The Boundary of Meaning.

The way we interpret the Genesis origin stories often begins with the question: What went wrong? Life is not always what we would like it to be, and God does not seem to intervene as much as we would like him to and neither does He bother to explain Himself. And so our doctrines of a perfectly loving God is confronted with a world that is less than our standards of perfection. And so the question becomes acute: What went wrong!?

Asking this question determines the meaning we will find in the Genesis stories. One of the assumptions of this question, is that the Genesis narrative is a historic account of what went wrong. And reading it as a historic account greatly reduces the meaning that can be found in it and simultaneously opens a whole lot of problematic questions that would be irrelevant if it was not historical.

Questions such as: If God knew that Adam and Eve would mess up this paradise and consequently all of human history, why did he not come up with a better plan? Why create the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Why make it look so attractive? Why place it in a location that could be found so easily? I mean, God placed a guard protecting the other tree, why not place guards around this disastrous tree? Why allow the serpent to tempt them? How would the humans know that disobeying God was wrong if they had no knowledge of good or evil? And finally, even with all the arguments for free will, how could God set us up for inevitable failure and then punish us for being exactly what he made us to be?

All these questions become irrelevant when we change the initiating question and trying to understand these events as historical.

A Better Question.

A quick survey of both Jewish and Christian commentators shows that there are much better questions to be asked of these Genesis texts. And better questions yields much richer meaning. I’ll only refer to a couple of these scholars to illustrate the point.

When we approach these texts, not with our own pre-determined questions, but explore what motivated the authors to write, a very different picture emerges.

In fact the imagery of a fall is completely absent from these chapters. Even the event of being expelled from the garden is more of a horizontal image than a vertical one, more suggestive of a birth than a fall. Sin is not mentioned in these stories – for that we’ll have to wait for the first act of violence. And the innocence of Adam and Eve is not portrayed as a blissful state of perfection, but rather as a naive innocence in which nothing interesting happens.

Such observations have led many scholars to believe that the underlying question to these stories is: What makes us human? And this question opens up a much broader field of meaning. No longer is the text confined to historic events. This story might just be every person’s story of emerging out of a naive childlike innocence into a state of being fully human, with all its complexities.

Of what relevance is it that this human was created in the likeness and image of God (Gen 1:26,27), if we cannot identify with this human? The earthling (ha-adam) has no parents and no history. The complexity of relationship has not yet become part of ha-adam’s reality in his initial state. There is no passion, no desire, no psychological movement … only a naive innocence.

These stories are therefore designed in such a way as to illuminate the processes and qualities that makes us uniquely human. Some Midrashtic commentators provocatively suggest that it is precisely the human that emerges after the event of partaking of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that is like God (3:22).

This overview is not meant to give a detailed argument from the text itself, for that I have included references to books – excellent resources if you are interested in understanding these texts more deeply.

But for the purposes of giving an overview of these alternative readings, let me give just a couple of textual examples:

Language and Relationship.

Many of the thoughts in the following few paragraphs have been inspired by Avivah Zornberg’s book: The Murmuring Deep

And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. Genesis 2:18, 19

Up to this stage Adam is alone. A state described as not good. God determines to make ‘a helper comparable to Adam. The phrase ‘helper comparable to’ is a very interesting construct in Hebrew. It speaks of a helper contrary or against – a mirror reflection, equal but opposite.

Such a contrary helper is first sought amongst the animals, but none is found. Remember, Adam is in the process of becoming human and we are following the drama of that development. His control of language is now on display. In the process of naming the animals, he experiences the profound power of his consciousness giving meaning to the reality around him. He is the master of his world and the master of language. But there is still something missing – something not good about it. Maybe this state of naive innocence and mastery over all can easily slip into isolating delusions of grandeur… if there is no relationship with an other.

And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.

And Adam said:

“This is now bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh;

She shall be called Woman,

Because she was taken out of Man.” (2:21-23)

Just as God brought the animals to Adam, He now brings the woman. But in contrast to his effortless naming of the animals, he now seems to be unable to simply name her. Instead of the sober control with which he previously spoke, he finds himself in a dreamlike state in the presence of this other who confounds his language. It is no longer the power of his intellect or his control over language that is on display, but an experience that draws him beyond himself and causes his language to become poetic. If we relate this to the development of language in children, we see a remarkable similarity. The first words are those with which to identify or name others: “mama, dada, dog, ball”. But it is when the child first attempts to describe a relationship and the emotions present in relationship that we find the most comic sayings. The complexity of relationship confounds language… but also draws it into a higher plane.

This one, this one time, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. And as if he is unable to name her now, he simply speaks about a future event in which she shall be named. She would in fact only be named later, after partaking of the knowledge of good and evil.

These are the first recorded words of Adam. They reveal something that is truly unique about human consciousness – the ability to recognize ourselves in another. Being human cannot happen in isolation, rather, it is the unique experience of being-in-love that constitutes the being of mankind.

“…and they shall become one flesh. And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (2:24,25)

Consciousness becomes more complex as desire intensifies and diversifies. Yet the statement that they were both naked and were not ashamed also implies a childlike ‘unself-consciousness’. At this point in the story human consciousness has not yet developed to the place where we recognize it as our own, for it is not yet self-conscious. There is no psychological movement yet, no desire. They are indifferent to their differences and consequently nothing interesting happens! The full scope of desire, including the intensity of both love and hate has not been experienced yet. This naive innocence also has no trace of the complexities of sub-consciousness. These developments are further explored in Genesis 3.

When we ask new questions of the text a whole new world of meaning unfolds. Now that in itself might not persuade you to think differently of human origins … neither did it persuade me. However, re-reading scripture beyond the assumptions I was taught, and discovering the depth of scholarly exploration of these texts, were most definitely an important influence. I did not have to reject scripture to come to new conclusion, it was actually my love for these ancient texts that was partly responsible for inverting my thinking.

We have hardly touched on the implications. What does it mean for my story if there was no perfect beginning? Does this change the context of your story? Would your structure of interpretation with which you give meaning to your life-events be different if there was no original design? There are so many more questions, but first I want to explore a few more influences that changed my perspectives. After that we’ll begin exploring the implications of a whole new context to our own stories.


Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman

Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible by Karel van der Toorn 

The Murmuring Deep by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

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