The Book of Genesis begins with what is arguably the most famous expression in Western literature – “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. To this day, it remains the most popular explanation of how our universe and all that is in it came to be. Many scientists devote a good deal of their time to finding a better answer and removing God from the equation. As of 2016, they haven't succeeded. Following the creation events is the timeless story of Adam and Eve. Almost everyone knows about it, but relatively few have actually taken the time to analyze it and understand its deeper meanings. Much lays waiting if one is willing to ask the right questions.
Where did this story come from? To the believer the question hardly warrants a response. There is no need to examine any connection to other ancient Near-Eastern myths or to search for any hints of Greek influence. This story is not a ‘story’ – it is a fact. There was an Adam and an Eve, a snake, a Garden, a Tree of Life and a Tree of Knowledge. Where was it all located? The text gives clues that it was around the headwaters of some rivers, including the Euphrates and the Tigris. But trivial details like location are not crucial to the real message of the text. What is important is what really happened, why it happened, and what we can glean from it to improve our spiritual lives. Now go and study it.
As far as most others are concerned, anybody with an ounce of sense knows that it’s just a myth. There were other creations myths that came out of that general period but this happens to be the most famous. Adam and Eve, of course, never existed. The snake, of course, never spoke and it was never punished to crawl on its belly. It’s all a grand metaphor for something or other.
But it’s more than that. Somehow, this ‘myth’ speaks to us with a voice that resounds out of the ages and reverberates in the human conscience. Somehow, if we let it penetrate, if we can break through the barriers of stereotypes concerning the primitive character of ancient peoples, of the almost mandatory belief in our own cultural superiority - this story hits home. All men are Adam, all women are Eve; the snake is that slippery force that beguiles us with its temptations; the Garden is paradise; the Tree of Life is life as it could and should be; the Tree of Knowledge is…?
Adam (prior to the creation of Eve) was charged with specific responsibilities by God upon his being placed in the Garden of Eden. Adam was the ‘primordial man’ – the ancestor of us all, and the one most responsible for our subsequent task in life. It was Adam’s unique challenge that we, in some way, all still face. And, it was his crashing failure that we are all still suffering from and attempting to rectify.
What was his mission? What is our mission? In Chapter 2, verse 8-17, the text states:
‘And Hashem God planted in the east of Eden a garden, and He placed there the man that He formed. And Hashem God sprouted from the earth all trees that were desirous to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil… And Hashem God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to protect it. And Hashem God commanded the man saying, ‘From all the trees of the garden you shall eat. And from the Tree of Knowledge - good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.’
The crucial moment of ‘the fall’ in the story takes place when the snake seduces Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge stressing that (3:5-12): ‘God knows that on the day that you eat from it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ And the woman saw that the Tree was good to eat and desirous to the eyes and tempting for enlightenment, and she took from its fruit and ate and gave to her husband with her and he ate. And their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked, and they sowed fig leaves and made belts. And they heard the voice of God meandering through the Garden to the spirit of the day and the man and his wife hid from God in the midst of the trees of the Garden. And God called to the Man and said to him: ‘Where are you?’ And he said: ‘I heard Your voice in the Garden and I was afraid since I am naked, and I hid.’ And He said, ‘Who told you that you are naked? Do you eat from the tree which I commanded you to not eat from?’ And the man said, ‘The woman whom You gave to be with me gave me from the tree and I am eating.’
Adam and Eve, and by extension, you and I, were placed in a paradise known as the Garden of Eden. They (we) were charged with three specific tasks:
1) To work it and to protect it
2) To eat from the all the trees including the Tree of Life
3) To not eat from the Tree of Knowledge
One of the fundamental problems of the story is: what is this Tree of Knowledge and why couldn’t they eat from it? Didn’t God want them to have knowledge of good and evil? The text is tantalizingly vague, leaving a wide-open field for millions of future Bible interpreters. Perhaps a couple of clues can be found in the text itself. First off, the Tree is not necessarily described as giving knowledge to distinguish between good and evil (the Hebrew is unclear on this point). It gives knowledge - good and evil. Is there such a thing as evil knowledge? Apparently there is. Not all knowledge is good. Knowledge can appear to be good but is actually evil in disguise. It's not easy to tell the difference, and this Tree won't help matters. It just supplies the knowledge – both the good and the evil.
Second we can look at the description of the trees of the Garden - ‘desirous to see and good to eat’. But when Eve looked at the Tree of Knowledge she saw that it was ‘good to eat and desirous to the eyes and tempting for enlightenment’. Two of the three qualities are virtually identical to the other trees of the garden, appearance and taste. It is only in this unique third quality, enlightenment, that the Tree of Knowledge betrayed its fateful temptation. This was what she saw that she could gain from partaking of this tree – intellectual enlightenment. Human history is filled with societies and individuals who valued intellectual enlightenment as the pinnacle of human potential. In fact, there are many who would say that it is the purpose of human existence. Could the Bible be saying the opposite?
