The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 10: The Garden of Eden

Chapters Two and Three of Genesis present our first parents as quite ordinary people, like ourselves, like Everyman. By no means does the text indicate that they might have been dim-witted creatures barely distinguishable from apes, slouch-shouldered and walking upright only with difficulty, as some evolutionists prefer to think today. We do not suppose that the author is presenting historical individuals named Adam and Eve. He is etiologizing as well as editing traditions - call them myths if you please. He is not recording factual history in the manner a journalist would do for newspaper readers today.

But we do suppose that the author presents mankind in essentially the condition as we existed from the beginning. Therefore the text presents an Adam and Eve as relating to God and to each other as mature persons with needs and with knowledge similar to ours today. There is no hint in these chapters that Adam and Eve were impaired intellectually, or that they were subject to a lingering herd instinct, as though they had recently emerged from animal to human life. Even if we prefer to hold that there is a continuous line of evolution of the human body from animal to man, we find no evidence in Genesis suggesting that our first parents were inferior people. They are presented as completely human, like ourselves. This teaching of the Bible about our first parents is more reliable than that of evolutionists with an axe to grind.

Whether the narration in Genesis 2 and 3 is documentary history as we are accustomed to regard history today, or whether it is etiology clothed in the garb of symbols and mythology, the message remains quite unaffected. In either case there is no real difference in the profound teachings conveyed in the text about God and man, about sin and forgiveness, about an adversary and tempter, and about a future Redeemer.

Chapter 1 recited the creation of man in a literary form suited to theological discourse. Chapters 2 and 3 show rather then tell. They reflect the art of good drama and story telling, more adapted to recital during evenings in shepherds' tents or to rituals of hunter-gatherers, than to academia. In chapter 1 God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." In chapter 2 God gets down close to the ground and soils His hands with the clay as He pats together a human form and then blows life into it.

The Creation of Adam

Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2: 7-9).

The author of Genesis divulges a secret to the readers initially, to which Adam may not be a confidant. The sacred writer tells us explicitly that God made Adam from dust, but leaves us in doubt whether Adam and Eve know that too, or at least whether they attach much significance to their humble beginning.

In Chapter 1 God is busy working every day at creation, but in chapters 2 and 3 He takes time to be with his new human family. The Elohim of chapter 1 becomes Yahweh (I AM WHO AM) Elohim in chapters 2 and 3. The change of names likely indicates that the sacred author was drawing from different sources.

The action in chapters 2 and 3 is lively and captivating, featuring choice vignettes of an anthropomorphic Yahweh Elohim interacting with inexperienced Adam and Eve. Commentators tend to attribute the authorship of chapter 1 to priests, who crafted it in rhythmic and majestic form, who wove into it the great themes of a theological lecture, who clothed Elohim with power and majesty as He presided over the works of creation much as a priest presides in vestments of stiff brocade at the altar. Chapters 2 and 3 picture Jahweh Elohim as closer to us, as One who patties mud into human shape, who knows how to lay out a garden and how to plant trees, who converses with humans in their local dialect, who draws animals from the earth as a magician draws rabbits and pigeons out of a hat, who lulls Adam to sleep while He secretly sculpts one of his ribs into the lovely and shapely form of Eve, who marches Eve to Adam as a proud father escorts his daughter to the bridegroom, who then presides at their wedding. He also strolls with our first parents in the garden during the cool of evening, enjoying Himself in the garden and in their company. He is also a disciplinarian who lays down the rules, and insists on them with tough love. He thoughtfully provides warm clothing for them when sending them out of their comfortable Paradise into the rougher world outside. He points them to the exit gate and clangs the gate shut, while shaking His head at their adolescent antic of attempting to become like God.

Catechists love chapters 2 and 3 in which they can relate to God as to Papa, and can rivet the attention of restless children with the lively drama. The final human redactor of Genesis included both versions of the creation story, the one with the solemn priestly tone in chapter 1, and the other with the lively anthropomorphic art in chapters 2 and 3. He did not attempt to resolve apparent discrepancies. He respected the sources, and preferred that we taste the flavor of both narrations without being distracted by exegetical scruples.

