At first glance, the idea that Adam and Eve are still relevant today seems absurd. For starters, many people simply dismiss the story. It’s made up! It’s a fairy tale! We’re smarter now. We know better. And who can blame them? The story seems to take place in a fog of history. Despite centuries of searching, there is no evidence that any of the events in the Garden of Eden — or the rest of Genesis, for that matter — took place. And despite centuries of denial, there is overwhelming evidence that humans evolved in a way contrary to how Genesis describes. We know a lot more today about how the world was created, the origins of humanity, and the biological roots of being male and female. Who needs Adam and Eve anymore? We’ve moved on.
Even in the world of deeply religious believers, where I’ve spent a lot of time in recent decades, many view the story as allegorical. No less an authority than the fourth-century bishop St. Augustine, who built an entire theology around Adam and Eve, said that to view the story as verbatim was “childish.” While he may have been ahead of his peers, the world eventually caught up. Over time, Adam and Eve became the forgotten patriarch and matriarch, having ceded the stage to their upstart descendants Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. They are civilization’s doddering grandparents, taxidermied in some old-age home in Boca, rolled out a few times a year for family occasions, where they sit in the corner, ignored.
And it gets worse. Even those stalwarts who still acknowledge Adam and Eve have never forgiven them for ruining life for the rest of us. Adam and Eve are the opposite of role models; they’re the first antiheroes. For thousands of years, they’ve been almost universally blamed for being selfish, unfaithful, lustful, disgraceful, and for single-handedly bringing shame, sin, immorality, even death into the world. Theirs was the original trial of the century, and the court of public opinion has been brutal. It’s been conviction by sermon; death by a thousand midrash.
Actually, it’s the biggest case of character assassination in the history of the world. As the modern plaint goes, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?”
Well, let’s start here.
There are three principal reasons why Adam and Eve still matter and why they deserve our respect, even accolades.
First, they’re part of who we are. The same modern learning that has taught us about biology, psychology, and the power of the human mind has taught us that certain ideas, tropes, and symbols, what Jung called “anima,” live deep within cultures and express themselves in powerful and unexpected ways. Stories are the chief ingredient of this shared tradition. Told and retold, stories are our social glue, our means of understanding the world, and our way of changing the world when we reinterpret them. Woven together, these shared stories become memes that form our cultural DNA.
Adam and Eve are the ultimate meme. For as long as our species has left traces, our most enduring stories have revolved around births, weddings, journeys, deaths — events associated with the beginnings and endings of social bonds. We are irredeemably connected to Adam and Eve because they constitute our earliest bond. Our family tree begins with them. They are the big bang of humanity. And that’s true even if we don’t happen to believe they existed exactly as the Bible says. We don’t have to believe in Greek myths, for example, to believe they teach us something vital.
Certainly in the arena of relationships, thirty centuries of humanity have grappled with this story — that’s a hundred and fifty generations. Think of nearly any major creative or intellectual figure in the last two thousand years; odds are good that they interacted with Adam and Eve in a meaningful way. That includes Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Milton, Mary Shelley, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Ernest Hemingway, Bob Dylan, Beyoncé. The list goes on and on and on. It would take nothing less than complete arrogance to believe that our generation could simply erase this story from our mind like a massive cultural lobotomy.
As the dean of biblical archaeologists, Avraham Biran, once told me about Abraham, “I don’t know if he existed then, but I know he exists now.” The same applies to Adam and Eve. I don’t know if they were alive in the Garden of Eden, but I know they’ve been alive outside of there for the last three millennia. To ignore them — to confine them to the curio closet or Creation Museum — is to ignore something vital about who we are.
Second, Adam and Eve still matter because they capture what remains a fundamental truth about being alive: Our biggest threat as individuals is feeling left out, isolated, fearful, alone; our biggest threat as a society is succumbing to similar forces of disunion, disharmony, fear, hate. Look around, and by any measure our daily conversations are dominated by anxiety and confusion about the risk of disconnection and drifting apart, about the challenge of maintaining strong societal bonds; about concerns over the decay of our social fabric. Is our communal whole dissolving? Are we forgetting who we are?
The deep-seated human need for connectedness is the theme — maybe even the dominant theme — that runs throughout the story of Adam and Eve: from the very beginning, when God looks at Adam and says, “It’s not right for humans to be alone”; to Eve’s decision to share the fruit with Adam rather than risk living without him; to the first couple’s painful choice about how to react to the unimaginable pain of having one of their children die at the hand of the other. Adam and Eve are constantly wrestling with whether they should remain together or break apart. God clearly wants them to find refuge in each other. The aching question of their story is whether they can find a way.
It took the rest of society three thousand years to catch up with this insight into being human. In contemporary thought, Freud was among the first to write about the perils of feeling isolated and alone. Half a century later, pioneering psychologist Erich Fromm made it the centerpiece of his work. “We are social creatures, made anxious by our separateness,” he wrote. Being separate means being cut off, he said; it means losing our capacity to be human.
Today, these simmering fears have become an outright plague. We are awash in divisive rhetoric and overwhelmed by the collapse of familiar institutions. The percentage of Americans living alone is higher than at any time in history. The number of seniors living alone has grown; the number of parents going it alone has soared; even the number of young people who say they feel alone has spiked. We have fewer friends, studies have shown, fewer people we can confide in, fewer people we can turn to in times of trouble. Depression rates have surged; unhappiness is rampant; suicide is at an all-time high.
A key question of modern life has become how to overcome this separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s individual life and live in concert with another. How to connect. It’s the same question Adam and Eve faced, and I believe their answer still holds.
That answer is the third and final reason Adam and Eve still matter. They were the first to contend — sometimes successfully, other times not — with the central mystery of being un-alone: being in love. Their lives are a testament to the power of relationships and to the idea that the greatest bulwark to the forces of isolation and division that threaten us every day is the even stronger force of relatedness. Confronted with chaos, God answers with connection. His message: The only thing more powerful than separateness is togetherness. The only thing more forceful than hate is love.
From “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us” by Bruce Feiler. Copyright © 2017 by Bruce Feiler. Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.