The Garden of Eden


“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15).

See also The Garden of Eden: Images and The Garden of Eden: Bibliography.

In the unblemished, unspoiled paradise, the primary task of the man is: to work (Keller 2008). This was work without alienation — with no thorns and thistles. We can imagine that the experience of this work might have been like what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “flow”: complete, happy satisfying absorption in a task.[1] The vision of un-alienated labor suggested in Genesis is a stark contrast (perhaps a polemical contrast) to ancient Near Eastern parallels in which humanity was created as a slave labor force for the cruel gods, so that the latter might enjoy their aristocratic leisure (Meier 1991). Indeed, Genesis depicts God himself doing manual labor, not only as a potter in Genesis 1, but as a seamstress for the fallen and embarrassed first couple (Gen 3:21).

In spite of the fall, gardening is still a paradigm of satisfying labor for many people in modern society. However, we can also draw some revealing contrasts between the gardeners of today and the un-alienated labor of Genesis 2. First, gardening is only satisfying for those educated workers in a developed economy who no longer have to do stoop labor in the fields. It is difficult to imagine migrant farm workers who do the backbreaking work of picking strawberries (“la fruta del diablo”) choosing to garden for pleasure.[2] In fact, this vividly demonstrates our state of post-Fall alienation. Gardening, however lovely a pastime, only offers its rewards to those who, for technological and economic reasons, no longer must do it for their daily bread. So: those who farm for a living experience alienation “in the garden,” so to speak, while those of us find our alienation elsewhere, in the industrial economy, can only experience the goodness of gardening, as an echo of Eden, since for us it is not strictly work.

Still, the act of gardening continues to provide a paradigm for all kinds of work. Our creativity requires an already-existing world (i.e., God’s creation) to flourish. It means: not working from a blank slate, but working within a God-given order, “to till it and keep it.” A parallel would be jazz improvisation: the freedom of improvisation can only flourish within the pre-existing framework of scales, chords, and harmonies, or what, in American constitutional law, is known as “ordered liberty.”[3] This sense of freedom within order must have occurred to the distressed Israelites in exile who received the Isaianic prophecy that “the Lord will comfort Zion” and “make her wilderness like Eden” (Isa 51:3).


Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil… And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die’… Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ (Gen 2:9,16-17, 22).

The tree of life is only mentioned briefly here, but elsewhere, such a tree is associated with wisdom and blessing. Wisdom, the “fruit of the righteous,” a “desire fulfilled,” and a “gentle tongue” are each likened to a tree of life in Proverbs (Prov 3:18, 11:30, 13:12, 15:4). This suggests different aspects of well-being, flourishing, or shalom: the kind of good order and right relationship that we discussed above in relation to work and gardening. By comparison, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has a more central role in the story here.

What is meant by “the knowledge of good and evil”?  It might allude indirectly to sexual maturity and the loss of innocence, as suggested by the parallel with the Gilgamesh epic, in which after the “harlot” successfully seduces Enkidu for a week-long sexual marathon, she exclaims: “Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a god!” (Bailey). It might be a Hebraic idiom for “comprehensive knowledge,” as we use “from sea to shining sea” to mean “all the land,” or “day and night” to mean “all the time.” This would be parallel to the usage of Barzillai the Gileadite in the book of Samuel, who pleads his uselessness to King David: “Today I am eighty years old; can I discern what is pleasant and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats or what he drinks?” (2 Sam 19:35) It might directly refer to wisdom, with suggestions of morality and maturity, as in Solomon’s prayer: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9) Similarly, the woman from Tekoa praises David: “My lord the king is like the angel of God, discerning good and evil” (2 Sam 14:17). Isaiah states, about Immanuel coming of age: “He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good” (Isa 7:15).

It seems that there is no real consensus on which of these senses might be more or less correct in the original context. My own approach would be to work backward from the conclusion. God intends the man and woman to live with him in the garden, in flourishing harmony. Eating the fruit, a betrayal of God’s trust, destroys that harmony. Therefore, I determine that the central issue is the humans’ lack of trust eventuating in disobedient betrayal, and temporarily put aside this question of meaning!


The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner (Gen 2:20).

The sense of ezer kenegdo, which NRSV translates “helper as his partner,” is rich with implications. By comparison, other versions have: “helper fit for him” (ESV), “helper suitable for him” (NASB), “helper comparable to him” (NKJV), “suitable partner for him” (NAB), and “suitable helper” (NIV). Ezer, “helper,” is frequently used to describe God in the OT, while ke, “like, as, according to,” neged, “over, against,” combine to suggest complementarity. The man and woman each have something, and are someone, that/who the other needs, but does not have. Again, the contrasts with ancient Near Eastern parallels are revealing. In Enuma Elish, man is created by the capricious gods as a useful slave laborer; there is no separate mention of woman (Alter 1981). In Gilgamesh, Enkidu’s seduction by a temple prostitute leads directly to Enkidu’s expulsion from the garden of paradise.[4] So: for the Babylonians, work was exploitative from the beginning, and sex led directly to the loss of innocence and alienation from God. Genesis is not like that: here, Adam and Eve are equal, created together, and sexual relations, like work, are created good.


To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’ (Gen 3:16).

