The biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis Chapters 2-3) is foundational to our Western culture and has influenced the upbringing and psychology of all of us, whether we realize it or not.
Mythologists as well as many biblical scholars recognize the story as being in the genre of myth, which makes it appropriate to analyze it from the perspective of depth psychology, among other approaches. Indeed, as Joseph Campbell concluded, “This story yields its meaning only to a psychological interpretation” (2001, p. 50). Further, Carl Jung (CW 9.2, para. 230) had already written that “cosmogonic myths are, at bottom, symbols for the coming of consciousness.” But the literature about the Eden story taking such a psychological approach is scant, largely due to traditional and problematic gaps and tensions between academic disciplines. My recent book, The Mythology of Eden, is in part an interdisciplinary effort to take on this fascinating and important task and advance our knowledge on the subject. Below I distill some of my findings from this approach to the Eden myth, and I hope they break some new ground
The Story as Told
In the story, Yahweh warns Adam (before Eve is created) not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, or he will die that very day. In many mythologies and religions, including traditional Canaanite-Israelite religion, sacred trees have been thought of as conduits for connecting with and directly experiencing the divine, whereas the Eden story’s author insisted upon a covenant (contract) relationship between the divine (Yahweh) on the one hand and the human (earthly, profane, non-divine) sphere on the other. In the ancient biblical world, one way to experience the divine was to partake of the fruit or other produce of the sacred tree or plant, thus imbibing the essence of the divinity represented by or immanent within the tree, but this practice was condemned in the Bible.
When Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, she decided to eat it for various reasons, but mainly because she desired wisdom (Gen. 3:6). This purpose was realized when, immediately after Eve and then Adam ate the fruit, “the eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3:7), and Yahweh remarked (to other divine beings), “See, the man has become like one of us [deities], knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:22). The questions become: What kind of knowledge/wisdom did Adam and Eve acquire, and what kind of transformation did these archetypal humans undergo? Both relate to the psyche.
The Creation of the Cosmos from Chaos
In ancient Near Eastern creation myths, there was no such thing as creation from nothing. Before the creation, there was always a formless watery substance characterized as “chaos” (see, e.g., Gen. 1:1) because at that stage no time, space, or other order existed. The same is true before the beginning of creation in the Eden story (a separate creation story from that in Genesis 1, by a different, earlier author), only a different metaphor for chaos was used, that of a desert wasteland (Gen. 2:4-5). The ordered cosmos is created like a bubble within the surrounding chaos and is bordered by the solid firmament above and the ground below, as shown in Diagram 1 below. The cosmos (including humans) is made of the same substance as chaos; the only difference is that it is ordered, has multiplicity, and the things created have names given by the creator decreeing their function and destiny.
This motif of creation from chaos was universal in the ancient Near East and common around the world. Why? Marie-Louise von Franz (1995, pp. 2-4) explained that this is a natural result of our psyche experiencing its own ego-consciousness coming into being as “world-becoming.” As far as our psyche is concerned, our becoming aware of the world and the world coming into existence are one and the same. This process occurred not only when humans first developed ego-consciousness but also occurs in any young child’s development (as shown by developmental psychology) and in the life of adults, such as when we wake up in the morning from an unconscious state and order falls into place. Our unconscious has no sense of space or time and little sense of order; it is indeed chaotic and is experienced as such. Thus, the dawn of consciousness and our image of the creation of the world are parallel and related processes which throw up corresponding, related symbols. The notion of primordial chaos is a natural projection of an archetypal image that helps make the unknown comprehensible.
