Images of Eden: Sacred Apples or Forbidden Fruit?

by Nancy Coker

As one tree casts many shadows in the course of a year, as the same sun both hardens clay and softens wax, one story takes many shapes in the hearts and minds of its listeners. One such story is that of Adam and Eve. Found in Genesis, the first book of the sacred scriptures for millions of Christians and Jews, their story is supposed to shed light on the creation and development of mankind. Whether its legacy is one of clarity or dark confusion is uncertain.

Hundreds of authors have tried to explain its mysteries, and I agree with those who assert that the story makes more appeal to imagination and intuition than to logic. Fundamentalists say this story describes how, through the misuse of free will, pain and death came into the world. They state that we're all sinners in exile and that both women and knowledge are dangerous -- some Jews even teach men a prayer that thanks God "for not making me a woman." This type of thinking creates, in my imagination, images of the characters in Eden frozen in a position of angry condemnation, each pointing to the other -- God angrily accusing Adam, Adam reproachfully pointing to Eve, Eve to the serpent.

Does this severe picture accurately portray what early Church Fathers thought? Going to the source we find, not surprisingly, that there was no more consensus then than now. While many looked for moral lessons by regarding the paradisiacal pair as literal historical figures, others sought spiritual illumination through allegorical interpretations. Clement believed the story showed that God blessed marriage, while Jerome believed the more blessed state was virginity. Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher, suggested Adam might be symbolic of the mind (nous), Eve of the body. Perhaps connecting to the image of Sophia, some thinkers reversed the symbolism, "the majority of the known gnostic texts depict Adam (not Eve) as representing the psyche, while Eve represents the higher principle, the spiritual self." (Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, p. 66) Augustine at one point suggested that Adam was Christ and Eve the Church -- how then could he later conclude that Eve made bad choices? His contemporary, Julian, preached that both the pain of childbirth and death itself were part of the natural order of things and not a unique penalty, while orthodox believers taught that God continues to single out and punish humanity.

There was no more unanimous vision then than now. Currently, some interpret the story to mean Adam was morally free to choose and so are we. Others say that sexual desire is a punishment which develops despite our free will and is proof that God never meant us to be free. Still others suggest we may have an undetermined amount of moral freedom. While some assert the goodness of creation, many emphasize its badness -- but very few try to embrace its wholeness.

We are challenged to be open to many layers of truth, to discover as much meaning as we can without disregarding any of the views. After all, we don't have to choose one view or the other -- it wasn't the Tree of Knowledge of Good or Evil (with good apples growing on one side and evil apples growing on the other).

What was the genesis of Genesis -- what might the authors of Genesis have had in mind when they were writing? Historians have traced the wandering tribes of the Jews as they touched (and were touched by) many cultures. From piecing together stories from Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian sources, they have discovered legends of creation, the flood, the tower of Babel and others which indicate that the stories found in Genesis are only a tiny portion of the whole literature of the people living in those times. Depending on one's special area of expertise, one could speculate from many angles.

Kabbalists approach the symbolism of Eden numerically, claiming, for example, that the value of the name Jehovah equals the diameter of a circle, symbol of wholeness. Linguists tell us the word Jehovah derives from four syllables (Yod "father," He "mother," Vau "son," and He "birth, generation"), an approach which in itself embodies a whole philosophy. Some mathematically inclined researchers have shown how the Great Pyramid architecturally contains the whole of Genesis in inches and cubits. Others illustrate astronomically how the ancients talked of a fall prior to that of our primal pair, that of two constellations of seven stars each -- Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Perhaps the path to Eden starts with the story of God creating the heaven and the earth in six days, resting on and sanctifying the seventh. To the 20th century Westerner the story is unique and special; not realizing it echoes other creation myths in which there are seven creative deities contributing to the production. Egyptians told of the seven Khnumu, the Nazareans of seven spirits, the Hindus of seven Prajapatis. The ancient Iranians believed seven deities (Yazatas or Amesha Spentas) fashioned the world in seven regions in seven stages, which sounds very much like the Hopi's understanding of seven worlds and seven universes. The Hermetica tells how Man's body was brought forth by Nature and received gifts from seven spiritual builders, each giving of themselves. This gives new meaning to the verse "Let us create man in our image and likeness" (Gen 1:26). Who is "us" and what does it say about Deity if its image and likeness is mindless?

Even the mystery of woman made from man is repeated in other traditions and sacred texts, such as The Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the story of Brahma and Vach which tells of an androgynous deity who became single sexed as a metaphor for the new capability to procreate on this plane. Eve, then, may represent the creative and fertile aspects of both Deity and humanity -- as she in turn becomes the vessel for mankind to enter life on earth. As such, she may symbolize evolution, eternal becoming.

