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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.