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!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?