So at the beginning of this year I decided to start reading the Bible over again from the very beginning. It’s been a long time. Over Christmas I tried to explain to an old friend why an insanely literal interpretation of the Scriptures—such as the one we both grew up with—takes all the joy out of reading it. Makes it boring. “There’s no ambiguity in the text,” I explained to her. “There’s no sense of a conversation taking place. For example, when Joseph becomes basically the dictator of Egypt at the end of Genesis—maybe the writers really want us to question the wisdom of this decision. Should Joseph be the dictator of Egypt?” But a fundamentalist reader—such as myself—would never even think to raise those questions. “It’s in the Bible, it was done by the good guys, it literally happened in 1450 BC, what more do we need to know?”
I’m still coming out of that mindset, so I wanted to prepare myself as fully as possible before I began my adventure. I read N. T. Wright’s short book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, in which the famous Anglican bishop—sort of a modern-day C. S. Lewis—makes the interesting claim that ultimate authority is not found in the Bible, but in Jesus. I can think of a lot of different people who would consider that heresy, but I felt like it was good for my heart, so I went with it. Then, since my old one is falling apart, I ordered a new Bible, a recent edition of the King James Version, with the Apocrypha! I made my own cover (out of blue and green construction paper) and eventually worked up the courage to begin reading Genesis again.
I made it all the way to Genesis 3. Then I stopped.
I don’t mean I stopped reading the Bible. I just couldn’t seem to read any further. Genesis 3 is an ocean. It’s not just a passage you can lightly gloss over. I read it again and again. Nearly a week later, I was still reading it.
Here’s what happens; feel free to skip ahead if you know where this is going:
At an unspecified time in the past, God creates everything—light, darkness, sun, moon, plants, beasts, creatures of the sea, birds of the air, man and woman. In a garden called “Eden” He places the first man, Adam, and his wife, Eve, whom He carves from a rib taken out of Adam’s side when the man is fast asleep. Adam and Eve are given the task of tending the garden, along with dominion over all the animals. In return, God commands them not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil in the midst of the garden, on pain of death.
In the third chapter, a serpent addresses Eve and informs her that she won’t actually die: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:6). Eve sees that the tree is able to make one wise; so she eats of it, and gives some to her husband, who is with her. Their eyes being opened, they immediately discover their own nakedness and make “aprons” (ESV “loin cloths”) for themselves out of fig leaves.
God comes walking through the garden and encounters the couple in a state of evident terror. He pronounces judgments on all parties involved: the serpent shall crawl on his belly, and the man will crush his head; the desire of the woman shall be for her husband, and in pain she shall bring forth children; man will have to toil in the ground out of which he was made all the days of his life.
God is concerned that the man and his wife might eat from the Tree of Life, and thereby become immortal; so He drives them from the garden, placing angels at the east end, and a flaming sword which turns every way, to guard the Tree of Life.
I have to admit, this story is frustrating. In place of the long, epic saga of centuries of carnage and bloodshed which evolution suggests was our origin, we have a story—which obviously borrowed from the creation myths of the ancient Near East—of a man and a woman hanging out in a garden. Not, perhaps, an auspicious way to begin the most riveting and dramatic of all stories.
Here’s the problem, though. In talking about it with people, one response that seems to keep cropping up is the possibility that the entire opening section of Genesis—creation, the fall in the garden, and, by extension, Noah’s Flood and the Tower of Babel—is completely made up. One friend (like me, an ex-Baptist) posted on Facebook, “I personally believe some of the Bible stories to be metaphorical and some of them to simply have errors.” I can agree with that up to a point. But I also see two problems. One, there are substantive truths that are expressed in the creation narrative that pertain to the overarching story of redemption, without which, later portions of the Bible become suspect. Why, for example, should we need to be redeemed if we only ever fell in a metaphorical sense? (Some will then be led to wonder whether redemption itself wasn’t in a sense metaphorical).
Second, how do we as individual readers possess the understanding to know when a story is symbolic (or invented), and when it isn’t? If we’re only in the third chapter of Genesis and we’re already arbitrarily throwing out huge chunks of the text as “imaginative fiction,” how do we know where to stop?
And that was when it finally occurred to me: the way we interpret the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a clue to how we will interpret the whole rest of the Bible. If, either out of willfulness or ignorance, we misunderstand this story, we will have a hard time understanding anything that follows.
In that respect, it is itself a flaming sword, protecting the way to the Tree of Life.