What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?

Have you ever heard the story of the Garden of Eden? Well of course you have! I doubt there is a person reading this post who doesn’t know the story of Eden. However, not everyone who knows the story understands it the same way.

Many believe it is about the first man and woman, created in a perfect world but tempted by Satan to eat a fruit forbidden by God. Because of that, the couple was driven out of the perfect garden into a world that was no longer perfect because of what they did. In addition, their ‘sin’ against God was also transmitted to all their descendants (us) and is known as ‘original sin’.

But many other believers think this is a misunderstanding of the story; and I agree with them!

Adam and Eve by Zampieri

Domenichino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Literal Reading of the Bible vs. Reading Based on Writers’ Intentions

Biblical writers are creative. Some wrote histories describing what they thought happened in the past, but others wrote poetry (like the Psalms) using creative poetic devices to portray their thoughts and feelings. Still others wrote wisdom literature (like Job and Proverbs) to reflect on life and help people make wise choices. And some wrote thoughtful and engaging stories.

The story of Eden is one of those stories, and it is very thoughtful and engaging. When reading this story, it is important to have an idea of what it is about, and it seems to be a story about the human condition. It applies to all of us whenever and wherever we live because the human condition is universal.

I can imagine a child asking their father as they grow:

Father, why don’t snakes have legs?

Father, why do we have to wear clothes?

Father, why are there so many weeds and thorns when we plant?

Father, why do we work so hard to grow food?

Father, why do people have to leave home when they get married?

Father, why do women have such pain when they have babies?

Father, why can’t everything just be perfect for us?

Father…why do we die?

If a person did not already think the story of Eden was historical, would they believe a story where a woman is made from a rib, a fruit has magical qualities, God takes evening walks, snakes talk, and cherubs guard the garden with a flaming sword?

Or would they think it was a fairy tale? The story of Eden is much like a fairy tale, but it resonates with the experience of every person. Whoever told this story was a genius.

The Universal Human Condition

It is in the second half of the story (Genesis 3) that the drama begins. This is the part where the snake talks Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Eve sees that the fruit is ‘good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom’.

Now what’s wrong with something that’s good to eat, looks appealing, and imparts wisdom? Nothing that I can see. Does this mean the man and woman in the story did not have wisdom before this? Perhaps the writer is telling us that wisdom in life brings its own burdens; it is one thing to experience pain and hardship, but it is another to be able to contemplate it and ask ‘why?’

And this is our universal condition: we can ask ‘why?’.

The woman involved the man in her new wisdom, and immediately they began to be aware of their situation and made crude clothing to hide their nakedness; apparently they felt shame (the human condition). Shortly after that they were questioned about what they had done and they felt fear and guilt (the human condition). And then they did the most human thing in the world—they each blamed someone else for what they did! Is this us or what?!

Then things really began to happen in the story. God took away the snake’s legs (ouch!); God made pain a part of childbirth and placed the woman under the man’s power; God made farming very difficult, and finally he told them they would die. These are not things that happened one day long ago in a perfect garden—these are things that were true in the time the storyteller told the story. They have always been true, and they are true today. They are the universal human experience.

We all resonate with this story and its questions. This storyteller is a genius.

Misguided Results from Reading the Story of Eden Literally

But people who read the story literally understand it in a completely different way; they think the perfect garden really existed, the man and woman were real people, and that the events in this story actually happened. Adam and Eve are no longer literary archetypes of all of us—they are our first ancestors.

This story doesn’t cause them to reflect on our human condition; they think it is the reason for our condition. They believe the world was perfect until this couple ruined it for all of us by committing ‘sin. This is where sin began; before they ate the forbidden fruit people ran naked, finding food was easy, nobody died, and snakes had legs. To them, there are no questions here; there are only answers, and that those answers are the source of all our problems today. Their ‘answers’ are also the source of much harmful theology.

One very tragic theological result from reading the Eden story this way is the idea of original sin. It is so sad in its many ramifications. We will talk about that next time.

Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness

The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails

Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?

See also:

What Does Jesus Think of Sinners Today?

*****

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43 Responses to What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?

