Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
I wonder if this story is familiar to you.
Their bodies are virile and ageless, and they are glad and bold in their nakedness. They go out to meet the morning, and a cool mist rises from the fertile soil. The clear cries of birds linger over the tops of the trees. Every leaf is pristine, every flower saturated with color. The day’s work is a delight to them, and Adam laughs as a gecko shimmies up a tree and blinks. He gives it its name and sends it on its way while Eve reclines at his side. They eat the fruit of the garden, and it is all the nourishment they need. They never tire of its bright sweetness, and the waters of the river quench their thirst entirely. In the evenings, they visit with the Creator. They stroll and chat as the sun sets, and then Adam, filled to bursting with joy, stays up all night to name the stars.
They are given one—ONE—instruction. One rule to follow. And as the days or the years pass, they grow tired of paradise. Perfect bliss loses its luster. Adam is bored with the animals, and Eve can no longer endure the flavor of the fruit. Like the greedy ingrates they are, they begin to want more than perfection. More than all needs met, all delights enjoyed. Their desire brings everything crashing down. The earth groans and death slips through the door. The Creator, in horror and rage, curses them for their longing and their choice. He sheds blood and banishes them, hurling them out of Eden and barring the gates with a warrior and a fiery sword.
This is how I learned the story of my beginning. The heading over Genesis chapters 2 and 3 in my Bible reads “Man’s Shameful Fall.” Shame on me. I had it all. The only thing left to be gained was deity, and I had to go grasping after that. I sent all creation reeling and stumbling until God reluctantly, angrily, developed a bloody Plan B. I have worn that shame like a veil over my eyes for as long as I can remember. I have felt, at every stir of longing or desire, a check. I already have so much. What sort of wicked ingratitude would spur me to ask for more? I feel like a child who got a tiny plastic bicycle for Christmas. I’d wanted a real one, of course, with a basket and a bell, but how could I dare to want more than what I’ve been given? A little toy bicycle is wonderful, really. I can push it around on the kitchen floor. I can make the sounds of the wheels and the bell with my voice. Who could want more than that? I’m ashamed to say that I do.
Not long ago, a friend told me about her obsession with the story of Eden. She was fascinated by all things Eden, stories of Eden lost, and so on. Her fascination led her to my second book, but when she began to read, she didn’t see Eden anywhere. She was confused, disappointed. Why had I told her this was a story about Eden? It was a beautiful place, sure, the best the world of Shiloh had to offer, but it was certainly not paradise. Her questions unnerved me, sending me back to the Biblical
narrative. What I found there confirmed my ideas about my book. I had written it right. But it gave me a new perspective on the world of Eden. (It is astonishing and humbling that an artist can tell the truth without knowing it in his bones. I told myself the truth in that book, and I didn’t even know it till now.)
Let me try, then, to present the story differently. This time, I will lay aside my shame and my early ideas about the Fall. I will try to draw on the Scripture, but I’ll make a few leaps of the imagination, too. Stay with me.
Adam is strong and good, and he is the apple of his Creator’s eye. He has a lovely home, but the management and upkeep of the land are a huge undertaking. Without root rot or spider mites or draughts or slugs, the plants grow vigorously. If Adam isn’t careful, his garden will become an impassable jungle.
He enjoys the naming of the animals. By turns they are comical, majestic, and bizarre. To capture the essence of each in a single word, though, is a challenge. It stretches his creativity to the limit.
He is lonely. God appears to have thought that the animals might entertain him, but in the flight of birds and the roaring of lions he finds no kinship. He marvels at the speed and cunning of a shark, but he cannot speak its language, nor learn its love of ocean currents, nor find peace in its restless journeying. When God forms woman and brings her to Adam, he is overcome. His desire for her is unlike anything he has ever experienced. And yet, while she is nearer to him in thought and form than any other creature he has encountered, he cannot know her fully. The mystery of her awakens the old loneliness.
In the evening, he is comforted. He walks with the Creator as with a friend, and they talk of the curious things the Creator has designed and Adam’s intended uses for them. They speak of the progress of the garden, and Eve joins the conversation.
But during the night he is troubled. The animals, for the most part, are sleeping, and the flowers have bowed their heads. Once the thrill of physical pleasure is past, Adam and Eve lie apart. His body cools, and Adam’s eyes drift to the stars. Sleep eludes him, and his thoughts turn to the immense and terrible darkness behind the stars. Something is gnawing at him, some shapeless hunger. He wonders if it has anything to do with the serpent he met in the garden all those days ago. The serpent speaks in riddles, its words leaving a residue of discontent. Still, Adam cannot stay away. That creature seems to see his secret desire. Something is missing, it hisses, and this is not a lie.
