If there’s one thing I know about the early chapters of Genesis, it’s that they often raise far more questions than they do answers; not surprisingly, modern interpreters still struggle to make even the most basic of decisions, such as how we should categorize these chapters with respect to genre. The ancients, it seems, were no less puzzled by some of the unexplained details of Gen 1-11. To take just one example: what’s up with God planting a tree smack in the middle of the garden from which Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat? Why bother creating such a temptation? Gregory Nazianzen proposes a creative and thought-provoking solution (Oration 38.12; trans. N. V. Harrison):
[Adam] was placed in paradise, whatever that paradise was then, honored with self-determination so that the good would belong to the one who chose it no less than to the one who provided its seeds.
In other words, it was necessary for God to create humans with free will, that they might themselves be sources of good (perhaps this is part of what it means to be created in the imago Dei). But the tree of knowledge was not meant to always be a mere test:
God gave [Adam] a law as material on which his self-determination could work, and the law was a commandment indicating which plants he could possess and which one he was not to touch. And that was the tree of knowledge, which was neither planted from the beginning through envy—let the enemies of God not wag their tongues in that direction, nor imitate the serpent—but would be good if possessed at the right time. For the tree is contemplation, according to my own contemplation, which is only safe for those of mature disposition to undertake; but it is not good for those who are still simpler and those greedy in their desire, just as adult food is not useful for those who are tender and still in need of milk.
Note how, for Nazianzen, the garden is not simply a really nice arboretum but a symbol of thinking God’s own thoughts (two ideas linked by their common use of the word “cultivation”). But whereas contemplation of the divine is reserved for those who are spiritually adults, Adam and Eve were merely “children in paradise.” The tree of knowledge could have been theirs, had they just waited until they grew up.
As N. V. Harrison summarizes (Festal Orations, p. 50), “God’s plan was to educate their freedom by letting them practice not eating from the tree of knowledge. In this way, they would have grown to adulthood and been prepared to eat from it, just as an ascetic grows through the practice of the virtues and resistance to temptations, so as to be ready for the contemplation for which humankind was indeed created. Adam and Eve’s sin was grasping at contemplation too soon, like a young, overly zealous monk who, like them, is headed for a fall.”
I wonder, though: in our day and age, are we not so much overly zealous in our desire for divine contemplation as we are dismissive of our very ability to do so? Perhaps we need to spend some time cultivating the garden.