Were Adam and Eve simply tempted and deceived, or was their decision to disobey God a conscious one?

First appeared in The Jerusalem Post, August 27, 2009.

We all know the story of Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise in the Garden of Eden as told in the Book of Genesis – or do we? Although we continue to endure the suffering, injustice, wars, famine, pain, death and destruction that their first transgression apparently caused, their fall may also have brought a greater benefit to humanity than is commonly considered by the popular myth of this most iconic and legendary of all human sagas.

While Western/Christian theology attributes an independent status to evil in the world, which acts by its own accord and must be eradicated – and is separate from the spirit and will of God – Jewish theology has long seen the sitra ahra, or Satan, as one of the forces which God Himself created and placed under His jurisdiction. A force He employs for the ultimate realization of a greater good.

As such, the sages of Israel have sometimes hinted at a greater benefit having come to mankind from the first transgression in Eden. Yet, the story continues to reverberate in modern culture and theology with the notion that we would be far better off today had the first parents of humanity not disobeyed God’s command and eaten of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Underlying this view is the perception that Eve and Adam were somehow tricked by the snake and fell into a momentary lapse of cognizance, which caused them to disregard their better interest. It is a human condition most of us are prone to fall into from time to time, even concerning such small things as disrupting a balanced budget by buying something we don’t really need, because we’re enamored with the idea of having it, or unfairly lashing out in anger at someone because of personal issues burdening us. While we might experience such lapses and later come to regret them, to assume that such was the case with Adam and Eve ignores the state of spiritual near-perfection both were in before their fall.

Adam and Eve were not, after all, as we are today. While we’ve inherited the knowledge of good and evil and suffered its consequences for nearly six millennia, they were in perfect harmony with divine will and had no experience with nor knowledge of anything evil. Unlike us, they lived in a garden paradise where their every need was provided for. They experienced no disruption of this harmony and had none of the myriad distractions we face today. They knew no sexual desire, which developed within them only after their fall from grace, bringing them into the hardships of parenthood. They anticipated no death in their future, knew no sickness in their lives. A burden-free paradise wherein their greatest responsibility, it seemed, was to stay clear of any knowledge of, or experience with evil.

Furthermore, Adam and Eve had sufficient understanding of the consequences of their choice. They knew from God that through this disobedience, death would seep into their consciousness (Genesis 2:17), but they also knew from the snake that they’d become as God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5). And even though we tend to believe the snake lied to Eve and tried to deceive her with this promise, scripture confirms that the snake spoke the truth about it, as told soon afterward when their punishment was exacted: “And the Lord God said: ‘Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’” (Gen. 3:22).

The question which needs asking is: How could two beings in a state of such perfect bliss, having complete understanding of the consequences of their action, be so easily connived into forfeiting paradise for the toil, suffering and death which awaited them outside? A major precept of giving charity in Judaism is that it is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish. It resonates with the notion that it is better for us to earn something through our own labors than to be given it as a gift – because when we are beholden to others through their gift, we cannot be truly free among them.

Within this context, God appears to be leading humanity through a course of hardship and suffering so that we come to earn the world we make, for better and worse, through our own choices and efforts, in order to instill within us a sense of independence and freedom. Herein perhaps lies what biblical commentators hint is the conflict Adam and Eve faced at the dawn of human endeavor – and the great gift they bestowed upon humanity by sacrificing their paradise for a more worthy future for the family of mankind.

The choice before them was clear. Either obey God’s stated command without further consideration of what His deeper and more true intent may be, or consider the consequences and accept personal responsibility for the transgression, because it also promises to elevate the collective consciousness of humanity through the attendant travail and suffering. Though the course be difficult, it leads to a sense of liberty and self-determination which bring us closer to better knowledge and understanding of God and His ways.

This is the course God charted for humanity by placing our destiny in the hands of Adam and Eve and the choice they made in Eden. But He also wanted them to choose it independently, even in the face of His prohibition, and to accept responsibility for that choice. This is how mankind would come to rightfully earn a place closer to the creator and attain a greater harmony with His world.

Through this first sin of disobedience, we began to be free and learned to stand before difficult choices that would lead to rebuilding the lost paradise. This time, however, not as a free gift, as was given in Eden, but rather earned through toil and sacrifice. Paradise gained through choices made in hardship – and blessings earned in earnest. A history forged through choosing life in the face of death, good in the face of evil and truth in the face of deceit.

And so, through the seed of Adam and Eve, God saw fit to reward them for their bold sacrifice. Though evil continues to multiply in the world, so does good also multiply and prevail. From Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, descendents of the first parents, a nation was forged to lead humanity back into the garden. The nearly 6,000-year history of mankind, since that fateful fall in Eden, reinforces the virtue of the choice Adam and Eve made. Even with the suffering and travail we endure, the knowledge of God continues to sweep humanity’s deepest recesses. Though we may have more trouble ahead, we stand today at the brink of salvation, at the edge of the promise of redemption.

Through Moses and the prophets shedding light on the way, and through the collective choice of society to promote the values of life and good, we continue to edge closer to a great day of judgment and reward. Our history as a people and civilization, our achievements in the face of challenge, all confirm the invaluable reward to humanity earned through the acceptance of sacrifice and punishment by the first parents of mankind in Eden.

Hardly a simple tale of temptation and deceit, the transgression of Adam and Eve tells of a conscious decision of willful surrender, born out of divine understanding, for the greater benefit of an evolving and maturing civilization.