Pope John Paul II observed that the creation account of chapter 1 is theological in nature, whereas chapter 2 has more of a psychological bent. Chapter 2 is also the more ancient account (General Audience Sept. 12, 1979). He continued:

The second chapter of Genesis constitutes, in a certain manner, the most ancient description and record of man's self-knowledge, and together with the third chapter is the first testimony of human conscience. A reflection in depth on this text -- through the whole archaic form of the narrative, which manifests its primitive mythical character -- provides us "in nucleus" with nearly all the elements of the analysis of man, to which modern, and especially contemporary philosophical anthropology is sensitive (General Audience, Sept. 19, 1979).

In a footnote to the above, the Pope quotes P. Ricoeur to describe aspects of the Adamic myth: "The Adamic myth is par excellence the anthropological myth. ... The myth, which finds a motive in the faith of Israel... prepares for speculation in exploring the point where the ontological and the historical part company."

We make a great mistake if we downgrade a myth in our minds as though it were an untruth. The Adamic myth to which the Pope refers in the footnote presents in its own style the true Adam as described by the inspired author. We might think of a myth as a portrait rather than a snapshot photo. Myth can be employed as a very special medium to teach about truths too deep to communicate in prosaic modes of human discourse. Shakespeare's clairvoyant insights into the human heart, Aesop's fables dramatizing human inconsistencies, and Wagner's powerful operas mesmerizing mystic events - none of these match the simple and lofty inspiration by which Genesis 2 and 3 teach us profound truths about divine and human realities.

The literary form of myth, especially when chanted in a sacred setting, can upgrade the mind to contemplate great truths dynamically, being superior in carrying capacity to prose and poetry. The myth is respectful of subtle realities, is careful not to distract us while we contemplate visions where even angels tread quietly. The myth does not shove or yank us about by dramatic artifice; it is gentle, enticing, allows us to keep our senses and stirs them to look into the great world beyond the horizon. It does not attempt to enchant us into an imaginary world like Wagner's operas do. The myth points to profound realities which are mystery, and inspires us to gaze in wonder. The sacred and inspired myth lifts us into the world beyond the ken of the senses, not into a dreamland, but into the skyway of faith. The sacred Adamic myth expands visions not perceptible to the senses, addresses lofty themes about creation, about God, about grace, sin, and forgiveness.

The author uses lively wordplay to dramatize that Adam is not a god but is a creature whom God created. Adama in Hebrew signifies earth, so the author names the man Adam to signify his lowly beginning. He is a human being whose name reminds us that he is an Earthling. The text keeps rubbing it in with repeated usage of that term. Whether the author points to a singular person Adam, who is male, who is the husband of Eve, is not always clear in chapters 2 - 4. Three meanings of Adam surface in the text: 1) Adam is Mankind as such, male and female, humanity without reference to sex differentiation; 2) Adam is an individual male person, husband of Eve. 3) At other times Adam may be an individual representative of mankind, whose nature is indifferent to being male or female. Saint Jerome in his translation of the Bible called the Vulgate rendered the Earthling into an individual male Adam from verse 2:19 onwards, when he sought for a companion among the animals. In the previous verse 18 where the text states: "Then the Lord God said, `It is not good for the man to be alone'" St. Jerome does not yet identify an individual. There the general term for mankind allows the text to point to loneliness of male and female alike, when not married. The author employs ambiguity skillfully, to allow for diverse applications of meaning. He uses encoded language from which believers can draw more than one piece of wisdom. It is in chapter 5, finally, where a real and individual person emerges from the former ambiguities. He is presented as the individual Adam who is father to our race.

For convenience sake, and with a salute to the ladies, we use either the word "Adam" or "man" or "Earthling" here to simplify our sentences. In this we follow the lead of the Genesis author, who equates both man and woman as one humanity. Christ does the same in the Apocalypse when He promises that everyone who is saved will be His son: "He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son" (21:7). God adopts us as His children in Christ, who is Son of the Father. Being in the Son, we are all sons of the Father in the Mystical Body of Christ, whether decked out as male or female.

The Garden of Eden

The Garden of Eden in the Bible is presented as God's family garden. When God takes "Earthling" in hand and leads him into the enclosed garden, that ordination gives him special status. He thereby adopts "Earthling" as a member of the divine family.

