Genesis 2–3 recounts the famous creation story, dubbed by modern scholars the J account, of the human (adam), his wife, and their interactions with the Israelite deity YHWH god. To summarize: YHWH god forms the man from clay (adamah) and then places him in a garden that contains, apparently, two special trees, among others, one called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the other the tree of life. He then fashions a woman. The humans are commanded by the deity not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (actually, if you read the story carefully, only the man is given this command), although they are free to eat from the other trees in the garden. If they should eat from the forbidden tree’s fruit, however, they will surely die, for reasons left unexplained. However, the wise serpent is also resident in this divine garden sanctuary and he informs the woman that should she eat from the forbidden tree she will not die but become wise like the gods. She eats some of the fruit and gives it to the man, her husband. The serpent, as it turns out, was right–the fruit of said tree does bring divine wisdom. However, YHWH god is none to pleased with the humans’ actions and banishes them from the garden. The text then states that YHWH god put a heavenly guardian to block access to the tree of life so as to prevent the humans from eating of it and living forever.
This fascinating text has elicited numerous interpretations by readers over the centuries. I briefly want to highlight one interpretational possibility, and then I invite your comments and your own personal views on the text.
It is commonly assumed that the man and the woman were created immortal or became so when they resided in the garden. However, the text never states that they are immortal. Indeed, they can certainly die, as YHWH god informs them when he tells the man not to eat from the tree. Additionally, it never says that they ate from the tree of life; in fact, it says just the opposite–YHWH god prevented them from doing so. Further, it is particularly striking that this account, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, connects the failure of humanity to obtain immortality by means of a life-giving plant with the actions of a serpent (serpents shed their skin and thus were considered by some in the ancient world to be a symbol for immortality; cf. the story of Moses raising a serpent image before the Israelites to heal any who should look upon it). This parallel may suggest that the humans, like the mortal hero Gilgamesh, were never supposed to acquire immortality like the gods. Further, the J source is very interested in maintaining strict boundaries between the divine and human worlds (cf. the Tower of Babel story). It might make sense, therefore, that YHWH god doesn’t want them to have immortality via the tree of life, just as he did not want them to be wise by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Indeed, it was commonly understood in the ancient world, including among the ancient Israelites, that a primary difference between humans and gods was mortality versus eternal life. According to Gen 2–3, then, the humans bridged one gap but could not close the other. Finally, we know that these two characters do in fact die later on. For more on this way of looking at the text, see John Day, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel,” in After the Exile, 1996, pgs. 236–237.
Although this story is clearly a myth (in the scholarly sense of the term, not in the popular sense that it is the opposite of what is “true”) and simply cannot be taken as an actual accounting of how God made the cosmos and humanity, I don’t believe that makes it a religiously or spiritually useless text. Many insightful and creative spiritual and theological readings of the text have been produced by scholars, theologians, and religious persons since the text’s composition. 2 Nephi 2 is a particularly good example for the Mormon audience. Of course, there are views in the text that are scientifically, ethically, or historically wrong or incorrect. However, I do think there is value in this text for Mormon theologizing and that it still has more “fruit” to yield in that endeavor if read with new eyes. Hence I am not claiming that any one particular reading of the text is the only “right” one. Indeed, its ability to be read in a multitude of ways is at least one reason, in my opinion, that it is such an engaging and timeless story.
So do you see any benefits from reading the text in this manner? How do you like to read this story, and why?