In The Beginning
In the beginning, we read, God created heaven and earth, and shortly thereafter, men and women. However, what is presented as an idyllic start is short-lived: Adam and Eve are rapidly shown the red card after an infringement against which they had been specifically warned. Their punishment, we are told, has consequences not just for themselves but for all succeeding generations of mankind.
In Rudyard Kipling's memorable book The Just So Stories, we read beguiling tales of how the leopard got his spots, how the rhinoceros got his skin, and about the elephant child whose short, boot-like nose was stretched to the proportions we know so well today by an encounter with a crocodile on the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever trees. While each of these stories contains a particular truth - the elephants that we see around us today do indeed have long noses, the leopards are wonderfully spotted, the rhinoceroses curiously armour-plated in their great folds of skin - none of these stories is presented as history. What Kipling has done is to take processes that did occur but only over thousands, perhaps millions of years, and compress them into charming stories lasting no more than a few days - one lifetime at most - in order to make the particular truths mentioned above vivid, memorable and delightful.
The Greeks did the same thing on subjects such as the variation of the seasons (the story of Ceres and Proserpina), the propensity (according to Sigmund Freud) of males to entertain feelings of jealousy towards their fathers over the focus of their mothers' affections (the Oedipus plays of Sophocles), and many more. Here again, deep truths are captured in vivid, compelling stories but without any question of their being thought of as history.
The Garden of Eden story in the Bible is exactly such a story. Its literary form is almost exactly that of a Just So story. Most importantly, it compresses into a brief timespan a process that in reality must have taken thousands of years, namely, the emergence of moral sensibility as ape evolved into homo sapiens. What we see is mankind making a moral choice – cast symbolically, metaphorically, as eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (a tree that does not actually exist as an arboreal reality). The key thing is that it encapsulates a singular truth, namely, that mankind is a moral being and that we're really good at making bad choices. (see footnote on mythology)
There is a further aspect to this story that is worth commenting on. Reading the Biblical account of Adam and Eve's transgression in the Garden of Eden rather gives the impression that the whole debacle took God by surprise and that it was an unexpected failure in the Creation that He had only just finished and found to be 'very good'. In the next section I'd like to think about that.Top