Most of us are familiar with the biblical story of Adam and Eve and the “fall of man”, which takes up all of Genesis 2 and 3, following the creation narrative. Genesis 1:26-28 mentions the creation of mankind, stating they were created in the image of God, male and female. Throughout the passages in Genesis 1, “mankind” is always referred to in plural form, implying many, making this creation story no different than that of the animals and fish that were created. Genesis 1:27 states mankind was created in the image of God, without explaining exactly how mankind is like God, though it does state mankind was given dominion over the earth and all creatures on it, which sounds like a great deal of responsibility, that requires some degree of awareness. When we turn to Genesis 2, we’re presented with a second, more specific story of the creation of humans, this one involving the individuals we identify as Adam and Eve, but who are most often referred to in the narrative as the man and the woman. In this instance, when God creates “the man” from the dust of the earth and breathes life into him, there is no female counterpart for him, which seems to contradict what was stated in Genesis 1:27. Biblical scholars have identified two distinct sources for the narratives, which differ in details, as well as in their depiction of God.
The name Adam is translated to be “man” according to the notes section of most versions of the bible, and use of the name in modern translations seems to be largely at the discretion of whoever is doing the translation. Much of the creation narrative that was related in Genesis 1 is reversed in Chapter 2, with the earth still being barren, until God makes it rain, which causes the plants to grow. This version of the story has the man being created first, followed by the Garden, which the man is sent to tend. So, in one chapter, mankind has been demoted from having dominion over the earth to being hired as the gardener. Genesis 2 ties the creation of every living thing, including “livestock” and birds, to the search for a companion for the man. The man’s contribution is to name each creature. In some ancient belief systems, being able to say the name of something, gives one power over it, though whether or not that equates to having dominion over it is uncertain. When none of the animals prove satisfactory, God puts the man to sleep, takes one of his ribs, and creates the woman. This, then, becomes the basis for the marriage ritual, stating that since the woman was formed from the rib of the man — flesh of my flesh — that they are “one flesh” that’s “joined” in matrimony.
Medieval Jewish folklore, possibly arising from ancient attempts to reconcile the conflicting creation stories, gives us the tale that Adam’s first wife was named Lilith, formed from the same dust as Adam, and that she left after refusing to become subservient to him, after which Eve was formed from one of his ribs. In any event, creation of the woman in Genesis 2 does seem to suggest her subservience to the man, given that she’s created from his rib, with the intention of being his companion, and is given no other responsibilities. Nowhere in Genesis 2 does the name “Eve” appear; she’s always referred to as “the woman” and it’s not until the end of Genesis 3 that Adam gets around to giving her the name Eve, signifying that she’s the mother of all the living. This seems to suggest that Adam and Eve are the first man and woman, and progenitors of all people on earth, and again contradicts Genesis 1:26-27, which suggests humans were created as a species on the sixth day of creation. The distinction becomes important in the following chapters, particularly in the story of Cain, since by that time, there appear to be many more people on the earth than have been accounted for in the story of Adam and Eve. Whether or not the man and woman represent the first humans, they certainly represent the first members of the family line we’ll be examining in Genesis.
It is in Genesis 2:17 where we get the first mention of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and where the man is told not to eat of it or he will die. This warning bears some examination, which makes it helpful to have multiple translations at one’s fingertips. The King James Version translates it as “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” and this wording is echoed in the New American Standard Bible, in more modern language. The New International Version (NIV) has it as “for when you eat from it you will certainly die” and the Good News Translation states “if you do, you will die the same day”. This seems to leave little ambiguity as to the consequences, but it’s not spelled out exactly how those consequences will be meted out. God does not say “I will put you to death” or that the fruit is poison. It sounds suspiciously like a parent telling a child that horrible things will result if the child does not obey what the parent says, and Genesis 2 does seem to set up a parental relationship between God and the man and woman while they’re in the Garden. It is notable to point out that mention of the tree comes before the creation of the woman, meaning it would have been up to either God or the man to warn the woman not to eat of the tree.
