Chapter 2 of Genesis relates the story of Adam and Eve. It starts with God creating Adam and Eve and placing them in the Garden of Eden. The garden is lush, and there is plentiful food. In the middle of the garden there are two special trees – the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God forbids Adam and Eve from eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, threatening them with death as the consequence. However, Eve is tempted by the serpent who convinces her to eat from the tree. Then Eve turns around and feeds Adam. After eating from the tree, they presumably gain knowledge of good and evil, as evidenced by the fact that Adam becomes ashamed of being naked and hides from God. God does not kill Adam and Eve but punishes them by casting them out of Eden. He also decrees that Eve will suffer in childbirth, while Adam will need to struggle to fend for food, ostensibly making life a struggle for all of humankind. I remember reading this story as a kid and understanding the story as an example of crime and punishment. But is that the correct interpretation? And if so, was God justified in punishing Adam and Eve for their ‘disobedience’ to his commandment?
First of all, we have to ask: Did Adam and Eve have knowledge prior to eating from the forbidden tree? Based on what God said to Adam, it is clear that Adam would have had some knowledge such as understanding about language, death (as this was the threat God made), as well as about fruit being useful for food. However, did this understanding extend to the knowledge of good and evil? Presumably not, as God specifically forbade Adam and Eve from eating from that particular tree. Also, once Adam ate from the tree he became shameful of his nakedness. This suggests that he gained some new understanding, because he exhibited a change in behaviour and emotional state.
If Adam (and Eve) did not possess knowledge of good and evil prior to eating the forbidden fruit, how could they have been disobedient to God? Before actually eating the forbidden fruit, they would not have known that their action would constitute disobedience (i.e., an “evil” act). So, then, what is the basis for God’s punishment?
Perhaps this story should be viewed as an allegory or a metaphor, but for or about what? What lesson is the story trying to convey? Is it meant to be a way of explaining how (original) sin separated us from God? Based on my argument above, however, this can’t be it, because Adam and Eve wouldn’t have known their action would be sinful prior to consuming the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Is an act a sin if it is committed without sinful or evil intent, or ignorant as to the moral valence of the act?
Another approach is to interpret this story as the journey of humankind from the spiritual realm to the earthly realm. Okay, I guess, but what role does the punishment element of the story play here? Is it that learning of earthly things distances us from God? And that earthly things, and the pursuit of earthly knowledge, are bad things? I am confused here.
Believers also interpret this story as highlighting the gift of free will that God has bestowed upon humankind. There was a choice to be made in the Garden of Eden, and Adam and Eve expressed their free will in the choice they made. But this interpretation is also flawed. According to the Abrahamic religions, God is omniscient, and an omniscient being is actually incompatible with free will. A truly omniscient being will know ahead of time how a particular person will act, meaning that the person is actually compelled to act in one fashion and one fashion only. At best, we can say God created humans to feel as if we have free will, when in actuality we do not (unless, of course, we accept that God is not omniscient).
As I got older and moved away from religion and belief in God, I came to regard the concept of original sin as an awful (evil :-)) concept, one that is harmful to the mental well-being of humans. Ostensibly it is an idea that makes us feel guilty merely for being human. If the purpose of the story is to drive us to attain, or to get as close to, universal perfection as we can, then we are set-up to fail from the get-go. When you really think about it, we can get the same message (i.e., “Be the best person you can”) without paying attention to this story (or even most of the Bible). Really, trying to be a decent human being boils down to one simple idea, expressed by that notable prophet Jim Jefferies, “Try not to be a cunt!”.