2364 The Mystical Garden of Eden


The Garden of Eden is one of the best known and least understood tales in biblical literature. This story has been interpreted in dozens of ways, many of which suggest that it is the prototype for understanding the nature of good and evil, the relationship between men and women, or the purpose of humankind. Unfortunately, however, teachings of Jewish mysticism on this subject have rarely been made available to the general public, and thus a major component for understanding the deeper wisdom teachings of this story have remained virtually unknown.

The story of Adam and Eve is buried deeply in the Western psyche and in many ways continues to influence the way we relate to each. The literal reading of the story suggests that Adam and Eve were the first humans, and that Eve was an easy object of seduction. She quickly succumbed to the wily serpent. Not only did she eat the forbidden fruit, but she rushed off to get her partner to do the same. For this act of "disobedience" she has been reviled throughout the centuries. All of women's suffering during childbirth is blamed on Eve's ignorance. Worse, the entire downfall and degradation of humankind is said to be her fault.

A woman teacher once said to me, "The story of Adam and Eve is perhaps the most obvious instance in the entire Torah in which the relationship between male and female has been contaminated by absurd implications. Any assumption that Adam and Eve represent a relationship of gender as the first man and woman of creation is ludicrous. Rather, the mystics treat these--and all major biblical characters--as divine principles. Adam and Eve represent the principle of duality, each a polar opposite of the other." 

One of the ways Eastern tradition discusses polarity of this type is through the image of yin and yang. In exactly the same way, the language of Adam and Eve is of expansion and contraction, outward and inward, light and dark, hard and soft. Neither is better than the other; both are required for balance and harmony.

In addition to the duality of Adam and Eve, a third element is required for creation. This is the serpent, which represents a force of fragmentation.

One of the most ancient midrashic texts, written by Rabbi Eliezer, suggests that the serpent who seduced Eve had the appearance of a camel.

 Most people have never heard this idea. The Jewish oral tradition goes on to say that the angel Samael, otherwise known as Satan, rode this camel. Many say that the serpent itself was Satan.


When Rabbi Eliezer says that the serpent represented a camel, he is alluding to the number three. The word camel in Hebrew is gamal, which is the same as word as the Hebrew letter gimel.

 Gimel in the Hebrew alphabet represents the number three. Mathematically, the number three is necessary for the physical world--which is three dimensional--composed of three lines of direction: north-south, east-west, and up-down.


In Kabbalah, Satan is said to represent the physical universe. Indeed, the universe as we know it is referred to in mystical writings as "the skin of the serpent." In the mystical cosmology of the Garden of Eden, the archetype of the serpent merges with the life-force, which is the form and substance of life is represented by Adam and Eve. Once the serpent is able to merge with this life force, the mystical formula is complete for the metaphysics of creation.


Indeed, the kabbalistic teaching is that Satan, the force of fragmentation, is the crucial element required for creation, because without it everything would unite with God--everything would become one. This does not mean that the splintering force of Satan is separate from the unity of God, but, paradoxically, that it is contained within the oneness of the Divine. 

In this kabbalistic approach, we clearly see that the story of the Garden of Eden is a cosmology that far transcends the more commonly accepted versions. Obviously, a new perception of the Western creation story would dramatically affect not only our image of Adam, Eve and the serpent, it would permeate our collective consciousness in a way that could profoundly impact on the way we view ourselves as human beings, how we relate to each other, and how we relate to God.


Let us take a closer look at the more tradition reading of the creation story to gain insight into how it developed in the consciousness of Western thought. The biblical story tells of a garden "planted by God" on the eastern side of Eden, which had in it every tree that was good for food. In the center of this garden were two special trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. 

A river ran from Eden into the garden, where it split into four rivers that ran out of the garden. God made a man from the dust of the four corners of the earth and placed him in this garden to tend and maintain it. The man was told that he could eat from every tree except the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Moreover, the man was warned that "on the day you eat of that tree, you will surely die."


