08 August, 2005

In the beginning...

Genesis is my favorite Biblical text, and within it the story of the Garden of Eden comprises my favorite chapters. It confronts the most fundamental issues of being a human: our relationship to nature, to God, and to our own mind. And, best of all, like a clever piece of steganography, this meditation is hidden in plain sight, in Motel-6 drawers and left-breast-pockets around the country.

Christians get Genesis startlingly wrong. This is understandable. A Christian does not read Genesis. A Christian knows what Genesis should teach him; he reads that.

These days, we all know that God is good, and just, and man is wicked. But when humanity was younger, we knew otherwise. God was awful and terrible and capricious, and viewed Man less as a beloved child and more as a dangerous rival, who might one day grow up to challenge the position of the elder. Greek mythology is rife with this theme, and the treatment of humans by those gods is probably familiar: persecuted by plagues, refused the gift of fire, drowned by deluge.

When we read Genesis with this sort of God in mind, it reads much more smoothly:
Genesis 2:9 And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.


15 And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.

16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

The modern reading of this myth is "the wages of sin is death". Man paid the price for defying God with his life. But in fact, this is impossible to reconcile with the actual contents of the text. Later we read:
Genesis 3:1 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
When the man and woman do eat thereof, the word of the serpent is confirmed. They do NOT die. Their eyes are opened, and they "know good and evil". Meanwhile, God is sweating nervously:
Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
The text tells us directly why God ejected man and woman: not to punish them for sin, but because he feared them as equals. In fact, God lied to the humans when he told them they would die. He put them out to prevent their ascension.*

The other player in this drama is the serpent, the most wise and subtle of beasts. In this myth, the serpent is the archetypical trickster/culture hero. He confounds God to steal gifts for mankind - and in so doing invites the wrath and retribution of the angry deity. The trickster is a familiar character - Bugs Bunny, in essence. Disdainful of authority, too clever by half, making and unmaking by habit, driven by sheer curiosity. Trickster appears in thousands of stories in every culture. These stories are often astonishingly similar, and the coherence of their central character (and often his evolution into the culture hero) suggests that Trickster is something close and familiar to us. I believe the trickster represents the human mind.

Now the myth becomes beautiful: mind produces insight; insight results in discrimination, which produces knowledge. From thence flows civilization. A mixed blessing, to be sure, one which brings with it hardship and toil. But we are no longer one of many dumb beasts, content and placid in the Garden, living by the will of God. We have become as Gods: we think for ourselves. We act according to our own volition.

This is the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil: agency. We became thinking creatures and so gained free will, driven by something other than the rough passions imbued in us by the Creator. Eve is a hero, a liberator; God is almost villainous, a petty tyrant who treats slyly with his slaves.

There are older myths than this, in which the gods befriend humanity and instruct them in agriculture, teach them to wear clothes, etc. Genesis is a deliberate reconstruction of such myths, a purposeful statement of the notion that humans stand erect because we lifted ourselves up.

It should be obvious why such a myth, celebrating the human intellect, should appeal to me, the scientist. And bizarre, again, that we read it in reverse, with the roles and message reversed. The Garden is the prison we escaped, God the warden who kept us. The Fall was not a moment of shame, for which we must seek atonement; it was the moment of our birth.

* This theme of God's jealousy of humanity turns up later in the Babel myth, when he destroys the tower and scatters human language:
Genesis 11:4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded.

6 And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.


There's an Isaac Asimov short story with similar themes. (Sadly, I forget the title.) The central metaphor is that humans are like bacteria in a petri dish, surrounded by a ring of pencillin to keep them from escaping. This is first becomes apparent in the story when scientists (mostly ones working on missile defense) start committing suicide at abnormally high rates. So the ring of pencillin is built into the human mind (again I forget the more plausible explanation...) and missile defense is significant because nuclear war was the reset button that our alien overlords had built in.
Eventually the humans realize what's going on and that, like bacteria, they can develop resistance. 

Posted by aram

Thanks for this post; this stuff is fascinating and I agree with substantial parts of your reading. Just some off the cuff remaks: I think your take on the jealousy bit is right on.
I think, though, you're missing the sexual connotations and the (unintentionally?) metaphorical depiction of childhood-->puberty-->adulthood; what I read as explanatory functions of the text (or, if you want to be political about it, justifications for a particular set of social relations and lifestyle).

Granting that God is also concerned with his children becoming equal to or perhaps superceding him, the lie that he tells them is also a paternalistic attempt to shield them. The "knowledge" of "good and evil" is focused on an awareness of sexuality (from a male point of view)--hence the bit about the nakedness and shame--rather than anything along the lines of pure reason:

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.
11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

"Who told thee.." in particular strikes me as the statement of a figure distraught, not jealous or angry (at that moment). And of course it goes on from there to justify why women are subjugated to men and how come life is difficult--a justification of gender relations and an explantion of economic life being the underlying informative purposes of it all. But I see the fear of man there in 3:22 where you quoted it above.