Chaos as Evil and Sin
After the creation, chaos is not eliminated but continues outside the cosmos, always trying to encroach upon and undo the created cosmos. Particular things are “created” only to the extent that chaos is absent in them. But in fact nothing is perfect (except the initial Garden of Eden); each thing contains some element of chaos. In nature, chaos is manifested in natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and violent storms. Since humans are made of the same substance as the rest of the cosmos (recall Adam being formed from the ground and water), chaos can and will inevitably erupt in humans too. In modern psychological terms, this is the unconscious at work. In the biblical world, chaos was typically symbolized by a serpent, so when in the Eden story the serpent appears before Eve, the story’s ancient audience knew that chaos had entered the Garden and Eve’s mind. Her dialogue with the serpent represents this manifestation of chaos within herself and inner turmoil.
In normative terms, chaos is viewed as bad (evil), while creation is good. After all, God had created the ordered cosmos from chaos, so that’s what He wanted. The cosmos in this respect has a teleological nature, which should be respected, maintained, and furthered. Chaos manifested in humans is what results in human evil (which the biblical authors said includes pagan religion). This is what Yahweh warns Cain about: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7, by the same author as the Eden story). The same biblical author later described this chaotic trait within human nature as wild imaginings of the human heart (in the ancient world thought to be the repository of thought) (Gen. 6:5; 8:21), much like Eve’s imaginings during her temptation (Gen. 3:6). Later rabbinical writings characterized this trait as the yezer hara (“impulse to evil”), which became the standard rabbinical explanation for the origin of evil. The ancients did not understand the nature of the unconscious as such, but they did reach the insight that much of human behavior, especially evil behavior, stems from urges deep within and barely susceptible to our rational, conscious control.
The Antidote: The Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Law
Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden showed what happens if unrestricted human nature takes its natural course. The author had to provide a remedy. His antidote was twofold: the knowledge of good and evil, combined with the Law (here in its incipient form).
First, the immediate result of eating the forbidden fruit was to acquire the godlike knowledge of good and evil. What this knowledge consists of has been the subject of much debate, but actually the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls go fairly far in explaining it. In several passages they describe this knowledge as being acquired (or perfected) as one passes from minority to adulthood, at the age of 20 (e.g., Isa. 7:14-16). Thus, when the Hebrews rebelled against Yahweh in the wilderness of Sinai, those 20 or older (except for the virtuous Joshua and Caleb) were implicated in this sin and so were not allowed to enter the Promised Land (hence the long stay in the wilderness), while minors under 20 had no knowledge of good and evil and so were considered incapable of sin, and therefore would eventually enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:29-30; Deut. 1:39). The Hebrew Bible goes on to portray Israel’s best kings, David and Solomon, has having an extra dose of the knowledge of good and evil, which is described as wisdom and a power of discernment (2 Sam. 14:17, 20; 1 Kings 3:9-12, 28; 4:29-31).
The above understanding means that Adam and Eve’s transgression did not rise to the level of sin, since they had not yet acquired the knowledge of good and evil. They were like minors without legal capacity. In fact, their transgression was the result of human nature already at creation having the aforementioned inclination toward evil, not the cause of our sinfulness, as claimed in the doctrine of original sin.
Given that evil is a form of chaos and good is a manifestation of the divinely created order of creation, the knowledge of good and evil is nothing less than the godlike knowledge of how the universe works in terms of the dynamic between chaos and order, both at the cosmic level and at the human moral level of good and evil. This understanding was likewise an insight into how the human psyche works. According to the biblical writers, in principle the knowledge of good and evil is what can (if applied) enable humans to avoid sin and further good.
As shown by the snowballing of human evil leading up to Noah’s flood, however, in practice merely having this knowledge was not enough for good to prevail. Humans needed divine guidance and assistance. It was for this reason that Yahweh bestowed on the Hebrews the Law, a set of ordering principles which, if followed, would result in good prevailing, as well as the greatness of the Israelite nation. Having the knowledge of good and evil would enable humans to understand and follow the Law. This scheme is shown in Diagram 2 below, presenting the knowledge of good and evil as a type of merism, encompassing these opposites at the cosmic and human level.
