The startling conclusion
Faced with an abundance of painful questions, the Yahwist author asked: why do we suffer these ills? What is their origin? He is certain that they cannot come from a good and just God, who always desires what is best for humanity. These evils could not have been part of God’s good creation.
He could not accept that life was what it was and we had to endure it stoically as God’s will. He would not blame God and his religion for such a situation of sorrow and pain, and live with a false patience; nor was he prepared to accept the belief that all evil came as a direct action from God. Suffering and evil could never have God’s approval.
This early great theologian arrived at the conclusion that the situation all humanity faced was a consequence of our own sins; we are the only ones responsible for what happens to us, a revolutionary thesis. A new and hopeful vision of life then opened.
We live in a situation of punishment that is not God’s will, not a definitive state but one from which we can be freed at any time by living in a different manner. For the Christian, this means living in the manner Christ taught us, and as a redeemed people. Also prominent is the reflection we must make on our own responsibility for social ills.
How Paradise came to be
The ‘punishments of God’ (3:14-19) to the first people reflects the reality of the situation in which the whole of humanity presently lives. But another problem is still not resolved. If the world as it is does not reflect what God wants, then surely God cannot support its existence. What was the will of God for this world? Without this knowledge, how can we really know how we are meant to behave? This is the heart of the problem: the author did not know exactly how the world of God’s plan actually worked. His knowledge was confined only to the confused world of his day.
So, under the inspiration of God, the writer took the list of evils that he had identified (3:14-19) and imagined the reverse situation where none of the listed evils existed. An ideal world, willed by God, was imagined – a world we constantly lose by our sinfulness – and the world of such imaginary elaboration was Paradise. The Paradise of Genesis was a description of a state of life that was opposite to that daily experienced by the Yahwist.
As God planned it
Examining the world described in 2:4-25, we see how contrary it is to the world after original sin. The woman was not dominated by her husband but was his complement, with equal dignity (2:18), a dignity recognised in 2:23. The attraction that became one flesh never involved domination.
Death did not exist, for God responded to the deepest human desire for life by allowing the tree of life to grow in the middle of the garden. No pain in childbirth in Paradise existed because humans did not die; there was no need for children to prolong life after death. The author thought beyond an only pair, Adam and Eve, who stood as symbols and representatives of all men and women the author knew who did not want to die.
The land was not wicked, but fertile and productive of all kinds of fruit trees. There was no drought, for watering was done by a river with four branches, surrounding the garden. Nor was there enmity between humans and animals; the latter existed to accompany the humans who named them. And God did not infuse fear, but was friend of the people, living in intimacy with them.
The earthly Paradise was the imagined opposite to the sinful world of the writer. Under the inspiration of God, the Yahwist used popular language to convey a profound message to people of all time:
this is how God wants the world to be. God does not want domination by the husband. God does not want death, or drought, or oppressive labour, or slavery, or enmity with the animals. God does not want a religion that springs from fear.
God wants Paradise and this is what we miss!
God has not changed purpose, mind, or will. For our writer Paradise is not something that belongs in the past. Rather, it belongs in the future. It is not a situation that is forever lost and remembered with nostalgia. It is God’s final blueprint for our world, but it is built with strength and sacrifice. Paradise begins the bible, not because it happened there but to show that it is the goal of our journey.
Towards a new Paradise
In these days of terrifying climate catastrophe based on sinful and greedy exploitation of the earth, Paradise is a call to take responsibility for what is being done in the world. We need to live Paradise by eliminating the ills that beset our families, society, and the world: sub-human living conditions; interminable wars based largely on greed. We are responsible for this situation of punishment. So many are living with the purpose of killing their enemies rather than forgiving them.
When we face the question of what we are losing because of our sinfulness, we will see Paradise as a prophecy of the future that is projected from the past, a joyous portrayal of what could be, an on-going project that survives through the faith and courage of people who are tasked to bring it to completion.
If a garden, Eden, begins the human story and its fall from grace, a garden begins its reconstruction with the self-giving of our Saviour in the garden of Gethsemane. Finally a garden completes it all with the beautiful garden of Revelation 22:1-3, where every curse will be lifted, the waters of life will flow, and the tree of life will bear fruit every month, and its leaves will heal the nations. So we read Paradise not as In the beginning…. But as In the end….
Reference: Valdes, A.A. The Bible: Questions People Ask. Used with the expressed permission of Claretian Press.