A lot of atheists point to Genesis with ridicule, laughing at anyone ignorant enough to believe in talking snakes. While I share their sentiment that anyone taking Genesis literally is deluded, I believe that they are equally deluded if they think that mythology holds no truth. In the words of Joseph Campbell:
Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.
So what truth is there lurking beneath the surface of this bronze age creation myth which, by chance or by the will of God, has become part of the foundation of western civilization? Should we tear it out of the edifice, risking bringing the entire structure down? Or is there something of value here, some deep understanding seen by our primitive forefathers that has somehow eluded modern man?
First off, what is Eden? I believe it is an attempt to rationalize several things. First, the memory that we all have that we were once young children, innocent, not yet aware of good, evil, and death; second, the subconscious mind, source of our intuitions, feelings, and instinctual behaviors; and third, a racial memory of a time when we were simpler creatures, operating like animals, unaware of the full implications of our actions and our own mortality.
What is the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and why does eating its fruit bring death to mankind? The tree is a symbol of the conscious self awareness that we all develop. With consciousness of the outcome of our own actions comes choice, and, therefore, moral implications. As well, consciousness brings knowledge of our own mortality, which, as animals, we didn’t have.
Having never taken the story literally, I was never bothered by the talking snake. What I couldn’t accept was the belief that somehow God was right to punish Adam and Eve. Why would a supposedly benevolent god set up humanity to fail? Even if you buy the Christian interpretation of the serpent as being Satan, why would God allow this? I’ve since come to believe that in Genesis, God is a symbol of the harsh reality that in becoming conscious, we have to give up the idyllic state of early childhood and become responsible to earn our way in the word by the sweat of our brows.
What’s amazing is how well Jesus’s teachings dovetail with this interpretation. He offers those who follow his teaching forgiveness of their sins. In other words, by becoming virtuous, one can redeem oneself for the wrongs one has done. Jesus also teaches that the burden brought by consciousness of having to worry about earning a living is false:
Look at the birds: they do not sow, harvest, or gather food into barns, yet they are fed. Are you not much better than them?
— Mathew 6:26
Jesus is pointing out that birds go about their lives living in the moment, and yet manage to survive. If, without consciousness and the ability to plan for the future, they are able to do this, why are we, who have those benefits, not able to live our lives without constantly worrying about the future? This is not an exhortation to abandon planning for the future; rather, Jesus is pointing out that by worrying about the future, you fail to live in the present.