Adam and Eve
How did people relax in primeval ages? What kind of entertainment was on offer? Just as today there were specialists in that industry, men and women were famous for helping their fellows chill out when their day’s work was done. Much of what was on offer is still available to us today, particularly in the realm of story. Our ancestors would gather round the camp fire in the evening and listened to gifted storytellers. These were men and women who answered questions about the beginnings of the world, rehearsed folk memories about a flood encompassing the earth and perhaps most of all told of the first men and women who inhabited our world.
There are stories of how humans were made from clay, baked in ovens- some came out half baked, some seriously underdone and some who were left in too long! It is unlikely that those who listened to these stories believed them to be true, in the sense that we use the word “true”. They were to be enjoyed without digging too deeply into the origins they represented.
This is what makes the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and its following chapters, so different from other and similar stories. No one can tell how old these stories are, but with the aid of our modern linguistics toolkit it is possible to date their writing somewhere in the mid 9th.c. BCE. These stories are true. But to understand how this is so, it is necessary to understand what is meant by truth.
Is the story Jesus told about the Good Samaritan true? Yes, in one sense it is true. Jesus, that master storyteller impressed upon his hearers the truth that everyone potentially is our neighbour. Do you think that if he had spoken the literal truth ,”Listen to me, I want you to know that every time you come upon a person in need, you are to care for him”, his teaching would be remembered? It is doubtful. Most people remember stories.
And so it is with Adam and Eve. Adam (from the Hebrew word for earth) was made by God from the “dust of the ground” no doubt moistened by water. People of the Middle East knew as we know today that after some time, dead bodies are nothing but heaps of dust. As an amusing aside, until the Reformation, one of Canterbury Cathedral’s most treasured relics was a lump of clay left over from the making of Adam! No writer in the 8thc BCE would have made that mistake.
Men and women have similarities as well as differences, so their close relationship was explained by woman being formed from one of Adam’s ribs. Interestingly, she wasn’t formed from the earth. Maybe the account was passed on by a series of feminist storytellers!
The man and woman lived in a beautiful garden called Eden, a park of trees containing mythical trees such as “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil”.
But the men and women who listened to such tales knew that their existence was far from edenic. The dry and dusty lands of Canaan lacked water. Trees were few. So what had happened?
Here perhaps we need to step back and consider what kind of narratives we are dealing with here.. Properly speaking, they are myths. In popular language, “myth” simply means a story that isn’t true, but myth also has a technical meaning. Myth is a truth bearing tale and these stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis fall into the genre of myth. Yet they are different from the myths of surrounding countries. There is one YHWH God- no multiplicity of gods and goddesses. This God makes moral demands on the people he has made. They are made in his image, both of them, so they are to reflect him. They are to take care of the garden he has placed them in. There is no distinction in role or responsibility between the sexes. Both are stewards of the earth, both are morally responsible for its care.
So the story takes a twist, something sinister appears. But note, although the serpent is “crafty”, he is still one of God’s creatures. Again, the story admits of nothing else to share God’s place. Here is no dualism- a principle of good fighting against a principle of evil. God alone is sovereign. However, this trickster the cunning serpent, endowed with the power of speech, sidles up to the woman and suggests that God’s moral demand on the pair might be a ruse to keep them innocent. The serpent suggests that God had forbidden them the fruits of any tree. The woman is quick to correct him and to point out that the forbidden fruit is from the tree in the middle of the garden. The serpent tells her that God’s prohibition is to stop them having knowledge and the rest of the story is as they say history!
Clearly the story is a myth. Talking serpents and trees of the knowledge of good and evil do not exist in our gardens. But we are now “east of Eden” We inhabit a world where men and women flout God’s laws, where the physical world is ravaged by war, where there is inequality between the sexes. (note that it is only after the fall, women become subservient to men) We know that things are not right and the old storytellers knew that too. They continue to tell the tale of Adam’s dysfunctional family, with murder as the next instalment.
Things will be put right. Incredibly a new Adam would appear. This one was also made in the image of God, but he was not part of mythology, but history. Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st c CE Jew came on the scene, living a humble life in an occupied country, where the Romans made it very clear who was in charge. Men and women were still asking the same questions about life. They could dream of an Eden, somewhere where everything is in its right place. They could tell tales of disobedience in the garden leading to expulsion, but this man came with a positive message of the kingdom of God, a return to Eden where God reigns. He was different. He spoke with authority. He spoke as if he were God. And that was his big mistake. He spoke as if he, not the Romans was in charge and so they crucified him. Yet many of his followers claimed that they had seen him, risen from death. Not a ghost, but a man of flesh. And there was the question of his missing body His followers had a simple creed, “Jesus is Lord”- not Caesar, but Jesus. The Romans had not won. It was Jesus who was victorious. Into the world came a new conqueror. Where Adam had failed, Jesus had succeeded. He had lived the perfect life. Adam had long ago turned to dust. The new Adam was alive for evermore. “For as in Adam, all die.” said Paul, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” And so the old story has become the new story.