Ishmael - discussion points expanded
The three beginning stories in the book of Genesis don't make sense. Not as in, scientifically: Quinn is happy to look at these stories as mythology - a metaphor or an origin story, representing essential things about our cultural world view. But what he saw - and after him pointing it out I realized I have always seen it too, but just unconsciously assumed I must be wrong - is that these stories don't make sense in those ways either. They don't represent our cultural world view (or the cultural world view of our ancestors: the original culture whose story is told in the Bible). They actually contradict it. Why is that?
"The first of these is universally known to everyone everywhere: the story of Adam's fall in the Garden of Eden. It's universally known, even though it fails in fundamental ways to make sense." - Ishmael pg xii
In Genesis 2:15-18, God has given Adam and Eve (representing humanity) a perfect life. They live in a paradise in which they don't need to toil for anything and all that they need is provided for them (the Garden of Eden). The only limit put on them is that there is one tree whose fruit they are forbidden to eat. This is the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. They are told that if they eat the fruit of this tree they will die. A snake, however, convinces them that God has lied to them. That the forbidden tree is the most valuable tree in all the Garden, and that eating of it will give them knowledge which, before this, only God has had, not killing them but making them as great and powerful as God himself. They eat it and suddenly have the knowledge of good and evil - they have an understanding of morality, of what is right and wrong. God is angry and punishes them by turning them out of the Garden and condemning them to toil and struggle for everything they need to live from then on, forcing them to become farmers and work all day to grown the food they need to live.
Quinn has two problems with this story:
Quinn has two problems with this story:
- Why did God forbid people the knowledge of Good and Evil? Morality - what is Right and what is Wrong - is considered by our culture to be very nearly the most important information a person can have. We teach it to our children at every opportunity. Far from unnecessary, we consider this knowledge the most important knowledge a human being can have. It is also usually conveyed by us and our stories as the thing God most wants humans to know.
- This is not just true of us today - it is a value clearly held by the founders of our culture all the way back to Genesis and beyond.
So why would God forbid it to humans and punish us for having it?
In looking at this question, Quinn starts by making a supposition I completely disagree with. That isn't to say that I disagree with his overall point - I don't. But I think he has missed the mark on his first argument towards that point.
Quinn claims that there is no good explanation for why God would forbid the knowledge of Morality (of Good and Evil) to his people (rather than forbidding some other type of knowledge). He finds it ridiculous that this was forbidden, and concludes that, as we have understood this story, its choice has to have been arbitrary, creating a picture of a capricious God who likes to throw his weight around and is just looking for ways that people to mess up so he can punish them).
"The consensus among commentators is fundamentally that God needed to forbid Adam and Eve something to test their loyalty, so he made it the fruit of this one tree, which might just as well have been the tree of knowledge of circles and squares" - Ishmael pg. xii
While I agree with the explanation Quinn finally comes up with to make sense of this story, I don't think he is right about this point not making sense with the belief in a loving God. I think there is another way to make sense of this story as it is which he is missing.
These ancient stories are metaphors. They are representations of ideas and values; guides for how to deal with the inevitable experience of being human. They aren't meant to be taken literally, as Quinn readily recognizes. Their purpose is not to tell a factual account of how the world began, but to teach about universal human experiences. They are meant to guide future generations in dealing with the realities of life; in being prepared for the most profound human experiences we all face. The story of the fall is one of these.
It it a story about coming of age.
It might be about the transition humanity went through when becoming human: Changing from animals with little thought of tomorrow, to humans who, recognizing past, present and future, think with a mind no longer limited by instinct, but which has the capacity to choose its actions based on what it thinks is best and good.
It might be as simple as a tale about growing up - leaving childhood behind where life is simple, safe and all is provided for you, and entering into adulthood where the world is complex and we must struggle physically and emotionally to make our way.
It tells of the simplicity and joy childhood gave us, being taken out of our reach, as if in punishment. It tells of the sorrow of that loss and what it feels like to look back at that time and wish with all your heart that you could be in that place again. It tells of the confusing sadness of turning your back on that time and stepping into the future, because once your eyes are opened, they cannot be closed again. Once innocence is lost, it cannot be returned to. It tells of how much harder life is when it is all on your own shoulders, of the shame of mistakes and regrets we never knew as children.
The story of The Fall is a universal truth, expressed as a children's story, preparing us for what is to come in every life. As a story thousands upon thousands of years old, it is told by a people who sought a divine explanation for everything, who saw the world as designed by the gods, and human experience as needing an explanation rooted in the gods. So it made God the agent of the change, imagining a punishment and a punisher. But the truth internet in the story of The Fall is not that life's difficulties came about because God punished us for disobeying him. It is the universal human truth that as we become responsible for ourselves; aware of the consequences of our actions; in control of our own lives and aware of the choice to live each day doing good or live each day doing evil, life becomes harder, more work, and more painful than it was when we were children.
- Why does this story present agriculture - farming - as the punishment; the evil which resulted from our loosing paradise? Our culture is based on agriculture and has been from the beginning. Any high school textbook will tell you that it was the "discovery of agriculture" which enabled human culture to grow beyond the nothingness of the stone age; which enabled humans to become something more than animals. Look at any interaction Europeans (whose society is based on farming) have had with native societies (mostly hunter-gatherers) and you can see that our culture holds a deep-seeded belief that farming is the Right way to live, the Good way to live, the Most Desirable way to live.
So why would one of our most basic myths present farming as Evil?
This is an important question and Quinn's answer to it is the foundation for the insights he teaches in his books. Hearing him ask it so blatantly like this, I realize that it is a question which has bothered me as well, but because no plausible answer ever presented itself to me, I never even became aware that I was asking the question. I pushed it to the back of my mind to fester, like a splinter, never fully realizing it was there.
Mythologies like this one - ancient stories passed down for thousands of years - last for a reason. They last because they express basic truths which the society holds about God, the universe and humanity's place in it. They express a world view through the values they promote.
So how is it possible that this story seems to promote values which are so at odds with what are clearly the fundamental values of the culture that tells it? This flaw is a brilliant observation and a profound realization. It should not have been this way and recognizing that is one of the most impressive things which I Quinn has done.