To imagine Eve was helping rather than hindering the process of transformation is consistent with ancient stories that tell of the awakening of mind, stories that also included serpents. Eve's serpent has been unfairly accused of introducing evil into the garden; presumably it was already present in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (created, we must assume, by God who created everything and "saw that it was good"). Historically, serpents have been associated with the dragon, used by ancient peoples as a symbol for wisdom -- and Eden's serpent is nothing if not smart. The shedding of skin is a powerful analogy for the movement of life through temporary form. As an illustration of the new continually growing from the old, it evokes ideas of generation and fertility, and is pictured as the ouroboros, symbol of infinity. H. P. Blavatsky suggested it was not just head knowledge that Adam and Eve learned when they munched the apple, but that of creation and procreation. (If mankind didn't need the creative deities anymore, perhaps that was one reason why Jehovah was so very angry and why they, in turn, felt the need for fig leaves.)

It is interesting to consider that both were telling the truth -- God, who said they would die if they ate of the Tree of Knowledge; and the serpent who said, "Ye shall not surely die for God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods [there's that plural again], knowing good and evil" (Gen 3:4-5). Both are telling the truth if we consider that, like the serpent's skin, the body dies, but like the serpent, life continues. There is something that outlives the dualities: just as the serpent survives in its new form, there is an inner essence that prevails and resolves good and evil.

God and the serpent were not the only purveyors of knowledge in the Garden of Eden that day. The tree, also an ancient symbol, was frequently portrayed as holding sacred or secret knowledge, and was often guarded by the dragons of wisdom. Consider the Norse World Tree, Yggdrasil, the sacred Banyan tree of the Hindus, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the Bodhi tree that Buddha sat beneath. Mankind itself has been represented as a tree, and the wooden cross may be an extension of the same notion. Joseph Campbell pointed out that gardens and trees are really the serpents' world, they belong together.

Each of the main characters in this event offers a rich possibility of diverse meanings, but what can one say about paradise? Eden was a place of innocence, at least for some of its inhabitants -- God and the serpent don't seem so naive. Adam and Eve were the ones whose eyes were closed, which is to say, they didn't know they were in paradise. Not knowing right from wrong, how could they know what it meant to sin? Like children they were not awake, existing in a kind of dreamtime, in a place of ouroboric unity not unlike the womb. Does their supposed fall imply they (and we who follow) were "created" to remain in the womb forever?

Maybe the greater offense would have been in not biting the apple. What if Eve had said no? Wouldn't that have been committing a sin? -- the sin of not moving into tomorrow, of wanting to settle for an eternal yesterday? When we refuse to go forward, we keep ourselves in the prison of Eden. Paradise may be where we are still ignorant, still asleep. Waking up is leaving Eden, becoming aware, conscious, reborn. And then we can't ever go back to the earlier state of innocence, of not knowing. If there's such a thing as sin, maybe it has to do with being asleep when it's time to be awake. Maybe the sin is being out of step with time -- too much or too little knowledge at the wrong time, like gunpowder in the hands of a child, can be hurtful. We are often out of time with ourselves; as teens having adult bodies and immature emotions or as adults sleeping through opportunities. We are not born fully aware and must make many choices (good and bad) in order to wake up.

It is fitting that there is no unified explanation or vision for the Adam and Eve story. This way we can consider each of the possible interpretations -- and apparent paradoxes arouse us to question, to wonder, to doubt. When institutions discourage our questions by declaring that there is only one answer, one God, or one way, they discourage our search. Saying that we shouldn't question, they continually replay the scene where God tells Adam he shouldn't eat from the Tree of Knowledge. When anyone insists on only one interpretation (and especially when that interpretation diminishes and degrades both man and deity), to that extent the institutions and their stories become like toxic fruit. A bite from a poisoned apple put Snow White to sleep; has a similar bite given us nightmares for centuries? Naturally, God can do whatever he pleases, and we are often reminded he works in mysterious ways, but that explanation is ultimately unsatisfying. So let us grant ourselves permission to re-ask questions that we had put aside.

"Many gnostics read the story of Adam and Eve . . . as an account of what takes place within a person who is engaged in the process of spiritual self-discovery" (Pagels, p. 66). It may be more than just poetic to consider that each of these symbols lives within us. We are each a tree, as well as part of the World Tree, each a fiery creator as well as a spark of the Divine. Adam, Eve, and the serpent live within us as well as without. The sin, what may be forbidden, may be to identify too closely with only one of the symbols, and so deny the others. Pure good, pure evil, pure symbols don't exist -- they are all connected and related to each other. Rather than rejecting any of them, our task may be to keep alive all symbols. Perhaps our open acceptance is all that is needed to transform the scene where the images of God, Adam, and Eve are pointing in anger and blame, into one where each reaches out to the other.


(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1995. Copyright © 1995 by Theosophical University Press)

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