What do you think? Could Adam and Eve have left the garden on their own had they wanted to? Were they free to come and go? Were they prisoners? Could they have stormed out in protest? This post begins a written interchange about biblical stories, traditional texts, and contemporary engagement of such. The exchange is between myself and another who will be introduced in the follow-up post in about a week.
This question was posed to me in a fairly thoughtful and serious way recently, and it was reporting a personal conversation with yet a third person. So I don't propose that what I have to say here addresses accurately, or at all, the original context or aim of the initial discussion.
At any rate, I want to respond as it was presented to me---thoughtfully and seriously. Upon hearing the question, I immediately went (in my thinking) to the Genesis stories. Doing so, It would be easy to simply offer up a “yes” or “no” and then tell why, but I think this question deserves a step back before any direct reply is offered. In what follows, I will use the word "text" to mean any block of written text (words, phrases, etc.) by anyone.
So the perennial problem is: It is always possible to ask an infinite number of questions to any text. This, of course, places that text at a great disadvantage, because it cannot defend itself outside its own words, phrases, and internal context. Depending on the nature of a given text, it might not matter, since texts might have different agendas: for example some texts might seek to evoke particular kinds of feelings, whereas some others might seek to evoke particular types of meaning, or information, or whatever. Not all texts are the same and so cannot be brushed in the same direction.
So then, . . . I might feel justified—even compelled—to ask any question I like of a text and then expect (demand) that this text give an answer to my satisfaction, when in fact it cannot.
Texts, actually, are like frozen objects. They can't change on their own and they can often be easily broken if bent in one direction or another. However, since texts are objects, they can be exploited infinitely by readers who don't attend to the "sanctity" of said text. By "sanctity," I speak not of anything religious, but rather of intention, as in what a text might be trying to accomplish.
So then, if as a reader I attend more to my own curiosity than to the "sanctity" of a text for its own sake (and this is absolutely the case for many readers), then I might feel justified—even compelled—to ask any question I like of a text and then expect (demand) that this text give an answer to my satisfaction, when in fact it cannot.
Try this: write a paragraph about what you think is most important in life (so that it is now a "text") and then hand it to someone else to read. How will you feel when the reader starts making statements based on a word or phrase you wrote, but in a way that the text you wrote actually does not address? None of us likes it when others do such things to our own words. But we are far more reckless about this with texts by others, and we act as if we have a right to violate the rights of texts—especially ancient texts, and maybe especially biblical texts since many of us think we own them (i.e., they are ours!).
So, now Adam and Eve. This very ancient story in Genesis is addressing very specific questions, perspectives, and world-views, and it is attempting to accomplish some very specific things, especially about the character of God and the status, purpose, and fate of humans in God's care. There are whole books addressing the ancient issues for Genesis. E.g., I encourage every reader interested in such things, to read Gordon Wenham's Word commentary on Genesis (vol 1), pp. 49-55 to at least get a start at addressing these concerns, and for even more detail, pp. 55-91. If you are not accustomed to such books, this will not be necessarily easy reading, because the main concern of the commentary is the Genesis text in its own context—as best as we can tell.
But then many of us tire of such detail and are interested only in "what the text means for me now!", and so we decide we can simply read the text, and then just start asking any question that strikes our fancy, with the assumption (or insistence) it is a legitimate question.
So could Adam and Eve leave the garden if they wanted to? The first answer to this is, Genesis does not care about this one way or the other and is not trying to address such a question. It is not simply that the question does not get asked; it is rather that the entire layout, intent, structure, and aim of the story goes in a completely different direction and is not at all intended to address "whether they could leave (on their own)." One might just as well ask,
- Did Adam and Eve need sleep in the Garden?
- If so, where did they sleep? In a tree? In a cave? Standing up?
- Were they like Tarzan and Jane? Could they have swung through the trees on vines?
- Were there vines in the Garden?
- Did they fashion tools for food? For building/making things?
- Could they have cut down trees and built a house?
- Would it have had a roof? Did it rain?
- Was the roof a 4/12 or 9/12 pitch?
- How about a porch?
- How long were they in the garden. A day? A week? A year? A hundred years?
- How many times did the serpent appear to Eve? And/or to Adam?
- Did the serpent have legs? Horns? What color was it?
- Were all the animals in the garden? If not which ones?
- Were there other people? Anywhere? If so, where did they come from?
- A thousand other questions . . .
- including, of course, "Who was Cain's wife?"
One might dismiss such questions as "just mocking questions," but they aren't that at all. Not even the one about Tarzan and Jane. Once we start asking questions that have nothing to do with the actual text, we show that, in actuality, we're not really attending to the text, or to what it is trying to do, because we are more focused on our own questions—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with what the text is talking about. (This, by the way, is the biggest problem with the Creation Museum and Ark Museum. The text is simply made to serve larger, more overpowering theological agendas.)
When we ask "Could Adam and Eve walk out of the garden if they wanted to?" we change the conditions, context, direction, and focus of the text. So from the standpoint of what the text of Genesis is trying to do, the text is actually neutral on this question: It does not know; it does not care; it does not even hint in this direction. In fact, this question changes the subject. The same is true for all the other questions above and a whole lot of other questions that often get forced onto Genesis (such as whether evolution can even possibly be true).
Once we start asking questions that have nothing to do with the actual text, we show that, in actuality, we're not really attending to the text, or to what it is trying to do, because we are more focused on our own questions—which may have nothing whatsoever to do with what the text is talking about.
Now, if the question were asked in the following way: So could Adam and Eve be forced to leave the garden even if they didn't want to go? This one is at least closer to the main point (i.e., what the text is trying to say) and can get an immediate "You bet!" as an answer. Even so, the main point has to do with the importance of obedience and the consequences of disobedience (i.e., what happens when God's grace and commands are disrespected and even flouted), the origins and seriousness of sin and of suffering in the lives of human beings, and a few other similar things. For example, the parallels between the Temple and Garden are striking and almost certainly intentional—a concept fully worthy of exploration.
Now, if we are not concerned with what the text is trying to say, but only with what kind of reactions come to us (i.e., feelings prompted, etc.) when reading it from different perspectives, then anything is possible, and as readers we might find ourselves excitedly pursuing many kinds of speculations. I do not suggest that these types of readings must be worthless or that they are always unhelpful to us, but I do suggest that these types of mirror readings cannot legitimately be called "what Genesis is attempting to convey."
So, for example, whether the story allowed for the couple finding a back way out of the Garden (as if God were keeping them captive or they were in some kind of confinement, as if God were the Egyptians and the couple was Israel) might be an interesting thing to contemplate, but this is going in exactly the opposite direction of the text itself. Even the clever answer, "Yes, they could choose to leave the Garden by disobeying God and getting kicked out!" is not the intention, direction, or focus of this text. It might be worth thinking about, but it is not what Genesis is attempting to communicate.
Gary D. Collier