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Apple, schmapple. I’ll bet it was a peach.
The writer of Genesis tells us that God encouraged Adam and Eve to gather all the fruits and berries they could find in Eden, savoring their delectable flavors, but to give one tree a wide berth and not even think about sampling its fruit. And I’m dead serious about this, God added: eat it and you will die.
That was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. I don’t find it in any of my tree identification books, so we have to use our imagination. What fruit was so irresistibly enticing that the first pair ignored God’s warning and bit into it?
The biblical narrative describes what happened in this way:
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6, NRSV)
The biblical writer doesn’t quite put the words into Adam’s mouth that many male readers have formed in their minds ever since: “That woman made me do it.” It was left for John Milton in Paradise Lost to fill in details the biblical author left out. Having been seduced by a sweet-talking serpent, endowed with a weak will and a not quite rational mind, Eve bites into the forbidden fruit without even thinking about God’s warning.
So, Adam faces a horrible dilemma. Obey God’s command and watch his newly created helpmate grow old and die before his eyes? Or join in the feast, out of compassion and love for his weaker partner? He chooses the latter, to his everlasting credit. Milton’s account arises not from the biblical story but from misogynist myths, and yet it has been a great comfort to generations of male Christians.
If the message of Genesis 3 is not “woman is weak and man is strong,” then what is it telling us? Consider the names of the two lead characters. Adam’s name seems to be a wordplay on the Hebrew word for “earth,” from which he was formed, but it is also used in these chapters to refer to all humankind.
Eve’s name means “seductress.” No, it doesn’t — I just made that up. Nobody seems to know just what the woman’s name means. But it is clear that both individuals are representative figures, standing in for all of us who share their standing as creatures created in God’s image. And their transgression of God’s command is a symbol and a sign of our own disobedience. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” in the memorable phrase of a 17th century English primer.
After Genesis 2-5, we read hardly anything about Adam and Eve in the rest of the Bible. Adam’s name is the first word of the first book of Chronicles, at the beginning of a human family tree. He is named only in the genealogy found in Luke’s gospel, but he pops up several times in Pauline epistles, usually as a counterpart to Jesus, the origin of evil and its remedy. Eve’s name, on the other hand, never appears again after she is pulled offstage.
Biblical literalists keep hoping that, in some dusty Palestinian cave, we will find the security videos from the Garden of Eden, showing two people with the nametags “Adam” and “Eve.” (We’d have to fast-forward to when they are wearing clothes.) More likely, the story is an emblematic allegory of the profound love of God for the creatures he made and of the deeply rooted rebellion in every created heart. Our sinfulness is not something God placed in us but an inescapable trait of created beings who are free to worship and obey God, and also free to plug their ears and pretend they are smarter than God.
But what was the unnamed fruit in this narrative? For millennia most readers of the Bible, and most Jewish and Christian artists, have zeroed in on the apple as – I was going to write “the guilty fruit,” but of course the guilt lay entirely with the disobedient diners who sank their teeth into it. “Adam’s apple” is such a familiar phrase that it is applied to that odd little bump on my throat. A medieval carol of the “happy fall” proclaims: “Ne had the apple taken been, ne had never our Lady a-been Heavene Queen.”
But I just don’t buy the apple. Not because apples need cooler winters than those of the Middle East. We don’t have any weather data for Eden, after all. And not because an apple cannot be a source of wonder and delight. Instead of industrially processed cold-storage mealy-fleshed supermarket apples, bring me a Stayman Winesap or a Mutsu freshly picked in the fall for eating, or a Cortland or a Northern Spy for apple crisp, and enjoy with me a foretaste of Heaven.
But these joys pale beside those of eating a fresh peach – there is no comparison between the two sensual experiences. An apple is consumed a bite at a time, progressing around its equator. Each morsel needs chewing and savoring, its sweetness a matter of subtlety and delicacy. A fresh peach, on the other hand, defies all attempts to take a neat bite or to prevent juices from running down the chin. Its skin rips off in messy, fuzzy sheets, and its sweetness explodes in the mouth. Apples’ delicate aroma wafts gently across the room where you are storing a half-bushel for next week’s applesauce canning. Peaches’ pungent scent, as they ripen, shouts at you from three rooms away.
What is the difference between eating an apple and eating a peach? Think of two still lifes, one an Old Master drawing and the other a Cezanne painting (perhaps of both apples and peaches). Or a delicate flute solo in Debussy and a Wagnerian volley of low brasses.
One of the most memorable peaches I have eaten was placed in my hand halfway through a hundred-mile bicycle ride, many years ago, at a Michigan orchard. The farm stand had only quarts and pecks to sell, not single fruit. But the attendant pulled a peach nearly as large as a grapefruit from under the counter and said, “This one is too ripe to sell – please eat it.” My youth was renewed like the eagle’s, and my jersey was saturated with sticky juice for the rest of the ride.
