The story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 has always bothered me. It is not because Adam and Eve sinned; it is not because a snake could talk; it is not even because of the severe, out of proportion, punishment humanity has, allegedly, suffered as a result. It mostly disturbed me because the story I heard over and again, often from proud believers, diminished God and made him either cruel or incompetent – neither I could accept.
The ‘standard’ story
The story I heard since early childhood went something like this.
- God created a new world and planned it to be a perfect place without suffering or death.
- God created Adam and Eve without the ability to tell good from bad (evil, by the way, is mistranslation. Genesis 2:9 says עֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע etz hada’at tov vera – Tree of knowing good and bad.)
- God put Adam and Eve, who did not have the ability to tell good from bad, near two tempting trees, and told them they should not eat from them.
- Somehow, a snake (some say Satan in snake disguise) was let into the Garden of Eden, which until then was the most perfect corner in a perfect world.
- A snake devised the simplest of ploys: it tempted a newly created woman, who could not tell good from bad, to eat some fruit she had been told not to.
- Naturally, she did, and in that single moment all God’s perfect plan for a perfect world without death crumbled, death appeared, and God’s only choice was to sacrifice His only son to save us from the punishment He created for us.
The holes in the plot
The interpretation above (which I totally disagree with) raises many doubts about God and His intentions. Here are a few, as examples:
- If God planned a world without death, isn’t a world with death against God’s plan? If it is, then God’s plan must have failed. If it is not, then from the beginning, death was part of God’s plan. To use an analogy, just imagine that you are making a plan for work, and you are aware that something you do not like would happen. Either you make sure it would not, or you build it into your plan. Any other option makes you unworthy of your job.
- Why would God tempt people who cannot tell good from bad? After all, without knowing good from bad, could He expect Adam and Eve to know that obeying God was good and obeying the snake was bad? … unless God had no choice and was forced to put the trees there.
- Did God allow the snake into the Garden? If not, was the snake in the Garden of Eden without God’s knowledge, or despite God’s will?
- If God planned a world without death, once the sin took place, was His arm twisted and He was forced to introduce death? If it was, who could have forced God to do things against His will. Moreover, if God wanted a world without death, how could a snake and a naked woman so easily force God to change his plan?
Did God Know?
Many times I have asked the following question those that believe in the above narrative: Did God know from the start that He will introduce death as a result of Adam and Eve action?
Because, as much as we try to theologically wiggle our way out of it, there are only two options: either God knew, or He did not.
If He did know, it means that from the beginning death was planned to be in the world. After all, God had many ways to avoid the situation: He could have put a fence around the trees; He could have stopped the snake from entering the garden; or simply, He could have put the tree outside the Garden altogether. Had He wanted, I am sure He could have found another place for them.
On the other hand, if He did not know … but can there be things that God does not know … especially when they happen in the Garden of Eden?
There is one more option. God knew but was unable to stop things from happening – that is, events were bigger than God.
I could not accept any of these options. For me, there must be a different way to read the story. The Bible after all IS the book of God. God cannot be described in it in such a negative way.
How can we understand the story differently? Can we read it in a way that recognises that God had full knowledge, and that everything that happened was part of His plan?
For me, the trees inside the Garden, Adam and Eve who could not tell good from bad, the snake, the temptation, were all part of an intricate plan God made for mankind. And the plan worked faultlessly. Let’s start by exploring three key points.
- Death existed from the beginning, and was not a punishment
- Man was made to work from the beginning
- While the Garden of Eden had an important role, God never planned for man to stay there forever. God plans for man, from the beginning, was to spread and fill the earth.
Death existed from the very beginning
Let’s look at some evidence that death existed from the beginning, before God ‘punished’ Adam and Eve:
- Genesis 2:9 tells us that God created the tree of life. Why would He create a tree of life if death did not exist and was not on the table? Who was it meant for if death would never exist?
- In Genesis 2:17 God says to Adam: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. This can be taken as a threat, or maybe as a warning. Maybe death was a natural consequence of eating from the tree. But whether it was a threat or a warning, God’s words would have been unintelligible to Adam unless he had already been familiar with the concept of death. Would God issue an unintelligible warning and expect it to be followed?
