Book Write-Up: A Walk in the Garden

Paul Morris and Deborah Sawyer, ed.  A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of Eden.  England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.

A Walk in the Garden contains seventeen contributions by scholars about the Garden of Eden story in Genesis 2-3.  Why did I decide to read this book?  The Garden of Eden story has long intrigued and puzzled me.  As someone who came from a Christian background, I was taught that the Garden of Eden story was about the Fall and original sin, which threw the whole universe into a mess, and which Jesus Christ would later come to earth to redress.  But I would encounter other interpretations elsewhere.  A professor in biblical studies at my undergraduate institution taught and wrote that the Garden of Eden story was not about a Fall, per se, but rather about humanity moving from innocence into a state of intelligence and cultural creation, as well as the struggle to demarcate the boundary between the human and the divine.  I heard from religious Jews that Judaism did not believe in original sin but interpreted Genesis 2-3 differently from Christians.

The Garden story itself contained details that perplexed me.  Why, for example, did God not want Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?  What is wrong with knowing good and evil?  Isn’t distinguishing between good and evil a good thing elsewhere in the Bible?  And does not God say that he himself knows good and evil, as God laments that Adam and Eve now are like God, knowing good and evil?  Why is knowing good and evil bad for humans, but a good thing for God?  And why did God expel Adam and Eve from the Garden?  What would be so wrong with Adam and Eve staying in the Garden of Eden, partaking of the Tree of Life?

I can’t say that I found answers to every one of my questions in A Walk of the Garden (or maybe the answers were there, and I missed them!).  But the book was still interesting.  The book covered a variety of topics, but, if I could locate a central issue that encompasses most of the essays in the book, it would be this: Was the “Fall” in Genesis 2-3 something negative, or something positive (or at least not-so-negative)? 

There were a couple of essays that argued that Genesis 2-3 concerned the transition of humans from a state of innocence to one of intelligence and cultural creation.  One article even stated that Genesis 2-3 is about how humans became like God—-in God’s image, as Genesis 1 states.  And, according to the article, human beings after the “Fall” indeed resembled God in the biblical narrative: God is at conflict with humanity, which was why God sent the Flood, and human beings became rather alienated from each other after eating the forbidden fruit.

Christianity treated the “Fall” as something negative that Jesus Christ would fix with his obedience to God.  An article on feminist attempts to rehabilitate Eve talks about how Christianity reinforced misogyny by blaming the Fall on Eve, and by seeing sex as a means for the transmission of original sin.  The article quotes feminist theologian Mary Daly, who does not believe that portraying Mary as a new Eve really corrects the problem, since the Christian narrative still stigmatizes childbirth and women by making Mary an exception among women.

Elements of Gnosticism regarded the “Fall” as positive, as human beings attaining knowledge that a sinister sub-deity wanted to keep from them, leading the sub-deity to expel them from the Garden and to burden them with tasks that would distract them from thinking about their spiritual identity.  The article on Judaism opened by saying that Judaism did not believe in original sin, and yet it gave indications that prominent elements of Judaism still deemed the events in Genesis 2-3 to be quite negative: within rabbinic Judaism was the notion that the Torah would correct the ills that the “Fall” brought, at least for the nation of Israel; and elements of Kabbalistic Judaism held that the “Fall” was an event that disrupted the cosmos.  At the same time, in the endnotes to the article, there is a reference to a modern Jewish interpretation that regards the “Fall” as something positive, the same way that the exile of the Jews was positive because it enabled them to carry the knowledge of God beyond Israel.  According to a couple of articles, Christian theologian Karl Barth held fast to seeing the Fall as negative.  According to one of the articles on Barth, the story of the Fall is about human attempts to judge good and evil for themselves, as opposed to relying on God.  And there was an article about how Genesis 2-3 may relate to the Oedipus and Elektra complexes: the story reflects how children enter maturity as they learn that they cannot have whatever they want.

I wish that the articles about the Fall being positive (or at least not as negative as Christians say) would have dealt more extensively with a salient feature of the story: that God was commanding the first humans not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the humans disobeyed God on that point.  In most cases throughout the Hebrew Bible, disobeying God is a bad thing.  Why would it be a good thing, or at least something that is not so horrible, in Genesis 2-3?  I’m not saying that the traditional Christian interpretation lacks its share of problems and inadequately answered questions, but I wanted to see more developed arguments in the articles about the Fall being not-so-negative.  For example, it would have been nice had the historical-critical articles tracked down possible ancient Near Eastern tales in which a deity could be fallible, and disobedience of a deity can be something positive.  

Apart from the question of whether the “Fall” was negative or not-so-negative, the book offered some interesting details.  I learned that Immanuel Kant was quite negative about human beings (in contrast with the optimistic tone that theology was taking for some time), and that the psychologist Carl Jung detested the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible.  One article on Jung stated that Jung was promoting an allegorical method of biblical interpretation, one that looked for symbols in the Bible, as ancient Christian interpreters did (though Jung’s allegorical interpretation was most likely different from that of ancient Christians).  Some of the topics in the book did not particularly interest me.  I, for example, don’t really care about how Kavka treated the Fall.  But I respect that there are people who are interested in that.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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3 Responses to Book Write-Up: A Walk in the Garden

  1. Thanks for the interesting review!

    I am not authority on the Genesis story, but I think it may be little more than a tale answering the questions of children (and adults) about Why?

    Why is it so hard to make a living? Why is childbirth so painful? Why do we wear clothes? Why do we eat dead animals? Why do we die? Why don’t snakes have legs? and so on.

    Of course, I am sure there is a more reflective lesson in the story as well, but I cannot speculate on what it was. I do think I can say what it wasn’t: it wasn’t the story of the fall of man and the introduction of original sin.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    You should do a series on that, Tim (if you haven’t already)!

    I agree with you that a significant part of the story is that is provides etiologies.


  3. Good idea! I will make a note.


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