In Judaism, “D’var Torah” has dual meanings. First, it refers to the study of the Torah—not just the traditional five books but the entire Tanakh. Second, it can refer specifically to an analysis of the parasha—the weekly reading portion from the Torah. A D’var Torah often serves the function of a sermon.—The Editors
“And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’” (Bereshith, Genesis 2:15–17).
In these statements, humans are taught a very important concept: God expects his human creations to work to earn their keep. They are not to just take from that which is easily available but to first do meaningful work—to cultivate and expand their renewable food resources—before they are permitted to eat. By extension, the concept of working for one’s keep also teaches a valuable lesson on the care and use of all resources, particularly renewable resources.
But why would God not want Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and, should he do so, why impose the penalty of death? The answer may be that to know good and evil, one would also require a knowledge of the physical, chemical, and biological nature of the environment in which one exists and the interrelationships between and among them. Thus, the admonition is to avoid all knowledge, not just the moral knowledge of right and wrong. It would appear that God wants humans to remain ignorant and obedient to divine commands.
The divine admonition seems to teach that there is a biblical basis for religion to promote ignorance. As Martin Luther said, to be a Christian, one must first tear reason from the mind. Edith Stein referred to religion as “midnight madness.” It is from this exegesis that we learn a possible origin of the ministerial pronunciation of evolution as “eeeeevilooooshun.” It suggests that we shun the evil of knowledge.
We next learn from the Garden of Eden story that God created woman and that a serpent convinced her that neither she nor Adam would die if one of them ate the forbidden fruit. Eve succumbed to the great temptation and convinced Adam to join her in this adventure of disobeying a divine commandment. And lo, the serpent was right: they did not die that day.
The lessons that we take away from this action—or lack of action—on the part of God is that God lied; that is, Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and did not die that day as the divine warning had declared would happen (“in the day thou eatest thereof”). From this passage, we learn that there is a biblical justification for mendacious behavior. And, if God can lie, religion can lie, and it should not surprise anyone that religious spokespersons—the clergy—have a mandate to lie. (Is there anyone who has never encountered lying by clergy?) It is important to note that such a lesson in dishonesty is one of the first lessons taught in the Bible, in the second and third chapters of Bereshith.
Not only did God fail Biology 101 (see chapter 9 in my book The Naked Mind), we now can conclude that God undoubtedly failed Ethics 101.
Christianity used the story of the eating of the forbidden fruit to develop some of its most fundamental concepts: the fall of man, original sin, the need for redemption, the need for a savior whose sacrifice for the “sins of man” would provide for salvation, and of course the need for a pure woman to give birth to God’s son, who would become part of a single, but triune, godhead. Thus, the notion of the immaculate conception was born as well as that of the virgin birth. It is these religious developments that greatly exacerbated the growing rift between the nascent and developing Christian movement and its long-established parent, Judaism. Their separation aided in the development of religious anti-Semitism—what Maurice Samuels called “The Great Hate” and Harry Golden referred to as the one constant in Western civilization.
Ever since the introduction of those religious concepts, Christianity has had to defend its fundamental dogmas or go out of business. Fear and harsh punishment were great tools whereby Christianity could try to control, if not prevent, heresy. There was great fear in the public of retribution from the church if someone propounded the profound heresy of declaring—or worse, demonstrating—that any aspect of the dogma was false. It was important for religion to fight the development of science. It was important for religion to keep people ignorant. Charles Darwin waited almost twenty years before publishing his great treatise for fear of clerical retribution and, as a result, almost lost priority rights to his concepts.
Darwin and Alfred Wallace were especially dangerous men (heretics?). The ideas they propounded in their great publications were, and still are, the cause of much unnecessary religiously inspired rancor in society. As I wrote in The Naked Mind:
The fear of church retaliation derives from the meaning of evolution to the underlying basis of Christianity. Consider: Evolution implies there were no “first” human beings (Adam and Eve) that were created de novo either by a “divine creator” or an “intelligent designer.” Thus, there could and would be no basis for developing the religious concepts such as “original sin” and the “fall of man” and their derivative concept of “the need for salvation”—redemption from sin. Ergo, evolution makes the death of Jesus and everything that flows from it meaningless. . . .
