The Garden of Eden
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Imagine living in a place where everything's perfect. There are fruit trees (2:9), cool breezes (3:8), and rivers (3:10-15). People walk around naked without shame (2:25), and God just hangs out, speaks directly to mortals, and enjoys evening strolls through the garden (3:8-9). Just imagine…
YOU CAN'T GO THERE.
Sorry to be so forceful, but that's kind of the point. After Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (3:22-24), mortals were forever banished from Eden.
And you know what? Eden is used as a symbol in literature and art not only to represent paradise but also—and maybe more often—a symbol of paradise lost, of the all-elusive nature of happiness and peace, and of the end of innocence.
Upon their exit from Eden mortals have to deal. Their lives are like ours. They die (3:19), endlessly toil (3:17-18), feel shame (3:10), are aware of their nudity (3:7), and endure the pain of childbirth (3:16). Soon Cain will introduce violence into the world when he slays his brother Abel, and with this comes an overdose of jealousy and sibling rivalry (4:1-15). And eventually Cain will settle "away from the presence of the Lord" (4:16).
Poets just love this kind of stuff, and Eden ranks high in their toolbox of images. Everyone from Robert Frost to Emily Dickinson to Ina Rousseau has taken their turn to remind us that we can never go back.
Speaking of depressing, how about John Steinbeck's East of Eden? Its title is taken from Genesis 4:16, and it's chock full of Genesis-esque themes, especially sibling rivalry.
Genesis Owns Eden
Eden is such a powerful symbol that the authors of Genesis capitalize on it right after they've presented the image. Remember Lot? When Abraham tells him to take first pick at the land he wants, Lot does some recon:
Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar […]. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastwards; thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. (13:10-13)
"[T]he plain of the Jordan" is "like the garden of the Lord," eh? Red flag, Lot! Red flag!
We've already been told that it's impossible to go back to Eden, so it's no surprise that Lot ends up in Sodom. And as we know, Sodom ain't no Eden.
Return to Eden
The Christian Bible begins with the image Eden in Genesis, but get this—it also ends with a vision of a future Eden. The Apocalypse of John (a.k.a. Revelation) foresees a God-induced utopia that clearly echoes the paradise of Genesis 2-3.
For the author of the Apocalypse, Eden will return complete with a river and the tree of life bearing fruit and leaves that will heal the nations. And sure enough, mortals will again dwell with God, whose throne will be right there in the middle (Revelation 22:1-5).
So in the vision of the Christian Bible, the story of mortals will end where it began, in Eden.
Would the authors of Genesis agree?