Now, to investigate my hypothesis about the Bible, let’s start with the story of Adam and Eve. Of course, for an atheist, the story must be fictional, or perhaps an allegory for the early human race.
For now, let’s put aside the question of how real the account is, and look at it from the viewpoint of the lessons it is trying to convey, because the story contains an explanation for much of our human experience, regardless of whether we take it literally or not.
According to the story, God planted a garden for his human creation, and put two specific trees in the middle of it. The first was called the “tree of life,” or more accurately, the “tree of the lives,” since the word for “life” here is plural in Hebrew. The ability to eat from it meant the ability to live forever. The second was called the “tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” 1
God said to Adam: “You may certainly eat from any tree of the garden; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you shall not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” 2 These two trees, placed in the middle of the garden, perhaps indicate that the whole story revolved around two big issues: life and death, and good and bad.
Now, the “tree of the knowledge of good and bad” posed a dilemma for the humans. God had told them, in effect, that eating from it was “bad.” But since they didn’t have “knowledge of good and bad” almost by definition, they couldn’t really understand what “bad” meant.
To make things worse, along came a serpent and started talking about God’s command. Most translators assume the serpent asked the woman a question, along the lines of “Is it really so?” But there is no indication it was a question in the original Hebrew. Instead, the serpent appeared to be making a simple statement, that “God said you shall not eat from any tree of the garden.” 3
The woman corrected the serpent’s apparent misunderstanding. “We can eat from the fruit of the trees of the garden, but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God said ‘you shall not eat from it.’” To paraphrase her, she even added her own little twist, perhaps said with a tinge of sadness and frustration: “We can’t even touch it, or we’ll die!” 4
The serpent replied: “You certainly will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and bad.” 5
For now, let’s overlook the fact that she is talking to a serpent here. After all, if the story is an allegory, then it doesn’t really matter. And if it’s meant to be taken as real, there are also valid explanations. For example, there is an account in the Bible where God opened the mouth of a donkey and caused it to speak, presumably in the same way a ventriloquist can make a dummy talk.6 Maybe someone else was causing the serpent to talk. Besides, if the woman was a brand new creation, how was she to know that serpents weren’t supposed to speak?
Whatever the case, the serpent’s statement is intriguing. The serpent was effectively calling God a liar, and implying that God was keeping humans in the dark, deliberately holding critical knowledge from them. This deceptively simple statement planted the first seeds of doubt and skepticism about God and his motives.
It also created even more of a dilemma for Eve. Incidentally, she wasn’t actually given the name Eve until after these events, but I will refer to her as Eve anyway. Let’s consider Eve’s dilemma. The tree must have been called “the tree of the knowledge of good and bad” for a reason, but she didn’t know what it was. Presumably it would be good to know. After all, more knowledge is a good thing, right? Maybe the talking serpent already had this knowledge, and so maybe it was right about them not dying. The only way to find out was to eat from the tree.
As a result, the proverbial “forbidden fruit” became desirable. Suddenly it looked good, and was seen as a source of wisdom that God was withholding from them. She ate, and then gave some to her husband; and just as the serpent predicted, their eyes were opened. They realized they were naked, and so they made clothes out of fig leaves.
What actually happened here? Is the story trying to imply the tree contained some mystical truth serum? I don’t think this is what was meant. What they experienced was simply something that most humans experience, namely, an awakening of their conscience. They had done something they instinctively knew was “bad.” They had taken something that didn’t belong to them. They had done something they weren’t supposed to do. It caused them to become self-conscious, and this feeling led in turn to the realization that they were naked.
Later on, when they heard God’s voice, they went and hid. They were feeling shame and guilt, which is part of the human conscience, and part of the process of discovering good and bad for themselves. However, their excuse for hiding was that they were naked. When God asked them whether they had eaten from the tree, Adam blamed the woman God had given him, and Eve blamed the serpent.
In all of this, they acted like children do when caught doing something wrong. I think this is because, in the story, they were adults in a physical sense, but like children in their understanding of right and wrong. They had no references to define good and bad, other than God’s command, the serpent’s statement, and their own desires and feelings. They wanted to be “like God, knowing good and bad,” but they had no real understanding of what this actually meant. It just sounded good.
To a certain extent, I think the story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity, or at least the immature side of us. We are drawn to what looks and sounds good, even if it’s bad for us. We don’t think through the consequences of our actions. We make excuses and blame others, rather than taking responsibility.
Indeed, how much of human suffering is really due to other humans doing what they desire, wanting to be “like God” in some sense, and not caring about the consequences of their actions to other human beings or even their own children?
Now, God could have put Adam and Eve to death for breaking his command. After all, he had told Adam that “in the day you eat from it, you will certainly die.” In contrast, the serpent had said, “you certainly will not die.” 7
It turns out, Adam and Eve did die, but not right away. According to the story, Adam lived a total of 930 years. While this sounds excessively long compared to the current human lifespan, if Adam and Eve had the opportunity of living forever, then I suppose 930 years would be nothing to God, for whom a thousand years is like one day. In this sense, we could say they died within one day from God’s viewpoint. All of the lifespans recorded for their offspring also fell short of 1,000 years. Adam and Eve may have also died, from God’s point of view, in the day they ate from it, just as humans sometimes say, “you’re dead to me.”
Maybe it was also a case of God showing mercy. A human judge may have a legal right to impose the maximum sentence, but may lessen it due to mitigating circumstances. Wearing his Judge hat, God may have lessened the punishment because the serpent was partly to blame.
