The First Exile — Genesis 3
Genesis chapter 3 tells the story of Eve, the serpent, eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the exile from Eden, and a fiery sword guarding the path to the tree of life.
Grappling with the Traditional Context
This is a book that teaches about a people’s relationship with, and their understanding of, the world around them. There absolutely is a God, and God created everything, including a divine garden.
One obvious take-away of this text is the discussion of free will. Are we responsible for our own actions, or are the things we do part of a divine script? Let’s look at four interpretations of this text.
First. There is no such thing as free will. If this is the case, then Eve was predestined to eat from the tree of knowledge, and Adam was predestined to follow in her footsteps. There was nothing anyone or anything could have done to prevent these actions. If this is true, then no one is at fault for anything they do, and every action is part of a script. It also makes the punishment ridiculous. Any being capable of writing the script is capable of altering it in the first place.
Maybe this is my own ego. I would refuse to give up the idea of my own free will. I would bet that most of the people I know would also reject this interpretation.
Second. There is free will, and God knew what Adam and Eve were going to do. God is omniscient, after all. If God knew what was going to happen and did not do the responsible thing to prevent it, then God has some pretty poor parenting skills. God saying, “Do not eat this fruit,” is the heavenly, “Don’t look down.”
I relate this story to children. If you tell a child, “You can have anything in the room, except this thing here,” do not be surprised if the only thing they find themselves wanting is forbidden. Of course, we are not children; we are adults! We are told that we should be more disciplined. Like the first interpretation, this is another lie we tell ourselves to prop up our own egos. The only difference between adults and children is that those things for which we lust are more sophisticated. Willpower is only so strong, and then it fails.
Leviticus 19:14 tells us, “You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Generally, this line of Torah teaches us to not set up people to fail. God does not follow his own rules. I can certainly understand this — my children have rules that do not apply to me. Kids need to be in bed before 9; kids may not bring food into the living room; kids are allowed only so many hours of video games per day; and a whole host of others. Ego again?
Third. We have free will, and God is governed by the same laws of chaos and uncertainty that govern us mere mortals. God is not so omniscient after all. Dr. Werner Heisenberg first proved the uncertainty principle in 1927. In particle physics, it is impossible to know the exact value of two variables at once. And, the more you learn about the first variable, the less you can predict about the second variable.
When we look at the brain, we see a system of neurons and chemical pathways. When we talk about scientific observations, we usually are interpreting average results. A neuron fires in less than a nanosecond, but what if the tiniest amount of variation results in a different outcome in human time?
Fourth. The final, and probably most accepted traditional interpretation of this text is that we have free will, God knew what we were going to do, and this was part of the learning and maturity of the human race. Adam and Eve were given everything — life, food, want for nothing — and it was time to move on. The failure of the first beings was a step to maturity.
I can understand this interpretation. It is what I was taught in my childhood. I remember being taught that we learn from our mistakes. Doesn’t everyone hear that as a child? However, there is a missing truth in this sentence. What do we learn from our mistakes? In the most obvious case, we learn that what we were doing didn’t work! Hopefully, there are side effects, as well. We learn that we may have to try twice, or three, or even more, times. We learn perseverance. We learn that there are multiple options available that we didn’t see before.
There is a Thomas Edison quote: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Frankly, this quote is bullshit. I play piano, and I have had thousands of failures. It is not the failing that teaches me, but the successes. Lots of successes, repeated and ingrained until the notes, dynamics, and phrasing become automatic. It is success, not failure, that teaches us how to succeed.
Seeking Eternal Truth
More important that telling a story of thousands of years ago, we retell a story for today. In the introduction to A Bride for One Night, author and professor Ruth Calderon states:
When I retell a talmudic story in my own words and comment on it, I am engaging in an act of exegesis. This is a way of assuming ownership of a story I love or coming to terms with a text that unsettles me. In so doing, I may achieve any of several goals, among them acquiring a new heroine for myself, redeeming a literary figure from her tragic fate and creating a better life for her, crafting role models for my own children to replace images of oppression, and coming to terms with the complex cultural legacy that I have no choice but to understand because it is a part of me and I am a part of it. It is a sort of psychological family therapy. Allowing myself the interpretive freedom to tell these stories anew is also a form of tikkun olam, that is, of repairing the world.
