The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (1)

Adam and Eve (detail). Crabeth

On Fridays, I’ll be doing a series for several weeks on one of the books I received for Christmas, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.

This book takes a different tack on the Adam and Eve story than other things we’ve looked at in the past.

I’ve usually been most focused on those who specialize in biblical studies, whose work is invested in analyzing and understanding the text itself.

However, Greenblatt wants to explore this saga from a different angle: he is interested in understanding how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”

And one thing that attracts him to this tale is the fact that, as a literary scholar, he thinks an unprejudiced and plain reading leads to the conclusion that the account is “fiction at its most fictional, a story that revels in the delights of make-believe,” yet, still today, so many people accept it as “unvarnished truth” of the historical origins of the universe and the human race.

For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.

Greenblatt notes that ancient rabbis read the story to understand God’s intentions in creating humans and why we are here. On the other hand, Christians have seen in it the story of humankind’s fall into sinfulness and the resulting consequences, undone by the work of the new Adam, Jesus Christ, whose work was designed to restore Paradise to the faithful. Muslims have seen Adam as the original prophet of God, who after his sin became the first teacher and caretaker of the world. Adam’s wrongdoing was an error, not an “original sin” with effects passed down to his posterity. The story is, in their view, a warning to the faithful to resist the Satan.

Stephen Greenblatt goes further, remarking upon how, throughout the development of Western civilization ascetics, physicians, linguists, natural scientists, and philosophers have read this story to speculate on how it speaks to their particular disciplines and practices. Artists, of course, capitalized on this text to depict nature and the human body. Above all, ordinary people have seen themselves in this story in a variety of ways.

The story of Adam and Eve speaks to all of us. It addresses who we are, where we came from, why we love and why we suffer. Its vast reach seems part of its design. Though it serves as one of the foundation stones of three great world faiths, it precedes, or claims to precede any particular religion. It captures the strange way our species treats work, sex, and death — features of existence that we share with every other animal — as objects of speculation, as if they were contingent on something we have done, as if it could all have been otherwise.

• • •


  • What has been your experience with the story of Adam and Eve (the first three chapters of Genesis)?
  • In what ways has this story spoken to you?

19 thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (1)

  1. Bit late here, but I’d add a PS to this, which is that one reading of these chapters is that for the post-exile editors, this was Part 1 of the repeated story of man breaking covenants with God. Adam is proto-Israel, and the garden of Eden is proto-Canaan (land of milk and honey). By this reading, the expulsion might not be punishment, but it does look like consequence.

    Interestingly Jordan B. Peterson, in his series Maps of Meaning, has a sort of metaphorical-literal interpretation which is fairly close to yours: for him the knowledge of good and evil is the birth of self conciousness. In that sense, the ‘expulsion’ was, as you say, existential – you can’t go back to the carefree days of not knowing you’re going to die. He also links this in to the snake (as a symbol of our awareness of danger/mortality) and the fruit (I can’t quite remember what he says about that for the moment, sorry!).


  2. I think the story, like many ‘religious’ stories, is true in its essence because it springs from the soul. We may think of learning the story and mirroring it in various behaviors but it is equally a mirror itself into our inclinations and as such is legitimized as a ‘true’ confession of sorts. It’s truth is its power to transform us by identifying us with the themes of Edenic bliss, loving union, responsibility, fallibility, suffering, the physical/spiritual divide, shame, redemption and so forth. In touching empirical continuing realities it is true and living in a substantially different way than The Three Pigs. In itself it may not be historically empirical but pure fantasy it is not. Because it is inspirational language it comes from and brings us back to the soul, not really concerning itself with time and space because it is everywhere all the time. It is wholly different than an episode of General Hospital or a Ludlum novel. It is something other than that. Do I believe in Adam and Eve? How can I not?


  3. The primordial story we find at the beginning of Genesis has always struck me as an ending more than a beginning, even from my earliest encounter with it in The Bible Story. I don’t know why but there is this tremendous weight of things not-said, about why the earth was tohu v’bohu, or why the gold of that land was good.

    It was the same feeling I felt twelve or so years later when I first encountered Achilles sulking in his tent about Briseies. I was coming in mid-story.


  4. I know. It has been a loooooong journey, and the external part of it isn’t over, but internally I am very secure in where I stand before God. The church makes that challenging on occasion, but also pushes me back to repentance for the things I should be repenting for, and those are multitudinous enough. *laughs*

    Just can’t deny the long term effects, y’know?


  5. I blame Eve for everything. I eat many things I do not want to because my wife tells me it is good for me . Some things never change. I think the Brussels sprout was made to punish man.
    I have thought that that is why Lilith was Frasier’s wife name on Cheers and Frazier.