After God brought all the animals and birds to the man so that the man could give each one its name, God caused him to fall into a deep sleep and from the man's side, a woman was made. At this point the man and the woman were both naked and they knew no shame. Almost immediately in the story, a serpent approached the woman and told her that she would not die if she ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge; rather her eyes would be opened and she would be like a God because she would know about good and evil. So she ate some of the fruit and gave some to her man to eat. Sure enough, their eyes were opened to the extent that they now recognized their nakedness. They immediately sewed fig leaves together so they could cover themselves with loincloths.

Then "they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day." So they hid themselves in the trees. God called out, "Where are you?" and the man responded that he heard a voice and hid because he knew he was naked and was afraid. "How did you know you were naked?" asks God. "Did you eat from the tree from which I told you not to eat?"

The scene is set. In the standard interpretation that has been passed down from generation to generation, Adam and Eve, confronted by God, caught in an infraction of the single rule established for this garden, tried to push the blame away from themselves. Adam said, "The woman gave it to me." Eve said, "The serpent enticed me." 

Thus, according to common thinking, the serpent was the first to be punished by God. It was cursed to live on its belly and eat dust, forever. Next God turned to Eve and said that her pain in childbirth would be greatly multiplied and that her husband would rule over her. Finally God turned to Adam and told him that from now on he would have to work and sweat to get his food, and that the ground would give forth "thorns and thistles" for his labors. At this point God gave them clothes made of skin.

Then it appears that God said to Itself, almost as an afterthought, "Man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. What if he eats from the Tree of Life and lives forever?" So God cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. Cherubic guards were set so that Adam and Eve could not return; a revolving sword was set in motion so that they could not get to the Tree of Life.


This story, interpreted literally, is the archetype of Sin, even though the word "sin" is never mentioned. This original sin was caused by disobeying God and it resulted in the fall of humankind from God's grace. It also includes the archetype of Evil, the serpent, and of Purity and Innocence, because Adam and Eve did not know that they were naked. It has in it the archetype of Guilt, which instantly breeds the first denial, and it includes the first curse made by God, giving us an initial glimpse, theoretically, of the kind of punishment that awaits disobedience.

When we read this story through the filters of twentieth century awareness, we cannot help but wonder what was so captivating that it became the principal creation story for Western spiritual tradition? A modern editor would have rejected this manuscript after reading the first few pages. Not only is it politically incorrect to treat women as vassals but the nature of the act of eating something forbidden leads to unbelievable consequences. 

The way it reads, God makes the promise that anyone eating this fruit is going to die that very day. But it does not happen that way. Adam and Eve do not die on that day; rather, they are punished for eternity. God never said anything about eternal punishment. A modern editor would point out that the story is inconsistent. Moreover, the editor would note that the story's treatment of sexuality in untenable, as if nakedness were something awful. Who would relate to that?

There are too many holes in the logic. The biggest one is that only the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden; Adam could have eaten from the Tree of Life all along. In that case, he would never die. Why would God take the chance that Adam might eat from the Tree of Life first, thereby attaining eternal life, and then from the Tree of Knowledge? 

In addition, why would the serpent set itself up to be the recipient of God's wrath? What did it have to gain? Why bring death upon itself? It could have eaten from the Tree of Life and become eternal. Then it could have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge itself and would have become like God. As clever as it was, its behavior is totally illogical.

Worst of all, the story demeans God, which would offend readers. It makes God out to be less than Almighty. God has to instruct Adam not to eat the fruit of this special tree rather than making it too hard to reach, or impossible to find, or any one of thousands of scenarios. Would we put a candy on the coffee table and tell an innocent two year old never to eat it? 

The voice of God "walks" in the garden. What does that mean? God calls out to Adam, "Where are you?" Does this mean God does not know where Adam is? God does not know the nature of serpents? God does not know in advance that Adam and Eve will eat the fruit? God "wonders" whether they will eat from the Tree of Life? God has to send them out of the garden to keep them from eating other fruits? God has to set up cherubs to guard the garden and a revolving blade to guard the Tree of Life? This will not work. Modern readers would definitely reject the presentation of a God that lacks foresight, strength, wisdom, understanding, and compassion. "No," a modern editor would say, "this manuscript will never get past the critics."