Orientals are familiar with the concept of gardens closed to all except to those who are members of the royal family. The beautiful Meiji Gardens in Tokyo are now open to the public, but formerly were fenced off by hedges as an exclusive enclosure for the family of the Emperor. Caretakers would discretely withdraw from sight while the Emperor and his family would relax there and enjoy the scenery. There is no finer spot in Tokyo than the Meiji Gardens. The rustic bridge across the iris pond with ten thousand blossoms in riotous bloom, the spring of crystal clear waters bubbling out of the ground, the stately oaks and cedars, the manicured bushes, the curving paths of gravel that crunches underfoot, the elegant tea house - all lift the spirit of visitors.

Potentates of the East had similar family gardens, a fact which the human author of Genesis and his readers knew very well. This gives the author a convenient handle by which to teach that God did something very special for the Earthling when He took him into His garden. He allowed him to consort with Himself personally; He raised him to the state of adopted sonship. The garden is therefore a symbol of divine adoption.

The text relates that God made Adam before He planted the garden. This bit of textual detail suggests to some speculative theologians that God created Adam - humanity - in a purely natural state before elevating him to the state of grace. They attach to the episode the meaning of an interval of time between Earthling's creation in the purely natural mode outside of the garden, and his subsequent elevation to the supernatural state of justice and holiness when moved into the garden. A literal reading of the passage does indeed suggest that God raised him to the state of holiness and justice when He transferred him from outside into the garden of Eden:

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed (2:7-8).

The Garden Symbolizes Grace

What is this gift of supernatural grace which is symbolized by admission into the Garden of Eden? We cannot see grace or feel it. We can only say that it is an extraordinary reality by which God gives us new birth into His family as adopted children. Christ described grace thus to Nicodemus: "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit" (Jn 3:8).

The author of Genesis symbolized the fact that God adopted Adam people or couple as His children when He "put the man whom he had formed" into the garden of Eden, His private family garden. Only family members are admitted into this garden. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

374 The Church interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice" (The Council of Trent, 1546: DS 1511). This grace of original holiness was "to share in...divine life" (cf. Lumen Gentium 2).

Trent Defines That Adam was Elevated to the Supernatural State

That God effected this important upgrading of Adam's condition, from the mere natural state to the higher level of the state of grace, was disputed by some Fathers at the Council of Trent in 1546. A group of the Fathers objected against a draft of their working document which stated forthrightly that God endowed Adam with the gift of "holiness and justice," terms which we today recognize as the supernatural state of grace. They proposed the terms "rectitude and innocence." That terminology could be interpreted to mean natural gifts only, minus anything supernatural. They wanted to fudge the idea that Adam was endowed with a supernatural gift, a gift which can be added to our natures, and can be taken away again, all the while leaving the natural endowments still in place (see, e.g. John B. Endres, O.P., p 80).

The hidden agenda of this faction at Trent was obvious: if the grace originally given to Adam was a natural endowment, and if original sin damaged this natural endowment, then Adam's sin damaged our natures as well as his. Then our intellectual IQ's, our native strength of will, our emotions, our instincts, are all damaged by original sin. But if the grace originally given to Adam was a supernatural gift added to his already existing and integral nature, then it is possible to conceive that original sin extinguished sanctifying grace in Adam without damaging his natural endowments, without dulling his intellect and weakening his free will. The loss of sanctifying grace, if it is a supernatural gift and not something natural, is perceived as an annulment within us of a spiritual entity which transforms us into being God's children and entitles us to heaven. But this supernatural entity can then be plucked out of the soul without in any manner decreasing, distorting or perverting our native intellectual, volitional, physical, emotional and instinctual endowments.

The difference between the two concepts might be compared to what happens when night follows day. The trees and houses remain just as they were before the sun set in the west; after sunset the trees and houses are there as before, but now in the darkness of night. Another example is the light bulb: its material is a sealed glass product bought at the store. Switch on the current and it shines brightly; switch off the current and it is still hard and good as before, but it is dark. So also our natures "light up" with God's current of supernatural grace, and "darken" without it. But our natures endure after grace is gone, and are ready to light up once again when God's grace is restored. Or: one can whisk off a banquet tablecloth (supernatural) without damaging the solid oaken table under it (natural).

A minority at the Council of Trent proposed a change of terminology which implied subtly that original sin damaged the nature of Adam and of ourselves; that Adam's sin makes it impossible for us to become good persons again during our lifetimes. The view did not prevail. In the end the vote, on June 17, 1546, was near unanimous. The Council declared beautifully that Baptism renders us excellent, splendid and intact within:

For, in those who are reborn God hates nothing...(They are) innocent, unstained, pure and guiltless, have become beloved sons of God...