But, oh, the one rule! The one thing the Creator implored him not to do! He has discussed it with Eve, and they are determined to obey. They reject the serpent’s suggestion—for a heartbeat, for a decade—but in the end, there seems no other answer. They want more, and the fruit is desirable, and they cannot bear their yearning any longer. They take the fruit and eat it, and the juice tingles on their tongues and slides like poison into their bellies.
The Creator comes, and this is where we must take a monumental leap. Here we must pause and look a while at the Creator’s face, for his expression in this moment is the one he’ll wear forever. It’s the one we’ll shrink from, dread, worship, adore. It’s the one we’ll approach, or not. Through the veil of shame, I see his eyes burn, his jaw tighten. His is the anger of a parent whose spoiled child has received a hundred gifts and thrown a tantrum, demanding more. His is a righteous indignation. Perhaps Adam and Eve in their shame saw him so. But what if his eyes are pained and soft? What if his mouth trembles? What if, with a little nod of his head, he assures them that he knew this was coming, that he expected it, that he is ready?
“Where have you been?” he asks. “I’ve been waiting to talk with you.”
Adam refuses to meet his eyes. “I hid because I was naked.”
“You look just as you did yesterday evening. Who told you that something had changed?” The Creator waits, studying his children. “Did you disobey me?” he asks.
Adam, ashamed, cannot find the nerve to own his crime. “This woman gave me the fruit, and you’re the one who gave her to me.”
The Creator looks at Eve. He doesn’t rage or cast blame. He only says, “What did you do?” Her response, twisted by shame, is like Adam’s.
If there is anger in the account of the Fall, it is here, when the Creator turns to deal with the serpent. On that creature he pronounces a curse of lasting humiliation and final subjugation. Then, in contrast, and this is crucial, he lists for Adam and Eve the consequences of their choices. He knows about desire, knows that Eve will seek to fulfill hers in motherhood, in marriage, in positions of power. He warns her that none of these things will satisfy. Adam will seek elsewhere—in his work, in his land, in the quest for immortality. All these things God pronounces as futile. He foretells a future of enmity, sorrow, suffering. But he never once condemns them for wanting more.
I think he knew what they wanted. I think he wanted the same.
If Eden was a place of perfection, of completion, then it is true that Adam and Eve should have had no need unmet, no wish unfulfilled. That’s the way I learned the story. We had it perfect, and we screwed it up. Ours is the hugest, most catastrophic of failures. But if Eden was a place of challenge, of loneliness, if in Eden evil was present, then paradise had failings indeed. If God could come and go, an external and ephemeral presence, then perhaps Adam never felt quite certain of his standing with the Creator. Maybe Adam wanted more from God.
We romanticize Adam and Eve in their innocence. Like babies, they were beautiful and simple and easy to love. But if you have ever loved an innocent, you know that that relationship is one-sided. It takes a long time for a baby to grow up, to know you, to love you back. Maybe God wanted more from Adam.
In Genesis 3:22, God makes a strange announcement to the other persons of the Trinity. “Man has become like us now,” he says. “He’s not a baby anymore.” He drives Adam and Eve out of the garden, and I think that the driving was something like shooing a toddler away from a dangerous staircase. I think the angel with the flaming sword was something like a baby gate. Mankind had gotten just old enough to totter around and hurt himself and make mischief. But that was only the beginning. Eden was a beginning, a temporary best. It wasn’t heaven. It wasn’t “I in them and thou in me.” We needed time and growth and the failure of the law. We needed desire. And God sent us out into the world to grow up. The Lamb “slain before the foundation of the world” knew he would follow the same path, beginning in infancy, growing, learning his hunger. He would choose relationship, though, and his passion for more of us would carry him to the end, to the point of union, of ecstatic consummation.
Could Adam have imagined such intimacy? Maybe not. Innocents understand very little of suffering and redemption. As the years of his life stretched on and on, did he punish himself, condemn himself, for wanting more? Did he grieve the Fall? Did he think that Eden might have been enough if only he’d waited longer, if only he’d asked for less? Did he ever guess that his longing might have been the echo of God’s insatiable desire for him? Did he ever imagine that his choice would “gain for us so great a Redeemer”?
And when the world is new again
and the children of the King
are ancient in their youth again,
maybe it’s a better thing, a better thing
to be more than merely innocent,
but to be broken, then redeemed by love.
Maybe this old world is bent,
But it’s waking up.
I’m waking up.
‘Cause I can hear the voice of one
crying in the wilderness
Make ready for the kingdom come
Don’t you want to thank someone for this?
—from “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone For This” by Andrew Peterson