Perhaps the unsettling answer to this question is ‘yes’. All our attempts at figuring things out, as wonderful and successful as they have been, very possibly have not led us one iota closer to genuine happiness and true purpose. We learned how to feed ourselves, but we used that knowledge to grow fat and lazy. We learned how to defy death through medicine, but in doing so we lose appreciation for the precious gift of life. We learned to probe the inner workings of the mind, but suffer ever more from emotional and spiritual turmoil. We understand the forces of nature to the very core of physical reality, but are forced to confront the disturbing conclusion that we are nothing but dust and atoms. More than anything else, these exercises in futility betray a fundamental shortcoming in our outlook on life. We cannot filter out the good from the evil. The Tree gives both, not one without the other.
We cannot turn back the clock. We have neither the capability nor the desire to stop eating from this Tree. Nobody seriously wishes to go back to living in the Dark Ages and turn their backs on the great blessings of science and technology. But the price we paid for this fateful choice was to abandon the Tree of Life. This price was unavoidable from the beginning. It is almost as if God were looking down at us and saying: ‘I knew that you would eat from this Tree and would continue to eat from it. I warned you against it, but I knew that you would not listen. I warned you that you will lose something, something precious and irreplaceable, something that you may not appreciate to the degree that it deserves. At some point, you will wonder about your choice and where it has taken you. But you will not be able to reverse it. You will still be eating.’
When confronted with the profound question, ‘Where are you?’ they had no ready answer. They hid among the trees to avoid facing that Voice and its Question. Are we any different? We don’t know where we are going with all our knowledge, but it is clear that we are no longer in paradise. When finally faced with this question we also hide. This is the great tragedy of human existence – so powerful in its ability to know the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of the external world, but so helpless to understand ‘where’ we really are and ‘why’ we are here. All this knowledge has made us comparable to God in our ability to control our world, but it has taken us light years from the simplicity of the Garden.
Simplicity - a simple word that has profound meaning. The Garden of Eden as described in the Bible is startlingly simple. It's just the trees and their fruits and the voice of God. Finding simplicity is an ever-elusive goal in our increasingly complicated lives. But perhaps this was God’s warning to Adam and Eve – don’t go for the temptation of figuring it all out; don’t let your innate intelligence get to your head. You don’t need this Tree. If it is knowledge to distinguish between good and evil that you desire, you have it already; and whatever you lack, I will supply you with. You don’t need this Tree. Eating from this Tree will only lead to death, either physically through some means of your own devising, or spiritually because you will lose sight of the meaning of it all.
Paradise was never lost, but it was made a good deal tougher to get to. The Tree of Life is still out there somewhere, or ‘in there’ somewhere, silently and patiently waiting for us to make the right move. It’s not always easy to find that other Tree. It may necessitate acquiring a new attitude towards the earth, towards one’s life, towards one’s goals. It may require giving up some old habits and comforts, or simplifying what is an overly complicated and busy life.
When did you last take the time and effort to really enjoy the taste of a fruit? When did you last really drink up the sight of a beautiful sunset? Can you remember when you last took the time to listen to the tinkling sound of a running stream, or the silence of a lake? Have you gone out and smelled the flowers recently, or the salty air of the ocean? This is living. This is the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden. It is living in the wonder of God's world. It doesn’t need a computer or a cell phone to enjoy. It is very possible that the computer or the cell phone prevents you from discovering these subtle treasures. Sometimes knowledge gets in the way of Life; sometimes man-made works obscure the work of God.
The Tree of Life is still out there. It is somewhere in that Garden that we left but never completely lost. The question: ‘Where are you?’ is still being asked. Ask yourself this question. Don’t hide or feel ashamed. Face the question and you may find paths that you never were aware of. The path to reach the Tree of Life is well hidden, but it is secure. It may not be easy to get there, but with proper guidance and solid effort one will always find some glimmer of it. Finding that Tree, tasting of that Tree - is our purpose. It is our greatest source of meaning. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden.
Food for Thought
If the Tree of Knowledge is really all that terrible, why did God put it there to begin with? What does this message say about all the remarkable progress that came from human ingenuity? Is there any way for these two Trees to work together?
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Date: 07/07/16 at 15:38:37
RE: Food for Thought:
I think that the Torah itself provides us with a way to get both trees to work together. It says later on that God placed a "cherub" and a "fiery, revolving sword" to guard the path to the tree of life. Cherubs are always used in reference to the Torah (the ark of the covenant, the mishkan, etc) so it seems to me that it represents the Torah and everything that comes along with it (mitzvot). The fiery, revolving sword seems to me to represent something constant (since it's constantly revolving around) and dangerous at the same time. To me, this represents like the sun and by extension, all of nature. So the way to merge these two trees or at least to find our way back to the tree of life is to live with the cherub - Torah - as well as within the natural world - fiery, revolving sword. Only that way can we attempt to reach the tree of life.
Date: 02/01/17 at 21:22:51
See link below for a story where the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad, explains G-d's question of Adam in much the same way. Source is Likkutei Sichos Vol. I, pg. 73-75.