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Leaving the Garden

Jews, Christians and Muslims all agree that before humans began the life we know today, we existed in a kind of ideal, suspended state in an earthly paradise where we did not yet know suffering or death, and where the entire potential of the human race was contained in one couple, Adam and Eve, who knew God as their creator and spoke with him as their protector.

This childlike state didn’t last long, because Satan appeared, offering Eve the fruit of a tree that gave knowledge of good and evil to those who ate it. This fruit was the one thing in the entire garden that God had forbidden to Adam and Eve. Driven by a fatal curiosity, they ate the fruit, and immediately “realized they were naked” and covered themselves with leaves. They could no longer live innocently as animals do, because they had acquired self-awareness and shame.

God soon appeared to cast them out of the garden, telling them that from now on they would have to live “by the sweat of their brows” and eventually die. Because of this death sentence, they would have to reproduce their species in order to survive. The Jewish version has God telling Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The Muslim version is more simple. “Get down from here,” God tells the unfortunate couple.

In either case, this was the beginning of the life of struggle we call the human condition, a life that Thomas Hobbes famously described as “nasty, brutish and short.” Most importantly, it was the beginning of our sense of moral responsiblity, our understanding that actions have consequences. Without responsiblity there is no freedom. In that sense, as long as we remained in the garden we would never be free.

The usual interpretation for Jews, Christians and Muslims is that leaving the Garden was God’s punishment for disobedience. But how could Adam and Eve be responsible for their disobedience when they didn’t yet know right from wrong? For me, the myth has always had a deeper meaning. Far from being a punishment, leaving the garden was a necessary step. God put the tree there for a reason. Eating from it signalled our departure from the animal world, and our acceptance of our responsibilities as human beings.

I recently finished reading Myth and Sexuality by Jamake Highwater, which has a section on the Garden of Eden myth. This led me to reflect on this story, which has been a touchstone for me for many years. I was inspired to write the following meditation. I’d appreciate hearing from readers about how you interpret this myth.

— • —

The Garden of Eden represents a state of childlike innocence, ignorance, and irresponsibility in which, like the animals, we were given everything. Rather than “worry about what tomorrow may bring,” we accepted it without hope or fear, and without regret, as part of a timeless and unchanging pattern. The Garden was our preconscious state.

By eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, we became aware of the fact that acts have consequences, and that we are responsible for those consequences. We became aware of “disobedience” or innovation as a possibility. We learned that unlike the animals, we could modify our behavior, rather than simply accepting our condition as it was handed down from time immemorial. We could do this rather than that. And we became responsible for the consequences of doing this or that.

It’s no wonder that sex and death began to trouble us, where once we had taken them for granted. We began to cover our sexual organs and bury our dead. The act of naming the things around us also separated us from our state of innocence, because no other animal instrumentalizes its environment in this way. To name something demands a mental separation between “I” and “other.”

Eating the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil was no sin. Indeed, it was a taking of responsibility for our own actions, a waking into consciousness without which no further advances would have been possible. But it’s true that it was a fatal act that can never be undone. It was a step outside the womb of childlike unknowing, into the harsh desert of freedom and responsibility from which there is no going back.

Now we are aware of death, and aware of all we don’t know. We aware that happiness has disappointment as its necessary contrast. It’s inevitable that we would look back to our time of unknowing and call it paradise. Yet would any of us “uneat” the fruit even if we could?

Becoming conscious was our “punishment” for eating the fruit, yet it was also our reward. Being cast out of the Garden into a life of toil and death is simply a metaphorical way of describing the effects of consciousness. Like us, animals suffer and ultimately die, but they know neither hope nor fear. For humans, the possibility of hope and fear is tied to self-awareness. Our consciousness defines us as humans. It is the “forbidden” fruit, its own punishment and reward.

Comments

Comment from Loula
Time: January 5, 2008, 21:55

Happy New Year Eatbees,
This is what we call “un retour en force”. Will read you tonight and comment tomorrow.
Glad to read you again

Comment from eatbees
Time: January 7, 2008, 00:46

@Loula — Happy New Year to you too. Sorry I’ve been laying low for all this time. I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about, now that I’m tired of reacting to current events but still interested in looking at how we live in the world. I think I have some ideas. Thanks for keeping the faith!

Comment from leblase
Time: January 8, 2008, 08:23

What about copying this episode of leaving the Garden and, instead of reading as if from an untouchable past, pasting it in today’s time?

Won’t we see it then as the timeless struggle between the tenants of status quo versus the tenants of research and -eventually-, discovery?

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