The Garden of Eden Revisited
This is the last of four articles in response to David Knott’s comments on my recent article on the Big Bang. My topic here is the same as in the third article, his denial of the doctrine of pre-existence; he believes that the soul is created with the body, and that this is consistent with the Bible, specifically Genesis 2.7, where man became a living being having had the breath of life breathed into him by God. This is a conclusion I cannot agree with; it depends on how one interprets the text.
Here I’m going to offer an alternative interpretation of the first three chapters of Genesis. I accept in advance that some of the text may not appear to support this, but if you bear with me and see it through to the end, then I hope you will agree it is a coherent interpretation of the Biblical message, and one that I believe makes more sense than the conventional one.
Before attempting this interpretation, it is important to note that scholars agree that, in these opening chapters, there are two different accounts of the Creation. David Knott tells me that he finds amazing coherence in the Bible, so it would be interesting to know what he makes of that. An alternative approach would be to see whether it is possible to reconcile the two different accounts. This is what my alternative interpretation attempts to do, although difficulties remain.
Genesis 1 tells how the Elohim (a plural word usually translated as God) created a hierarchical universe with various levels, until at verse 9 “the dry land” (the material universe) emerges from the lower waters (the lowest non-material level). The text then describes the development of the material universe and the emergence of life in its various forms on Earth. All this so far makes sense.
Then the text becomes difficult: “God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. This is obviously confusing. Not only do we read both ‘our image’ (when a supposedly singular God speaks) and ‘his image’ (when the narrator takes over) in relation to God; we also learn that a supposedly male God created a female in his image. What are we to make of this?
It may be possible to resolve this confusion if we assume that down the years something has been lost in translation, or has been changed or misunderstood by an editor. The use of the word ‘image’ is strange. Do we really think that humans look like God in some sense? I submit that a better understanding would be ‘of the same nature as God’.
(EDIT. Since writing the last paragraph, I have noticed that, according to the NRSV edition of the Bible, the original Hebrew word translated as ‘humankind’ was actually ‘Adam’. That humankind was what was intended is therefore an assumption, perhaps unwarranted. The original meaning has indeed been changed in translation.)
As I argued in the second article in the series, if God is the ultimate source of everything in the universe, that must include everything that becomes female — ‘God’ must be a synthesis of male and female elements. The text implies this, because it says that God (who is both male and female), created something of the same nature, both male and female. This entity I would normally call the soul, but in the light of what follows in chapter 2, a different term needs to be found.
The Hindu atman is possible, since we know that this is considered to be of the same nature as the ultimate source, Brahman. Perhaps better but less well known is the term monad, which I’ll define below. Whatever term we use, it is important to remember that what is being described is an entity separate from, but of the same nature as, God. It would therefore be a mistake to think of this as the first physical human being, as the text appears to say, and various Christians have taken to be the case. It is rather a spiritual entity which has the potential to become a physical human.
The problem with this interpretation is that the text continues as if the male and female were human beings on Earth. However, it does fit with the alternative account which follows in chapter 2. (See the EDIT above. Again the Hebrew word for ‘Adam’ has been translated by ‘humankind’.) I suggest that the Garden of Eden story which begins there, despite apparently taking place on planet Earth, refers to events taking place in the spiritual realm. As with all myths, we have to delve beneath the surface to find the hidden levels of meaning.
(EDIT. What is translated as “male and female he created them” should, again according to the NRSV, be more correctly translated “male and female he created him”. The ‘Adam’ created in verses 26 and 27 is therefore both male and female, the significance of which becomes apparent in chapter 2. Perhaps more importantly, there is no suggestion in Genesis 1 that the Adam referred to exists on planet Earth; this is merely an assumption because translators have chosen to use the word ‘humankind’.)
Adam of Genesis 2.7–17 is what above I called a monad. The text gives the impression that Adam is male. As we know, however, the female aspect Eve later emerges from within ‘him’. Before this, ‘he’ must therefore have been both male and female — hermaphroditic, androgynous, or some similar term. (This is in agreement with my interpretation of Genesis 1.27 above.)
What is the monad? In the esoteric spiritual system of Theosophy, it is said to comprise of the two highest Principles, Atma (Spirit) and Buddhi (the Spiritual Soul). Although a duality, “they cannot function without each other. Atma needs Buddhi for a vehicle through which to manifest and Buddhi needs Atma to inform it. These two exist as a unit, not as a compound” ¹. I suggest that such an entity is what is being portrayed as Adam and Eve in Genesis 2.
