What would it have been like to be humanity before the Fall? What is the Garden of Eden, and what did it mean for the first humans to tend to this garden and eat its fruits? (Genesis 2 ~ 3)
Our God-given capabilities and responsibilities
Eden and its primordial Trees
Humanity is to tend to the Trees
Life in Eden before humanity became us
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[ pendulum ]
What if you can go back to a time before all the wrong turns in your life?
Now, I’m not talking about time travel; this is about how every wrong thing that we did, and every wrong that was done to us, shape who we become as an individual, and as a society. Our present habits, norms, and character, were formed by our past decisions, thoughts, and actions—ours and that of people who lived before us. Our present prejudices, injustices, and ills, were formed by our past lies, failures, and wrongs—by our sins.
But, what would we be like, without all of that? What would our lives be like if we were the first of us—that is, what if there were no terrible wrongs done by the past generations and their aftermath that we had to inherit? And what would we be like without all the past wrongs that we ourselves have done so far?
Because that is what it would be like to live as the image of God—image that is not distorted or broken. That, according to Genesis, was the life in the Garden of Eden. So, let’s explore what that means in this episode:
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Welcome to "What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our fifth episode of the second season, "Eden and its Trees – Humanity in the Garden.”
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In our previous episodes, we’ve explored what Genesis means by “humanity.” In that account, our significance is less about our biological origin or classification, and more about how we relate to God, and represent God… to each other and to the rest of Creation. So far, we’ve examined three of the key features of humanity that Genesis describes, which in turn suggests in what specific ways we uniquely relate to God and represent God’s likeness.
First, we “fill the world, and subdue it.” There is something in us, even now, that moves us to explore, to journey beyond our present horizons, and go everywhere; rather like God who is present everywhere—God that we encounter through and in all things, in all times. Second, we speak and name things; rather like God who created everything, by speaking them into being. And speech is how we navigated and understood our world. More than that, human language is capable of limitless expansion of vocabulary, ideas, and expressions. Thus, reality is like a speech—it is God speaking; and our continually expanding speech enable us to understand reality and relate to God that speaks infinite things. Third, we are capable of loving others as we love ourselves. In Genesis, “Adam” calls the first other human he meets as not merely another “Adam” from “Adamah”—that is, just another living thing formed from the earth—but the best and the most precious of who he is. “The bone of my bones, and the flesh of my flesh.” So, we love.
I should emphasize that it is all three features together, which makes “Adam,” or humanity, the image of God. Not only do we go everywhere, but we explore it with our speech, our words, arts, and reason; not only do we speak, but we love, and most especially love each other. Or at least, we should. With even one feature missing, God calls it “not good,” which is to say, we are not quite yet what we are supposed to be—the image and representative of God. In fact, we could even say that none of these three features can truly become what it is without the other two. We need language to communicate with other humans; but, without others, we wouldn’t develop our speech. It is the trust and support of other human beings, and the power of our speech, that enabled us to journey into distant, alien lands and settings; yet, it is our exploration and journeys that expand our speech, bring new encounters with people, and strengthen our bonds.
But, then what? With these capabilities, have we indeed related to God properly and represented God? Because though we’ve lived and worked together, though we’ve come to greater understanding of the world with our language, and though we’ve filled the earth, our world is in dire straits. Too often, it seems as if we have been an unmitigated disaster to our world. Injustices, murders, and wars mar our history. We’ve done grave harm to our planet and other living things. And the very words that God speaks to humanity in Genesis, “Fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over all living creatures,” have historically been used in the West to justify the harmful exploitation of nature, the destruction of the environment, and even the extinction of living species, all for the sake of human greed. If we are the image and representative of God, “God” that we represent… don’t look so great.
