Snake in the Garden

Reading the Bible

As a serious young Christian, I had lots of questions about the Bible. The Garden of Eden for example: If it was such a perfect place, why did God allow Satan in?

My mother explained that Satan sneaked into the garden without God knowing. That answer didn’t satisfy. I told Mum I thought God was supposed to know everything.

A sharp slap finished the dialogue but questions remained. In the Garden of Eden story the snake was Satan, a downright villain. It brought sin into the world and got Adam and Eve kicked out. God put a curse on the snake: “On your belly you shall go and dust shall you eat all the days of your life.”

So the snake was a baddie, but then in Exodus the snake became a symbol of healing for the Israelites; and in the gospels, Jesus compared himself with a snake. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up.” What was that all about?

In my teens I grew out of the notion that every word in the Bible had been dictated by God, but I was still puzzled about the negative Garden of Eden story.

Decades later, a kindly rabbi solved the mystery. Genesis was not the first book written. Really? Yes, really. The creation story plus Adam and Eve were a collection of oral traditions from various sources, written down at the time of the Babylonian exile.

The Babylonian exile! That explained a lot.

I looked at the subtext of what we call “The Fall.” The Jews had lost their promised land. The Babylonians had destroyed their temple, and all the educated people from Jerusalem had been taken into captivity. They had literally been expelled from their “Garden of Eden.” And because in Judaism, every bit of misfortune was thought to come from sin, those poor people believed they had done something terrible to displease God.

So where does the serpent fit in? The serpent was venerated in Babylon as the symbol of wisdom and healing, and there were two large gold serpents on the doors of the Babylonian temple. To displaced Jews, those gold serpents must have appeared as loathsome as the swastika in World War Two.

Can you imagine this situation as background to the writing of the Adam and Eve story?

Fresh understanding cleared a childhood view of a vengeful and punishing God. I was convinced we were not a “fallen” people at all but a cherished people on the way up, our growth nurtured by a God of unconditional love. I still believe that.

The final touch came from another rabbi at the Batmitzvah of a young girl. He talked about every soul being pure, a spark of God that came into incarnation to grow. The expulsion from ” the Garden of Eden” he said, was our human birth.

Then he added, “But when we leave the garden, God comes with us.”

Yes! Yes! Isn’t that also our truth?

  • Joy Cowley is a wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and retreat facilitator.

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