There is something jarringly mythological about the biblical tale of the garden of Eden. The premise that taking a bite from a magical fruit will produce wisdom or immortality seems more appropriate to fairy tales or pagan folklore than to a sober monotheistic theology. The same goes for the image of a jealous, mean-spirited deity who blocks his creatures’ access to precious gifts because he is worried that “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.”
And at the other extreme of the conundrum— if eating the forbidden fruit was indeed a crime, then the culprits seem to have gotten away with it. After all, the knowledge that they acquired was not taken away from them in the end, and they continued to exercise it afterwards.
Traditional Jewish exegetes, who strove to maintain a balance between the Torah’s sanctity and its rational morality, struggled to explain the true significance of those fateful trees that grew in the garden of Eden.
The difficulties in accepting the plain sense of the story impelled the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria to prefer an allegorical interpretation, in which the special trees symbolize, respectively, general goodness (life) and practical virtue (knowledge of good and evil).
One of the most compelling symbolic readings of the story was provided by Rabbi Moses Maimonides at the beginning of his Guide of the Perplexed. What provoked the great philosopher to suggest his interpretation was a query that had been posed to him by an unnamed person; and that challenge provided him with an excellent opportunity to outline some of his fundamental views about the human condition and the ultimate purpose of life.
Maimonides introduced his discussion of the garden of Eden story in connection with his assertion that the “form” and “image” of God that the Torah ascribes to humans are by no means referring to any physical resemblance, but rather to the rational intellect, which is the sole feature by virtue of which people can bear a resemblance to their creator. It follows from this that the only suitable way for humans to pursue our ultimate spiritual vocation is by perfecting our intellectual potential in the quest for absolute, eternal truth.
It is with reference to this premise that Maimonides tells us about the question he was asked about the story of Adam and Eve. The questioner understood the Torah to be saying that humans before their sin were lacking any faculty of moral discernment, and in that sense they were no different from any other animals. It was the eating of the forbidden fruit that bestowed on them the knowledge of good and evil. Thus it turned out that their sinful act of disobedience enabled them to successfully rise to a higher rung in the hierarchy! This, the questioner objected, hardly seems fair.
After briefly maligning his interlocutor for the shallowness of his interpretation (which surely reflected the man’s morally dissolute life), Maimonides reverts to his original claim that when God first fashioned humans in his “image,’ what the Torah really meant to say was that he was endowing them with a pure, divine intellect—for after all, it would have made no sense to issue the command about avoiding certain fruits in the garden unless they possessed the intelligence to make choices about whether or not to obey. The key to a correct understanding of the story lies precisely in the fact that eating from the trees did not elevate Adam and Eve to a superior state–but quite the contrary, it dragged them down from the loftier state of authentic rationality to a lower level of mere “fuzzy” discourse—turning them into beings who deal with subjective categories like “good” and “bad,”
In their original state, as God really intended them to be, humans were wholly rational Spock-like beings, comparable perhaps to computers housed in robotic bodies of flesh and blood. As such, they were designed to think only in terms of “true” and “false,” to contemplate the unchanging laws of nature and the eternal verities of logic and metaphysics. In accordance with Maimonides’ philosophical ideal of religious fulfillment, it is only by directing our minds toward the contemplation of abstract concepts that transcend the ephemeral status of material or physical objects that humans can aspire to eventual immortality.
Thus, according to Maimonides’ interpretation of the biblical story of the garden of Eden, instead of fulfilling their authentic vocations as rational beings with knowledge of absolute truth, eating the forbidden fruit downgraded the human race to the inferior status of “knowledge of good and bad”; that is to say: they were now limited to the kinds of moral and aesthetic opinions that are contingent upon the vagaries of changing social situations. Our need to cope with such situations distracts us from contemplation of more crucial metaphysical matters. Contrary to the premise assumed by Maimonides’ questioner, eating the forbidden fruit did not lift the first couple to a God-like status, but rather it lowered them to an existence more similar to that of brute animals.
It should be noted that this assessment differed greatly from that of Philo, who argued for the superiority of ethical virtue precisely because of the way that it blends theoretical and ethical perfection into an integrated life.
Indeed, what impelled Adam and Eve to disobey the divine prohibition was their inability to resist the biological urges that were built into their physical bodies. Angels, according to the standard medieval understanding accepted by Maimonides, are “separate intelligences,” beings of pure thought without material substance. Humans, on the other hand, were fashioned as a hybrid of abstract intellect and physical body—and that combination did not initially function successfully.
In keeping with this explanation, Maimonides points out that prior to their transgression, Adam and Eve were not aware of their nakedness. Clearly they were not suffering from physical blindness, so they knew that they were unclothed; however, that fact was initially irrelevant to their intellectual lives. Unfortunately, their biological desires made them unable to resist the enticements of the savoury fruit.
Ultimately, according to Maimonides—and contrary to the shallow reading of the scriptural tale—there was no magical ingredient in the fruit that expanded their minds to new levels of knowledge; rather, their failure to resist its allure was a symptom of the general inability of their minds to maintain control over their physical natures. The same realization now made it necessary for them to restrain their sexual desires by covering themselves with clothing.
How, then, according to Maimonides, are we to account for the statement in the Torah where the Almighty expresses concerns that after eating the fruit, humans will “be as God, knowing good and evil”?
In order to avoid this difficulty, Maimonides has to explain the text in an ingenious and unconventional manner. The Hebrew word “elohim” that is usually rendered as “God” can also have some other meanings. In rabbinic interpretations, the term is occasionally applied to human judges. In the present instance, Maimonides prefers this option. So instead of the theologically absurd scenario of an absolute God who feels threatened by the prospect of competition from puny human rivals, the Almighty was really expressing his disappointment in mankind for falling short of their sublimely philosophical potential as rational minds, and sinking instead into the illusory realm of mere “truthishness” or “alternative facts.”
And with all due respect to Maimonides, I must confess that—to judge from our recent political follies—I’m finding it distressingly hard to find any evidence that our species has fully digested the fruits of knowledge of good and evil.