Was it really just a serpent? The statement it made seems to have been very carefully crafted. Perhaps this is why the Hebrew describes it as “crafty,” not simply because it was cunning or cautious, but because the statement was intentionally planned. 8
For example, it anticipated that God wouldn’t put the human couple to death, which turned out to be true. Their eyes were also opened, as the serpent had said. But rather than experiencing a flood of mystical knowledge, the humans simply discovered they were naked, and felt shame. They also started “knowing good and bad,” because they realized what they had done was bad. But rather than suddenly knowing all things related to good and bad, they would have to learn these things through painful experience, which the serpent said nothing about.
Instead, its statement was couched in appealing and desirable terms, with no negative consequences. Their “eyes would be opened.” They would be “like God,” and they would know “good and bad.” All of these sound good on the surface.
The statement was crafted to appear to be telling the truth; and it was true in a very limited way. However, in the larger context it was a lie, and certainly misleading. It was designed to make Eve question God’s motives, and it appealed to her desires, which suggests a high degree of intelligence and forethought behind the statement, beyond the ability of an animal such as a serpent.
Now, regardless of whether we take the story literally or as an allegory – and I will discuss this again nearer the end of this letter – I think it is also meant to be a drama told for the benefit of the entire human race; and it comes down to two simple questions:
What is good and bad anyway? And who gets to decide?
If we all decide these things for ourselves, then maybe one man thinks that sleeping with another man’s wife is good. You may think someone stealing your money is bad, but the thief may see it as good, perhaps even a virtue. As nations and groups, we may have collective standards of right and wrong, but what if those standards include child sacrifice, as it did with the ancient Canaanites? Is a behavior good if our culture or society agrees with it? Is it bad only if our culture disagrees with it? In this regard, the story of Adam and Eve was simply the opening chapter in the human attempt to answer these questions.
Now, even though Adam and Eve didn’t die there and then, they still faced certain penalties. To the man, God said: “The ground is cursed because of you. In grief you will eat from it all the days of your lives, and thorns and weeds it will sprout for you; and you will eat the vegetation of the field. In the sweat of your nostrils you will eat bread until you return to the ground; for you were taken from the dust, and to the dust you will return.” 9 This was a far cry from being like God.
To the woman, God said: “I will greatly increase your grief and your pregnancy. In grief you will give birth to sons; and your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” 10 The word here translated “grief” could also be translated “sorrow” or “pain.” While it seems to be talking about the pain of pregnancy, I think it is also referring to the sorrow the woman would experience for her offspring, now they would be born into a world different from the one God had originally intended.
The woman would also find herself being ruled by her husband. This, I feel I need to point out for male readers, was a curse for the woman, and not a command for how men are to behave. It was certainly not part of God’s original plan. Eve was equal to Adam. She was his helper and partner.
However, part of this curse was perhaps simply an inevitable result of their selfish act. Since they put their own desires before the impact upon their children, their offspring would become more selfishly inclined, with negative consequences particularly for women, as well as the children of such parents.
God’s curse upon the serpent is intriguing. There seems to be two distinct parts to it. In the first part, God seems to speak directly to the animal, or even an entire species. “Because you did this, you are cursed out of all the beasts and out of all the animals of the field. On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your lives.” 11
However, the second part of the curse seems to be addressing something or someone else in particular. “And I will put animosity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” 12 This hints at a riddle that can only be understood once we know the bigger picture of what was really going on here.
Either way, the account implies all of these things happened very fast, because Adam hadn’t even given the woman a name yet! During all of this she was simply “woman,” just as he was “man,” which were names for God’s male and female human creation. But now Adam gave her a personal name, Eve, which means “Living One.”13
Some atheists have accused God of being a tyrant; but rather than putting Adam and Eve to death there and then, which is what a tyrant would do, God granted them what they wanted. They couldn’t become “like God” while being dependent on a fruit tree, for what god needs a tree to live forever? And they couldn’t “know good and bad” in the comfort and safety of their garden; so God put them out of it and barred the way to the tree of life, allowing them to experience life fully independent from God, and to discover the heights and depths of good and bad for themselves.
At the same time, he also showed compassion for them by clothing them with animal skin. And maybe there is also a deeper symbolic gesture here. They were made in God’s image, but their path now would perhaps inevitably lead to their offspring acting more like animals than gods.
I suggest that this story, regardless of whether we read it literally or allegorically, reflects the first part of God’s plan for humans. They wanted to know good and bad, and so God granted them what they wanted. But in order to know these things, they couldn’t be shielded from the negative consequences of their own actions, so God had to take a step back and allow them to go their own way for a time.
This would even have to extend to nature itself. If God created the Earth, then perhaps it needed a certain degree of maintenance on his part, and also on the part of humans. If Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, then as gods, they would have to shoulder the responsibility for its maintenance, and couldn’t expect God to shield them from natural disasters which might occur, now that humans felt they could do God’s job for him.
But a question we could rightly ask is, why should the offspring suffer just because of a potentially poor decision on the part of the parents? If we are their offspring, as the account implies, why should we suffer because of what they did?
In a sense, all humans are in a similar situation to Adam and Eve. We also have to learn and choose between good and bad. Therefore, I would suggest that God has chosen to give all humans the ability and opportunity to know good and bad for themselves.
In other words, he granted humans the freedom to do what they wanted, at least for a time. They became independent from him, even though he was their source of life. They were barred from the tree of life, and so became subject to death. Thus, according to the story, death is natural in the sense that it is the common experience of all creatures, but it was not God’s original purpose for humans.
1 Genesis 2:9. 2 Genesis 2:16,17. 3 Genesis 3:1. 4 Genesis 3:2,3. 5 Genesis 3:4,5. 6 Numbers 22:28. 7 Genesis 2:17; 3:4. 8 Genesis 3:1. 9 Genesis 3:19. 10 Genesis 3:16. 11 Genesis 3:14. 12 Genesis 3:15. 13 Genesis 3:20.