(Note: I have virtually no background in theology. It seems incredible to me that no Old Testament scholar has thought about the most serious problem I discuss here (other problems have had a good deal of discussion). So if anyone knows of such discussion, please give me the reference.)
I don’t know how you feel about everything currently going on in this part of the world (or any other part, for that matter), but I just can’t think about it any more. The only comforting option is to get as far away as possible, in time and space: back to where it all began (which could possibly provide a clue about what is going wrong. Or in any case, it is something better to think about.) Return with me to those golden days of yesteryear – the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis. (I am using the King James Version of the Old Testament.)
In the first version of the story, God creates everything else in five days, and on the sixth, needing intelligent oversight for his creations, man and woman on the sixth. And he made both of them the stewards of everything else he had created.
(I, 26) And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air; and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Myths in all cultures often exist confusingly in two or more incompatible versions. (The Greek story of Leda and the swan is a good example: which two came out of the egg and were therefore immortal, and which two were the children of Leda’s mortal husband, and therefore mortals? There are at least two versions of this.) The Biblical creation myth, or rather myths, have the same problem. Chapter II tells a second version of the creation of human beings, incompatible with I, 26. In Chapter II, 7, God realizes that there needs to be someone on hand to till the earth that he has made, so he creates man – only the man, and places him in Eden. In middle of this garden, besides all sorts of good things to eat, God plants two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
(II, 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.
Note a couple of things: first, the injunction is given only to Adam (in the singular thou); Eve does not yet exist. So arguably she is not bound by God’s order. A second question is: why put a big tree smack in the middle of a garden and order the steward of the garden not to eat its fruit? What would be its function? And why is it only after God gives Adam the warning that God decides that “it is not good that the man should be alone,” and creates Eve out of his rib: “I will create an help mate for him.”
In the second version, God creates all the other creatures only after he has created Adam, but before he creates Eve, so Adam alone gets to name everything (including him and, much later, Eve). In other words, God gives Adam language and the defining and creative powers that go with it; although Eve too can speak, language does not empower her, since she doesn’t get to use language for naming and controlling everything else.
The conflicting narratives set up another problem. It is thoughtful of God to worry about Adam’s solitary state, and want to create a “helpmate” (some commentators suggest “companion” as a better translation) for him. But if Adam and his companion are never to eat of the tree of knowledge, they will never have the desire to have sex. In that case, wouldn’t it have been better for the helpmate to be another male – for God to create Adam and Steve? Most likely, then, neither of them would n have violated God’s command, since they would be spending eternity talking sports and comparing the size of their fingers.
But such narrative problems are not the real ones in Genesis. Consider the character of God for those who would use the Bible as the basis of a belief system. What kind of creature is this Deity, and how should humans feel about him, based on what we encounter here?
There is something morally problematic about anyone, human or deity, who sets a tree full of tempting fruit smack in the middle of a garden and then warns the stewards of the garden not to eat its fruit, or they will die. It’s a form of entrapment – especially if this God has omniscience as one of his three attributes. He must know that Adam and Eve will disobey his injunction, and become subject to his threat. And yet he must know that they will not die, so his threat is a lie. Deities who lie are like parents or presidents who lie – they upset the moral ground and make it very hard for their subordinates to trust and respect them. The result can only be chaos.
Another problem is that God, in making his threat, seems to know very little about the creatures he has created. He threatens them with death, the worst thing he knows. But they cannot possibly know what “die” means, since no one they know has ever died. How could they make the threat a reason for strict obedience, if they don’t even know what it means?
And there’s a related problem. There is another tree in Paradise, the tree of life. Its fruit confers immortality on those who eat it. But God doesn’t warn his humans to stay away from it; only after they have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge does it occur to God that they might eat the fruit of the other tree, which he has forgotten to forbid:
(III.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 live for ever:
So Adam and Eve must be driven from Eden to prevent them from gaining immortality – not, apparently, so much because they disobeyed his orders. Can Adam and Eve take a forgetful and untruthful God seriously? Should anyone?
