In Genesis 2 and 3, we have the mythical story of the Garden of Eden, with its forbidden fruit, its snake, and its punishable disobedience. The Garden itself is a delight, with beautiful trees and delicious fruits, a sparkling stream catching the sunlight, and balmy evenings which tempt God to drop down from heaven above and enjoy a stroll in the cool of the evening. We call it a ‘paradise’, from a Persian word meaning a walled garden. And so the myth reminds us of times when, even for for a short time, the struggles and vexations, the disappointments and sorrows, the anxieties and afflictions of everyday life are shut out, and there is calm, contentment and peace, and a feeling that life really is worth living. But on second thoughts …
Although the events in the Garden get hardly any further mention in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, in later times, when people gave them second thoughts, unlike the snake, they ‘grew arms and legs’. It’s rarely noticed that the snake is actually entirely truthful. Just as he said, Adam and Eve did not die when they ate the forbidden fruit, and they did end up ‘knowing good and evil’. The Hebrew word that describes the snake, rather than ‘crafty or crooked’, basically means ‘clever or shrewd’. In later thinking, however, the snake metamorphs into the sneaky old Devil himself in serpentine disguise!
In the story, Adam and Eve are guilty of disobeying an instruction from God, and get their marching orders from the garden. On second thoughts, the early church leader Augustine ‘upped the ante’. He decided that, subsequently, every human being, from the moment of conception, shares the guilt of that ‘first offence’, which thus becomes the ‘original sin’. This now merits, not ejection from a garden, but everlasting punishment in the fiery torments of Hell. From a molehill to a mountain, comes to mind.
Eve eats the fruit before Adam, but it says in the Hebrew (though not always in translations) that he was “with her” at that moment, and therefore also heard what the snake had so say, but made no objection to taking a bite himself. On later, second thoughts, however, not only is Eve is made to bear the entire guilt, but women as a whole become, in the notorious words of the early church leader Tertullian, “the devil’s gateway”. Another river was added to the four flowing from Eden – the river of misogyny that has streamed on, down through the years.
The Bible’s pictures of God range from the sublime (caring, like a loving shepherd, for his flock), to the terrifying (demanding the merciless slaughter of thousands of men women and children), to the ridiculous (creating all the birds and wild animals in an attempt to provide a mate for the first man). The original authors/editors clearly didn’t have one, yet later thinkers, with their second thoughts, have constructed out of this self-contradictory hotchpotch, ‘systematic theologies’ which claim to tell us ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ about God! They should be read with a measure of scepticism, to say the least.
Not to be outdone, there are others who, in their second thoughts, ignore Bible verses about love, harmony and peace. Their thinking focuses exclusively on contrary verses, and they claim that their ‘God’ not only permits, but demands, the death, by knife, bullet or bomb, of all his and their imagined ‘enemies’, by which they mean anyone with the impertinence to hold different opinions from their own.
We need to see the Bible for what it is, a magnificent product of the human imagination, displaying both the very best and the very worst of us. We need to read it with that understanding of its contents – to ‘take as it comes’, warts and all – appreciating and retaining the gold, while not adding even more, with second thoughts, to the dross.