Being in near total agreement with your entire treatment of this subject, I want to recall your quasi-canonical use of Thomas Hobbes’ text which offers an apt warning against blind (or uncritical) reliance on the authority of books. Because I speak directly to people who take special stock of the Bible as a book (and I, too, am one such person), it is appropriate to note that both Jesus and Paul sounded similar warnings as Hobbes, even if they have different specific things they are speaking to, for, or against. All seem to agree that while books can be (to great benefit) counted as sacred, paradoxically, those same books, if misused, can be stifling.
The Canonical Paradox
This canonical paradox often gets lost on Bible readers, and it reminds me of two quotes I keep on my desk:
The first is by the 17th century French moralist, François de La Rochefoucauld, who wrote the following maxim:
Then there’s the one by Luke’s Jesus (16:10), which is stated quite poetically:
There is an interesting tension between these. They may be true, depending on their context. They are not cut-and-dried formulas that apply equally in all situations; they are, rather, artful maxims, reaching out to be useful for living.
This also exactly describes the function of a biblical canon, even though it is not normally seen in these terms. Most pointedly, what is a biblical canon? Is it a guide to the blind? Or is it to be followed blindly? This is a paradoxical tension pulling us in opposite directions in order to help us think through life’s ever-the-same, yet ever-changing, issues.
But this is not the usual understanding of a biblical canon. Most think of a biblical canon as the biblical canon and of the finished product; the Bible bound; the NT and OT; the 66 books. Most, if they want to learn about the canon, think of it as a curiosity or a kind of interesting but unnecessary history about the final stages of “how we got the Bible”; of how God's predetermined New Testament books were finally collected during the 2nd to the 4th centuries C.E. It's seen as the last stage of the Bible becoming the Bible.
But they don’t think (because they haven’t been trained to think) that the heart and soul of canon is not the result or final product (a set of books), but rather the process that produced them from the very beginning. The actual power of canon is found in the details of how the process begins much earlier in community stories (such as are found in many OT stories but also in the Gospels) that are deemed useful by the community and so are remembered and get repeated, how they become tradition, how tradition gets handed down and becomes sacred, how the sacred gets written down so all can remember and partake, and how these are supplemented with other types of literature (including letters and such).
Most think of a biblical canon as . . .
the last stage of the Bible becoming the Bible.
But then something changes. At some point, some of what is written gets codified and eventually bound in leather and gold—or so very often in cement—with all kinds of new stories about how God planned this-and-only-this particular collection of documents from before the foundation of the world. No longer is canon a process, a living, breathing, vibrant story of community existence, a community searching for God and listening to him, acts of remembrance and faithfulness. Instead, canon becomes (in the minds of many of its adherents) an object, a self-fulfilling proof of its own existence, and it becomes important in itself (even if against it’s own wishes).
So, when vibrant canonical processes wane in the shadow of revered object, the garden has been left behind once again.
Could Adam and Eve have left the orchard? Why, yes. They do it all the time. There is always forbidden fruit and some snake to wave it in front of us, and we are always lured to it. Genesis 3 can be seen as a parable. An allegory. A figure. A metaphor. Even so, none of this should be understood as a denigration of the collection of scriptures that millions hold dear (including myself); it is rather the use and misuse of such texts that is at issue.
Do I think my "reading about canon" is a correct reading of Genesis 3 for today’s readers of this book called the Bible? Actually, I do. I think it’s a correct, a proper, and a powerful reading. The Bible’s very first book and its very opening story can be understood as a warning not to violate the intent, scope, and use of any sacred text, a text which points a reader toward life. It is a needed reading which many or most will refuse to hear. But there it is in black and white. (BTW, this flexibility and adaptability of the Genesis 3 story to be applied in so many ways is precisely why, for this exchange of posts, I chose the painting, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" by Hieronymus Bosch, between 1490 and 1510. This painting clearly refers in some way to the Adam and Eve story, even though it has been understood variously from moral warnings to depictions of paradise lost and many other things.)
However, all of this said, I have no delusions that the authors of Genesis necessarily had any of this in mind. And I strongly maintain that such readings should never be read back onto Genesis as though that was its intent. The authors of that literature were, quite frankly, focused on other, more important (for them), more urgent, and more relevant concerns. The fact that we are now able to read this story with such richness or breadth of range cannot be allowed to force itself onto the function it plays within the context it occurs in Genesis. Hopefully, the reverse will happen.