    I have never eaten from the tree of knowledge and have proved it.
    Thanks Eve u should have known, snakes have no ears. They do not listen


  6. Tokah, you deserve some peace and, as a human person, you deserve to be happy. Same as my best friend’s daughter who is very dear to me. . . . .

    honestly, sometimes I think the REAL show is the fundamentalists being hateful and then saying those horrible words ‘truth in love’ to excuse their extreme hatefulness and then they get angry at anyone who would dare to call them hateful

    God watches them, Tokah. He sees them.


  7. I have made my peace with the Adam and Eve story by seeing it as a coming-of-age tale, a separation of humans from the innocence of the rest of nature. Adam and Eve share in the nature of the animals around them, at first, then, at the point represented by the snake and the fruit,, they come to see themselves differently, as recognizably human, with feelings and actions that the animals do not share. God’s sending them out of Eden, it seems to me, is a moment of recognizing their maturity–their loss of the simpler nature of animals, and their need for space and time to fulfill their ambitions as thinking, complex people.

    I do not believe in original sin, so I do not see the couple’s expulsion from Eden as punishment. Instead I see it as human beings, no longer like other animals, but fully human, taking their place in the world as it is–often a harsh, painful place, in which bad things happen all too often. The recognition that we cannot go back to Eden–a magical place that required nothing but obeying our natures to make us happy—may be as painful to us today as to the original storytellers; everybody longs for paradise.


  8. How God chose to unveil the existence of hell, in the inerrancy/progressive revelation paradigm, is like discovering that someone you’ve known your entire life has been secretly keeping people locked up in his basement.

    But you’re glad it’s not you.


  9. Both/And. Not Either/Or.

    Maybe. Progressive revelation is a bandaid for those who don’t like to think God kept people ignorant and wrong for many centuries. Really challenges that idea of eternal truth.

    See also: the concept of hell. God saw fit for millennia to not even mention it or let his people discover it. Yet somehow, Jesus mentions it three times, a dude tripping in exile mentions something a few times, and lo and behold, hell has always existed since the creation of the world…somehow.



  10. It is the first step out of polytheism and tribal gods towards monotheism – at the same time it is not wrong to also call it the revenge fantasy of backwater population.

    It really does feel like a much later addition to the book/canon, doesn’t it.

    Noah’s story was definitely a lot of revenge fantasy at the end…same with Abraham. It’s a recurring theme.


  11. Well, the first words that come to mind after them are, ‘not Adam and Steve’, and I think that sums up my answer pretty well. I came of age during the height of the culture wars in my local region. Adam and Eve in particular and the Genesis creation account in general were the volleyballs being punted around.

    Any actual meaning to the text is tainted by the deep trauma of those years, and I generally just don’t do much with it as a result. I know I’m not coming at it from a fair perspective, and given that even the ancients didn’t take it literally, I am willing to let it just be.


  12. I read the story and see some real, human responses that I recognize in myself and those around me. I read about Eve, and think about all the times I contemplated something, rolling it around in my hand and in my mind, and then taking a bite when I knew better.


  13. What has been my experience with Adam and Eve?

    Like most, when I went to church as a kid (rarely), it was more cartoon-y, like most OT stories are told to kids. (Noah, Jonah, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, etc.) Upon becoming born-again, became more cautionary and driven in as literal.

    In what ways has it spoken to me?

    Nowadays, I view it less literally and more symbolically and metaphorically. It speaks to why there’s so much wrong in the world (we are easily tempted by whatever it is that tempts us) and speaks to the breakdown in relationship between us and God, and between men and women (anyone who’s taken a class or done a seminar in the difference between the genders sees some classic stuff portrayed in the Adam and Eve story).


  14. “ancient rabbis read the story to understand God’s intentions in creating humans and why we are here. On the other hand, Christians have seen in it the story of humankind’s fall into sinfulness and the resulting consequences.”

    Both/And. Not Either/Or.


  15. > What has been your experience with the story of Adam and Eve

    In my own tribe A&E was principally a cautionary tale; one of humanities inability to hold to anything, even the simplest rule.

    During my Evangelical days it was mostly an annoying frustration. It never seemed like a ‘proper’ Creation story, not like some insisted it was. On top of that the hyper-retcon some theologians insist on applying to every noun and verb of the old testament strains credibility – making even clothing a christological metaphor [the same forced weirdo interpretations they crudely bolt onto pop-culture movies]. A&E was a conversation/topic I tried to avoid, in the same category as Revelation.

    I am very much at peace with A&E now, in post-evangelicalism, having had the opportunity to see it with the help of actual historians and much more serious theologians. It is a sociopolitical work, one could even call it a propaganda piece. It is the first step out of polytheism and tribal gods towards monotheism – at the same time it is not wrong to also call it the revenge fantasy of backwater population.

    > In what ways has this story spoken to you?

    I don’t know. I’ve personally felt much more meaning in the subsequent tale of Cain & Abel [the odd curse|blessing God places on the criminal] than I have in A&E. A&E reads to me as very impersonal, it is a story that leaves out so [very!] much, it can barely be bothered with its characters; they remain undeveloped archetypes/symbols [of course, that might be why so many people can run in so many directions with it]


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