Science Ch.18 - Adam’s Apple in Literal Language

When the account of Eden’s ribs, snakes, and trees is expressed in modern concepts, it agrees surprisingly well with the literal text. Gerontologists would love to know what grew on the tree of life.


Fruit is good for you – unless it’s the only forbidden fruit on the planet. One bite of this, and the whole human race suffered. Most attempts to depict the story of the garden of Eden in Genesis 3 look embarrassingly silly; inevitably, it seems, we end up with images in our minds of strategically placed foliage and sly-looking snakes. And why did God put the dangerous forbidden fruit so temptingly on display? Was he trying to catch Adam and Eve out? It seems like leaving a tin of sweets within your children’s reach and telling them not to eat any while you’re out of the room. This whole description of a protected paradise with two special trees, a talking animal, and everlasting gardening suggests that it might be a parable about temptation rather than an account of early human history.

       Personally, I prefer to regard Bible narratives as accounts of actual events whenever possible, so I’m going to see how far I can get with that. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t or can’t be a metaphorical or poetic story about how sin or death came to humanity, but before deciding that’s the case, we should try to understand the narrative literally. We may, of course, have to update the language a little, because the ancient audience for whom Genesis was written had no terminology for subjects such as cloning, genetics, or the biological causes of aging, so the original account couldn’t refer to such concepts. Here’s an attempt at rewriting the narrative of Genesis 3 as it might have been written if its first readers had lived in the twenty-first century:

5-minute summary

(More videos here)


Modern retelling of Genesis 3

God selected one of the upright, large-brained, human-looking animals that he had slowly and lovingly nurtured from the dust of exploded stars over billions of years and gave that animal a spirit. This transformed the human animal into a human being who was capable of communicating with God. His spirit also enabled the man to think about the future and to make voluntary moral decisions.

   This first human being lived in Eden – an area of fertile land enclosed by a wall that protected him from harm. This protection was necessary because in order to produce harmony in the good and perfect world, all other living things experienced a life cycle involving reproduction and death. Life cycles are implicit in the seasons of autumn and spring, the eating of plants and smaller animals by larger animals, and adaptation to new environments by having offspring with new abilities. Eden was special because human death was prevented. The garden boundary kept out carcinogens, dangerous animals, and all other sources of harm; inside there was healthy food and useful plants that needed tending.

   Because God wanted human beings to live forever, he had selected one with healthy genes and no diseases that he might pass on. God then took some of the man’s tissue and made a kind of clone who was identical to him except for the lack of his Y chromosome, so she was female. To prevent them from aging, God provided a “tree of life” – a source of life-preserving supplements that kept them alive as long as they ingested them regularly. When they multiplied to “fill the earth,” they would be able to make copies of that tree and extend the boundary of the garden. However, exclusion from the garden would deny them access to this tree, so they would start to die. This description of the creation of the first human beings has certainly lost the poetic beauty of the ancient text, but it helps us to recognize that it could be describing an actual set of events. Previous generations wouldn’t have understood the language I have used here, and we may not understand a similar account that is made in a hundred years’ time. Perhaps, by then, everyone will know a word for the type of substances that the tree of life provided for preventing human death.

Preventing aging

Gerontology is a new medical discipline that deals mainly with the various disabilities of aging, but it is starting to make some progress in preventing the causes of aging.1 There is still little consensus or definite progress in this area, but even without a breakthrough, more than half the babies now born in the West are expected to live to a hundred years.2 At present, most people are still dying of diseases, accidents, infections, degradation of organs such as the heart, liver, brain, and so on, and uncontrollable cell division (i.e., cancer). However, as medicine improves, more of us are dying of “old age” – which, intriguingly, is written into our genes.

       Throughout our lives, almost every part of our body is continuously regenerating itself, except for our reproductive cells (eggs and sperm) and the lenses in our eyes, which harden in our forties and eventually turn into useless cataracts.3 However, we have a built-in age limit because eventually the rest of our cells also stop dividing and repairing. The ends of each human chromosome in our cells are capped with a telomere – a short code sequence that is repeated about twenty-five hundred times. When a cell ages, it divides to produce two youthful cells, but during this process it loses about ten of these code sequences, so the telomere cap shortens. When it gets too short, the cell cannot divide and becomes senescent – that is, it grows old and slows down. Tantalizingly, a hormone called telomerase can regenerate the telomeres, but this only works in reproductive cells, and no one has found a way to make it work elsewhere.4 Of course, its use might increase the rate of cancers, but reproductive cells have an answer for that: they have extremely active DNA-repair mechanisms that are almost foolproof.5 So, if things are as simple as we hope (and they rarely are), humans have an inbuilt mechanism for extending our life almost indefinitely, but we haven’t worked out how to activate it yet. Perhaps it is merely a matter of identifying the food supplement that was in the tree of life.