Yet, according to Genesis, the image of God that we now bear is distorted and broken. That means God’s call to humanity to rule over other living creatures has been distorted from what it is supposed to be: it was to rule as God would, which is—for Christianity—to rule as Jesus would, in how he loves his people and serves their needs. In that light, other living creatures do not exist so that we can enrich ourselves by exploiting them; rather, we exist so that we can bless them and enrich their existence. So that through us, they may also glimpse what it is like to personally relate to God. Our rule over other creatures is not about our God-given right over them, but our God-given responsibilities for them. That is why the first task God presents to humanity was taking care of a garden.
The Garden of Eden.
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Where was this garden of Eden? That question has fascinated people for many generations. Now, Genesis reports that a river sprang forth from Eden, which splits into four rivers: Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates. Now, Tigris and Euphrates are the two rivers flowing through today’s Syria and Iraq. We don’t know where the first two rivers are though. Pishon is described as a river flowing through a land called Havilah, which is rich with gold, gems, and perfumes. Gihon is described as a river encircling the land of Cush—today ’s Sudan and Ethiopia—which would make it the Nile river. But, the thing is, the Nile flows from southeastern Africa whereas Tigris and Euphrates flows from Turkey; and the ancient Hebrew writers would’ve known this. So, either these names referred to different places, or this account is trying to say something else.
Modern scientific account places the geographical region in which Homo Sapiens arose somewhere in Africa—not too far from today’s Ethiopia in fact. Whether that is Eden depends on whether “Adam” was a Homo Sapiens, and we’ve explored that topic in our previous episode. Other proposed locations, based on the location of the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, range from southern Mesopotamia—today’s Kuwait—to the Persian Gulf, to the Armenian highlands.
But, leaving aside the puzzle about the physical location of Eden, I’d say that the meaning of the Genesis account on Eden is fairly clear. Along the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates, the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations like Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria emerged. Along the Nile—if that’s what the river Gihon is—Egypt arose. And Pishon flows through a land that holds some of the most sought after trade items in the ancient Middle East. So, rivers are the birthplace of civilizations, and the birthplace of rivers—the springs from which they flow, is Eden. That is, the fountain of whatever that gives birth to human civilization… is a garden.
Genesis reports that God made all kinds of trees to grow in this garden; humanity was to tend to this garden and eat of its trees—specifically, its fruits. Now, in the opening creation account, the first living things God spoke into being were seed bearing plants and trees. Again, this is because for the ancient Hebrews, a “seed” is more than merely the embryonic form of plants; “seed” is what defines Life, what makes a living thing perpetuate its kind, and so, animals and even humans have “seeds”; the closest modern term for “seed” would be something like genes—DNA or RNA or such. Thus, for the ancient Hebrews, plants that bear seeds were the most fundamental kind of Life; yet, alongside plants, God created trees, which are plants, but bear fruits with their seeds. Like plants, trees represent a primordial and fundamental level of Life, yet they are somehow more than mere plants.
There is something about trees that make them loom in our human psyche. The very imagery of a tree is that which emerges from a “seed” deep beneath the earth we tread and rises toward the distant sky, spreading its branches toward every direction. This image resonates in our mind, and thus trees—especially very old, and very large trees—were often sacred objects. Numerous cultures across the world, from the Norse, Iranian, Indian, Siberian, to the Mesoamerican peoples, tell stories of “World Trees,” which support the entire world, or connect the different aspects of the cosmos together. This image of “tree” is rather like the very concept of Life itself, arising from the inert matter, represented by the earth, and spreading wide toward boundless and open possibility, represented by the sky. This imagery is also like the entire history of Life, rising from the deep, forgotten past to the unseen, to the boundless possible futures. That may be why even today, we use the image of a tree to describe the entire evolutionary history of Life itself; we even call it a “tree”: the “evolutionary tree,” or the “phylogenetic tree.”
So, God creates these trees. God first speaks forth Light, and with it a world where things can happen in time; God then speaks forth the sky that separate the waters, and with it a world where there are different things, realms, and possibilities; God then speaks forth earth, a world where things can have shapes and forms, and then speaks to that world so that it becomes capable of bringing forth seeds and then trees. Then, the second account, God brings forth trees to form a garden—a garden where creatures that represent God emerges. These creatures are called, “Adam,” or humankind. Then, God speaks to “Adam,” and tells him that humanity is to tend to this garden and eat from its trees.