So that settles it for me: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was a peach tree. Probably a Red Haven. (Agronomists say it was created in South Haven, Michigan in 1940, but maybe it was rediscovered after many millennia.) Nothing else could have offered such an irresistible temptation. To Eve. And also (are you listening, John Milton?) to Adam.
The Israelites who fled from Egypt were promised a land of milk and honey. As an entirely acceptable substitute, I’ll take a land of peach trees. And apple trees. And blueberry bushes. By the grace of God, that is where I live.
Header photo of peach by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash
Luke 3:38 for Adam. And I don’t think it’s an allegory. A paradigm story is not an allegory. See any standard definition of allegory. But as to the peach, I have no doubt that you are right. And I suggest, further, a freestone.
Trust a Reverend Mister to find the Gospel reference I missed and correct my literary nomenclature. But yes, definitely a freestone variety.
Having just canned a bushel of beautiful Red Haven peaches this past Saturday, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. And applaud your inclusion of blueberries (Big blue) and apples (Mutsu and Honeycrisp). Foretastes of heaven, indeed!
Sorry to be the “well actually” person here. Milton’s depiction of the fall narrative, which, as you say, has been deeply and problematically influential, is based on a long history of misogynistic explanations of the fall that go back to folk tellings as well as biblical scholarship through the early modern period. However, Milton actually tried to make Eve better than tradition (see *Milton’s Eve* by Diane McColley). She’s a rational person, I would argue more rational than Adam, who seems to moon about admiring Eve’s beauty more than he thinks things through. The narrator makes it clear that Even falls because she was (understandably) deceived. Adam falls because he is “fondly overcome with female charm.” And when the Son comes to pronounce their curses, Adam is blamed more than Eve. Milton is definitely into patriarchy and gender essentialism, no doubt about that. It’s possible to read Eve’s fall in the poem as an attempt to be rational when she shouldn’t bother, and Adam’s fall as a failure to retain his leadership role. In any case, the whole sequence in the poem is full of ambiguity and even humor. One of the things Adam worries about as he ponders whether to eat the fruit is whether he’ll have to give up another rib to make a replacement wife. No way! He’d rather chomp the peach. And by the way, it must have been a very overripe peach, because A&E get pretty drunk on it, or as Milton puts it, “jocund and boon.”
My goodness, let this be a lesson to me, before I spin off distorted summaries of the great poet’s work, to pull the text from my shelf and read the relevant passage. Instead I relied on evidently faulty memories of my study of Milton under Stanley Wiersma at Calvin in the spring of 1970. I told my friends then that it was an extraordinary experience, because Professor Wiersma thought he was Milton, and Milton thought he was God. But evidently my recollections have been colored by my prejudices over the years. Thanks to Debra for correcting them!
No worries! And love the memory of Stanley Wiersma. I try to help my students see the humor, genius, and definitely the shortcomings and dangers of Milton’s depiction. His poetic power is part of the danger. He’s very wrong about some things, he cheats (in the Genesis account, Adam and Eve were NOT apart at “the moment”), yet his poetry is so compelling…
Re over-ripe peaches: I’m sure peaches are the quickest fruit to ripen, drop, and rot, more than any other fruit. For a fun time on the farm, my cousin and I would on our twilight break from sorting/de-fuzzing/and packing peaches for market, watch the raccoons rummage through the garbage peach pile out back of the barn, staggering around drunk on fermented peaches.
Among other jobs, such as planting and cultivating cauliflower, I spent a summer between Calvin semesters tending a beautiful and diverse varietal peach orchard as a farmhand working with my uncles and cousin on the ancestral farm just north of South Haven. The rows of trees were arranged according to varieties, so that those earlier to ripen could be picked (by hand) , the rows completed, before the next variety’s ripening, each in turn. My great-grandfather’s work was highly informed by the Mich State University’s program in South Haven, and his orchard’s specialty was indeed the Red Haven introduced in the 1940s. The MSU project actually ran from the 1920s to the 1960s, under direction of Prof Stanley Johnston. Other varieties developed in the project—also featured in grandpa’s orchard– were Halehaven, Kalhaven, Sunhaven, and others, all bearing “-haven” as part of their name, recognizing the South Haven project. Johnston and others developed varieties of apricots and blueberries prevalent in Michigan, and helped strengthen, expand, and diversify the state’s fruit market.
I guess I can thank peaches and their tenders and their Creator for a year of tuition—and for a few delicious pies as well.
This essay – as well as the responses – brightened my day.