In Chapter 2 of Genesis, we have possibly the only scene in the Bible that is not only funny, but funny at God’s expense. Picture this: God has created the very first man and he (the man) is already hard at work tilling and tending the fields of the Garden of Eden. (And work he did. Genesis 2:15 is quite clear that Adam was to work, although presumably this wasn’t difficult work yet.) But God realizes, “Hey! This guy needs a helper.” And so God creates and brings to Adam all of the animals of the world (or at least the “wild beasts and birds of the sky”), one after the other, to see if one of them would be a fitting companion. You can just imagine Adam, sitting bored (but hopeful) under a tree while God leads an ill-behaved elephant up to him on a leash. “How about this one?”
Of course, the story goes, they find no fitting companion and so God gets the idea to create the first woman, out of the man’s rib. (You might say that woman was already created in Genesis 1:27, but now’s not the time to quibble over details.)
Everyone knows what happens next. The woman is tempted by the serpent, she eats, she beguiles her husband and he also eats, and they both get cast out of the garden and mankind is cursed for eternity. But I’m not so sure the picture is as clear cut as that.
In the Christian world, the snake of this story is almost universally regarded as Satan, but the text doesn’t say that. According to the text, the serpent was “the shrewdest of all the animals that the Lord God made” , but by the time of Jesus the Jews of the day were finding Satan everywhere and the villain of this story was recast. (I’ve read some “legends” that had Satan appearing to Issac and Abraham and others in the Old Testament, but none of that is in the text itself.) The reading of the snake-as-satan has been preserved in the Christian tradition, but most Jewish sources appear to see the talking snake as a talking snake. (Satan doesn’t make his first appearance until Zechariah 3 and isn’t a main player except in the Book of Job. As for talking animals, the only other one I can think of in the Bible is the talking donkey in Numbers. The Christian belief may stem from Revelations 20:2 which refers to Satan as a serpent, but that was probably based on an older Jewish non-Biblical tradition.)
So, here’s my conundrum. The man and the woman do not yet know the difference between good and evil. They are like animals, in a way, with no moral sense. They know that they have been told not to eat of a particular tree, but that is a lot like my telling my cat that he shouldn’t claw the couch: you can say it, but the cat doesn’t have a moral sense to understand what is being asked of him, so he continues to claw the couch (and usually when you aren’t looking, to tell him to stop). The snake has also not eaten of the tree and so he doesn’t have a moral compass either. But there is a clear distinction between these two groups: the humans do not know right from wrong, but exist in a natural state of righteousness. They aren’t out killing animals or eating of forbidden fruits, but not because they know it is wrong to do so; they just don’t. The snake on the other hand also has no moral sense, but he is causing mischief. Philosophy majors can have a blast here. The serpent is Hobbesian, demonstrating that the natural state is one of war and conflict. The humans are more like John Locke’s ideal, existing in a natural state of reason and peace.
As it happens, the snake tells the woman that God lied and that if she eats from the tree of good and evil, her “eyes will be opened” and she will be like a divine being. How the snake knows this is unclear. The text doesn’t state that he ate from the tree (or else wouldn’t he have been punished?) and if he HAD eaten from the tree, then his telling the woman this wouldn’t have been a lie since he lived to tell about it. (And, as it happens, God never told the woman not to eat of the tree on the page. He told the man before he created the woman, but presumably this message was passed along.)
But here’s where the story gets interesting: Eve takes the snake up on its offer and eats of the tree. At this point, two things happen: First, she doesn’t immediately die. And second, she hands the apple to her husband and he eats. Why does she do this? We know that she now understands the difference between good and evil. We know that the tree has granted her “wisdom”. There are only two conclusions that can be drawn: either she gave the fruit to Adam because she knew that doing so was “good,” or she did so because she knew that it was “evil”. And she made the choice that all women eventually would have to make: she chose to leave the home of her father (the garden of Eden) to start a new life with her husband. Sure, that life would not have been as easy as if she stayed under her father’s roof, but she discovered in that moment that it was the only way for her to grow up and exist as an individual.
The rest of perfunctory. God curses the man, the woman, and the snake. The man names the woman Eve (reasserting his dominance after having lost out on taking the initiative with regard to the fruit) and they are cast out. They are still farmers, as they were in the garden, but now the ground is harder to till and will grow thistles and other things they don’t like.
And the question remains whether this was “original sin” or not. Can someone without the knowledge of good and evil sin? I suspect not. And despite God’s condemnation, it’s fairly clear that he had at least planned on this. In Genesis 1:28, God had already commanded man to “fill the Earth”, which would require both pregnancy (childbirth) and the spread of mankind outside the narrow confines of the garden. And during their time together, the first man had been taught to sow and till the soil, the very skill he would need to survive. Can an all-knowing God not have seen this coming? I suspect not. It’s possible to believe that he was disappointed in the choice, but the moment was well-prepared for. It was time for the kids to grow up and leave home.