Now that we again had a glimpse of the sheer scale of what this Genesis narrative of humanity in the garden is hinting at, let’s continue. God tells humanity that they can eat of the “trees” in the garden; specifically, they can eat their fruits. This word, “fruit,” does not itself appear in this passage about eating from the trees in Eden. However, it does appear in the opening creation narrative where God presents plants with “seeds,” and trees with “fruits” as food for humanity; then, the word appears in the narrative in the third chapter of Genesis as “Adam” eats the “fruits” of trees in Eden. The word “fruit” is also an interesting term; like the word, “seed,” it means more than just “fruits” like apples or pears or oranges. Just as “seed” is that which perpetuates a particular form of Life, “fruit” is that which Life produces—it is what Life culminates to. Most simply, fruits are what a living thing produces once it matures. For herbs and plants, fruits are seeds; for trees, it is literally fruits; for animals and humans, their young are their fruits, or specifically the “fruits of the womb.” But, human actions and labor also bear “fruits,” so that a number of the passages in the Hebrew Bible use the same word, “fruit,” to mean, rewards or results. And of course, children or the next generation are in a very real sense, the “result” of the lives of the previous generation. These different things are linked together in that single idea of “fruits”. And this isn’t just the quirk of the Hebrew language; this is true in English, and I’d add for Korean as well.
So in this garden, trees, which are more than trees, bear fruits, which are more than fruits, and are presented to humanity, which is more than Homo Sapiens. Why can’t we read all this simply as just a garden, with just trees, with man and woman eating simple fruits? Well, we can. It does mean that too. Just a couple of people living in a garden of fruit trees, having a good time. However, it’s also more than that because Eden is not just any garden. It is the garden—the first garden, the spring of the rivers that give birth to all civilizations, the garden planted by God Himself in the Genesis story, which in turn is the root story of all stories. We will wait until another episode to explore the significance of this unique kind of story- telling that Genesis presents us, but for now, we need to explore Eden further.
Humanity is to tend to the garden of Eden. The idea of the “garden” is that which is between the realm of humans and the realm beyond humans—or in today’s terms, civilization and Nature. Garden bridges these two realms. Eden is not a forest or a jungle. It is not wild. But, neither is it a city. Humanity did not build it or shape it; they do not make the trees grow, nor can they destroy them—and there’s one tree they would’ve if they could’ve, which we’ll talk about shortly. Now, humankind is the caretaker of Eden. Their task is to work in harmony with Creation. Trees grow by themselves, but humans tend to them. They learn and know which trees grow; they learn what things rise from below the earth and spreads toward the boundless possibilities beyond the sky. Then, they help them grow, and in some way direct how they grow and bear their result.
Humanity is to tend to the trees of Eden. And in the immediate sense, the first human couple took care of the trees and ate their fruits. But, in a broader sense, trees represent something like Nature—or more precisely, the world around us that is filled with life and possibilities; and the ideal way that humanity is to engage with the world around us that God created and placed us in, is to nurture it, let them grow to its full potential, with understanding of what it will bear once it does so. And God tells humankind that whatever culminates from this process is granted to them to keep and enjoy. But, meat of living animals is explicitly off the menu. What God grants humanity in Eden is not the life of other living things; rather, it is the fruit of trees—that is, what Life brings forth when it is tended to.
Yet, there is one tree that they must beware of. At the center of Eden were two particular trees of importance; the first was called the “tree of Life,” and the other was the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God tells “Adam” that though humankind may eat from every tree, eating from that second tree at the center, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, will bring them death.
Why? What is that tree anyway? We get one clue. Before eating from that tree, humanity was naked, but felt no shame.