That is especially an issue since much later ( at Exodus XX,16), God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, one of which is: Thou shalt not bear false witness. If God lies in Chapter II of Genesis, but forbids lying in Exodus XX, 16, he is a hypocrite, and a hypocritical God is even less attractive than a merely untruthful one.
But the most important problem in the Biblical creation story is this:
Who can Adam and Eve (and their descendants) take seriously? Someone who does not lie to them, one who treats them like adults with cognitive abilities. There is one such personage in Eden. At III, 1, the serpent begins a dialogue with Eve (it is noteworthy that he chooses Eve to talk to). He says:
Yea, hath God said, ye shall not eat of every tree in the garden?
Eve replies (2-3) that they have been told not to eat the fruit of the tree of life, “lest ye die.”
The snake rejoins:
Ye shall not surely die;
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,
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….
This dialog, and its consequences, are stunning.
First, the snake (the “deceiver,” as we are told) is truthful: he tells Eve exactly what will happen, and it is good and Eve knows it is good. Eve abbreviates God’s warning, omitting “surely,” but the snake responds with the full version: how does he know it? One possibility: the snake is actually a projection of Eve’s own troublesome thoughts: she has reasons to doubt her creator’s version of things; but she’s not quite ready to question that story openly. The snake knows just what God said, because Eve, via Adam, knows just what God said. And Eve – once the thought is out in the open – grasps that the forbidden version is the more rational one.
For the first time, one of the humans (the female nameless one) is reasoning: she has been given two versions of a story, and she figures out which is the better one and acts on her reasoning. This is the first glimmer of that which we like to think distinguishes humans from all the other creatures in the garden: cognition. Eating the forbidden fruit merely enhances that capacity. Man becomes godlike against God’s explicit commandment.
Usually this story is understood as a warning against disobedience to God, against trying to achieve a form of divinity, against understanding via reason rather than faith alone. The snake is represented as luring Eve to act against her, and all of our, interests, resulting in Adam and Eve being cursed, forcing them (and their progeny) to lead lives of hardship and pain. But there is a reading of the tale that makes better sense.
Before the Fall Adam and Eve, far from being perfect humans were virtual embryos: they knew nothing and all their needs were automatically met by an omnipotent being. Yes, this form of life seems idyllic: no worries, no pain, no suffering, no work. But it becomes boring, and after about nine months the fetus starts to long for some challenges. Change and growth will be painful and dangerous, but if you want to get to something more interesting, you have to make your way down the birth canal. Then you’re on your own.
In a way God’s threat is correctly realized: when you’re born you “die” away from a pleasant way of life. But you are born into a more gratifying one: human existence, adulthood with all its hardships but also with all its rewards. You have to eat the fruit to be expelled from Eden; you have to be expelled to grow up. You have to violate God’s command to become “wise,” that is, intelligent, that is, human. And when you become wise, you become sexual, so knowledge = knowledge “in the Biblical sense.” Life in Eden, despite its pleasures, is ultimately barren for a creature that has been created with reason. The snake knows this, and Eve gets it. Maybe Adam does too.
If you agree with this argument, you have to understand the Judeo-Christian creation myth in a new way. It is Eve’s – specifically Eve’s — curiosity and daring that enable us to become human (with a little help from a friend). It is Eve, with her willingness to listen to something dangerous, yet sensible, from someone not in charge, who brings all of us the chance to be human, autonomous and strong. Eve is the woman, and it is women who make humans what we are.
If God is omnipotent (another of his attributes), he must have put the snake in the tree to give Eve the opportunity or perhaps the obligation to play her role. Then the “curses” God lays on humanity are, properly understood, blessings. (Even the snake doesn’t do so badly. Yes, he is “cursed” to creep on his belly. But as a result, he never trips like those of us with legs. And slithering is kind of cool.) Eve, curious and daring, has saved us from a beastly eternity.
And at least some of Genesis becomes a feminist story.
51 thoughts on “Man’s Best Friend, the Snake”
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