THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL? August 12, 2019 by Brandi Hebert
my last blog, I wrote about this months’ Time special edition magazine cover and the Lutheran theology of simuls. In this same magazine issue, the second inside cover features another well-known image from Jewish-Christian scriptural tradition. The picture, which was a stock image taken from Alamy, is a painting of the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis. In the painting, the man and the woman are naked with their genitalia tastefully covered by the Garden’s foliage. The woman is handing the man a piece of fruit taken from the tree that is centered between them and features a large green serpent like figure curling the trunk of the tree, its forked red tongue sticking out of its mouth. Although the title of this second cover page reads like the first, “The Science of Good and Evil”, again an inherently theological image is used to express the idea of good and evil. For sure, good and evil are often associated with the Genesis story colloquially known as the story of Adam and Eve. Traditional historical interpretations have interpreted this as the first “fall” of humankind. Eve has traditionally been cast as the weaker of the two first human beings to have succumbed to the wicked lure of the snake who encourages her to eat from the tree of good and evil. After Eve tastes the forbidden fruit disobeying God’s command not to do so she then offers the same fruit to Adam encouraging him to disobey as well. Subsequently, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden of Eden by an angry God and thus humanities ongoing struggle with good and evil is explained. A closer reading of this text reveals a more accurate and nuanced story that offers us an understanding of humanities limitations and God’s justice and judgement as viewed through the Jewish-Christian lens. This Genesis story of creation is not the only creation story to be found in the Jewish-Christian Scriptures, but is one of many and the second creation story in book of Genesis. In the first creation story, God calmly speaks all of Creation into existence. (Genesis 1:1-26) Many Biblical scholars now read this story intertextually with the other creation stories that were prevalent at the time in social consciousness. These stories include the Babylonian creation myth known as the Enuma Elish and Hesiod’s Theogony, both extremely violent creation stories. Read in contrast, the first creation story from the Jewish tradition is extremely peaceful revealing a God that simply calls forth existence and declares all that emerges to be good. (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) In this first creation story, all that God calls into existence is good. God makes humankind in God’s own image giving humankind “dominion” over all of creation before resting from the work that was completed on the sixth day. (1:27, 28; 2:2-3). The second creation account in which the characters of Adam and Eve emerge is no less peaceful though the potential for conflict is inserted into the narrative and from this drama unfolds. In this creation story, God forms the ‘adam (man) from the ‘adamah (earth) and breathes into its nostrils. (2:7). God is essentially playing with mud here and gently breathing it to life. God then inserts the potential for conflict by commanding that the ‘adam not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil lest the ‘adam die. (2: 16-17) Recognizing that the ‘adam should not be alone and thus revealing God’s self’s compassion, God, in effect, renders God’s mud-baby in two while the ‘adam is asleep thus creating the ‘ish (gendered man) and ‘ishah (gendered female), the first gendered human beings. All is still good in the garden that God planted. (2:9) Therefore, when the serpent, not specifically Satan, but a serpent speaks to the woman stating, “”You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:4), the serpent is not inherently evil. All is still good in the garden. The serpent is described as “crafty” (3:1) To be crafty is to be smart, astute, and shrewd, but not necessarily evil. Furthermore, the forbidden fruit, not specifically an apple, but fruit as translated from the Hebrew text, is forbidden because it yields knowledge of good and evil. It does not impute evil itself to the one who partakes, but only knowledge of its existence. Understanding these interpretive nuances then reveals an understanding of this story that humankinds’ desire for knowledge, to be like God, leads to complications. It is clear that after both the woman and the man partake of the fruit, they do not know how to appropriately manage the knowledge that they are now a part of and do not know how to respectfully conduct themselves in a God-like manner. They first hide from God and then, when confronted by God as to the truth of their actions, the man scapegoats the woman and the woman scapegoats the serpent instead of each taking responsibility for their actions. (3:7, 10, 12, 13) The consequence of their actions is that the man and the woman are forced to leave the garden. They die to the life that they lived before receipt of the knowledge of evil yet still live into the life they received through God in God’s mercy. The drama inserted into this narrative was God’s limitation on God’s creation and the conflict that ensued was humankinds’ inability to accept that limitation and live peacefully within it. In this reading then, this second creation story is less a story about good and evil and more a story about humankinds’ inability to accept limitations and live peacefully with the knowledge of evil. This story continues to unfold in the Jewish-Christian scriptures and this author would argue it is still unfolding to this day. Therefore, how do you understand good and evil in the creation stories of your religious tradition? How do you understand good and evil both scientifically and theologically within creation myths? What difference, if any, does this make in your understanding of the larger themes of justice for humankind?
 Dr. Crystal Hall, “The Bible and Ecology” (lecture, United Lutheran Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, Spring 2019)