God made man because he loved stories.
—Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlev
What we have not named or beheld as symbol escapes our notice.
You know, sometimes even God gets lonely.
That’s how all the trouble started.
When God first made the earth, there weren’t any people or creatures or even plants. One day, God said, “I want some company. I think I’ll make me a human.”
So he—and God isn’t really a “he,” of course, but he acts like one sometimes—he took a little dirt and a little water and mixed them together and made a large-as-life statue that looked just like a human would have, if there had been any humans. Then he blew on it. And, just like that—the statue turned to flesh and blood, and started moving around and staring at things with a bewildered look on its face, wondering what on earth it had gotten into.
That gave God a good laugh. He thought that was pretty good.
God figured he’d make a nice home for the human, so he went off a ways and fixed up a huge park.
He invented all kinds of plants to go in the park: tall, skinny ones with green things fluttering at the top; short, scraggly, fat ones; and delicate, colorful things on the tips of stalks. I’d tell you the names, but the fact is—at this point in the story—they didn’t have any. No one had gotten there yet to give them any. Of course, God didn’t need any names for them, because he knew each plant one-on-one and inside out—just like a husband and wife can talk to each other for days without ever needing to call each other by name.
God filled the park with all these plants. Some were there to provide the human with fruit and nuts. Some were for medicine. Some were just to look beautiful and to remind the human of the park’s creator.
In the very center of the park, God placed two very special plants. One was the Tree of Eternal Life. The other was the Tree of Self-Knowledge.
Then he fetched the human and settled it in the big park. The human was delighted and couldn’t thank God enough.
God said, “I’m giving you this park as your home, but you have to take good care of it, understand? And one more thing: You can eat any fruit in the park, except from the Tree of Self-Knowledge. If you eat that”—God threw the human an ominous glance—“it’s all over.”
That was how the human came to live in the park. Now and then, God would stop in after a busy day running the universe. He and the human would sit around and swap stories.
But most of the time, the human was alone with only the plants to talk to—and God hadn’t exactly made them great conversationalists.
God thought, “I’d better make a partner for the human.”
The next time he visited the park, God mixed some more mud and formed statues of all different kinds of creatures. There were creatures to walk on the ground, and creatures to fly in the air, and creatures to wiggle around under water. Then God blew on all of them and, just like that—they all came to life.
He showed the creatures to the human. Again the human was delighted.
Then God said, “Go ahead and name them.”
The human could hardly contain its joy. As fast as it could make up names, it gave them to every creature that walked on the ground, and every creature that flew in the air, and every creature that wiggled around under water. And as it gave each creature a name, a very strange thing happened: The human felt itself become the master of that creature. Something about naming the creature did that.
Of course, as I say, that’s what the human felt. We don’t know what the creatures felt, because they weren’t such great conversationalists, either.
For days, the human ran around, calling all the creatures by their new names. It invented names for all the plants too. But strangely enough, it never once thought to name itself. In fact—believe it or not—it never really noticed itself. It ran around noticing everything else.
The human kept up the name game for quite a while, but God finally saw that none of the creatures would make it much of a partner.
Then God had a brainstorm. He put the human in a deep sleep. Then he split the human in half. Right down the middle.
God went to work on each half. He squeezed and he squoze. He punched and he poked. Then he blew on both halves, so there would be magic enough for two.
He woke them up.
There they stood: two slightly different humans, a man and a woman, staring at each other with very bewildered looks on their faces and wondering, really, what on earth they had gotten into.
God thought that was very good. Not wanting to spoil the fun, he went off, leaving the two slightly different humans to explore their differences.
Now, there was a long, thin, slithery creature that was cleverer than all the others, and a troublemaker to boot. “Snake,” the human had named it. Anyway, one day this creature came upon the man and woman, resting from a game they had discovered to play with each other.
Seeing a chance to make trouble, the snake slithered up and said, “I hear God’s ordered you not to eat any fruit in this park.”
The woman said, “You hear wrong. He told us we can eat any fruit we like. That is, any fruit except from the Tree of Self-Knowledge. If we eat that, it’s all over.”
The snake laughed wretchedly—at least, as close to laughing wretchedly as a snake can come. “Pure bunk! And you believed that scoundrel!”
The man and woman looked at each other questioningly, then back at the snake.