The Serpent, to me, represents temptation, not healthy inquiry--the little voice in the back of your mind that says "why can't I do this?" when you know better. I think rather than introducing choice, the passage makes clear that there are consequences of excercising choice in this way. In that, it's profoundly anti-intellectual.

Anyway, this isn't wholly thought through, but some fodder for discussion hopefully. 

Posted by Saurav

Wow, I never thought somebody would make me want to read the bible...I was reading a bunch of African creation myths the other month, and they had the same man vs. god trickster element, but in a bunch of them, the humans ended up subjugating god/the creator completely, which at first I had a hard time setting my mind around. 

Posted by Dan

The serpent's whisper is, I think, one of the most interesting twists in the whole myth. He urges woman to try what is forbidden, and she profits thereby. That's a quintessentially human trait - so curious we defy caution. That imposition, though - fear of the unknown, suppression of the desire to understand it - is, to me, what makes the Garden a prison at all.

I've never understood the nakedness or shame aspect of the story. I think it's clear shame is strongly related to greater understanding - yesterday I was thinking about the fact that as kids we can stick our tongues out at people with aplomb, but as adults it's not so easy. The tongue has "other uses", and merely knowing that produces a measure of shame. What I can't decide is whether Genesis is approving of shame or not. Is the loss of innocence a good thing? I suppose the text doesn't really say one way or the other.

I had a hard time with the gender component when writing the above - the tendency to talk about "Man" and what God did to "him" is pretty strong when writing about Biblical stuff, just because the language itself is so patriarchal. There are interesting tugs in the other direction, though. If, as I think, the act of eating the fruit was a blessing, that means that Eve is the hero of this piece. Why that choice? what primal memory (if any) does that reflect? 

Posted by saurabh

The shame piece is interesting, because, aside from Adam and Eve being aware of their own and each other's sexualities, Adam also becomes afraid of God. I'm not sure what this say, but it seems negative (alienated from your protector).

In terms of gender relations, I think the language is part of it, but it goes farther than that and ties into the the narrative itself. 1) Eve is made from Adam, which turns into an argument for a monolithic conception of a couple 2) Eve is the one that violates God's injunction 3) Eve is cursed by God for doing so (thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee) 4) Adam then suffers God's wrath because of Eve's actions. So you end up with a justification of a conception of gender relations that's monogamous, institutionalized, and imposes male domination over the woman (who is just a part of him/the marriage complex after all). It's not a pretty picture.

I think the choice to have Eve tricked by the serpent into violating God's word is part of the evidence that this is not about glorifying the choice to acquire knowledge (particularly in light of her overall role throughout the narrative). It makes her look gullible, not enterprising, her judgement unreliable and not to be trusted by the man, etc. Perhaps the earlier onset of women's physical sexual maturity is the reason this is done this way (i.e. she acquires knowledge earlier), but I suspect it's simply a way to knock women and further create the dichotomy between the two genders depicted. After all, it's only Adam that God talks to most of the time.

On note, I forgot to point out, I'm reading through the King James verson. so this is a case of multiple interpretations and translations. I'm assuming you all are too--which makes it hard to draw firm conclusions based on the text alone about what the people who wrote it intended or which culture/society's views are reflected in the particular aspects and language of the story. 

Posted by Saurav

It's possible to compare the KJV to the version in the Tanach, of course... I think it holds up reasonably well. A lot of nuance is missed (like that bit about "God" being "Elohim", plural), but eh.

As to "Eve tricked by the serpent into violating God's word" - I disagree with this. God clearly lied (he says the fruit is poisonous/deadly). These days we have a hard time countenancing the notion that God SHOULD be disobeyed, but I think this is inherent in this myth (as in others, as Dan points out). Trickster is our protector, not God. And the text suggests not that she was tricked, but that she was told the truth. The serpent is NOT the liar here. He tells the truth. Eve sees this truth, she is not duped: "Genesis 3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat."

I think it's a post-facto patriarchal imposition that the act itself was wrong. There definitely ARE patriarchal themes in the text (Eve's punishment, creation from the rib). But the idea that God is just is a Christian one. I think here God is jealous, and angry. He punishes not because Eve committed a crime - he punishes simply to exact retribution.

Also note that there are actually two creation myths in Genesis. In the latter (Adam & Eve) one, Eve is made from Adam's rib. In the former, male and female are formed at the same time by god. Odd that two contradictory traditions should be included. You can run in several directions with that - either the compiler was not very careful in assembling these myths, or they found the differences unimportant - or the text went through iterations and the themes are confused in intent. 

Posted by saurabh

"But the idea that God is just is a Christian one. I think here God is jealous, and angry."

The purpose of the text, as far as I can tell, is to create causalities in people's minds: If you disobey God, regardless of whether he was lying to you or not (or why), or otherwise go against his design, this is what will happen to you.

I wonder, though, if we're supposed to take from the text that God is trying to do something to help people in what he does as well as being fearful of them or if we're supposed to see his actions solely as a reflection of his personality. 

Posted by Saurav

This site gives  an interesting breakdown that mirrors a lot of your interpretation. And mine, actually. 

Posted by Saurav

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