I’ll be turning thirty about this time next year. That’s supposed to mean something, I know; I’m just not sure what. By any lights, I’m still a young man. But some things get old fast. My wife found my first gray hair not long ago. Actually, it’s ghost white, perhaps trauma induced—self-inflicted no doubt. Trying to beat up on others, more often than not we beat up on ourselves. I may not be getting old just yet, but I’m getting to the point where it’s time to start thinking about staying young while I can.
I’ve got a beautiful wife who stands by my side, and that means she also takes a beating whenever I do. I’ve got a voraciously happy three-and-a-half-year-old daughter who craves my attention at every moment because, unfortunate as this may be for her, I’m her whole world. The whole world is carved up in her mind into three basic categories—babies, mommies, and daddies, and when it comes to daddies, I’m hers. It’s not that her perceptions don’t need expanding; they do, and they will expand. They’re expanding every moment of every day, not fast enough for her, but too fast for her daddy. I’m so busy beating up on myself, I sometimes can’t recognize the daddy in the mirror.
It’s not that I’ll miss out on helping her learn to navigate a much bigger world than babies, mommies, and daddies. I’ve never had any problems telling others what to see and what to think. Ela gets and will get plenty of guidance from her gray-haired old man. It’s that I’m missing out on what it is she has to say to me, what it is she wants to show me when she invites me, every moment of every day, to join her in this tripartite world of babies, mommies, and daddies. It’s not that her perceptions are right, it’s that mine aren’t either, and I can’t think of a good reason why her simple haven shouldn’t or couldn’t be a whole world, even to me.
Others have wrestled with this question, long before I claimed it as my own. Before the myth of Adam and Eve was read as the story of a great fall, it was read as a coming-of-age lament. Adam and Eve weren’t originally the great rebels against God they later became in popular consciousness; they were children who had to grow up. The garden of Eden was a symbol of childhood. They didn’t want for food. They didn’t have to work in order to survive. Everything was provided for them; everything they could ever need was simply handed to them by their father. They were shameless too. Nakedness meant nothing to them, as they frolicked in the garden. Their animals were not their servants but their friends. They were each other’s companions. They were blissfully unaware of the harsh world outside of the garden.
And that’s precisely how their loving father wanted things to stay, for as long as possible. In the whole garden he forbade them only one tree, one tree and its fruit. Was this arbitrary? What was so special about this one tree, when all the others were permissible? Why did their father care so much about this one? The more they thought about it, the more arbitrary their father’s instructions seemed to them. Clearly father knew something about this tree, otherwise how would he know to forbid it to them? Why was he holding out? Childlike curiosity got the best of them, as it always does. The tree and its fruit, shrouded in mystery, had to be uncovered.
And when finally Adam and Eve, naked together in the garden, uncovered the mystery of the forbidden fruit, they came of age, and their father lamented. No longer could they frolic about the garden free of responsibility. Now Adam would have to work for subsistence, and Eve would have to endure the pain of childbirth. The serpent was right. They were now like their father, knowing the difference between good and evil, but what the serpent didn’t mention is that with this knowledge came the burden of many responsibilities. Their youth had been cut short. Now, there was only toil, pain, and finally, as with all, death.
The serpent here is an important figure. Let’s not read back later ideas about the serpent into the story. The serpent isn’t Satan. At the time this story was written, Satan wasn’t yet a bad guy in Israel’s mythologies. Satan was a member of the divine council whose job it was to make sure that God’s people were being obedient to God’s commands. It was not until the later second temple period that Satan became God’s cosmic enemy, and not until later still that Satan came to be identified as the serpent in that garden of primordial innocence. No, in the ancient near eastern mythologies, the serpent was a symbol of death.
For instance, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the tragic hero embarks on a quest for immortality. At every turn he is told it is a fool’s errand, but he defies such a council of despair and stubbornly presses on. Finally, a lady bar-tender tells him where to find it, not at the bottom of his glass but at the bottom of the sea. There lies a plant that holds the key to immortality. So Gilgamesh, ostensibly inebriated, dives down to the deep and uproots the plant, rising to the surface, with immortality in his hands. On his way home, he stops at a pool to bathe, and as he reposes in the water, a serpent slithers by and makes off with the plant. When Gilgamesh emerges from the bath, his precious plant is gone. The serpent had taken away his immortality.
