“So where do we begin?” I asked.
And she smiled. But there was something also fierce about the way she answered. “With story, we must begin at the beginning.”
“Then with the fruit.” I said. “We should begin with the fruit.”
She nodded expectantly. She waited for me to say more. I floundered for the words. Or maybe I just wanted to wait her out. I should have known better. I didn’t realize it at that time. But much of her power was that she could wield silences like a martial artist wields a pair of otherwise normal sticks. She wielded silences like weapons, almost. There was such competence and power and even beauty in the way she used silence.
It was ironic: ironic, first off that this story teller’s greatest weapon was silence. But also ironic that I stood there, a white male in the prime of his life. And she sat on the beat-down old recliner, shriveled and so old I couldn’t even be sure what her ethnic background was. To the world’s way of thinking, I was the one who had all the power. But she sat there, in silence, so powerful.
I didn’t have any idea, back then, just how outmatched I was. But I did know I’d lost some sort of battle of wills with her. My mouth, of its own accord, it did its best to put words to what I wanted to say about the fruit.
“Isn’t it all just a big set up? Putting Adam and Eve in the Garden, with that one single rule: ‘don’t eat the fruit.’ Why did God have to put the fruit there at all? It seems like a power play: setting up one arbitrary rule, not explaining why, and then leaving it there, just waiting for them to eat from it.”
I don’t know if I only imagined the corner of her old lip turning up in the slightest hint of amusement. She leaned foreward, toward me. Her old bloodshot eyes found my own. She began to speak. And it was only at first that I heard the gravely crackle of her old lady’s voice. Soon I was swept up in the story she was telling: a story strangely familiar and yet wholly different.
“Shall we begin the story where the heavens and earth are completed?.” She began. “Where God rests and blesses the seventh day and makes it holy?”
It seemed as good a place as any. I nodded.
“Most of your generation favors that NIV. And that one is not so bad.” She recited from memory. ” Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth[a] and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, 6 but streams[b] came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. 7 Then the LORD God formed a man[c] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
I had so often read those words. But to hear her reciting them made them different. There was something in her sense of rhythm, maybe. Or maybe her expression. She seemed so awed and impassioned by these events. It seemed like she was somewhere else, gone far away from the dusty living room we sat in.
“Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”
Though I couldn’t have quoted the second chapter of Genesis in a variety of different translations from memory, I did know that the reference to the tree that Adam and Eve would eat the fruit from came next.
Except that in this version, it didn’t. The story teller said “A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin[d] and onyx are also there.) 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush.[e] 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the LORD God told the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden. Protecting you from the error of your ways is my utmost concern. I have created a completely safe place for you to enjoy”
She paused and looked at me. She wanted to be sure I was keeping up, I guess. She had changed the story. She was telling me the story I had asked for, a story of Adam and Eve where God does not give his creations the temptation of eating from the tree of good and evil.
“As you might expect” She said this to me now, not telling a story, really, just speaking to me “What happens next in my story much the same as it is in God’s story. God makes Eve. Adam names the animals. And then… the serpent.”
“Satan.” I said.
“Satan.” She agreed. And she spoke with a hatred in her voice. “Satan snuck into the garden. He seduced Adam and Eve. Convinced them to violate God’s single rule for them.”
“But he couldn’t do that if God never planted the tree.” I said.
She intoned, “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. And he sought to get at God. God is almighty, though. He had learned that even with one third of all his angels, there was nothing he could do directly that might even sting the author of all creation. If God had not put the tree in the garden of Eden, you can bet that the serpent would wish that God had.”
It seemed like she was agreeing with me… No, that’s not right, though. Because it just didn’t feel like she was in charge of this story she was telling. It felt like she most definitely disagreed with me. But it also seemed like her story was turning out to take my side. If Satan would have wanted the tree, doesn’t that prove the point: it just didn’t make sense for it to have been placed in the garden.
“More time than you or I can can imagine past.” She said. “And the universe progressed in the ways that God had planned. The world that was created by Adam and Eve and their offspring, it was the sort-of place we do not have words for, really. It was beautiful in so many ways. It was not the untamed wild they had been born into. And yet it was not at all like our cities. People became stewards of the land and worked with it, rather than over and above it. Healing, not death, ruled the day. Obedience to our maker was the rule, not the exception. Suffering had such a different character in this world that it was not even dreaded. But was seen as a teacher, a purifier.”
“In this world, which might seem so beautiful to us, God sat on his throne. The angels’ voice joined with the humans voices in this tremendous chorus. And there came a day, that God wept. Not in joy or happiness—but in the deepest sorrow that had ever been felt by any being. God realized quite suddenly –” She stopped mid-sentence. I guess she saw that I had something to say. A bit impatiently, she motioned for me to say my piece.
“How could God suddenly realize something?” I asked her.
“That little piece of silliness was necessary.” She said. “It was built into the very fabric of this story itself. I would like to suggest that God knew what was needed all along. And that is why the tree was placed in the Garden of Eden. To accept your suggestion, that the tree was unnecessary, we had to strike God, within this story, with a bit of stupidity.”
I wasn’t sure if I bought the logic. But I was willing to grant the point for now.
“God wept. Not in joy or happiness—but in the deepest sorrow that has ever been felt by any being. God realized quite suddenly that he had missed such a wonderful oppurunity. Because man could have been different. The whole of creation was built to sing these hyms to its maker. It was built into the very nature of the stars, of the angels, even the force of gravity, to proclaim God’s greatness.
“God saw something. He saw the the angels sun with God, and he heard that it was such a beautiful sound. But it was a song that was coerced. A song that had to be. It was not an offering. Not something freely given. God realized in that moment that a single little song, offered up freely to Him, was worth more than all of creation reaching a crescendo together in a universe where it is forced.”
“You see, my friend, in that world, where God did not set out the tree of good and evil… Adam and Eve could not offer up freely the song of their obedience. There was no way for the song to go wrong, and so the fact that it went right was meaningless, in some important way.”
“What do you suppose God would do then?”
“I suppose He would realize that the betrayal in the garden was a possibility, if he had put the tree in there. Perhaps God would even see that the betrayal was not just a possibility. Perhaps he would known it would have been inevitable, even. And yet, even knowing this, the God I love, he would turn back time itself. Maybe to him it would look like one of those films running backward, for millions of years to those first few days. And right there, when it got wound back that far, God would put the tree there anyway, knowing what was to result.”
“Are you saying that it all did happen that way?”
She laughed at me, gently. “Those are your words, boy, not mine.”