The monad Adam’s proper home was in the Garden of Eden, the spiritual realm. It was free to enjoy its existence there. The one thing forbidden was to eat of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”. What does this mean? Since the consequence of this transgression will be that “in the day that you eat of it you shall die”, this suggests that the monad, which is eternal and immortal, thus of the same nature as God, if it incarnates into a physical body will obviously be forced to experience death. The phrase ‘good and evil’ refers to the world of the opposites, the lower levels of the Great Chain of Being, as the One, what Carl Jung calls the unus mundus, separates and divides. This tree of knowledge of good and evil is the psyche at these lower levels, remote from the divine source, as humans experience it when in a physical body.
Then, from 2.21, the unified monad separates into its male and female aspects, becomes dual, or at least this duality becomes more apparent. According to the definition above, the soul principle or Buddhi should be identified with the female aspect (Eve). This is what is tempted to descend into the material world, and persuades the male principle (Atma/Spirit) to accompany her. This has nothing to do with the first human woman tempting a man.
It is not Satan who tempts Eve to eat the fruit, as later Christian theologians have claimed for no reason apparent in the text. The serpent symbolises the fall into the material world; that is what tempts the soul principle (Eve). The spiritual monad has then eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as pure consciousness from the spiritual realm incarnates into physical form, and experiences the world of the opposites (good and evil).
If such an interpretation seems strange, and inconsistent with some parts of the Genesis text, then I would suggest that it is something that Jesus believed, at least according to the Bible. He frequently says that the meaning of his parables is hidden, and only for those who have ears to hear. This doesn’t seem to be the case in the parable of the Prodigal Son, however, where the meaning is only thinly disguised, if at all.
The story begins at Luke 15.11. There the younger of two sons asks to be given his birthright (the fact that he was a monad of the same nature as God), then takes it off to a distant country (the material world) where he squandered this birthright “in dissolute living”. At some point he comes to bitterly regret this decision, and seeks to return home to his loving father (to the spiritual realm, the life of the monad).
In passing, it’s interesting to note that this story is told exclusively in male terms. The Greek equivalent provides a counterbalance, in that it is told from a female perspective. In Greek mythology it is the daughter Persephone (the soul) who is dragged down into the underworld, and her mother Demeter who longs for and constantly seeks her return. This story is at the heart of the Eleusinian Mystery tradition.
In the Nag Hammadi Gospel of Thomas Jesus expresses the message of the Prodigal Son parable even more starkly: “I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty”². This is immediately preceded by these words: “If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders”.
Because this text is not found in the Bible, David Knott obviously does not have to take any notice of it. It’s nevertheless interesting that here Jesus states categorically that spirit and body are of fundamentally different natures, and that it would be extraordinary if the body could bring spirit into existence, which is how Knott interprets the Biblical text. The New Testament parable of the Prodigal Son, however, conveys the same message, that the soul or monad pre-exists the body, which is a far distant country. This is the clearest example in the Bible of a text which contradicts David Knott’s belief, so I assume he must have a different interpretation of the parable. How does he interpret this if he wishes to deny pre-existence?
Raynor Johnson, great authority on spiritual matters, interprets the parable in the same way: “It is the story of the souls of men who drifted away from the Father’s presence after they were created, descending from their true home through all the levels of lesser reality until they finally found themselves in the far country of earth in physical bodies. Here they have dissipated their spiritual treasure, the Light that the soul was originally given. They are in the darkness of matter, having forgotten the brightness of the Father’s realm. Their famine is spiritual and life seems dreary, futile, and meaningless. The soul is now a prisoner of the ego; its voice is weak and the ego does not wish to hear it. Degradation leads to suffering; after enough has been endured the voice of the soul is listened to and in desperation the individual tries to find his way back”³.
According to this interpretation, there is clear evidence in the Bible of the pre-existence of the soul. You can say, if you wish, that this is only my personal, unconventional interpretation. I would counter that it is hard to see what else Jesus, as reported by Luke, could have meant.
That is what I believe to be the real story of Genesis chapters 1 to 3. Adam and Eve were not the first humans, rather the two aspects of the spiritual monad. We have to note, however, that the parable of the Prodigal Son appears only in Luke. Given the importance of the message, why are the other three gospel authors unaware of it? Where did Luke get it from? Since it is in the Bible, however, David Knott presumably believes that it is the Word of God and consistent with the overall message.
We are still left with the contradiction between the two accounts of creation. My interpretation makes sense of Genesis 1.26–27. However, Genesis 2 says that it was against God’s will that the monad should descend to the material world and become human. Genesis 1.28–31 gives the impression that the world was created with humans in mind and for their benefit. That contradiction (lack of coherence) I would have to ask David Knott to explain.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics, and astrology. All these articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here).
1. Oneness and the Monad, Yvonne K. Burgess, The Theosophical Publishing House, 2009, p6
2. Logia 29, The Nag Hammadi Library, general editor James M. Robinson, HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, p130
3. The Spiritual Path, Hodder & Stoughton, 1972, p71