“You fools! God knows that, as soon as you eat that fruit, you’ll know everything worth knowing. You’ll know about yourselves. You’ll know what marvelous, beauteous, lovable, radiant, worthwhile people you really are. Your destiny calls! Your self-fulfillment is at hand. You will be like God! No, you are like God! You need only eat the fruit of that tree to realize it! No wonder that jealous upstart wants to keep you from it!”
Then the snake crawled off into the bushes, snickering to itself—at least, as well as a snake can snicker.
Well, the man and woman talked it over. And the more they talked it over, the more doubtful they grew of God’s motives; then the more angry they got at God’s denying them their full potential; then the more determined they became to assert themselves and claim their true destiny.
They marched to the center of the park, plucked a ripe fruit, and—with no more than a momentary shudder of dread—devoured it between them.
Then, for the very first time, the man noticed himself. For the very first time, the woman noticed herself. And, frankly, they weren’t sure they liked what they saw.
It could’ve been better. Or maybe it was all right. But how could they be sure?
Then they each had a thought: If they could see themselves, and they weren’t sure they liked what they saw, then the other one could also see them, and might notice the same things that each wasn’t sure they liked.
For that matter, so could anyone happening by in the park. For instance, God.
The man turned red and laughed uneasily. “Um, I seem to be naked.”
“Me too,” said the woman, just as uneasily. “Maybe we could find some way to cover ourselves?”
They spent the rest of the day trying to figure out how to stitch leaves together. But, before they’d gotten the hang of it, evening fell, and they heard God coming for a stroll through the park. In a panic, they hid behind some trees.
God looked around a bit, then called out, “Hey, where’d everybody go?”
The man and woman looked at each other in fear. Then the man called back, “We heard you coming. But we’re both naked. You wouldn’t want us to come out like this, would you?”
God turned ghastly gray, then six shades of purple. “Come out here, RIGHT NOW!”
The man and woman stepped sheepishly into the open, hiding as much as they could with their hands and arms.
“All right,” said God, “now tell me: Who told you that you were naked?”
The man and woman looked at each other in confusion.
God said, “Have you been eating from that tree I specifically told you not to?”
The man pointed at the woman. “She plucked it and took the first bite.”
The woman said, “Only because you lifted me, so we could reach the branch! Anyway, it was all the snake’s idea.”
“Never mind the snake!” God bellowed.
He sank to the ground, crouching and moaning with his face in his hands. He thought, “Now what do I do? They’ve eaten from the Tree of Self-Knowledge. In their condition, what if they also eat from the Tree of Eternal Life?”
Finally, God stood up and said, “Listen. I’m afraid you’ll have to leave the park. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to work very hard for your living. But it’s for your own good. Any questions?”
The man and woman looked at each other. The woman said, “Could you show us how to make clothes?”
So God showed them a few tricks to start them off. They each got a suit of clothes. They also each chose a name—but I’m sure you’ve already figured those out. Then God escorted the man and woman to the edge of the park, and watched them trudge off.
When they were out of sight, God called down a couple of angels to guard the entrance. He also set up a flashing sword that whirled all by itself.
God told the angels, “No one gets through this entrance, understand? I don’t want anyone near that Tree of Eternal Life.”
“Right, chief,” said the commanding angel, with a smart salute.
“That is,” said God, throwing the angel a meaningful glance, “not until they’re ready.”
The angel smiled. “I understand perfectly, chief,” he said, and saluted again.
And that’s where things stand now.
Some people say that God was so put out by the whole affair, he’s contenting himself with talking to stars and such.
But others say he’s just waiting for that man and woman—or their children’s children’s children—to come back to the park, to make their way past the angels and the whirling sword, and even to pluck fruit from the Tree of Eternal Life—so he can sit and swap stories with them, once again.
About the Story
“Who told you that you were naked?”
God’s question to Adam and Eve, recounted in Genesis, always puzzled me. Why would they need to be told?
Then I stumbled across Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Percy’s book is a Christian tract cleverly masked as a popular treatment of semiotics, the science of symbols. The evangelical message was wasted on me, but Percy’s thoughts on the Garden of Eden mythology provided my long-sought answer, and the key to this retelling.
As long as I was tinkering with Scripture, I decided also to strip the story of its sexism. This annoying feature today too often diverts us from the story’s deeper meanings.
I named the story “The Garden of Delight” because “delight” is the literal meaning of Eden. Actually, garden too could use translating, since it’s British for “park”—but who’d want to read “The Park of Delight”?