If anyone denies that the guilt of original sin is remitted by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ given in baptism, or asserts that all that is sin in the true and proper sense is not taken away but only brushed over or not imputed, anathema sit (DS, 1515).

The restoration of grace, therefore, is not whitewash over a natural self which remains rotten, foul, and perverted. Grace restores what was lost through sin, and thoroughly ennobles our natural selves once more through its insertion into the supernatural mode. We know well the difference between an external whitewash over sin as opposed to a genuine transformation from within. Brutus feigned friendship with Caesar, but then plunged a dagger into his heart. Peter lied to the maid when he said he never knew Jesus, but returned to himself when he told Christ, "You know that I love you" (Jn 21:17).. And so it is with remission of original sin and the forgiveness of every sin truly repented: we become new inside. We do not remain sinners inside, covered over with whitewash on the outside. Such is the doctrine clarified and taught with finality at Trent.

Trent left much unsaid about the concupiscence which remains in us after Baptism, and about the situation of our natural endowments, but made one thing crystal clear: our faith tells us that God endowed Adam and Eve with the supernatural gift of holiness and justice. They lost this supernatural gift through original sin.

[The two following pages are reprinted from my "letter to the editor," The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February 1999.] Editor, HPR: The article "Original sin and the Catechism in moral decision making" (Basil Cole, July 1998) has a hair in the ointment. It would make the Catechism teach that original damages our natural human endowments. Adam's sin deprives us of sanctifying grace and its accompanying package of infused theological, intellectual, and moral virtues, which is bad enough. We need not believe that original sin also causes us to have lower intellectual IQ's than is due to nature, nor that the sin weakened our inherited will power.

"Theologian J.M. Herve sheds light on what the Magisterium teaches about "wounded nature" in what used to be a standard manual of Dogmatic Theology in seminaries (Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae, Vol.II, No 446(c)8).

"Is the wounding solely a deprivation of the special and gratuitous gifts which Adam had? Or is there an additional wounding of natural endowments? In other words, are our natural endowments weaker after original sin than they would have been in a state of pure nature? Herve cites Trent and Orange, Thomas, Cajetan, Bellarmine and others. His conclusion: the difference between fallen nature and pure nature is not substantive. The difference is one of terminology: spoliatus vel nudus, stripped or naked.

"Neither revelation, nor the Fathers, nor the Councils of the Church teach that original sin diminishes our natural endowments intrinsically, continues Herve. The correct understanding of the term "wounded nature" is sequential, not philosophical. That is, our natures are "wounded" if we compare our condition to what it was before the sin to what it is after. Before the sin Adam's natural endowments were enriched and elevated by grace and special gifts; after the sin he (and we before Baptism) are deprived of these gifts. Before the sin nature was healed and supported by the special gifts, but not after. When the sources mention a wounded nature, or a lessening of the power of the free will, or an inclination toward evil, they are comparing the elevated condition before the sin to the deprived condition which followed after the sin.

"What I find especially convincing in the argumentation of Herve is that it is repugnant to the goodness and holiness of God to infuse into our souls a positive inclination toward evil, or to deliberately decrease natural human endowments to do good. In proof whereof he cites both Thomas and Augustine, the latter in Retractiones.

"Our challenge, then, is to maximize the use of grace to grow in virtue. We gain nothing by imagining that God deliberately diminishes our natural gifts, or that He pollutes our natures by infusing into us a sleazy and positive inclination to sin. We shoot ourselves in the foot, and I believe we dishonor God, if we even entertain the thought of such behavior by God.

"Our challenge is not an imagined evil implanted into us by original sin about which we can do nothing. We have enough to do to fight our very healthy and vivacious natures which adhere to this earth with all their natural secularist bent. Our natural drives are reluctant subjects which we must prod, like stubborn mules, up a steep and narrow road toward heaven." [End of my letter to HPR.]

