Rise and Fall of the Human Empire
Christians set a lot of store by the opening chapters of Genesis, and they’re the basis for various doctrines, especially original sin. I don’t think it will surprise you to discover that I don’t hold to a literal interpretation of the garden of Eden, but I do find a lot of good stuff in the story anyway.
The most important question in approaching Genesis is what form of story it is. Fundamentalists treat it as history, even though one of the central characters is a talking snake. Others reject that idea for obvious reasons, generally treating it as a story, albeit one with a message – a parable, or a myth. In my experience, most call it a myth, but treat it as a parable, i.e. an illustrative story with an intended conclusion, or prescriptive subtext. Hence doctrines such as human dominion, male headship, creationism and of course the Fall of Man. That’s a shame, because I think it’s a very interesting creation and profound creation myth when properly handled.
I don’t think God was responsible for dictating the contents of Genesis, or any other part of the Bible (no surprise there), but that doesn’t mean it can’t convey a huge amount of truth. It still had an author (or more likely authors) who had reasons for writing it all down – the story meant something to them. It means something to me, too. Whether it’s what the story meant to the author(s) is another matter (although I think it’s pretty close), but as I don’t regard it as a story with a defined subtext or a clear right and wrong answer, I don’t think it matters if I draw a lesson from the story that’s different from what the author(s) originally intended.
So far, I’ve been referring to authors, but actually, I think that’s a very anachronistic term to use. This is a story that probably developed orally, with different people embellishing it as they went on. It’s the sort of story that would have been told around campfires for generation after generation, forming part of the glue that bound the ancient Hebrews together as a people. In that respect, maybe it doesn’t really matter whether it meant anything, but stories don’t tend to survive and persist for this long without containing something that speaks to us.
The story of creation seems to speak of a sense that the world suits us well, with plentiful food and shelter, but it’s the story of the Fall that really interests me. I should say that there are a lot of details that have no bearing on my understanding. This may mean that they exist to add colour to the story, or it may be that I’m guilty of picking and choosing, or too much in love with my theory. I don’t discount that as a possibility – we can all get things very wrong, and no one can know for sure – but I think it fits quite well.
The story speaks of a sense that the world is, in some way, not as it should be – I think we can all relate to that. To me, the key indication is the name of the tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It seems to me that this is a story of self-awareness. The problem isn’t that some kind of sin was committed to condemn the whole of humanity to a life of pain and suffering. It’s that we became intelligent enough to be introspective and to develop empathy. We evolved sufficiently to become aware that our prey and our competitors were living creatures like us. Suddenly, our position as a dominant species took on a different complexion. We realised that our survival depended on the suffering and death of other people and animals.
These days, even if you live on a vegan diet, your existence is dependent on the exploitation of the Earth’s finite resources. If you’re reading this, the odds are that you’re one of the lucky few using more than your share of those resources. However idealistic we are, our existence remains riddled with competition and exploitation. I suspect we also have a certain amount of evolutionary baggage – any of our ancestors who survived to breed will have needed to be competitive, and our brains contain various evolutionary artifacts that probably aided our survival at one time but now conspire to mislead us.
So the story is about a sort of awakening. Once upon a time, we were innocent of the effects of our actions. Then once we reached a certain point of self-awareness, that innocence was lost. We were aware of our failings, and had enough empathy to realise what effect they had on others, but we’re trapped. Our survival, both individually and as a species, still depends on being successful at exploiting others, and monopolising the planet’s resources for our own ends. Our development of self-awareness was a huge leap forward, but in a sense, it was also a terrible burden.
So much for theorising. Obviously, I don’t think the story would have been discussed in these terms, and I don’t think there was a conscious understanding of the story as I’ve outlined it here, but maybe there was just a vague sense of something gained, but also something lost, that made the story so important that people ended up writing it down. Or maybe not – it’s just a guess, and I’m not sure if there’s a right answer at all. But compared to the belief that there was a literal talking snake, I don’t think it’s completely ridiculous.