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Stories of Eden: Reflections for the seventh week of Easter
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet and a theologian. As well as writing books of poetry and prose, he is the host of Poetry Unbound, a podcast from On Being Studios. He lives in Ireland.
Stories of Eden
The Garden of Eden has captured the imaginations of artists for centuries. We will explore little corners of it over the next five days.
The writers of Genesis tell us these were the days when Giants walked the earth and the Stars Sang Together for Glory. Such a strange thing, this garden, tucked away in the Place called Between Two Rivers. The word Eden can be translated as Paradise, or Delight.
The story of Eden is narrated from the second to the fourth chapters of the Book of Genesis. Who is the narrator? We don’t know. What did they do? Well, they certainly wrote. But they also farmed.
Everett Fox has a magnificent translation of the Book of Genesis and in his hands, the agricultural insight of the poets is evident. In the garden there are trees — desirable to look at and good to eat — and a river, to water the garden, a river that divides and turns into four tributaries. The poet of Eden describes gold and precious stones - bdellium and carnelian. The soil of Eden — the Hebrew word for soil is ‘adamah’ — is the source of all things that live, and from this soil come animals, and trees and every growing thing that grows.
In the anxieties of fundamentalisms and literalism, something of Eden is lost: the poet of Eden was fascinated by soil and even named the first being after the soil. Soil, on earth anyway, contains mineral and organic matter. It’s not known what the soil-like-substance (called the regolith) on other planets and moons contains. From soil comes life, in the imagination of Eden. From soil sprang an Adam, an Earth-Man. Remember you are soil, and to soil you will return. The poets are also interested in genus and species. Herd animals and the fowls of the heavens were brought to the Earth-Man, and he named them all.
In this we see that farmers have always been involved in the names for things. To know the names for things might mean that you know whether it will work with you, or for you, whether you can eat it, or whether it might eat you. Knowing the names of things gives power. Sometimes that power can be used for good.
There is much to name in these strange times of viruses. What do you name? What is the Eden around you?
In Jonathan Goldstein’s delicious retelling of the story of Garden of Eden (from his book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! Riverhead Books, 2009), Eve goes to God, frustrated with her helpmeet. “He’s an oaf,” she complains, “All he wants to do is fart and scratch himself.” Eve likes political science and philosophy and physics. She wants to talk about the stars and Everything That Is. Adam likes to point and laugh. God shrugs his shoulders, wondering if Eve will grow to like Adam. Eve calls Adam a fool. Everything falls apart.
Looking at the story of Eve — a name meaning woman — as narrated through the tellers of Eden has caused problems for the stories of women since the start. In this second version of the Start of Things, Eve comes second. Adam has been created, has had the opportunity to do that most divine of things — to award Names to the Living — and no companion has been found. Then God brings Eve from the side of Adam and all things break loose.
Flesh of my Flesh, Adam says a Hebrew poem for recognising kin.
Eve’s character has fascinated theologians for millennia. When Rashi — that magnificent 12th century writer who snuck in between the words of the story and asked questions that would make even Freud blush — read the story of Eden, he wondered why. Why did the serpent go towards Eve? Why her? Why not the man?
What are the stories you’ve wondered about these strange original persons? What would you ask them about the Garden?
The story as it’s told — a serpent spoke and made Eve eat and she then passed a clump of grapes to Adam — has been the genesis for awful stories of humanity. But the orginal story has much in it: why would a God tell people what not to do? Didn’t God know that that’s exactly what they’d do? God crossed boundaries into time and space — wouldn’t Eve and Adam need to cross boundaries into knowledge too? How did the Serpent know so much? Who told the serpent? Some have wondered if it was God.
I always wonder why they didn't talk about the fruit before the fruit was eaten. Even God was walking in the garden those days. Maybe knowledge is like that. It seems like a secret.
Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden and the garden is guarded by Angels with swords of fire. Some people call that The Fall. But a Fall from what? To where? Avivah Zornberg — a biblical scholar working in Jerusalem — suggests that it was less a Fall than an Expansion — beyond the garden, further than the land between two rivers. Eve and Adam, going where they were always meant to go - into the mad wild world.
In lockdown we’re stuck with each other, like Eve was with Adam, like they were with God. Like they were in the garden. What is in your place of lockdown? What will you be glad to end? What do you see new?
What’s so bad about knowledge anyway?
The Adam and the Eve knew nothing about knowledge until they knew everything. It’s the crisis of every parent. The brain awakes, the screen flickers, data flows, and critique might follow.
