I got to go up to spend a night at the monastery this week, and while there, Br. Samuel shared the following with me.
In the Septuagint version of Genesis Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, hide “themselves within the tree in the middle of the garden from the presence of the Lord” (3:8). This tree in the middle of the garden is none other than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from which they had eaten. Some of the fathers speculate that the fruit itself was a fig (not an apple, as is common in the western tradition). If the forbidden tree was a fig (or fig-like) tree, then we can better understand the Septuagint’s “hid within the tree.” Unpruned fig trees grow to be massive bushes with large leaves providing an airy, cool interior area where one is hidden from those outside. In other places in the Scripture reference is made to people resting or hiding under fig trees—it was apparently a common thing in Middle East. It also makes sense that in covering their nakedness, Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves, if this is the tree they are hiding within. In a sense, clothing themselves in fig leaves is that same thing as hiding from God within the tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Perhaps one way this story can be understood is that mankind’s fundamental sin is to hide from God within the knowledge that man has seized for himself. Men and women construct theories and philosophies, fantasies and explanations of all sorts to quiet their consciences and explain away the voice of God calling out to them through all creation: “Adam, where are you?” The serpent’s guile, or deceit, enables us to take what God has created to reveal Himself and to twist it in ways that appear wise to us and yet hide us—or better, hide from us—the God that the whole creation exists to reveal. We are still hiding from God within the tree.
This reading of Genesis chapter three brings insight into a hard to interpret passage in the Gospel of John. When Nathaniel is brought to Jesus by Philip, Jesus says to Nathaniel, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile.” When Nathaniel asks how Jesus knows him, Jesus says, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” I wonder if Nathaniel represents all men and women who are without guile and so are willing to leave the false security of the fig tree—the theories and theologies that keep God at a safe, mostly irrelevant distance. Nathaniel’s first response to Philip’s exclamation that he had found the Messiah was that it couldn’t be true, it didn’t fit into his preconceived mental picture of the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he says. But what shows Nathaniel to be free from guile is that at Philip’s “come and see,” Nathaniel went and saw. Nathaniel did not allow his own mental image or framework, his own theory, knowledge or philosophy to keep him from going outside the comfortable world of his own knowledge to see what others had seen but what he had not yet seen.