 The effect of this curse on the man is quite apparent: violence, misogyny, and the rest. But what about its effect on the woman? Of course, she suffers the effect of the man’s exploitative rule. But what about “her desire”? Perhaps this aspect of the curse would help us understand some of the distressing results of social science: Why do so many abused women seem to return to the male partners who abuse them? Why do imprisoned violent criminals, even or especially notorious murderers such as Charles Manson seem to receive a steady stream of female admirers? Why did Fifty Shades of Grey sell 125 million copies and receive translation into 52 languages? Why is the so-called “dark triad” of personality traits (Machiavellianism, narcissisim and psychopathy) a successful “short-term mating strategy,” to use the language of social psychology? Genesis would say: it’s the curse. Domination and submission weren’t there originally in the garden; and now they are everywhere.[5]

Additional notes

God described as “help” (ezer) like woman in Gen 2:20: “He is our help and shield” (Ps 33:20; 115:9); “You are my help and my deliverer” (Ps 70:5); “My help comes from the Lord” (Ps 121:2); “Our help is in the name of the Lord” (Ps 124:8)

The “breath of life” (Gen 2:7): “As long as my breath is in me” (Job 27:3). “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Ps 104:29-30).

Clinging / cleaving / holding fast to God as “a man to his wife” (Gen 2:24). “You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear” (Deut 10:20); “If you will diligently observe this entire commandment that I am commanding you, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him” (Deut 11:22); “The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast” (Deut 13:4)

Accepting the doctrine of original sin, as well as rejecting the doctrine of original sin, both turn out to be good evidence for the doctrine of original sin, according to Leszek Kolakowski (cited in Oakes):

The possible disastrous effects of the concept of original sin on our psychological condition and on our cultural life are undeniable [because of its use to keep people “in their place” and not alter unjust social structures]; and so are the disastrous effects of the opposing doctrine, with its implication that our perfectibility is limitless, and that our predictions of ultimate synthesis or total reconciliation can be realized. However, the

fact that both affirmation and rejection of the concept of original sin have emerged as powerful destructive forces in our history is one of many that testify in favor of the reality of original sin. In other words, we face a peculiar situation in which the disastrous consequences of assenting to either of two incompatible theories confirm one of them and testify against its rival.’[6]

Or, as G.K. Chesterton is supposed to have said: original sin is “the only doctrine of Christianity that can be empirically proven” (no original source found).


[1] Csikszentmihalyi defines “flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”   Compare Wikipedia: “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what he is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.”

[2] “The strawberry has long been known to migrants as ‘la fruta del diablo’—the fruit of the devil. Picking strawberries is some of the lowest-paid, most difficult, and therefore least desirable farm work in California.”

[3] In Palko v. Connecticut (1937), Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo characterized the central guarantees of the Bill of Rights as “the very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty.”

[4] Andrew Wilson, “The Sexual Interpretation of the Human Fall” (1988),

[5] Sources:

  • “Characteristics collectively known as the Dark Triad (i.e. narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism) were correlated with various dimensions of short-term mating but not long-term mating. The link between the Dark Triad and short-term mating was stronger for men than for women. The Dark Triad partially mediated the sex difference in short-term mating behaviour. Findings are consistent with a view that the Dark Triad facilitates an exploitative, short-term mating strategy in men.” Peter K. Jonason et al, “The Dark Triad: Facilitating a Short-Term Mating Strategy in Men” European Journal of Personality 23:1, 5-18.
  • “Ovulating women perceive charismatic and physically attractive men, but not reliable and nice men, as more committed partners and more devoted future fathers. Ovulating women perceive that sexy cads would be good fathers to their own children but not to the children of other women….The current research identifies a novel proximate reason why ovulating women pursue relationships with sexy cads, complementing existing research that identifies the ultimate, evolutionary reasons for this behavior.” Kristina M. Durante et al., “Ovulation Leads Women to Perceive Sexy Cads as Good Dads.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication, May 14, 2012. doi:10.1037/a0028498
  • “Convicted criminal offenders had more children than individuals never convicted of a criminal offense. Criminal offenders also had more reproductive partners, were less often married, more likely to get remarried if ever married, and had more often contracted a sexually transmitted disease than non-offenders. Importantly, the increased reproductive success of criminals was explained by a fertility increase from having children with several different partners. We conclude that criminality appears to be adaptive in a contemporary industrialized country, and that this association can be explained by antisocial behavior being part of an adaptive alternative reproductive strategy.” Shuyang Yao, et al., “Criminal offending as part of an alternative reproductive strategy: investigating evolutionary hypotheses using Swedish total population data.” Evolution and Human Behavior 35:6 (481-488)
  • “Attraction for offenders in correctional facilities – or hybristophilia – is poorly documented, except in the United States, where it is punishable by law. We know, for example, that hybristophilia affects nearly 4% of prison workers south of the border, including prison guards, psychologists, social workers, nurses, teachers, and other professionals…. “For example, in 2006, among the nearly 1.6 million Americans in prison, 60,500 cases of sexual misconduct, assault, and abuse were reported to authorities,” said Bensimon. “ Over 20 years, there were more than a million cases.”… And the phenomenon affects women more than their male co-workers, according to the dozens of studies on the subject analyzed by Bensimon. Thus, in the United States, over 70% of cases of sexual misconduct involve female personnel, although women represent only a third of the workforce in correctional facilities.”  Philippe Bensimon, “Un phénomène tabou en milieu carcéral: l’hybristophilie ou les relations amoureuses entre détenus et membres du personnel,” Délinquance, justice et autres questions de société, March 18, 2016, summarized at “When prison workers fall in love with inmates: the taboo of hybristophilia” (University of Montreal)

[6] From Modernity on Endless Trial, p 80.

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