If, as is commonly believed in Christianity, Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden allowed sin and death to enter the world, then why did they need a tree of life in the first place? Further, if death didn’t exist before they ate the forbidden fruit, why do they seem to know what it means to die when God and the serpent discuss it as the penalty for their disobedience?
These questions indicate to me that Genesis 2–3 do not necessarily argue for the traditional interpretation they have been given: that the Garden of Eden story is a historically based explanation for the doctrine of original sin, i.e., the “fall of man.”
One thing Peter Enns does not detail in The Evolution of Adam as much as I would have liked (review | redux Part 1) is the increasing diversity of interpretations we are now seeing surround this story. For about 1,500 years or so, the dominant belief of the fall of man and the doctrine of original sin have held sway, thanks largely to the creative work of Paul and Augustine.
That has changed in recent decades, pushed largely by the advent of critical scholarship and new scientific discoveries in the 19th century.
One way of accessing this diversity of interpretation is through studying the parallel creation myths from the ancient Near East, many of which feature similar scenarios to the one found in Genesis. Enns details this in his book, but he glosses over one that I studied last semester.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is frequently cited for its uncanny parallels with the Genesis flood story, but there’s a lesser-known creation story that it contains.
If I may be so bold as to quote my own paper:
Enkidu is a secondary character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but he plays an important role; his creation occurs in the second column of the first tablet. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third man, terrorizes Uruk, and the gods urge Aruru, his creator, to form an equally powerful figure to hold him in check.
In the process, we see two parallels to the biblical creation story. Aruru “conceived in her heart an image” of the god Anu and created Enkidu from clay. This compares to Genesis, in which God creates humanity “in our image” (1:26) from “the dust of the ground” (2:7).
A significant difference, of course, is that humans in the biblical story are fully formed and distinct from the animals. Enkidu, however, appears to be more animal than man. “His whole body is covered with hair,” and he “knows nothing about people or land.” Instead, he eats, drinks and plays with the animals.
The more interesting parallels occur a little later, however:
A hunter, frustrated as Enkidu helps the animals evade his traps, uses a woman to seduce him. The translations differ on what to call her. Many, including Heidel, call her a prostitute, while Matthews uses “wise woman.” By sleeping with Enkidu, she is to make him abhorrent to the animals.
She is spectacularly successful, as she and Enkidu have sex for six days and seven nights, and, indeed, after they are finished, the animals reject him. Enkidu has irrevocably changed; “he had intelligence, wide was his understanding.”
He returns to the woman, and she tells him, “Wise art thou, O Enkidu. Like a god art thou.” She teaches him how to eat and drink like a human and, most importantly, clothes him.
This is strongly reminiscent of the familiar biblical text, in which the serpent tells Eve eating from the forbidden tree will make her like God (Gen. 3:5), and after she does so, she and Adam are ashamed of their nakedness and clothed by God.
One big difference, of course, is that the biblical account doesn’t include a week of sex – but does include a moral component in which God hands down curses for their disobedience.
Apart from the linguistic similarities, we can see some thematic parallels, as well. Both stories feature central characters moving from naive nakedness to godlike understanding that seems naturally to require clothes. And while the Gilgamesh tale directly involves sex, don’t dismiss the possibility of it in Genesis. After all, there is the “forbidden fruit” and the serpent’s “seduction” of Eve in 3:13.
So is the Genesis story a cleaned-up version of Gilgamesh, in which Adam and Eve don’t so much sin as mature? Some scholars say yes, and some argue this story isn’t even a negative one. Lyn Bechtel, writing a chapter in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, argues the text “is symbolic of a critical stage of maturation” that “is critical to the socialization process” and “would be viewed positively” by the culture in which it was written.
Well, maybe, but there are those curses God hands down. Hard to argue that those are positive aspects of the story.
Perhaps more realistically, Anne Gardner, writing in the Scottish Journal of Theology back in 1990, argued the serpent is representative of the ancient Near Eastern Asherah cult. Quoting her:
The goddess then was linked strongly with sexuality, and the Gilgamesh epic suggests that sexual knowledge conferred wisdom. … The result of succumbing to the snake’s entreaty was that Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, obviously suggestive of awareness of sexuality.
The tree of the knowledge of good and evil could be viewed as a symbol for the cult itself (you should know that “cult” in biblical scholarship doesn’t mean Branch Davidians; it refers to the structure and trappings of worship). Gardner argues “the real crime then of Eve was … turn[ing] to a deity other than Yahweh.”
This argument, that the story of Adam and Eve has embedded within it a tale of lost sexual innocence as the result of idol worship, fits well with Enns’ argument that Genesis 2–3 is both historical metaphor for Israel’s own journey from chosen by God to disobedience to expulsion from their Promised Land and wisdom metaphor for the appropriate way to seek God’s knowledge.
You may see it differently, but this arguably makes the Garden of Eden story resonate much deeper. Rather than simple history, the narrative is multiple layers deep and contains a salient, relevant warning about the dangers of turning sexuality into a god.