What human experience did the original poets of Genesis know that made them turn to a moment where knowledge comes between people who used to love each other easily but now are separated by information? Perhaps the knowledge wasn’t the source of evil, just the seeing of it. Eve knew first and shared it with Adam.. So often the story of Eve is told as if her sharing of her insight was part of the sin. Another way to say this is she couldn’t keep it to herself. Her gift was not to hoard the awful understanding that she’d discovered
The word ‘know’ in Hebrew can also mean sex. The Adam and the Eve knew something about sex. Their Eden might have been delicious, but it has an anxiety about connections in the body. Their knowledge about Knowledge comes with age, comes with maturity, means that there was a before and an after — just like all of us. Once they know what they know, they cannot unknow it. This knowledge is a power for true and terrible things. It can make and break a person. The poets knew this. Perhaps one of them thought that there was an original perfection, where people didn’t know the power of what they did, and this — to that poet — was an imagination of a past that should have been. So they wrote it and they called it Eden.
What past would you imagine, if you were to imagine a past that should have been, from which we fell, from which we moved and is now forever guarded by Angels of the Sun?
What knowledge would you guard, if any?
God liked the evening, even then. God walked among the garden in the cool.
In the writer’s telling of Genesis, God must have had a body, or a body like a body. A body that had limits, skin, a body that had starts and ends, and bits to point and bits to hold a branch back when you’re searching for your friends.
“Who told you you were naked?” God asked and the man said that it was the woman who God made.
Oh how the world unfolds. These people are barely people up till now. But now, in Adam’s words, whole worlds are made: of Blame; of Sexism; of Blaming Parents; of Blaming Anyone But Him . The Thing You Made Me Do is the Thing That Made Me Do it.
Who told you you were naked?
What was God dressed in if not the sun and moon and stars?
God has limits in this story. God needs us to ask the question about the knowledge that set them free. And, in this story, God has skin, or something like it. In the same way, this story of God has limits too. What language could approximate a semblance of a God? For Eden, God slips into skin inside the story in order that we’ll see the skin. Once we’ve seen the skin, we must recognise that God will slip outside the skin, and slip outside the story. God is a story always bigger than the story we tell.
God slips into limits to show us God beyond the limits of the limits God slipped into.
That’s not a tongue twister for a serpent in a garden, it’s a truth. In order to say something about God, we must put words around a God. That’s a limit, and a limit God steps into and God steps out of.
In a certain way, we only know a God by knowing what God’s not. And here in Eden, we see the edges of that God; God’s finger clippings, the skin cells that fell from God’s body. It’s limited, but that’s the point. This story points beyond the story. This story says no story’s big enough to hold a thing that we cannot contain. But the story holds a little.
Someone knew that right from the earth we came from, we can fall into stories of blame that can make a river shrivel up. And they wrote it into Eden. And they wrote it into us.
Eden always asked us to go beyond. To move beyond than the stories we tell. Even the stories of God need a different skin. What new stories of God can you tell?
East of Eden
The Adam and the Eve departed. They left the garden of delights. And then they Knew each other. And after they Knew each other, Eve gave birth to Cain. And then his brother Abel.
Which came first?
Cain loved farming and Abel was a shepherd. All people seek to satisfy the God that satisfies them. It’s a factor in religion the world over. Abel gave God blood and Cain gave God some crops. God was semi satisfied. Cain tried, but Cain failed. At Cain’s hand his brother died. Abel wasn’t able to survive. Brother murders brother.
The story of the world.
What cannot be remembered must be repeated, Mister Freud said. How many brothers murdered brothers before this story needed to be told? Some poet looked around and saw wars and wars and wars, and wrote a story older than the warstory in order to explain the way that people fall upon each other in order to contain their fury. This is a pattern. A pattern patterned for so long that the poets wrote it into the original story as a warning.
It’s not about right offerings.
It’s about a murder. Don’t murder. Brother murders brother; don’t.
The Garden of Perfection would be delightful if we could only make it perfect. But we can’t. It’s got weeds already. There is no such thing as perfect Eden. There is only us and the God that tells us.
Eden beckons us, not from the past, but from the present and the future. Not to venture backwards, but to seek integrity here and now. Does some serpent tempt you? Call aloud. When you find some knowledge, share it, be like Eve. When you imagine that your brother or your sister is the barrier to shatter, don’t. Don’t. Break the story so it doesn’t have to be the story that we tell.
That’s a message written on the wall of Eden. Abandon hope of Eden, all you who think you’d love it here. Make homes. Build cities filled with
people. Make love and knowledge work. Build schools. Build healing. Make eden everywhere.