       There are some details in Genesis that are more difficult to retell in scientific terms, such as the snake and the other special tree – the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” For this, we have to change to the language of another specialist area of knowledge – that is, we have to use theological language: The first two human beings, like us, had the ability to make moral choices, although there was little to tempt them to do wrong because they felt no danger, had no needs, and had no rivals. However, their free will could lead them into rebelling against God. So God included a minor prohibition that would act as an early warning signal that they were starting to rebel. He told them that they should not eat from one particular tree – the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” This tree didn’t actually transfer any knowledge, but the act of eating from it conveyed the knowledge that they could – and did – disobey God. That is, this action informed them that it was possible to do evil as well as good. If they could do this, they could also harm animals or even harm each other. They were expelled from the garden in order that the evil each one did would be confined to one lifetime.

The spreading of death

Death didn’t come immediately when Adam and Eve were expelled. Their ideal genes gave them and their descendants a lifespan of hundreds of years. This is perhaps confirmed by the extraordinary lifespans of kings in the Sumerian lists before the time of the flood.6 By the time of Abraham, the human lifespan had gradually reduced to 175 years (Gen 25:7), and soon after, it settled down to an average of about seventy years (Ps 90:10). Adam was responsible for bringing death to the whole human race because his sin meant that we no longer lived in Eden, where humans could eat from the tree of life and live forever. Romans 5:12 says that Adam introduced “death,” and that this spread “to all people, because all sinned.” So Adam doesn’t bear all the guilt, because we ourselves also sin.

       Did Adam’s sin also bring death to plants, animals, and bacteria? The only indication that this may have happened is in Romans 8: “Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20-21). However, this doesn’t say that death was absent before Adam. What this passage does say is that the creation suffers “decay” (phthora, which implies death) but also “frustration” (mataiotēs, which has the sense of “meaninglessness” and “emptiness”) until “the children of God” experience “freedom and glory.” This “frustration” is a good description of the meaninglessness of death and decay after the entrance of sin into the world.

       Plant and animal death had always been a necessary and natural aspect of lifecycles in creation. Death results in seasons, rejuvenation, and adaptive change, which are all “good” features of creation – so long as there is a purpose. But when creation lost its purpose (when Adam stopped following God’s will), this cycle became just a meaningless and frustrating round of growth and decay. Romans 8 tells us that the whole of creation is longing for the day when we all start following the will of God again.

       Plants and animals weren’t eternal before Adam’s sin – otherwise there wouldn’t be any coal from dead forests or fossils from dead animals, and the planet would have been quickly overpopulated with animals that were reproducing and living forever. Animals experienced a lifecycle of birth, reproduction, and death. But Adam was special: God picked him out because he wanted the company of him and his descendants for eternity. When Adam and Eve failed their test, they were forced to rejoin the rest of creation and follow the cycle of birth, reproduction, and death again. But they didn’t go back to being mere animals – they were irrevocably different because God had given them a spirit, making them into human beings.

       The tree of life reappears in the human story at the very end of the Bible. The intervening chapters describe how God wonderfully provided restoration to everlasting life for the descendants of those first two human beings. Now he lovingly invites everyone to live in the new world he has created for those who accept his remedy for their sin. The whole new earth will enjoy the perfection of Eden because the tree of life will no longer be confined to a single garden: a large number of these trees will be planted as an avenue in the eternal city (Rom 8:21; Rev 22:2). Perhaps this is what God planned from the start – that the garden of Eden would have grown into a garden city where billions of people could live safely, while still being able to explore the natural planet around them.7 In that case, his plan wasn’t frustrated by sin – it was merely postponed.

Summary


• Adam’s life-giving tree can be regarded as a source of regenerative food supplement.
• The other tree could have been God’s early warning of rebellion in the new, morally free humans.
• Death started in humans due to their exclusion from the source of life extension.
• Proposal: Outside Eden the natural cycles of death occurred, but this became a meaningless frustration when humans stopped following God’s will for the planet.

1^ For a summary of various theories, see João Pedro de Magalhães, “Damage-Based Theories of Aging,” Senescence (tinyurl.com/AgingCauses).
2^ See Datablog, “How Many People Will Live to 100 in Developed Countries?,” Guardian, May 7, 2017 (tinyurl.com/LiveToCentury).
3^ See “How Quickly Do Different Cells in the Body Replace Themselves?,” Cell Biology by the Numbers (tinyurl.com/CellsReplace).
4^ See Wikipedia, “Telomere” (tinyurl.com/WikiTelomeres).
5^ See Wikipedia, “DNA Repair” (tinyurl.com/WikiRepairDNA) and Suzanne Clancy, “DNA Damage & Repair: Mechanisms for Maintaining DNA Integrity,” Nature Education 1 (2008): 103 (tinyurl.com/DamagedDNA).
6^ See Wikipedia, “Sumerian King List” (tinyurl.com/SumerianKings).
7^ See chap. 14, “Ecology and the New Earth.”

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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