Taking humans out of the centrality of life and showing that all forms of life are related put evolution at odds with the prevailing religious view that humans are the result of a separate and special creation by a personal creator. The view that there is no need to hypothesize a special creation for humans is the primary cause of tension that exists between certain religious people and the knowledge of evolution generated by the biological and related sciences.
Because I was told by many clergy of different faith communities that as a human with finite abilities, I am incapable of knowing the infinite mind of God, I will not speculate as to why God did not tell Adam the truth. There are many conjectures by numerous scholars to explain God’s behavior. Despite all this energy expended on mental gymnastics, the result is still conjecture, not fact. The only fact in the original Garden of Eden story is that God did not keep his word, that he did not tell Adam the truth.
The Garden of Eden narrative has had a great impact on society. To this day there are people who prefer reveling in ignorance and want—demand—others to dwell in the sewer of ignorance with them. One would have to understand the minds of true believers to answer the question as to why anyone would want to live in ignorance. Nonetheless, the divine injunction favoring ignorance remains. It is interesting to note the dearth, if not absence, of exegesis on this subject.
For six decades, I have been battling the encroachment of religion on science. I am tired of having to tell people that there can be no agreement between science and religion. I am tired of people telling me that they can reconcile the two and demanding that I recant my position. The only successful reconciliation I have encountered required compartmentali
zation of the minds of religiously oriented people. However, it is important to remember that only the survival of religion is greatly dependent upon people successfully reconciling the two; science has no such need.
One devastating result of the Garden of Eden story is religiously induced tension in society. One of the important societal areas of religious and governmental entanglement is in developing curricula for the public schools and their funding. Vast and powerful forces are brought to bear on politicians to defend religion’s place in the public forum and at the public money teat. Unfortunately, too many politicians—from governors, legislators, and school-board members to aspirants to public office—are eager to pander to ignorance and support the deadly influence of religion on the public schools. All of this activity is fundamentally detrimental to the survival, continued growth, development, and evolution of the great American society devoted to individual freedom of thought and action (as long as there is no harm to others), public education, and personal achievement.
It would be going too far astray to delve into political, economic, and social issues associated with public funding of charter, private, and parochial schools, and the evil they are perpetrating on society.
Another lesson emanating from the Garden of Eden story pertains to the so-called degeneration of public education. In all the public discussions of causation of this degeneration, predictable emphasis has been laid on the quality of teachers and the actions of teachers’ unions. Political ideology, like religion, must dominate.
America’s rapidly changing demographics—bringing different traditions and value systems as well as economic factors that influence them—tend to be given secondary status. What is inevitably omitted from the decision-making processes—aside from the rancorous consideration given to evolution—is the deadly influence of religious ideology on the substance of education. The subject is avoided or falsely treated as sacrosanct. There seems to be more emphasis on belief/faith than on fact/reason. I cannot help but wonder: if politicians and the general public knew the true meaning of the story of the Garden of Eden and were versed, at least cursorily, in modern biblical scholarship, would there be less rancor, more funding for, and greater quality of education?
A final lesson from the Garden of Eden story concerns the awareness of the world gained by Adam and Eve after daring to challenge a divine commandment. With their newly discovered powers of reason, the first couple saw the world for what it is. And, as a result of their banishment, they had to rely on fact and reason more than belief and faith for survival. Imagine if people today would learn that lesson and look back on history and at the world today and compare the quality of life in a world dominated by fact/reason (science and technology) to that in a world dominated by belief/faith.
If only the public could, and would, critically read the Bible as well as daily news reports and not depend on biased third parties to tell them what has been written and what the written word means—especially people who try to give themselves an aura of divine majesty by wearing robes or adorning their heads with mitres and carrying scepters as well as embellishing their names with letters indicating questionable degrees just so they can control the minds and pocketbooks of the ignorant and easily deluded.
There are powerful lessons that could be learned from the Garden of Eden story.
Sheldon F. Gottlieb is a retired physiologist and professor of biological sciences who writes on science for professional and public consumption, with emphasis on evolution vs. creationism, traumatic brain injury, neurological disorders, and infectious diseases, as well as on social and political trends and events, education, and religion. He is the author of The Naked Mind (Best Publishing Company, 2003).