Our Torah calls it Gan Eden, a pleasure garden. God creates the human being, gives his creation breath, and plants trees of knowledge and life. Seven verses later, in Genesis 2:16, the Lord God commands his creation: Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If you do, you will die. In that moment.
The Hebrew is straightforward. Despite centuries of midrashim, the text is not ambiguous. This is not Psalm 90, where a day equals a millennia for God. Nor did our ancient writer know of a “soul” the way we do. It would be mere retrojection on our parts to claim that God intended a “spiritual” rather than physical death.
This command, at least, seems straightforward stuff, complete with intensified verbal constructions: Eat, and your life is over. Right then. On that day.
Paradise, such as it was, lasts all of ten verses.
The idyll was over the moment God issued the threat. In an idyll, a paradise, no one holds your feet to the fire; no one hangs a Damocles sword above your head. The first human must have felt that something was wrong; why would the Lord God plant a tree and then refuse creation its fruit with neither explanation nor justification? God is manipulative? Or perhaps God has trust issues, and tests those Godself would like most to love.
The serpent is the only one who tells the truth. God, he explains, is a little anxious about the powers of his own creation. Adam and Eve are supposed to be mere willing workers, tending God’s garden. If they acquire divine-like knowledge, they will encroach on God’s territory.
For the other characters in this particular story, truth is at a premium. God appears to fib, Adam is not above foisting the blame on his wife, and Eve joins in on the blame game.
God sends humanity into the world with nothing but the skins on their backs, knowledge, and fear.
What have they learned in Gan Eden, in the pleasure garden? Eve learns that God will not speak directly with her. Adam learns that he can’t pass the buck. The serpent learns that telling the truth doesn’t win you brownie points. God loses face and the serpent loses his legs.
It is heartrending. Fear and mistrust are in the garden almost as soon as God creates it. Did it all begin when God planted those two, separate trees?
What if just one tree of life and wisdom had been planted there? What if humanity had been encouraged, even told: “Eat from that fruit and learn understanding and compassion. Eat from that fruit and learn that life is sacred and that protecting life is your charge.”
Why did this story win the day when our stories were written down, and, centuries later, made part of our canon?
And I came to the Garden of Righteousness, and I saw beyond those trees many large trees growing there, sweet-smelling, large, very beautiful and glorious and the tree of wisdom from which they eat and know great wisdom. And it is like the carob-tree and its fruit is like the bunches of grapes on a vine, very beautiful, and the smell of this tree spreads and penetrates afar. And, I said, ‘This tree is beautiful. How beautiful and pleasing is its appearance! And the holy angel Raphael, who was with me, answered and said to me, “This is the tree of wisdom from which your old father and your aged mother, who were before you, ate and learnt wisdom and their eyes were opened….
This version of the story comes from Book of Enoch. Our earliest versions of this book are as old as our earliest versions of the Book of Genesis – both were found in the Dead Sea Scroll library at Qumran. The Qumran texts were collected during three centuries before the Common Era, but some scholars believe that the Book of Enoch reflects traditions that are as ancient as the oldest we have in Genesis. If so, the stories to be found therein are, just as authentic as any we tell. For all we know, ancient Israelites might have preferred this version of our Genesis story. Or maybe yet a different one that got lost over time, and didn’t make it into the Qumran community library.
What do we learn from this version of our story? The setting is different: A Garden of Righteousness, not just pleasure. A place where there are many beautiful trees, but one is especially so: The tree of wisdom. Humanity eats from it and, it appears, learns.
Adam and Eve acquired wisdom in the Garden of Righteousness.
That would have been an idyll. Then, or now.