At the beginning of Genesis 3, the woman encounters the serpent, who’s described in the NIV as “more crafty than any of the wild animals” without detailing where this tendency originates. The serpent displays an ability the woman does not possess, namely the ability to second guess what God has told the man and woman. Even those unfamiliar with the Bible know what happens next; the woman and man eat from the tree and gain the knowledge of good and evil. The first sign that they have eaten from the tree is that they gain self-awareness, and realize they’re naked. Given that being naked is the natural state in which they were created by God, it’s not stated why that, in and of itself, is considered evil. God apparently didn’t consider it that way, or else God would have given them clothes to wear, as God does after they realize they’re naked. So, it appears the “knowledge of evil” they’ve gained is actually the ability to question whether or not their actions are evil, and by extension, they’ve gained the ability to question God. By listening to the serpent, the woman has inadvertently given humanity wisdom and self-determination. Not all cultures viewed that in a negative light. In ancient Greek philosophy, which was later adopted by the Gnostics, the term for wisdom is Sophia, and is personified as a woman.
Those who take the story of the Garden as a true account will point to it as the first time man (or woman as many will argue) diverged from the will of God. Acquisition of the knowledge of good and evil, however, comes with a host of questions and issues regarding God’s intentions in setting up the situation that existed in the Garden. All in all, it seems the deck was stacked against the man and woman. They were totally ignorant of anything except what God chose to tell them, and spent all their time happily running around the Garden, presumably being fruitful and multiplying, though we’re not told of any children they may have had. Since she had no prior knowledge of good and evil, the woman had no reason not to trust the serpent when it tempted her, and since the man did not have this knowledge, he would have had no reason not to trust the woman when she offered the fruit to him, especially since she had already eaten some without dying as God said she would. God knew the man and woman didn’t have the capacity to distinguish good from evil, so why should it have come as a surprise to God that they didn’t realize that eating the fruit was wrong? If God is all-knowing then God should have realized that putting the tree of knowledge there in the Garden raised the probability that the man and woman would eat of it. God is the one who set up the whole situation in the first place, creating the Garden, placing the man and woman in it, and putting the tree of knowledge right there where they could easily access it.
One possibility is that God wanted the man and woman to have the knowledge of good and evil and knew that putting them in close proximity to the tree of knowledge would eventually lead to them acquiring it. This raises the question as to why God wouldn’t want its creations to have this knowledge, and an argument could be made that the serpent already knows the difference, since it displays an ability to question what God has decreed, that the man and woman don’t have. A strong argument for this line of thinking is that the man and woman didn’t die once they’d eaten from the tree, though God said they would. If this is true, though, why didn’t God equip them with this ability to begin with since it would have been within God’s power to do so? Another possibility is that God was testing the man and woman to see if they’d follow God’s commandments. This makes little sense, though, because God should have known that while the man and woman knew they were disobeying what God told them, they did not have the capacity to know that disobeying God was wrong. It wasn’t until after they’d eaten from the tree that they felt guilt for their actions. Finally, if God didn’t want the man and woman to have this knowledge, why didn’t God just take it away from them, since it should have been within God’s power to do so.
The depiction of God in this story, as in other stories in Genesis, suggests a very early conception of God, similar to the way gods are depicted in Greek mythology, that is, displaying human emotions, and reacting harshly whenever God’s creations don’t behave as God tells them. Those who compiled the Bible during the Babylonian exile and Second Temple period probably held a vastly more refined conception of God, but, like many in the modern era, probably felt reverence for the stories, which prevented them from altering them to suit their modern sensibilities, or felt the stories were so well-known by their time, that changing them was pointless. The God described in the story of Eden does not exhibit infinite knowledge, and must question the man and woman on why they are hiding when God comes to visit them in the Garden. While God reasons that the man and woman have eaten from the tree of knowledge, God doesn’t know the full story until told of it by the man and woman. God then sets about cursing the woman, making her subservient to the man, and making her childbirth difficult; cursing the man, by making his toils in the field more harsh and less productive; and curses the serpent by making it eat dust, crawl on its belly, and become the enemy of woman and her offspring. It’s in the midst of all this cursing by God, that the man, now identified as Adam, finally decides on a name for the woman, calling her Eve. God then gives Adam and Eve some clothes, casts them out of the Garden, and sets up cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the tree of life — which, for some unknown reason, is still in the Garden — so humans won’t live forever as well. This final punishment almost seems a moot point, given the extraordinarily long lifespans enjoyed by many of Adam’s descendants, as described in the later chapters of Genesis.