Location of the Garden

Shall we expect to locate the garden of Eden geographically? The author of Genesis gives us clues that he is not much concerned about cartography. He places the garden imprecisely "to the east," which in Israel would point in the direction of Iraq and the Persian Gulf. But the author also attributes to the garden Bunyonesque proportions. The garden is so big that the river which watered it formed four rivers upon exiting: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

A Landsat photo from space showing the area of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates above the Persian Gulf, also shows the Karun (Gihon?) flowing in from Iran to the north, and the Wadi Rima and Wadi Batin (Pishon?) flowing in from Arabia to the east and south. An article in the Smithsonian informs us that about 7,000-8,000 years ago there was more rain in the area than now. Thousands of stone tools indicate intensive, if seasonal, populations around lakes and rivers that are now dry. The waters of the Persian Gulf were below the present level, and the area that now forms the floor of the Gulf was probably lush and fertile, a real paradise on earth (see Smithsonian, May 1987, pp. 127-135).

The discovery is appealing, and we may indeed concede that the final redactor of Genesis had lingering memories of fertile gardens "to the east" in mind. However, it is also reasonable to assume that the location of the garden of Eden east of Israel is a local cultural accretion specific to the Israelites. It does not necessarily help us to discover geographically where our first parents originated on this globe. Our Adam and Eve lived long before the Israelites moved into the Promised Land, to the west of Iraq.

A literal reading of the nature of the garden and of its rivers puzzles us. The four rivers flow out of Eden, not into it. They flow backwards, apparently, up into the highlands and mountains: "A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers ... the Pishon ... Gihon ... Tigris ... and Euphrates" (2:10 ff.). What can that mean? Cush, which is Ethiopia elsewhere in the Bible, is located in Africa on the other side of the Red Sea. The river Pishon "flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there" (Gen 2:11).

The author wants us to know that the garden was a place of great wonders with delights and proportions that are literally "out of this world." Out of this world because he is using the garden to symbolize a mystery: the mystery of the intimate gift by which Adam and Eve conversed with God who had endowed them with the wondrous gifts of holiness and justice. He makes a wondrous garden to inspire us with awe and wonder about the other-world gifts of holiness and justice. We mistake his meaning if we look for cartography instead of contemplating a mystery.

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." The author probably had several meanings in mind, each of which has validity. One symbolic meaning: God wants man to cultivate his garden of grace, of special friendship with Himself. Second, man should cultivate the earth to make good things grow, for physical labor is also a privilege. God commissions all mankind - Earthling - to do two things: to nurture grace in the soul, and to subdue the earth with physical labor. The text teaches that friendship with God in His private garden is a spiritual gift, and that physical labor is likewise a privilege when performed in the happy company of the Lord: "Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation" (CCC 378).

"And the Lord God commanded the man saying, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die." Was the tree of life really growing there, with a wood trunk and roots, crown and leafy boughs? We mistake the symbolic nature of the text if we interpret these words literally. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church omits mention of a material tree of life. More realistically, we regard the tree of life as a symbol. The Liturgy of the Hours reads: "See how the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life." The tree of life in the garden is now recognized by the Church in one aspect as a symbol of the cross on which Christ died for us. While nailed to this tree He brokered for us grace in this life and glory in the life to come. In another aspect the tree of life is the beatific vision in heaven: "To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God" (Rev 2:7). The Book of Revelation makes much of this tree of life:

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit for each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (Apoc 22:1-2).

In the Genesis text the tree of life symbolizes that God graciously offered Adam and Eve free access to the means of grace. Through prayer and worship they could nourish their spiritual lives.

God also warns them against doing evil: "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat." Note that God does not remove the tree which will scandalize Adam and Eve later. It symbolizes that God deliberately endowed humans with freedom; freedom to eat of the tree of life, freedom also to eat of the tree of good and evil. The compound term "good and evil" is rich in meaning. To know good and evil can mean having experience with both, to do one as well as the other. It therefore implies doing evil. To know good and evil can also signify that we ourselves decide what is good and what is evil. It means ignoring absolutes, it signifies the bending of behavior to the shape of our whims. Thirdly, the expression can mean pretending to know everything, without need of a teacher. It means playing god, and that is exactly what Adam and Eve were about to do.

There are two trees, then, prominently situated in the garden of Eden. The one is the tree of life, the other the tree of death. God invites Adam to frequent the one, to stay away from the other. He makes this clear to Adam, then leaves both trees in full view. Adam is free now, either to obey or to disobey. Man has a free will. He can sin if he wishes. God will not stop him from doing so.

Like a good dramatist, the author sets the stage with the two trees very visible in the great garden, but does not immediately follow through with the action. The action follows in chapter three.

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