Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.
We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.
We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).
In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.
The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.
The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…
In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.
Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.
It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.
No more magic.