"You shall be like gods:" The Oldest Temptation
This year, as I was teaching my high school students a unit of world religions, I could not help but be struck by the account of the Fall of Man in Genesis and how relevant the temptation remains for us today.
Students like to complain that history and things that happened long ago are not “relevant” to their lives. What they typically mean is, “Knowing of those things that happened long ago will neither put food in my belly nor money in my pocket, nor will they entertain or distract me in my life. When then ought I know them? They are not “relevant” to me.”
They should read Genesis, for the temptation of Eve is the same basic temptation that humanity has faced all through the long years since and continues to face today: the temptation to be like gods. And it has led to the same heartbreak in our world today that it led to in the very beginning.
The book of Genesis tells how Adam and Eve were created by God, given dominion over the earth, and placed in the garden of Eden. They were told they might eat of the fruit of any tree, but were given only one a single prohibition: “Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death” (Genesis 2: 16-17).
Chesterton once commented how perfectly understandable the prohibition is. Throughout life and the moral universe seems to run this rule: the rule of conditional happiness. It finds itself even in our fairy tales: Cinderella may go to the ball on condition that she leaves by midnight. A man may have a happy marriage as long he remains faithful to one wife until death do them part. Our happiness is always contingent on certain conditions and on us keeping them and it is vain to rail against them.
And so Adam and Eve lived in the garden, with that happiness dependent on only one condition. One day, Eve found herself alone, apparently near the fatal tree (why was she near the tree?), and the serpent approached her. Perhaps the serpent envied Eve and Adam the happiness and favor that God had bestowed on them, and wished to destroy it. One way or another, he determined to make Adam and Eve transgress the divine command.
‘Did God really tell you now to eat the fruit of any tree?’ he asked Eve. Eve correctly replied that God had granted them the right to eat the fruit of any tree, except for the tree of Good and Evil, lest they die. The cunning and malice of the serpent showed in his next words:
“No, you shall not die the death. For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods…” (Genesis 3:4-5).
You will not die, the serpent lied, on the contrary, you will be like gods. And our first parents fell, Eve following the serpent and then Adam following Eve, both breaking the command of God, the sole condition on which their happiness depended. On that day, they indeed became subject to death, labor, and heartache, all because of the temptation to be like gods. What seemed a glorious venture, ended in heartache and expulsion from Eden.
The modern world still faces the same temptation and, over and over, it suffers the consequences of succumbing. More than ever our modern world tempts us to be like God. It follows Friedrich Nietzsche, who had declared that since God (he thought) was dead, then we ourselves would have to become gods to replace Him. He ought to have read Genesis.
For we have tried to become gods, following the temptation of the serpent. In the beginning, God gave Eve to Adam in marriage, yet our society has tried to redefine marriage and make it into something other than what God has said. God made Adam and Eve male and female, male and female he created them. But we have tried to better God, and have tried to redefine male and female. We have tried to redefine good and evil. We now decide good and evil for ourselves. God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, but our western culture has chosen instead to reject children as burdens and chosen to redefine a chosen childlessness as a kind of virtue.
And like the choice of our first parents, our modern choices bring only heartbreak. Man makes a poor god and the attempt too often ends in despair. And so we have a society filled with increasing anxiety, depression, drug abuse, and deaths of despair. Seeking to be like gods, we have eaten of the forbidden tree and suffered the consequences.
And yet we need not despair; for we are also given the reason for hope. We make poor gods, it is true. But then why should we wish to be gods? Happiness comes not from the attempt to be like gods, but from the acceptance of God as God and of His law. The despair and disasters of the modern world should convince the world, and us, that we need to reject the sin of our first Parents: that we ought not to try to be like gods, but rather, we should learn to accept Him and His law, for his yoke is easy and his burden light.
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