- And then, when Eve discusses the tree with the snake in Genesis 3:3, she tells the snake: but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said: Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. We do not know if she had heard the warning directly from God, or it was Adam who warned her, but death was part of her vocabulary, a concept she was familiar with.
- The snake, too, was not surprised to hear about death, or that death would result from eating from the tree. He, too, knew what death meant. In Genesis 3:4 he answers: And the serpent said unto the woman: ‘Ye shall not surely die.
Death was not an alien concept for God, Adam and Eve, nor to the Snake. They were well familiar with it. They knew what it meant.
But how can death be part of a perfect world, I have been asked many times.
Do we really know what a perfect world looks like? From a biological point of view, death is required to generate new life. From Christian (and some other religions) point of view, this world is only a passage – some say a testing ground – for the next one. How would we get to the next one without death?
I have no definite answer. However, the fact that we do not want to die, does not mean that death is not what is required. Maybe just the opposite.
What is the purpose of work? Is it punishment, or is it a necessary part of our life? As we can see from the few examples below, work is what God does, and work is what man should do as well.
- We know that God considered the creation of the world as work from which he rested on Saturday. And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made. (Genesis 2:3)
- We also know that work is considered to be something good, something positive that should make the doer feel good. Genesis 1:31 tells us: And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.
- We also know that man was created in the image of God, and from the moment of his creation God assigned work to him. His first job was to dominate over the animals. And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1:26)
What was God’s plan for man?
We do not know why God created man. We do know, however, what God’s plan for man was. And it was not to stay in the Garden of Eden. God’s plan for man was to spread and fill the earth.
- Fill the earth is the very first thing God says after creating the man in Genesis 1:28: And God blessed them; and God said unto them: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it.
- Those who have followed my blog for some time, know that I believe that one way to understand Cain’s mild punishment (if we can call it punishment at all), is to see it as God’s way to force him to keep moving (https://hebrew-bible.net/the-story-of-cain-and-abel-epilogue/ ) Without it, Cain would have most likely remained in his familiar land. In Genesis 4:12 God tells Cain: a fugitive and a wanderer shalt thou be in the earth. And Cain, having no choice, is forced leaves his land and move. Until in Genesis 4:17 he builds a city: And Cain knew his wife; and she conceived, and bore Enoch; and he builded a city, and called the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch.
- Then God floods the world. And what is the first thing He tells Noah when he leaves the Ark in Genesis 8:17? Exactly the first thing he told Adam: be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth.
- But people do not always follow God’s plan, and in chapter 11 we see that they want, again, to stay in one place. In Genesis 11:4 the people try to settle and they say: Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. But God would not accept, He needed them to keep moving, so He comes down, creates languages and ensure that they would spread all over the land.
So whatever God’s reason for creating man might be, we can be sure that His plan was to scatter man all over, not to keep man in the Garden of Eden.
The Garden of Eden
If we can accept that death existed and that God needed/wanted man to spread, then what is the purpose of The Garden of Eden?
God needed Adam and Eve to leave in order to spread and fill the world. But just like with our own children, we do not want them to leave too early, not before they are ready, not before they have the skills they need, before they can stand for themselves.
This is exactly what the Garden of Eden was for. A pre-school, a school, a training ground, a place where Adam and Eve (who were born adults and did not have parents to teach them adulthood) could get ready to the role God had for them – to spread and fill the earth. And what did they do in the Garden of Eden? As we can see in Genesis 2:15, they worked, so they could get the skills they needed: And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.
And how would God know when they were ready?
When they showed that they could stand for themselves. That would be the sign they they had free will they needed to survive in the wide world. In addition, eating from the forbidden tree was not only a sign that they were ready, it also gave them the tool they needed to be successful in the world, the tool of knowledge.
So why did God need to create the drama, sending them with anger, punishing them?
Because Adam and Eve would not have left of their own will. If you ever looked at Birds or animals (like I do as a nature photographer) you would see that the juvenile ones never want to leave. They want to be fed forever. So once the parents feel that they are ready, they chase them away. The young ones keep trying to come back, and the parents keep chasing them away over and again, until they leave forever.
This is exactly what happened in the Garden of Eden. Once Adam and Eve passed their training, they were not needed in the Garden anymore. Now they had all the skills and the tool they needed to face the real world. They were ready to fulfil their role. That was the end of man’s childhood.