady Julian of Norwich in the fourteenth century said, "[A]ll will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well." (7)

(1) John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).

(2) John Hick, The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm (Oxford, U.K.: One-world Publications, 2004 [orig., 1999]).

(3) Hick, Evil and the God of Love, pp. 220-221.

(4) P. Bratsiotis, "Das Menschenverstandnis in der griechisch-orthodoxen Kirche," Theologische Zeitschrift (1950), p. 378; quoted in ibid., p. 217, n. 3.

(5) Hick, Evil and the God of Love, p. 295. Fie noted that the term "soul-making" comes from John Keats in a letter to his brother and sister in 1819: "Call the world if you Please 'The vale of Soul-making'... Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" (M. B. Forman, ed., The Letters of John Keats, 4th ed. [London: Oxlord University Press, 1952], pp. 334-335, as cited in Hick, Evil and the God of Love, p. 295, n. 3).

(6) Hick, The Fifth Dimension, p. 230.

(7) Julian of Norwich, Julian of Norwich: Showings, tr. and intro. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York and Ramsey, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 225 (chap. 27).
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Author:Swidler, Leonard
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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