Hermeneutics is a branch of theology that deals with principles of correctly interpreting the Scriptures. One of the key principles of proper biblical interpretation is understanding the context in which a narrative was written.
In one sense, it is true that the story of Adam and Eve was written by the Holy Spirit to all people living in all times. But in another sense, it is also true that the Bible was written by a specific author to a specific group of people at a specific time in history for a specific purpose. In other words, although all Scripture is certainly inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), nevertheless, the Bible didn't magically fall down out of the sky. God used men, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to convey His message. Therefore, if the Eden narrative was given by God through Moses, as most scholars believe, then that means the Holy Spirit had something to say through Moses to his original audience, the ancient Israelites. Only after we understand what Moses had to say to that primary audience can we understand what the story of Eden should mean for us today.
Granted, the Jews of Moses' day may have interpreted the story of Adam and Eve as simply being nothing more than a story of a literal man and a literal woman eating a literal piece of fruit from a literal tree in a literal garden after being seduced by a literal talking serpent; nothing more, nothing less. However, this is highly unlikely. Considering the cultural context, the Jews hearing this story for the first time would probably have recognized profound theological and symbolic significance in this story.
Many elements of the Eden account had a potential for profound symbolic meaning. Serpents, enclosed gardens, magical fruit trees, and perhaps even flaming swords; all of these elements had a potential for profound symbolic meaning.
This is not to say that there were no literal trees in the midst of a literal garden; obviously, there were. The Garden of Eden was a literal place. Adam and Eve were literal people. Adam and Eve probably did eat a literal piece of fruit from a literal tree. Nevertheless, interpreters throughout the centuries believed that there was much more to the story than what meets the eye in a casual first reading. In other words, the story could be read on more than one level, what we refer to as "double-entendre." According to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, double-entendre is:
"a word or expression capable of two interpretations with one usually risqué".
The Bible is notorious for using double-entendre to mask something risqué. Therefore, if the story of the fall involved a risqué sexual transgression, it should not be too surprising if the Bible uses double-entendre to mask that sexual transgression. If we wish to use proper exegesis to discover what the author meant to convey, we need to address two key questions:
1. Does the Eden account contain elements that are symbolically significant?
2. If so, how would the primary audience to which this narrative was addressed, i.e. the ancient Jews, have understood the Eden account in light of that symbolism?
The Literal Grammatical-Historical method of Biblical Interpretation allows for figures of speech and symbolic interpretation when the context supports it. Sometimes, it is not immediately clear whether a text in the Bible should be interpreted literally or symbolically, which is why there are differences in opinion among even the best of scholars. Suffice to say, not everything in Scripture is intended to be interpreted literally. Consider this portion of the Eden account:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of itsfruit and ate (Genesis 3:6, NKJV).If one wishes to interpret this verse properly, one has to ask: Was this verse meant to be interpreted literally or figuratively? Are we to believe that when Eve saw The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she could tell just by looking at it that it was good for food and that it could make her wise? Or is the verse trying to convey something else; something a little more profound? To answer these questions, let's examine the symbolic significance of trees within the cultural context of ancient Israel and Canaan in the next section.