  1. sheila0405 says:

    Considering when & why the story was written down, it makes sense. The Israelis were wondering why they had lost everything during the exile. The Pentateuch was written to describe & and answer why the exile happened. The story was aimed at the Israelis at the time of the exile, or, shortly thereafter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks, Shelia! You are right that this might very likely be the context for this story, but it is represents the story of all of us in every time and place.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dorothy Sonntag says:

    Thanks for a totally new way of looking at the Eden story. However, two things diverted my attention from the article’s well-presented main point:
    First, the improper use of grammar (“A child asking their father”) might be okay in informal writing, but not in presenting a theological treatise.
    Second, that the child’s questions were addressed only to “Father” implies paternalism and/or sexism. Kids ask those questions of mothers, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Dorothy, thanks for the feedback; I am always looking for better ways to make references gender-neutral. Though I try to avoid the assumption of paternalism, it is not always easy to do so. I usually use ‘their’ when the gender of the person is not stated, though I also use his/her when it does not detract from the flow of the article. And I consider my articles to be informal rather than formal.

      I often use father/mother when talking about a parent and even when referring to God. But in this case I think it would have distracted from the feel and flow of the story, as it seems somewhat artificial for this simpler, earlier time.

      But I would love to hear from you on how you would have avoided assumed paternalism here. I would really appreciate your suggestions. Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Oxford English Dictionary accepts the singular they, not just referring to it as a common practice, but use it themselves it in their own writing. It’s not a modern idea either. Matt 18:35 AV So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Maren says:

      Singular “they” was the word of the year last year and Washington Post has included it in their styleguide. Just a matter of time … http://mentalfloss.com/article/72262/washington-post-style-guide-now-accepts-singular-they

      Like

  3. LorenHaas says:

    Any story with a talking serpent is not meant to be taken literally.
    Why is this hard to understand?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I’m not sure, Loren. But when one is part of a tradition in which the Bible is understood as coming directly from God, and is read literally instead of contextually, one can believe anything–no matter what. I know this because I was raised in this tradition and committed to it; and it took a LOT for me to get out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • LorenHaas says:

        I too was raised in it, left for 30 years and then came back. But now I have an outsider’s experience and a desire to explore alternative viewpoints from the dogma I was taught as a child. When I saw and experienced the fraudulent behavior of many of the bible teachers today I realize it is OK to question the motivation and teaching about everything.
        We all have to grow up.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Good for you, Loren! It IS okay to question sources and teachings, even though many traditions have a great fear of doing so. In fact, it is necessary to question such things even if one ultimately decides they are legitimate. Otherwise the beliefs are not your beliefs but are inherited from someone else.

          Like

  4. Chas says:

    Tim, I agree with you that this story of Adam and Eve was written by a genius (in his time). What I find difficult to discern is whether the different accounts of what God said to Adam (i.e. from Adam and from Eve) were deliberate, or unintentional, because they imply that Adam modified what he had been told, when he seems to have told Eve, leaving the way open for the serpent to deceive Eve. If that was deliberate, the writer was truly in the Shakespeare class.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree Chas. Sometimes an author writes something profound without intending it or being aware of it. If the case here was intentional, then the author is a genius of the first class!

      Like

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  6. Jerry Rounds says:

    Isn’t also the tale of two people growing up and discovering themselves as adolescents and their sexuality? They could not remain kids forever. They were maturing. — and that is everybody’s story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Jerry, I think you are absolutely right! I think maturing into awareness and morality is an important nuance of this story. Like I said, the author is a genius. I didn’t mention it because there is only so much one can say in a short article.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Like

  7. Without a doctrine of original sin, the Christian proclamation cannot stand. It does not mean we have to Augustinian in our understanding; even process theologians affirm original sin. But absent some understanding of the unavoidability of original sin, the Gospel loses its legs. It makes sin and sinfulness merely possible rather than inherent. That is the problem that Augustine recognized in addressing the :Pelagian controversy. I would maintain that a doctrine of original sin is completely faithful to the apostolic witness and that we cannot faithfully discard it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Donald, I agree that we all have a problem with sin though I understand sin differently than many believers do. However, I cannot agree that it was caused by the disobedience of our supposed first ancestor; I think it has another, more reasonable, source.

      I will talk about original sin and the alternative over the next two posts.

      Like

    • Chas says:

      I don’t pretend to be an expert on theology, but I cannot accept that a newborn baby has sinned, since it cannot tell right from wrong. However, I can accept that it has no defense against sinning, because it will learn how to do wrong things from other children or adults around it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. michaeleeast says:

    The story of Adam and Eve is a myth. Not only that but I believe that the basic moral of the story is wrong. We are not the punished descendants of a perfect world. The perfect world never existed. And the Human Condition is not punishment. Jesus did not die to absolve us from sin.
    Rather life is an evolution from darkness to light, from fear to Love. Life is a process of becoming human.

    Liked by 1 person

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