The serpent is the perfect symbol for the loss of immortality, of course. When the serpent strikes, human mortality is exposed. Back in our garden, the same motifs may be seen. The tree which gives eternal life is taken from man and woman by the wiles of the serpent. As Adam and Eve come of age, their mortality dawns upon them. The message is clear: Don’t grow up too fast; after you come of age, a life of toil and eventual death is all you have to look forward to.1
When God banned them from the garden it is not because they had done something which humans shouldn’t do; it’s because once they had done it, they could no longer remain in their childhood garden of innocence. A life of labor, child-bearing, envy, and strife now awaited them, and death would follow afterward. Their sin was that they had grown old too quickly, and of course, what loving father does not lament his child’s loss of innocence? For such a father, any coming of age happens upon his child all too swiftly—childhood is brief for the child, briefer still for the parent.
My daughter is only three-and-a-half years old, and already her tripartite world is expanding, filling up with grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts, cousins and friends. Before long it will be full of teachers and facts, bullies and victims, and then boyfriends. I’ll blink, and she’ll have come of age. I’ll find myself wandering through the garden, searching her out, only to discover that her innocence has been lost, and perhaps, in fact, no doubt, I’ll lament this more than she will. Because like one who knows the difference between good and evil, I know what evils this world has in store for her. All this will happen under my nose, and as I reflect on this, and the time quickly approaches for her to leave the garden of her youth, I find myself wanting to go back there myself. I stare at myself in the mirror, brow-beaten and weary from my own vain efforts to achieve some kind of immortality, and my first gray hair stares back at me. What I lament in my daughter’s meteoric rise to womanhood is in reality my own mortality.
I will not be here forever, and as I am reminded by a great teacher, even my memory will eventually be lost to the world, as the world goes on despite our best efforts against it, tempting unknowing children with good fruit, and demanding everything they didn’t know they had in return for it.
What is the conclusion of the matter? A great teacher offers this advice:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave, to which you are going. (Eccl 9:7–10)
Now that I have my daughter’s eyes to look into, I know what it is that I see when I stare into my own in the mirror, brow-beaten and weary. Gabriela gives no thought to the future, only to the present moment. She hungers for pancakes, not for immortality. This is innocence. We will all cease to exist, but what kills us is not our mortality—it is the war we wage against it. We kill ourselves, in an attempt to save ourselves, to preserve ourselves, even if only in the memories of those whom we like to think depend upon us. This is the battle I see playing out in the mirror, and there are many casualties in this war.
We all must toil, but some of us are privileged enough to choose the field in which we toil. And I have chosen a field whose fruit can be lethal to many. As a biblical scholar and student of theology, the harvest of my labor can threaten the very core of the existence of some. Therefore I am a threat. Indeed, I have been a threat to myself. My work has threatened me, the very reason of my existence, and it threatens others. In my labor I have uncovered realities that perhaps would have been better left buried, though I think that not.
Ultimately, I have come to see that if the perceived reasons for our existence are so fragile as to be threatened by the simple realities on the ground, then perhaps it is our perceived reasons for existence themselves that are the real threats to us, and not the realities that expose their fragility. Therefore I took it upon myself to share the harvest in the hope that others might see how fragile our most sacred beliefs in fact are. I came to know that I know nothing about any ultimate reason for our existence, and I thought that if more of us could share in my unknowing, fewer of us would find themselves at the edge of the sword wielded by champions of meaning in the name of ultimate truth.
But what I failed to see was that I hadn’t turned my own sword into a ploughshare; I had simply traded it in for another. I fought certainty with the certainty of one who is certain that he is uncertain. And that was my plant at the bottom of the sea—my key to immortality. But some things get old fast.
To all those whose misguided yet well-intentioned defenses of certainty I have balked at, to those upon whose necks I have stepped on my way to immortality, I offer my deepest regrets.2 I repent. Life is too quick that I should treat as enemies those who would be mine, too harsh already without those like me who would take no prisoners on a quest for peace. In the past I have defended my incivility toward those with bad ideas on the grounds that bad ideas do real harm. This is true. Bad ideas can and often do cause real harm to real people—to people like my daughter, and the daughters of my enemies. But now I see that nothing is worse for my daughter than for her daddy to kill himself “defending her,” simply because I can’t abide the thought of her ever having to leave this garden I’ve created for her.
So tomorrow we’ll have pancakes with enjoyment, and chocolate milk with a merry heart, and I’ll enjoy my time with her in the garden, while it lasts.