This chapter is another one of those chapters that everyone thinks they understand but, when we reflect on the story, we find one enigma after another. Christians teach the concept of “original sin” from this chapter, using the story of Adam, Eve, the snake and the “apple” to explain where “sin” comes from and why human beings are sinful from the start. But a close reading makes that “traditional” reading suspect.
To begin with, there is no indication that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was an apple. The reference is only to a fruit. Second, as Harold Kushner notes in his commentary on the story for Etz Hayim, “if they gained a knowledge of good and evil by eating the forbidden fruit, does that mean they did not know good from evil before that? If so, how could they be held accountable for doing wrong?” We may understand that God has our good in mind when God commands us; but to Adam and Eve, it can’t be wrong to disobey because they don’t know what “wrong” is!
The story is pretty straightforward. The snake convinces Eve that the fruit of the tree is not dangerous; Eve eats the fruit and gives some to Adam. They don’t really know what to expect from eating from the tree. The snake indicates that it will make them “like God” but all they experience after eating the fruit is embarrassment, shame and guilt. God discovers their disobedience and punishes all three players; the snake will become the enemy of humanity, the woman will give birth with pain, her husband “shall rule over you” and man will have to do hard labor to produce food to eat. (There seems to be a veiled reference to dying as well but since nobody has ever died it is hard to know what Adam and Eve would make of this “threat”).
The story ends with God making clothing of “skins” for Adam and Eve and, because they now know what it means to disobey rules, God exiles the couple from Eden lest they eat from the “Tree of Life” and live forever (even though death seems to have been part of the punishment).
One big question that remains is the purpose of God for placing humans in Eden at all. Why would God put them in a place where such disobedience is possible? As much as God punishes the two, God also loves them enough to make them real clothing (and not just large leaves). The language used seems to be one of harsh justice meted out by God. Yet there are suggestions in the text that perhaps the entire incident was all part of God’s plan for humans. Without this knowledge of Good and Evil, how can the humans have free choice in any meaningful way? We can see this story as the beginning of human beings having a conscience. Humans were never designed to be forever in Eden; we needed Eden to be able to meet the challenges of the real world, the world we are “exiled” into, as a child must eventually grow into the real world in which we live. We can not always live a sheltered life. We have to learn to face the challenges, the joys and sorrows, that make up life in this world.
I see Eve as the real heroine of this story. She is the one to boldly cross from innocence to understanding with all the pain and uncertainty that this entails. Her “punishment” seems very severe. It is hard enough to raise children with ones values not knowing how they will turn out in the end, without seeingchildbearing as punishment. The issue of the husband ruling over the wife has a long and sordid history. Later rabbis tried to make the relationship between husband and wife more equal but there is much that they left undone that has pushed women into a second class status in all of western civilization as well as in “traditional” Judaism. I believe one of the most important changes in modern Jewish life is the ongoing effort to make Halacha (Jewish Law) more egalitarian.