Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’ — therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24)
I’ve always found this a problematic story. Indeed I find the whole story of what has come to be known as ‘the Fall’ problematic. Why would God want to keep humankind in ignorance? Surely more knowledge can only be a good thing? I have solved this in my own mind by thinking (and by writing a poem stating) that the serpent, who is if we see him as Satan is ‘the father of lies’, is lying to Eve when he tempts her. He offers her the opportunity to ‘be like God’ – but we know already from chapter 1:26 that she and Adam are made in God’s image, as like God as it is possible for a limited human being to be. So is the serpent trading on the time-honoured female tendency to think of ourselves as lesser, as needing something extra to be fully human? Essentially he is telling her she is not yet like God – which lie she falls for, and ironically becomes less Godlike in the outcome.
I don’t of course think of this as a historical story, though I have been roundly castigated over the years by those who do. I find the theory of evolution offers me a much bigger God, one who is prepared to let creation find its own way of development, yet always with a loving eye on its path preventing it from self-destruction, and leading it by however winding a way to its fulfilment. The destination is fixed, I would say, but the route is variable. But for the sake of argument let’s treat this myth in its own terms. What does the ‘tree of good and evil’ mean? Humankind has been made, in God’s opinion, ‘very good’, and without this crown of creation, nature is merely ‘good’. Human beings already know what is good, and what their role in caring for and managing creation is to be. Why would they also want to know evil? What could possibly be gained? Perhaps only God is actually great enough, and pure enough, to contemplate evil and not be corrupted or destroyed by it. Perhaps God’s plan was originally to introduce humankind to the ambivalence of reality once they were mature enough to cope with it – but they jumped the gun, and lost the childhood purity and goodwill we were all born with. For I don’t believe the insidious and defeatist doctrine of ‘original sin’ and indeed the Bible offers little evidence for this doctrine, nor for the schema of Creation/Fall/Redemption/Consummation which I was taught but which actually fits the biblical record only very loosely. The Hebrew Bible says very little about the idea of ‘the Fall’ after the first three chapters, and neither, actually, does Jesus. I believe we learn sin and selfishness as we grow in human society, not that we are born infused with them. Only celibate monks could think up the idea that a baby’s cries are evidence for its sinfulness – every mother knows that crying is the baby’s only form of communcation, and that a baby who didn’t cry for food or love would very soon be dead.
So to our passage for this post. For decades I could only see it as God fearing ‘his’ power would be threatened if these now compromised but knowledgeable humans could become immortal by eating from the tree of life. That is a rather small and negative view of God as an insecure tyrant! (and there is no actual evidence for this view in the passage). Only very recently did I have a different insight, born of the recurrent depression I have been struggling with lately. What would it be like, in this present world of loss, bereavement, disappointment, misunderstanding and conflict, to live for ever? Some seem to think it desirable, and have themselves cryogenically preserved after death in the hope of a future cure for whatever they died of. I personally think of it as a horrific nightmare. To go on for ever, getting presumably older and older and losing more and more capacity, or even if not that, enduring more and more challenges and deprivations and boredom and repetition? I can’t think of anything worse. In fact, at the moment, if it weren’t for some writing projects I want to finish and the need to sort my papers, and the desire to see my son settled in a steady job and with a nice young woman, I would be rather happy to die. I don’t mean I intend to do anything about it, and I’m sure I will soon stop feeling like this, but right now a good long unconscious rest of a few centuries before the Resurrection would be quite welcome.
What, then, if God’s expulsion of the ur-couple from the Garden of Eden, and barring their re-entrance, is not a defensive action but an act of mercy? What if their subsequent mortality is not a curse but a blessing? After all, as I often say when someone dies at an appropriate age (not, like my long-dead brother, at 27), ‘the old ones have to go to make room for the new ones’. If no one ever died, how would we welcome more babies? The Kingdom of God, the new heavens and new earth, are of course a different matter – there, there is room for all.
So now I think of ‘lest [they]… live forever’ as not a punishment or a limitation imposed by a fearful God, but a mercy by a God who knows that to live forever in this now spoiled world (probably not by the consumption of a forbidden fruit, powerful image though that be) would not be a gift but a poisoned chalice. No one who really thought about it would want to live for ever in this cauldron of greed and violence, whatever its compensating beauties and joys. And now I find this ancient myth even more profound, and ‘true’ in a far more than literal way, than I did before.