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There is something fundamentally different, Genesis suggests, about humanity that lived in Eden. That is, different from us. And the thing is, according to Genesis, we are the humankind after the Fall; we are what humanity becomes after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, our only point of reference to understand humanity is… well, us. So, to understand the difference between us and the human couple living in Eden, we need to pay close attention to how they changed after they ate from that tree. We will explore those changes in the next episode, but, for this episode, we can go over what they would’ve been like before those changes.
One thing that already stands out about them is their seemingly perfect harmony with Nature. As tend to the garden, the trees God brought forth, they seem almost like most idealized version of the elves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth narratives. That wouldn’t be too surprising though, since Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and the Christian worldview profoundly influence his thoughts and writings. But, what stands out more—what Genesis explicitly comments, is that they were naked and did not know it until they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now, I’ve heard a number of different ways of thinking about what that meant. First is that they were innocent—though, innocent in what ways is the real question. Some then seem to think of this as something sexual, but it is quite clear that it couldn’t be that. That’s because when they realize that they are naked, they don’t feel aroused, or embarrassed, anything like that—instead, they become afraid. More to the point, they become afraid of God because they are naked. This implies they become aware of their vulnerability, and possibly mortality. That seems to be part of it, but it can’t just be that. After all, God told them they will die if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—and they understood what that meant. That is, they understood what “death” means, and that they can die in certain circumstances. I’ve also heard it is about becoming self-conscious, and whenever we are very self-conscious and fearful, we feel as if we are naked. But, this by no means would mean that the human couple in Eden had no self-awareness. After all, Adam called the first person he met, the woman, the “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh,” which is rather hard to do without the concept of the self.
Rather, what Genesis seems to suggest is that this sense of self-consciousness and vulnerability is a kind of profound disconnect between our self and everything around us—between ourselves and… reality, for the lack of better words. We can think of it this; consider when you have a mastery of something. Say, driving a car. You’re a novice driver when you are very self-conscious; in your mind, you run frantically through what you’re doing, what you’re supposed to be doing, and what you’re failing to do as you fearfully turn the wheels left and right to direct your car. A novice driver is disconnected from his car and the road. He feels vulnerable and bare before the road and in his car, and his thoughts and senses turn intensely toward himself and his inadequacies. When you’ve mastered driving though, you simply… drive. Then, you’re not really thinking about how you need to drive the car; you simply turn the wheels to make your car move the way you need it to. Your thoughts don’t turn to what mistakes you may be making, or how you are inadequate—you simply keep your eyes on the road, for signs of danger, and for any enjoyable scenery. When you have mastery, you are connected with what is around you, at one with your car and the road you travel.
So it is with life. When you are truly immersed in what you’re doing, in whatever you are interacting with, your sense of self fades. It’s not that you come to think that you don’t exist or something, or you lose the knowledge of what you’re doing. Rather, you forget yourself, or you lose that boundary between you and what you are doing at the moment. You become one with what you’re interacting with. When what you’re reading or listening is truly inspiring, or your work or your hobby is meaningful and engaging, or the person you’re with is so captivating, you lose your track of time, your worries and concerns—your sense of mortality and vulnerability. You become connected; you’re in the “zone.”
But, what if you are like that all the time, in everything you do? What if this is how you relate to the whole of reality, what you’re engaged with at all times, in this way? What if this is how it is with your work, or people in your lives, or nature? This state of mind is, in fact, often sought after in different religious traditions, in various schools of Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism.
Reality is God speaking, according to Christianity. And humanity in Eden is so meaningfully engaged and connected with God that speaks, that they do not feel naked, self-conscious, and mortally vulnerable before God. That is how they lived in the garden, how man and woman engaged each other, and how they tended to the trees that rose from the ground and spread toward the boundless sky, and bringing forth fruits they would take in, and enjoy.
Then, something happened. And they fell from that kind of life. There was one tree that if you eat from what it produces, it would tear you away from that life.
And we approached it, reached our hands to pluck its fruit, and ate it.
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So, please join me as we explore the Fall of humanity in Genesis, “on Broken Trust,” next time on What do you mean God speaks?
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