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What Did God NOT Want Adam and Eve to Know? October 29, 2011

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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At a new (or newish) web site called Quora, someone asked, “What precisely was the knowledge that God didn’t want Adam & Eve to have? It must have been very threatening to God, considering his reaction,” and, flatteringly, asked me to answer it. My answer at Quora, which is mostly similar to what you’ll read below, can be found here.

Myths fall into broad categories, one of which is called etiological: how things came to be the way they are. Where did those vaguely anthropomorphic salt formations in the desert come from, for example — why, it MUST be Lot’s wife and her friends.

The Bible’s second creation myth answers such questions as, why are women the only females who suffer labor pains? (Gen. 3:16) Why are human men practically the only males who DON’T have bones in their penises? (Gen. 2:21) Why do most men consider their gender superior? Why should children and innocents obey authority even when they don’t understand WHY? Why does adulthood require the end of the innocence that we find so charming in four-year-olds? Why do human beings have moral autonomy, when clearly most of us are so bad at it? Why do I so often feel alienated, alone, ashamed?

Remember, myths are NOT fiction. They are complex, originally sacred stories that present sophisticated theology in a form that even children, fools, ignoramuses, and fundamentalists can understand. The sacred (to Republicans) story that culminates with “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” is similar myth-making, combined with a healthy dose of hagiography.

Notice that the first few chapters of Genesis portray the theory of Bronze Age nomads about how sin, evil, and death came into the world, in ever-cascading ripples, from simple disobedience through more serious crimes and general “wickedness,” until God finally decides to just wipe out all life on Earth and start over.

Notice also that our Bronze Age ancestors may not have known as many “science facts” about the world as we do (I miss Mystery Science Theater 3000!), but they were just as smart as we are, or 99.9999% as smart. They may not have had a legal system that had evolved to include the term “attractive nuisance,” but they knew perfectly well what an attractive nuisance is: property that is inherently dangerous but enticing to children, like a backyard swimming pool. There was no law that required God to plant the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden; and even if some super-God HAD required God to plant the TKGE, there was no law saying that God couldn’t fence it off, literally or metaphorically — for example, by making it ugly, stinky, poisonous-looking. There was only one reason for God to make the TKGE beautiful, nourishing, and desirable for the wisdom and godlike-ness it would impart: God wanted the woman and the man to disobey.

There is an old folk story about a single mother who had to go out to work and leave her children with no babysitter. She worried: what if they ran with scissors, accepted candy from strangers, played with fire? So she told her children that they could do whatever they wanted, but under no circumstances were they to drag the heavy ladder into the house, break into the top shelf of the locked cupboard, and stuff the beans they would find there up their noses. You can guess what happened: she came home to a house full of crying children with beans up their noses — not one of whom had played in traffic or killed his sister. Don’t you think that Genesis 2:17, the literal Hebrew for which is “in the day that you shall eat of [the fruit of the TKGE], dying you shall die,” is a lot like “do NOT put beans up your noses, or I’ll kill you”?

Another detail about Genesis 2:17: At this point in our story, there was no death. So “dying you shall die” was, to the first human being, ha’adam, like saying “blorping you shall blorp” or “gazordnik you shall gazord.” Gibberish, meaningless. You can practically hear the first human think, “I’ll wazinklewitz, hunh? Ooooh, scary . . . NOT!”

I have written before about the scholarly theory that the second creation myth is a “takeover” of a much older myth in which the Great Goddess, whose symbols were trees and serpents, blessed humanity with moral awareness. Paraphrasing (very, VERY loosely!) one of the poems the first known poet, Enheduanna, wrote to the Sumerian goddess Inanna: “Women, I give you the gift of desire. You will be desired by your lover and you will desire him in return” — very unusual in the animal world. “You shall be life-givers, and your creation shall be great, your bearing of children hard work, for new life is a well-won achievement. Men, I charge the Earth to provide for you; but your making of bread will be hard work, the food that you eat a well-won achievement.” If this theory has merit, that makes the point of the myth that people value their treasures according to how hard they had to work to attain them. I find it plausible that $100 means a lot more to a welfare mother than it does to Paris Hilton, and that war hero Sgt. Shamar Thomas values his freedom more than does Rush Limbaugh, who never served his country for even one day in his life.

If you’ve studied ethics, you know that a moral problem arises only when there is a conflict between what we ought to do and what we want to do. The Bronze Age nomads who told the second creation myth around their campfires for hundreds or thousands of years before it was written down (around 950 BCE) appear to have felt that the most fundamental ethical dilemma comes between obeying God unquestioningly and deciding, on the basis of way too few facts, that one is smarter than God is.

So the answer to your question is, there is NO knowledge that God doesn’t want humanity to have, or God would not have put the TKGE in the Garden in the first place. God wanted humanity to eat the fruit NOT “so that he could evict them from the Garden and place the curse of original sin on humanity in perpetuity,” but so that the first woman and the first man could understand from personal experience that moral awareness is a blessing and that if a blessing is handed to you on a silver platter, it can never be your well-won achievement.

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