During my junior year of undergrad studies my counselor talked me into taking a class titled, “Good vs. Evil”. Katie said I would love it as the class combined literature and critical thinking in order to better understand that what we think of as evil is not always the case. Our professor chose to use three takes on the Faust legend as our focal point. Having never been exposed to Faust, I was thrilled at the chance to study his story in detail.
The good professor started us off using few short stories, only one of which I can remember. To be honest, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed studying the works of Marlow, Goethe and Mann, the promise of a better understanding of what we think of evil fell short of my expectations; we really never did get into the subject, but we really got into Faust’s head!
The class has stuck with me, not because of what we learned, but because of what it could have been. Our professor started us out with a biblical tale and asked us if Satan was really acting evil. What struck me odd about this story (we will get to it in a moment) was the fact that Satan wasn’t even involved (even though some churches insist he was). As I read the story, a different question came to my mind, one that was better suited to the class premise: (see down below) As I sat and stared at the story another question came to mind, again one that was better suited to the premise: What the heck was God thinking? Why did he do what he did?
I posed this question today on Twitter. I did not expect much of a response. It was one of those brain droppings we all have from time to time. But not surprisingly, a core group of my Twitter friends, ones who are always ready to discuss big topics, came thru and attempted to answer the question. These guys are some of the smartest people I have had the pleasure of coming across. Not satisfied to just answer my question, each wanted to talk about the symbolism and history of the story. As much as I love them for it, I really just wanted to discuss the literal question. I just wanted a few people to sit back and wonder, “Yeah, why did he do that?” but I had such a good time reading the responses and letting the question take my friends in a whole different direction, I thought I would pose it here.
With that in mind, here is the story. The questions will be posted below.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”
4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
11 And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
12 The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
14 So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
16 To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.1It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
21 The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. 22 And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
Who is the real asshole in this story?
Why did God create and place a tree in the garden if he did not want Adam to take from it? What purpose did it serve? If you ask me, he set Adam up to fall, but why?
When people ask me what I want to teach, my first answer is always “Shakespeare as literature” but I also want to teach a class on good vs. evil. To quote the rock group Alice in Chains, “What you think you may know, what you think you’ve learned”. This will be the first story we talk about.
13 thoughts on “What was he thinking?”
Sorry to have been complicit in hijacking your train of thought, but I agree, those gentlemen have powerful intellects.
It strikes me, after thinking about it, that the story is a sort of reverse engineered plot, given for the expressed purpose of explaining original sin, after the fact. Original sin is a linchpin in the foundation of monotheistic mythology, and it seems convenient that this nonsensical story should explain it so well, but defy common sense in doing so.
Notice I did not say two smart guys and Martin. You are right there with them my friend!
Yes, the story goes a long way to explain a few things. Some feel this explains why man is separated from God and that the answer to why are we here, is to get back in God’s good grace. For others is it a metaphor for how we went from hunter gatherers to an agrarian society.
But, let’s talk about Justin’s idea of free will. If God made man and temptation because he was tired of yes men, why did he punish Adam and Eve so severely for expressing free will?
There’s nothing inherently contradictory about God setting humans up to fail. Respect and love in the Old Testament are largely one way relationships. God, by the time of Adam and Eve had already created a host of beings who worshiped him without free will in the choirs of angels. Humans, then, were something of an experiment.
Did he set them up to fail? Not entirely. The serpent tempted Eve into eating the apple but he didn’t compel her. Did God give Adam and Eve the tools to fail? Yes. Did he give them a situation in which failure was an option? Yes. Was that failure inevitable? No. Adam and Eve still had agency and acted of their own accord.
As far as why does the tree exist? The easiest answer would be that he created it before he created Adam and Eve. He could have removed it, but that was more difficult than saying they would die if they ate from it. So he went with the easier option.
Is this an incredibly favorable portrayal of God? I would argue no. It’s far from the worst portrayal, which I would argue comes about in Job, but it’s certainly not glowing.
Great answer! But I still think the tree had no business in the garden with Adam and Eve. For a being who created the universe with just a word, removing one tree should have just taken a mere whisper of a vowel.
Sure, but God isn’t really ever depicted as a “saving the lambs from the wolves” kind of deity. He’s much more a sink or swim figure. He’s often capricious, always jealous, incredibly vengeful and short tempered. That’s why you more often hear about “fearing” God than “loving” God in the old testament.
