This is the third part of my reflections on the Garden of Eden story, which I once again invite you to reflect on, or ignore, as you prefer.
A significant part of the Garden of Eden story is not just the time Adam and Eve spend in the garden, but their departure from it. In the New Testament garden stories of Gethsemane and the resurrection garden, leaving also features prominently.
The story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit and subsequently leaving the garden is commonly talked about as “the fall.” These words do not appear in the biblical text, although many bibles use them as a sub-heading and this terminology has come to dominate our interpretation of the event, to an extent that this interpretation is rarely even questioned, and this understanding is assumed to be widely accepted.
But perhaps this is no fall from grace, no divine punishment. Perhaps another understanding is possible. Perhaps we do not need to be tied by this traditional understanding. Perhaps the text can be read in another way.
Maybe Adam and Eve did not fall from grace. Maybe they just grew up. Maybe the awakening of knowledge inevitably sends us out from the safety of the garden to the wider world.
It is true that some of the language of the discourse around the departure from the garden sounds at first reading like a punishment, but a closer look made me think maybe it is less clear cut. God speaks of being “accursed”: harsh words indeed ... but at no point does God say humanity is accursed. The snake, yes, the tempter: the temptation to opt for the easy life, the temptation to seek to possess and usurp positions of power, accursed indeed. The soil too (hmm, haven’t quite worked out what that might be about) but humanity is not accursed.
Not accursed, perhaps, but still warned of pain to come. The pain they will face outside the garden could be read as a punishment, yes, but maybe it is just the reality of adulthood. Maybe the experience of pain is something we all learn as we grow from babyhood to adulthood and leave the safety of the garden which can not contain all we are destined to become.
Our biblical faith is a faith that calls us to face up to such realities of life, including its myriad challenges and difficulties: God does not send us out of the Garden as a punishment, he sends us out of the garden and accompanies us out into the big wide world because that is where we are meant to be: living in the real world, getting our hands dirty, earning our food by the sweat of our brow; even if sometimes it hurts. Our faith does not call us to shelter in the security of a garden, or a church social club, it calls us out to live life on the edge.
Jesus too, pulled no punches: he too called people out of the gardens of their security, out of their comfortable lives. He too promised pain: but this is not a threat or punishment, taking up one’s cross is simply a recognition of the reality of what following Jesus, living in a way that is radically different to societal norms and challenging oppressive authority through love and non-violence, brings about.
After the cross, early on the first day of the week, the gospel narrative takes us back into a garden, location of the tomb and setting for, depending which gospel story you are reading, either the first resurrection appearance, or the message of resurrection appearances to come.
As with the garden at Gethsemane, I wonder whether there is an inevitable connection between this garden and the original biblical garden, Eden. In our minds, and more so in the minds of the first audiences of the gospels, when a biblical garden narrative occurs, the Eden story looms large. The sending out is a significant part of that first garden story, and in the resurrection garden too, the message is very clear: this is not where you are called to stay. Once again God, Jesus, sends out those who are in the garden, to go back to their Galilee. Perhaps the clarity of this message, seen not as a punishment but as a commission, can be our reassurance that the first sending out of humanity form Eden was also a part of our faith journey.
In the midst of the clear similarities between these two sending out narratives there are also differences. In the first story, as Adam and Eve leave the garden, the tree of life remains, static, at the centre of the garden: guarded by swords and by its position in a place that can no longer hold the adults we have become.
The resurrection garden tells a different story: Jesus, the tree of life, is not static, nor is he staying in the garden. He has “gone ahead of you to Galilee.” Perhaps in the shared faith journey of God and humanity, out of Eden, out of Egypt, out of Gethsemane, out of the resurrection garden, there is a growing realisation for all of us, including God, that the Tree of Life is not to be found “at the very centre”: that is not where it belongs. It is at the edges that the tree of life takes root and grows an abundance of delicious fruit which we are invited to taste and eat.
So perhaps we too need to go out from the centre: out from centres of power and centres of comfort; out from what we know and what we think we love: out into our Galilees, to the places at the edge; to the places where there is a danger of falling off, for it is only there that fullness of life can be found.
It is time to go to Galilee and live.