The Psychic Nature of the Transgression
Having the knowledge of good and evil enables humans to discern and understand both external and internal (psychic) reality, in particular pairs of opposites, symbolized by the opposites of good and evil but including others in the story such as male and female, and God and humans. Therefore, Adam and Eve’s acquisition of this knowledge constituted an enlightenment and transformation into a higher psychic level, that of full ego-consciousness. Before that, they were mired in a lower psychic state dominated by the unconscious that Erich Neumann (1954) famously called the “uroboros,” where all is one and there are no pairs of opposites (pp. 5-38). Yahweh’s warning that Adam would “die” upon eating the fruit, may well render this moment a kind of initiation scenario, with the old human dying and entering a new state of being. This transformation is what made humans responsible and accountable for their actions (especially before God), truly capable of sin or of good, and ready to act in the real world. That is when Adam and Eve exited the Garden. In psychological terms, they were not driven from the Garden but grew up and walked out on their own. As Joseph Campbell explained, “The Garden is a metaphor for the following: our minds” (2001, p. 50).
Although no act of “original sin” occurred, the Eden story remains principally a story explaining human nature, in particular our psyche. Especially important is the story’s recognition of the role of chaos in the psyche, which today means the unconscious and especially the Shadow. As Jung recognized, “it is a frightening thought that man also has a shadow-side to him, consisting not just of little weaknesses and foibles, but of a positively demonic dynamism” (CW 7, para. 35). This chaos eventually came to be represented by the Devil. The author of the Eden story honestly brought out this psychic fact, and he did his best to fashion a way to deal with it. His remedy was the application of our knowledge of good and evil (an aspect of ego-consciousness) plus the Law.
What Does the Eden Story Mean for Us?
In considering the relevance of the Eden story in today’s world, we must reevaluate the biblical author’s remedy and determine what our conclusions mean for us individually (spirituality, psychology), as well as socio-politically in terms of criminology, social policy, ethics and morality, education, religious doctrine (or abandonment thereof), and law. This complicated endeavor would take us far beyond the scope of this article, so I will end with just two points in this regard.
First, to the extent the biblical remedy involves conscious application of the knowledge of good and evil, this seems inevitably to involve, at least in part, ego-consciousness repressing and suppressing contents of our unconscious, which modern psychology has shown to cause still more problems.
Second, historically, the biblical authors’ reliance on prophylactic laws to control human behavior has had mixed results. Further, such approach assumes that the human psyche is incapable of further change, even though it had transformed once before in the Garden. As a result, the prophylactic approach treats symptoms rather than the underlying problems, including evolved traits that once had survival value but which in many cases are now dysfunctional.
An alternative approach is to endeavor to transform the human psyche to a higher level, in which case the need for prophylactic measures and suppression and repression of the unconscious would lessen. Such is the approach, for example, being explored by Allan Combs (2009), the integral psychology movement championed by Ken Wilber (1996; 2000), and other progressive thinkers and initiatives. One means toward this end may well be spiritual practices giving a direct experience of divinity (however conceived), the type of approach condemned in the Bible but which resulted in the elevation of Adam and Eve’s consciousness.
Campbell, Joseph (2001). Thou Art That. Novato, California: New World Library.
Combs, Allan (2009). Consciousness Explained Better: Toward an Integral Understanding of the Multi-faceted Nature of Consciousness. St. Paul: Paragon House.
Franz, Marie-Louise von (1995). Creation Myths. Rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala.
Neumann, Erich (1954). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wilber, Ken (1996). Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution. Wheaton Illinois: Quest Books.
Wilber, Ken (2000). Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy. Boston: Shambhala.
Arthur George, J.D., is a cultural historian and mythologist with a particular background in the cultures, mythologies, and languages of the ancient Near East. He is the author (together with his wife Elena) of The Mythology of Eden (2014), an analysis of the Eden story primarily from the standpoint of mythological studies, and frequently presents at scholarly conferences on the above topics.
(Top “Garden of Eden” Photo Credit: www.rf123.com)