In one of my theology classes our professor asked us why we thought God went from a vengeful god of the OT to a loving god of the NT. I said, “cause he finally got laid”. My professor laughed so hard, he said I earned an A just for that comment.
The omnipotent deity knew, from the outset, exactly how it was going to play out before he did it. Which means the tree was there for the sole purpose of enabling original sin. All is according to His plan. The serpent was his servant, and did as it was meant to.
No part of this reflects on the failings of man (except for that it came from our imaginations), and says that God intended for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree, fall from grace, be cast out and become impure and in need of salvation. Which, conveniently enough, can be had for the low price of service to the church for your entire life.
Nice! But now you have a new picture in my head. The faithful signing up to “serve the church”, all the while Satan, dressed as a preacher, laughing as they sign on the dotted line.
If we look at this episode as creative writers and not as news reporters, we can see the authors trying — unsuccessfully in my view — to reconcile themes.
The first is that of the vindictive authoritarian parent. “I told you not to touch the fire anf now you’ve burnt youself. You’ve only yourself to blame.”
The second is the Just So story. Why does the poisonous snake crawl on its belly, O Best Beloved?
A third is the Selfish Giant motif. Here is the paradisal walled garden of eastern tradition — no hoi polloi allowed. Wilde’s take was to hope that the Jealous God of the OT would come to realise that unless you share things that give you pleasure you’re likely to die. All alone.
The Genesis authors were MCPs. They had the same mentality that has bequeathed us the horrors of FGM, burkhas, the wicked charge of adultery for women following gang rape, and guilt-free paradises full of dark-eyed houris for suicide bombers giving witness to their love for Allah by killing and maiming His creations.
By such twisted logic is the story of the expulsion from Eden constructed. It’s not about a loving God giving us free will, it’s about power and control and abuse. It’s not philosophy, though the issues are crucial to our attempts to understand the human condition — much too important to be sidetracked by a simplistic fairytale.
And I couldn’t say all that in a tweet.
Thank you Chris for jumping in and adding such a thoughtful response. Your line “its about power and control and abuse” got me thinking beyond the original question. If we view this a literature (which is how the writers may have intended it to be) we could look at this story as a piece of the puzzle. If this is how God treats his beloved creations, what is to say he does not do the same to his army of angles? Perhaps this story is part of a larger one and may answer as to why some of his followers chose to break from him. He seems very vindictive; perhaps they just had enough of his abuse?
And, yes, it is the God from Monty Python. I thought I would lighten the mood a bit.
PS Is that Monty Python’s God? Nice counterpoint to Michaelangelo…
Well, the classic explanation, of course, is that God gave people free will, and they screwed up. But if they’d not been given free will, then they’d be no better than the beasts of the field, far below the divinity of angels, let alone God. One of the unfortunate consequences of this belief is the corollary, that mankind is wasting his time when he pursues goals apart from God, and that includes the pursuit of knowledge. The sci-fi writer James Blish (1921 – 1975) incorporated this theme into his trilogy “After Such Knowledge” (which is actually four volumes, one historical fiction, one sci-fi, two fantasy novels that were closely linked). It makes for an interesting treatment, a man committed to understanding science trying to place its role in a Christian universe.
On the other hand, as you have, some have stood this story on its head. Why should God keep knowledge and wisdom from people? What meaning is there to being good, which presumably Adam and Eve were before they ate of the tree, if they have no idea of what it would mean to be evil? Are they just nothing more than dumb beasts?
In fact, there’s a contradiction in the story. How could Adam and Eve know whether it was right or wrong to disobey God, UNLESS THEY ALREADY HAD KNOWLEDGE OF GOOD AND EVIL, even if only at the level of knowing God is good? So when they ate of the tree, far from learning about good and evil, they leaned instead that, at least according to God, their moral judgment was defective. AND, they also learned to judge for themselves. Downfall, or salvation of humans as a thinking species?
Thanks for weighing in Brian,
Interesting take on the story. I assumed because God told them not to eat from it, they has some rudimentary idea about right from wrong Isn’t this how we learn to obey our parents? They tell us not to do something, we do it, and then get punished.
But yes, I agree they learned to judge for themselves, and in a way learned they could live without God’s guidance. So really, by banishing them God only hurt himself.
This is something they do not hit on in Sunday school!