In my opinion, the eternal truth of this chapter is that our lives are difficult. I can imagine a little boy — who didn’t want to get up and work the fields one morning — asking his father, “Why do I have to work the fields today?” The father using stories to teach, as Jews have been known to do from time to time, replies with the 4,000 year old Jewish equivalent of, “Once upon a time…” Eventually, this story gets written down and becomes part of the book of Genesis.
Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
— Man in Black, The Princess Bride
In our past, we were required to work the fields for food, carry jars of water, and care for families and communities. There were no Ford F-150s to carry stones from place to place. All of society — the houses, the fields, the wells, the synagogues — was the work of human hands.
For women, the story was even more tragic. The punishment for women is the pains of childbirth. Her share of the work did not stop just because a woman was pregnant. Historically, childbirth has been a leading cause of death for women. Still today, there are places in the world where 1-in-8 childbirths result in the mother’s death.
Today, mortality numbers are lower. In the United States, 1 in 5000 or so births will result in the death of the mother. (That number still sounds obscenely high.) Hard labor is easier for most of us. Work is still work, though. It hasn’t gone anywhere.
Finally, I want to find my truth in this story. This past weekend, we hosted a spiritual retreat for our friends. With fresh and ready ears, I listened to people share their stories of God. They told stories of warmth, peace, calmness, and love. They talked about oceans and mountains. It was really quite beautiful.
My first memories of God was the Santa Claus of the Soul. If you are good God will reward you, and if you are bad you will be punished. I remember being taught that God will forgive our sins, if we let Jesus into our hearts, and I remember this being a completely foreign concept to me. Why would God want to sit in an atrium or ventricle and watch blood go by? And how does that have anything to do with forgiveness?
I remember the day that my sister and I were baptized. We had to recite the Apostle’s Creed in front of the church. I don’t remember exactly how old I was. 4th? 5th grade? I had no problem memorizing the creed, but my sister, two years younger than I, didn’t learn it. I just remember being pissed off. Why does my sister get to do this thing? She didn’t do what she was supposed to do! Even my baptism was in anger.
The cynical me says that you may have the fruit of the tree of knowledge or God, but not both. One excludes the other. If you ask me where God is, I say hook me up to an fMRI while I’m reading Torah and find out. I really hope that is just me being cynical.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t play the part, though. I played organ and piano in my small Methodist church. I led prayers for the congregation. I memorized scripture. I served communion. And now, where I am in my life, I can realize I did these things out of belief, but not out of faith. When I was 18, I was awarded a scholarship from the church. I said, “Amen,” happily cashed the check, and paid for my textbooks.
Where is my genuine experience of God? This idea that God is love, that God is mercy, that God is justice, that God is social and natural unity — where is that? Too much of my brain is in the way. Love, mercy, justice, unity: these are emotions — a combination of neurons and chemicals and nothing more. I am looking for a God that is absolute. Like mathematical proof, something undeniable, unquestionable, verified beyond reproach. Q.E.D. And, even as I seek this thing, I know it does not exist. There is no Garden of Eden. There is no El Dorado. There is no lost city of Atlantis.
So what am I to do? Where does my story go from here?
Just this afternoon, I learned that a friend’s coworker died. I have learned that it is a mitzvah to comfort those who mourn. So, being a good Jew, I will make a casserole, take it to her house, give her a hug, and tell her I am sorry for her loss. And I do this, not because this is one of God’s commandments, nor do I hope to put a check mark in the “good” column in my heavenly book of deeds. Although, it would be nice! I do this because it is an act of chesed, lovingkindness, and it is something I did not have eyes to see before I started down this path.
Thank you to members of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation. Many of the ideas in this article began as part of Torah study.