In this episode I look at one of the most famous passages of scripture and interpret it from a nondual perspective. It is the story in Genesis chapter 3 that is normally referred to as the Fall. The story takes place in the Garden of Eden. The characters are Adam and Eve, the serpent, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life.
The Fall into Duality
Today I am going to look at one of the most famous passages of scripture. It is the story in Genesis chapter 3 that is normally referred to as the Fall. The story takes place in the Garden of Eden and the characters are Adam and Eve, the serpent, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
In the previous chapter we were briefly introduced to two special trees which were said to grow in the middle of the Garden. Immediately after the sentence which described Yahweh making the Human from the dust of the ground, it says this:
“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the human whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil….”
There follows a few verses that tell us where this Garden was located by mentioning it as the source of four rivers. Then the story continues:
“The Lord God took the human and put the human in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the human, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for when you eat of it you shall surely die.’”
In interpreting this tale it is important to remember this is not history. There never was an historical Adam and Eve and never a place called Eden. Even though fundamentalists insist this really happened, it is clear to everyone else that it is myth. For one thing we know that humans evolved in Africa, not the Middle East. No tree has been identified that gives you knowledge of good and evil if you eat of it. There is no tree growing somewhere in the Middle East today that bestows eternal life on people who eat of its fruit. And there are no talking serpents.
This should go without saying. But in these days of biblical literalism when fundamentalism has taken over a large portion of Christianity, it has to be said. This didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean the story is not true.
Patricia Polacco talks of sitting in front of the fireplace as a little girl, listening to her mother's Russian mother -- her babushka -- tell stories. Many were versions of folk tales from the Ukraine, where Babushka was born. Some of them Babushka made up on her own. She writes: "I remember, every time she'd finish a story, we'd lean toward her and say, 'Bubbie, is that a true story?' And she'd say, 'Of course, it's true. But it may not have happened.' "
This story of Adam and Eve is true. It just didn’t happen. At least not literally to two people. It is a symbolic story about humankind. It is about us. Adam and Eve represent us. It is about every man and every woman. We repeat the pattern of these mythic, archetypal ancestors.
This story of the Fall is the story of the birth of human self-consciousness. In one sense this happened to our ancestors at some point in the evolution of humans eons ago, but it also happens to every child born. It is a part of growing up. The story is symbolic. So what do the symbols symbolize?
Adam and Eve represent everyman and everywoman. The serpent represents animals. The first sentence of chapter says: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” The serpent is described as a beast of the field, not an angel fallen from heaven. The serpent is not the devil, as it was later interpreted in scripture. When this story was written by the Yahwist, there was no figure as the devil. That idea did not arise until the sixth century BC.
This story is about the emergence of human consciousness from animal consciousness. The man and woman were able to talk with the serpent because they were like the serpent. They were one with nature. They were all preconscious animals. Yet there was in them a yearning for something more. The push or pull of evolution toward greater complexity and consciousness. That is what the serpent symbolizes. That is the meaning of the serpent leading the humans to be something more than they are.
Before humans were self-aware and self-conscious, we were simply animals. We were apes. We still are apes zoologically speaking. Just compare the human genome with chimpanzees and bonobos. We have a close connection to animals. That is why animal spirits play such a large role in the spirituality of indigenous peoples. Tribal peoples remembered where we came from. The serpent is still part of us, and it represents part of us.
At some point in evolution early humans became aware of themselves as separate from the animal world. Early hominids became self-aware, aware of others, and aware of making moral choices. That is what it means to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is labeling things as positive and negative, good and bad. Humans were not living just by instinct, but by making choices. How free those choices really are is another question, but at least they are perceived as real choices. This is the source of human angst and the birth of human culture, with all its ethical rules determining what is good and what is not. That is the tree of knowledge.
With that self-awareness came the knowledge that we die. That is what Yahweh means when he says that when you eat of the tree of knowledge you will surely die. It does not mean that humans did not die before this. Of course they did. Death is the engine of evolution. Traditional Christian theology mistakenly says there was no death in the world until Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree.
That is taking the story literally. There was death, but humans were not aware that they would die. With the emergence of awareness that we are mortal comes anxiety and existential angst. Every person goes through this self-awareness as they grow from infancy into adulthood.
The so-called Fall of Humankind is the fall from being an animal that is not self-aware to being a human that is self-aware. In one sense it is a fall; in another sense it can be seen as an ascent to higher consciousness. It is actually both. It is a trade-off. This evolutionary development is good and bad, good and evil. This development is inevitable for every human being. It is part of being human. It is the human condition.
After this Fall there remains a yearning to return to our previous state of innocence when we were one with all creatures and the Divine, before we saw ourselves as separate from anything else. People wish to return to a time when we did not have to struggle with moral choices or worry about dying. We all can remember such a time in our childhood when we simply lived in the present. It was timelessness. The spiritual search is in many ways the yearning to return to that state, to return to the Garden. That goal is what the Tree of Life symbolizes.
What does the Tree of Life symbolize? It symbolizes divine, eternal Consciousness, which is different from both animal awareness and human self-awareness. It symbolizes the awareness of Eternal Life here now. It symbolizes unitive awareness. The tree of Knowledge on the other hand is obviously duality – Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is the Tree of Nonduality. It is nondual awareness.
This Eternal Life is our birthright. In the story it was originally permitted for humans to eat of the tree of Life. Only later in the story was the tree guarded by a cherub with the flaming sword to keep people from eating it. To get to the tree it says that we have to go past a flaming sword. That means death. It means the death of the ego. The death of the self. The death of duality. The death of death. The death of self-consciousness and the birth of unitive consciousness, where there is no death. That is what it really means to be born anew. It is Life beyond the duality of Good and Evil.
The story says that Adam and Eve were banished east of Eden to live a life of suffering in the valley of the shadow of death. That is the human condition. The Buddha’s first Noble Truth says, “Life is suffering.” One of the Buddha’s four sights is death.
The Fall is the end of the Genesis story but it is not the end of the human story. The end of the human story is in the Book of Revelation which pictures a restoration of the Garden of Eden and an invitation to eat of the Tree of Life. The last chapter of the Bible records a vision by the seer John:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
The Tree of Life heals the nations – all peoples and religions. The New Eden is described as a place with no night and no darkness – meaning no duality – where residents have the name of God on their foreheads. This symbolizes divine consciousness. The New Eden is pictured with one river instead of four – again nonduality. This River is called the River of Life, which is just a variation on the Tree of Life.
The Bible ends with an invitation to drink of this water of life, which is another symbol for Eternal life. “And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” The story of Eden is a story of how we lost the original oneness with God and all creation. It is an invitation to return to where we began. To return to the Garden of unitive awareness.