And on all of this, I am guessing that you and I have similar thinking.
But before I go, I want merely to quibble with a statement of yours, agreeing with it, all the while quibbling. I’m not nit-picking at you; I’m making a case that a better and clearer distinction could and should be made. You make the statement:
“That is to say, finding the point moot, we ought not “demand”—as you say—that the text answer. I would, however, contend that there is a broader way to see the question.” (my bold, gdc)
Your final sentence is, I fear, understated and could, I think, be misleading. For, what I’m suggesting is not an either/or way of seeing texts (which is how, I fear, your sentence could be read—not that you mean it that way.) It is not either we could look at texts while respecting the context or we could see it from a broader perspective. It is a both/and approach that is needed.
This needs to be made exceptionally clear. However, this is not always easy depending on how hearers are ready to hear. For when I start talking about respecting a text within context, and so I make the statement that Genesis does not care about and does not discuss the question of Adam and Eve being able to run out a back gate of the orchard, at this point some want to panic and jump to all kinds of conclusions that I am saying that there are no further readings of texts allowed, or that Genesis is not applicable to us, or some other such nonsense. (I’m not saying you did this.)
But there is a nonsense here and it is this: readers of the Bible simply love to force their opinions and later readings or imaginations back onto biblical texts and then to imagine and claim that those are what the biblical texts are really talking about. In doing so, they show clearly that they don’t know the difference between
- What a text says, and
- What they think it means.
And this is a very important distinction. My focus is to try to get Bible readers to first of all see or realize the difference here and then to respect that difference.
Readers of the Bible simply love to force their opinions and later readings or imaginations back onto biblical texts and then to imagine and claim that those are what the biblical texts are really talking about.
I fully agree (and I have for many years of writing and teaching), that if we get buried in a text and won’t leave from it, it’s a disaster. (Hence, as you say, the Bible is “silent about this” so we can never talk about it or have an opinion on it—this is just nuts.) But actually what happens is, the theory is not the practice. The same ones who hide behind silence also use Genesis 1-3 as a literal science book, reading a round earth in a solar system and seemingly infinite mass of galaxies into the Genesis texts (when none of that is there!). It is the amount of stuff we are quite eager and willing to read into texts that concerns me the most. At the very least, these need to be separated clearly. THEN we will be able to explore more energetically, faithfully, and productively how biblical texts might help us through both (1) what the text says, and in (2) what we think it means. This is a vitally needed area of attention, for example, in addressing things biblical texts simply don’t specifically touch on: nuclear war, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and so much more. The fact that ancient biblical texts do touch on many issues incredibly relevant to us (like human nature, ethics, morals, sin, righteousness, etc.) is enough reason to consider why and how such things kept being discussed in those early communities and whether their solutions might help us now with the same or similar questions and struggles. This is where we see the flexible and fluid nature of the canonical paradox at play, and why we need to become aware of and conversant with it. Some things won’t continue to apply (e.g., not only footwashing, but other more important things); but there are significant things that will. That’s the true nature, function, and power of canon.
So, when you start talking about “an independent & intertextual mythos regarding the names Adam & Eve” such as “Paradise Lost . . . Good Omens . . .” and more, all of this is clearly in area #2, “what we think it means.” And I fully agree, that “if the question sparks interest in us,” we should certainly not ignore the interest. Not only would I say, with you, that
. . . at this point, what I believe is happening is an examination of personal relationship with important / powerful / salient myths. It will be more revealing about us than it will about any kind of canonical reading. Nonetheless I think it neither valueless nor irresponsible, provided we understand the frame we're working in . . .
I would say more explicitly that a truly canonical reading does not imply a reading confined by a given text, but a dynamic reading within community as we search for God and as we seek to listen.
And I will close with several more questions. Because now I want to ask, not only whether Adam and Eve could have left, but . . .
- Could Eve have left Adam while in the orchard, charging him with sexual assault?
- Could Adam or Eve have abused the other while in the orchard?
- Did Adam and Eve ever argue while in the orchard? Or anywhere else?
I see that there is no end to questions.