The Tree of Knowledge

The Expulsion From Eden, by Thomas Cole. 1828

Philip Pullman’s usage of the myth of Adam and Eve had me revisiting the metaphors, symbols, and scenarios in that ancient garden. While there are many different interpretations of the myth, and a wide range of disagreements between Jewish and Christian exegesis, I thought Pullman was really onto something fundamentally important.

Contrary to much of the received wisdom about that story, Adam and Eve did the right thing. They sought knowledge. In effect, consciousness. Had they stayed in the garden, they would have remained unfree, ignorant, and stunted. The god of the story wanted them that way, apparently. Much of Pullman’s trilogy builds from that metaphor — keeping humans in the dark about the world. The Magisterium is, in effect, the earthly representative of that view. Keep humans in the dark as much as possible. Keep them blissfully ignorant, and all will be well.

Keep them like sheep.

We humans may well be the only species capable of sensing our own mortality. In a sense, the Adam and Eve of myth are not fully human until they both eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. They become human after the fog is lifted. They know death. They know they will die. In a way, the story is about human evolution itself, which is all the more ironic in light of current and past battles between creationists and those who believe in the science of evolution. I read the story as a metaphor for human evolution, for an awakening into the reality of the human condition with its complexity, struggle and pain. Implicit in the story of the fall is a critique of religious dogma, a warning against the blind acceptance of authority, the consequences of ignorance. Though it is not readily apparent . . .

The serpent was Socrates before Socrates existed. He was actually the far better choice for mentor for the first humans. Rather than tempting them into sin, he was tempting them into consciousness. An unexamined life is not worth living!

The severity of the punishment is also an indication of the rightness, even the righteousness of the decision to eat the apple, or the grape, or the pomegranate. Not only does the god of Genesis kick them out of the garden, he also makes claims after the fact that were facts to begin with: death and immense pain during childbirth. He also warned them that they would die immediately upon eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Luckily for Yahweh, there was no way for Adam and Eve to know that those claims were false, that Yahweh was bluffing. They had never experienced death, and Eve was not yet with child, and they knew of no one else in similar straits. In effect, the god of Genesis punished them with reality, and couldn’t follow through on his original threat.

Of course, some might argue that death and sin and evil and the like were brought into the world as a result of their disobedience. This has some similarities with the Greek Myth of Pandora. If Adam and Eve had not disobeyed their god, they never would have died. They would have lived forever. My answer to that is, of course, that such a thing is impossible. Before, during and after the events depicted in Genesis, it was always impossible to live forever. It was always impossible for a woman to give birth without pain. Which means, again, the god of Genesis merely threatened the first two human beings with reality. And, if eating from the Tree of Life granted them immortality, and they were banned from doing so by Yahweh, death was on the menu for them whether they stayed in the garden or escaped.

As I see it, the story can only be useful or instructive if it is seen as a story, not as literally true. If we try to see it as literally true, the events depicted are so obviously impossible, that they defeat the purpose or any chance at instruction. So, we’re left with interpretations of myth, allegory, metaphor and the like. In the simplest terms, is it a story warning us against disobedience, or against blind acceptance of authority? For this rebel without a cause, the latter is the way to go.


The Tree of Knowledge
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