Eve’s and Adam’s decision to eat the fruit of the tree, and thus forsake their paradise, may be an allegory for—or perhaps a counterpart to—our own decision to accept the conditions of mortality, in exchange for a heavenly paradise.
We should notice that in the story of the Garden, Adam and Eve are presented with options that are more complex than the simple Right and Wrong of Sunday sermons. Certainly a prohibition is violated, and in that sense there is a transgression. But, as the philosopher Hegel argued forcefully, the most tragic predicaments in which we find ourselves are those that require a choice between competing Goods, not Good and Evil. The author of Genesis frames Eve’s choice as just such a dilemma, a choice between the safety and security of the Garden, and the goodness, beauty, and wisdom that come at the price—and only at the price—of painful lived experience. Her decision is more worthy of admiration for its courage and initiative, than reproach for its rebellion. This is apparent for a number of reasons.
First, the tree was, according to the author, good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise. And those motives, not rebelliousness or perverseness, are what the author of Genesis specifically attributes to Eve as she makes her choice. She is not tempted by a frivolous curiosity or hunger for power. She is not facilely manipulated or co-opted to a nefarious scheme. She is depicted as a woman in pursuit of the Good, the True, the Beautiful.
Second, Adam and Eve are obviously represented as already having some knowledge of good and evil, or they could hardly be accountable for their decision. If, before eating the fruit they are without any moral discernment whatever, it makes no sense to call that act a sin. The implication is that they were already possessed of some knowledge of good and evil, in theory. The knowledge of good and evil which they lacked is experiential knowledge. Eve’s rationale for eating the fruit emphasizes a kind of knowledge that is acquired bodily, empirically. Eve is drawn to a fruit that is good to the taste, a delight to the eyes. The wisdom to which she aspires is acquired through experiential immersion. In fact, “knowledge” as used biblically generally has this connotation of a knowledge that is personal, relational, intimate—rather than abstract, cerebral, or theoretical. (As when Adam “knew” his wife and she conceived.) As events prove, the Tree of Knowledge serves as a gateway to the whole gamut of lived experience, the sweaty toil of labor, the bodily agony of childbirth, as well as physical susceptibility to decay and death.
Third, in consequence of Eve’s choice, God does three significant things: He notes they have now become “as one of us,” indicating some kind of growth has been initiated. He curses the ground “for [their] sake or “on [their] account,” suggesting He is facilitating rather than punishing their decision to encounter a world of trial and opposites. And He does not forbid them immortality, but defers their immortality for a period. He prevents them from eating of the Tree of Life, since that would cause them to “live forever,” before the period of testing and growth had accomplished its perfecting work. After this mortal stage of growth is complete, as we see in the vision of the Revelator, the righteous reenter a celestial paradise with not one, but twelve Trees of Life.
These events suggest something more in the nature of an unfolding plan, than a God’s frantic damage control. They also suggest why it is reasonable to read the story of the Garden as representing a set of competing, difficult options. Adam and Eve may avoid the tree, and continue to dwell in God’s presence. Or, they may partake of the fruit and experience temporary exile, death, and pain—along with the transcendent possibility of a future hardly to be fathomed (“you shall be as the gods”). The decision is theirs. A nineteenth-century recasting of the scripture reads, “Thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee.” There is a hint, in other words, that the prohibition was more in the nature of a warning, articulating the costly consequences of disregarding the restriction. And so they do choose for themselves.
At Eve’s courageous instigation, they opt to lose paradise, hoping to eventually regain heaven—but transformed and ennobled by the schoolhouse of experience that comprises mortality. Mortality, therefore, immersion in bodily, earthly experience, is vital to becoming like God. In this version of the story, we find ourselves in the same dreary world. But the debris of the first transgression— pain and death especially—is a dark and difficult middle passage, not the origin, in our spiritual odyssey. Ascent into mortality is a precursor to something even greater than the paradise we left. As a Book of Mormon scripture summarizes, “Adam [and Eve] fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”