Jesus was believed to be born into a rich Jewish heritage that began with the story of Adam and Eve. And so it seems appropriate at this time to take up the oldest tale out of the Old Testament and view it under the scrutiny of our metaphorical magnifying glass. Most of us have heard of the story of Adam and Eve. Some of us grew up intimately with it. I remember as a child asking my father the reason for baptism. His answer was simple. He told me that I needed to be absolved of Adam's sins, which I have inherited, and therefore I was baptized. I held in my mind this literal translation of my sin with me through my teen years. I was told that the first man and woman literally were Adam and Eve and they lived in a beautiful garden with God and a serpent. Eventually, because of their zealous nature, Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden to suffer the pains of life. It did not make sense to me that, by the mere act of being born, I came into the world already saddled with a burden that I did not understand nor desired. And yet I needed to be absolved of it. How could I, as a child, be responsible for someone else's mistake or disobedience? After all, I strictly obeyed my parents and they often showed their contentment with me. But sure enough, the Scriptures are clear in Genesis 3:17. Adam and Eve sinned and so, off to church I went to learn to absolve myself of this sin.
Now as an adult, I realize that indeed I have inherited a "sin" of sorts. When we are born, we not only inherit our parent's biological genes but also our family's psychological genes. Genes are simply patterns, and our bodies and minds are repetitions of those patterns. Therefore, without realizing it, we all take on certain psychological patterns, which are nothing less than conditioning or programming. All of our personal conflicts and psychological pains are the result of our repeating the patterns without understanding them. Ignorance arises when we do not recognize that we have paradoxically accepted this conditioning. In that respect and symbolically speaking, this is the original sin that we have inherited from our first human family. This is one viable interpretation of original sin.
There have been many other translations of the Adam and Eve story by many writers and scholars. Metaphorically speaking, the Garden of Eden represents a state of unconsciousness whereby pain and suffering do not exist. In Genesis 3, we see that the woman, Eve, gave the fruit to Adam and he ate. And before that, the serpent tempts Eve to take of the fruit. It is Eve's influence that causes Adam to eat of the fruit and to become aware of their nakedness. This awareness tips off Jehovah and leads to Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden.
Why did the woman initiate the "sin"? The most insightful explanation, which is discussed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, is that we come to this world through the female womb. We become aware of the world, in our nakedness, after exiting our mother's womb. Eve is the primordial mother of us all. And the serpent, which tempts Eve, is the symbol for life itself. The serpent's ability to shed its skin and to renew itself gives it a special place in myths and religions. The serpent represents life while Eve represents the vehicle for life. Through Eve, we come from unconsciousness, which is our state before birth, to consciousness. In some Eastern cultures or religions, the serpent is sacred and positively represents life for that same reason. In the Western tradition, the serpent earned a negative, cursed reputation.
I think that this metaphorical reading renders the story more meaningful than a literal interpretation. It connects much more effectively with our human understanding and recounts our origins in rich, poetic language. This reading does not throw out reason but invites it into our experience. Does it make any sense at all that many intelligent believers, scholars, and religious leaders continue to hold on to the old literal reading? In any case, this is one example of how a metaphorical reading can transform Scripture into a more meaningful and liberating force. There are many other accounts in the Old Testament that can be read in metaphorical terms, from the story of Jonah and the whale to the visions of the prophets but we will not explore them here. Suffice it to say that shining the light of metaphorical language onto the Scriptures can enrich our understanding and give us a deeper appreciation of the tradition that we have inherited. More importantly, it leads us to a richer, more profound experience of life.
Some of the important parts of the Scriptures that Jesus may have known intimately are the Ten Commandments. They are the foundational pillars of Jewish law. But a closer look at the Ten Commandments reveals an orderly, well thought out set of directives that have little to do with the Landscape where the Father lives. The Jewish tradition has a profound depth to it, containing many rich symbols and practices. The ideas presented here are not meant to simplify or take away from the Jewish tradition but to consider them from the mainstream, orthodox Christian perception.
In Exodus 20, God lays out His commandments. The first begins with "I am the Lord thy God… Thou shall have no other gods before me." The text continues with admonitions regarding the way in which God's followers should think about Him. The next commandment in the queue comes in Exodus 20: 12, "Honor thy father and thy mother." This commandment is followed by "Thou shall not kill. Thou shall not commit adultery. Thou shall not steal"… and so forth.
When we consider these commandments that have become an essential fabric of our society, we see a clear and predetermined system of social order, as we all know. The commandments have very little to do with the inner workings of the human psyche but much to do with the outer or physical world of social order. The first commandment clearly establishes the authority of this all-powerful deity and does not allow for anyone in society to question this authority lest they fall victim to its mighty wrath. The text reads (Exodus 20): "for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." Clear enough?
The second commandment gives authority to parents who are second to the deity. This commandment ensures that the law is sealed and passed down and honored from generation to generation. The adults are bound to the deity and the children are bound to their parents; therefore, it is certain that all generations shall carry forth the commandments of their parents much like genes that are passed on and carried through progeny, generation after generation.
The remaining commandments address laws that are designed to facilitate coexistence of people in a society. Stealing, murder, lying, adultery and so forth are addressed in these commandments; these behaviors are all detriments to an orderly society. Clearly, these commandments address the coexistence of a people. Ideally, following these commandments allows the society to flourish and grow and multiply, free from internal conflict and strife that could lead to its demise. With this in mind, it is quite easy to understand the concept of the Chosen People. The Chosen People can be thought of as a metaphor as well. They are chosen by God because they live an orderly life, under the Ten Commandments, as an organism trying to survive and thrive in a hostile world of competing tribes or societies. The deity condemns any behavior or action that does not allow for this group to "be fruitful and multiply." (Genesis 1:22) This is a strong argument for the rejection of homosexuality, for example, and any other behavior or action that goes against this commandment. Needless to say, the Bible contains many admonitions for the Chosen People to overtake other tribes and cities, even in violence, but we will not explore them here. Anyone interested in pursuing this topic should read the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament.