The Scriptures are ever-new

I have used Genesis 3 in class a couple times this year, and one particular aspect of the story of the Fall has stood out to me in a new way:

So 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.

I believe that this introduces a nuance to the story that is often overlooked and perhaps explains why Adam was so easily persuaded to eat the fruit. After all, he had just watched his wife have a conversation with a snake — surely he was feeling disoriented.

Taking this a step further, however, consider this: Adam doesn’t mention the fact that Eve was persuaded by the serpent, even though he was standing there watching the scene unfold. Indeed, since he was standing right there, he could just as easily have claimed to have been hoodwinked by the serpent’s deceptions as well. Instead he only blames Eve. What are we to conclude from this? Perhaps only Eve could hear the serpent. Perhaps, Garfield-style, Eve was talking out loud and reading the serpent’s thought bubbles.

If that is the case, then we may be able to read Adam’s seemingly whiny response, emphasizing that God gave him the woman, differently — “You’re the one who gave me this mentally ill woman for my only friend, and now you’re mad I ate a piece of fruit? I was just trying to shut her up!”

21 thoughts on “The Scriptures are ever-new

  1. One of my professors wrote on this saying, “Apparently, the man stood by, saying nothing, offering no support, while the woman struggled with the temptation presented her by the serpent. Then, when she had eaten, he did, too, without a word of protest. The man appears passive throughout, and it is not to his credit.”

    This quote comes in a paper where he argues against the translation of “‘ezer cenegdo” as “helper” or “helpmate” and instead offers “a power like him, facing him as equal.”

  2. Regarding the possibility that only Eve could hear the snake … there are many examples, from what are nowadays called “indigenous” religions, of a deep and powerful alliance between women and animals. So it would make sense, from the vantage of a monotheistic religion of the One, to morally condemn this capacity/alliance that is exercised “from below” — ie, the ideological nature of monotheism, etc.

  3. Rabbinic midrash points out that what Eve reports about the prohibition in 3:3 is confused: she no longer distinguishes between two trees in the midst of the garden and she adds that even touching the tree brings death. Is this a confusion due to her own exaggerated fear of death (so that Adam repeated the exact wording of the prohibition but she confused it in her mind) or is due to Adam’s attempt to keep her from even getting close enough to pick the fruit from any tree she finds in the midst of the garden? The rabbis pick the latter interpretation, blaming Adam for not understanding how to build a proper fence around the prohibition (something the rabbis apparently do know how to do). They say that what persuaded Eve was seeing the snake (who was able to stand, recall) leaning in a jaunty fashion against the tree, thus showing that touching it did not kill you.

  4. That’s interesting that you bring up her confusion on the command, because I’ve heard multiple preachers say that her confusion is evidence that she’s adding man-made prohibitions to the divine command (i.e., now that I think of it in connection with your comment, she’s being too Jewish). I should no longer be surprised, but it would appear that Christian “common sense” is able to find anti-Judaism basically anywhere.

  5. So it would make sense, from the vantage of a monotheistic religion of the One, to morally condemn this capacity/alliance that is exercised “from below” — ie, the ideological nature of monotheism, etc.

    But Judaism wasn’t monotheistic back when Genesis 3 was written. In fact, it probably wasn’t even monolatrous.

  6. I don’t think Judaism was obviously monotheistic until the exile, or even afterwards; the Eden story in Genesis 2-3 is dated much earlier than that by pretty much everyone, and depicts a fairly different God from the one that appears in later, post-exilic texts. In the Eden myth you have God physically walking around the garden, calling out to humans he apparently can’t find on his own, etc. He’s not the more transcendent God that shows up in later writings.

  7. @ stras,

    So either the Israelites didn’t catch on to the discrepancies or were aware that their canon was incoherent?

    I think you have to read more into that text to arrive at such a conclusion than you suspect people do when they read it with a monotheistic lens.

  8. Stras, I’m not sure what you take the payoff of your comment to be, beyond a somewhat scholastic distinction. In other words, even presuming, for sake of argument, that the text originated in a pre-monolatrous context, the point is that it becomes an authoritative text for a monotheistic tradition. There must be, at the very least, a tendency towards the authority of the One (a tendency that, furthermore, is realized as hegemonic) over the more shape-shifting, fluid power exercised in the relations between women and animals. That was my point, and i’m pretty confident it stands even if we grant the historical veracity of Stras’s claim.

    As for the earlier request for sources … one interesting citation would be the chapter, “Isla Grande,” in Michael Taussig’s_Defacement_. This refers to pre-Columbian American peoples. But one can find something similar in ancient Greek studies along the lines of Bachofen. Or even this link was named, polemically, in the critiques of early modern witchcraft (Sylvia Federici’s _Caliban and the Witch_). These are just some things that come to mind, but more broadly i think varied references can be found in various folkloric sources, or in the sort of recapitualitive-of-the-premodern/ancient work done by people like Marina Warner.

  9. It is true that the text doesn’t include all features of monotheism, most notably transcendence — but in a narrative sequence (chs. 2 and 3) that begins with God creating the entire world, including the first human being who names all the animals and then brings forth the first woman, and ends with this same God issuing a curse against all future men and women (and snakes), it’s hard for me to detect any sense that this God is just one among others. I would also say that it’s clear even from the texts themselves that there was a kind of monotheistic “vanguard” even during those periods when Israel’s practice didn’t reach the level of strict monotheism (or even monolatry/henotheism) — i.e., like all human cultures in history, Israel was heterogeneous and contained conflicting elements even when a general trend was visible.

  10. Stras, it strikes me that I could clarify a bit — the essential point doesn’t turn on whether we’re dealing with one or multiple gods … the main point is that we have a malediction, of a moral order, and stemming from an authority that is divine. Echoing Adam, definitely, there’s a difference between a god who walks in the garden and one who is distant/transcendent, requiring priestly mediation, etc. So the transcendence i have in mind is not immediately “ontological,” it’s a moral transcendence.

  11. The malediction that danbarber talks about consists of a series (work, labor in childbirth) that basically constitute the human condition as we know it. It is not a cursed condition in toto, but a condition of good *and* evil mixed together (compare the exact same result in Hesiod’s account of how the human condition arises). The human condition demands deciding between good and evil, and doing so interminably. The question that needs to be asked is: Is the biblical narrative saying that the human condition is, on the whole, *worse* or *better* than the condition in the garden? Is the garden *all good* and the human condition *good mixed with evil* or is the garden *neutral*, since good and evil are matters that are objects of consciousness (knowledge) and that knowledge is absent in the garden? Is god represeneted as morally transcendent over the humans in the garden or as on one (natural) plane with them (so stras has a point, but not because of the level of Israelite religion, but because of the author’s ability to represent “pagan” religious belief as a way of thinkikng about god that is an immanent temptation, god taken to be “like” humans qua animals)? So, when the human condition arises, both god and humans achieve a new status: moral transcendence over nature. The difference between god and humans, as represented in this narrative, is now the real question. If we assume that god’s moral transcendence over nature is somehow radically different from humanity’s, does that mean that god never makes decisions between good and evil? I tend to think that the narrative shows god as now needing to make those decisions too, in relation to humanity, but at what might be called a meta-level (better to destroy and start again or accept interminability of decision-making?)

  12. I’m increasingly convinced that the Jewish interpretative tradition is more interesting (because less constrained) than the Christian tradition. I don’t think that many Christians would dare make those kinds of claims about the text — and those who have were probably emboldened by contact with Jewish interpretations.

  13. No doubt Bruce has offered an insightful account of the narrative — I would just like to distinguish that my interest was more in the powers that the text was disallowing, what the text puts under erasure (or leaves only a trace of, to sound more Derridean than I would like). And that is the possibility of an alliance between humans (with the vanguard being the woman-Eve) and animals, which is disallowed precisely due to the divine command. That’s what I meant by moral transcendence — ie, the idea that a moral order (and the need to decide in regard to that order) transcends the experimental capacities of what one can (is able) to do.

    Eden and post-Eden, neutrality and decisionality/knowledge, etc … I’m suggesting that the power being disallowed is prior to all these. In other words, to compare Eden and post-Eden, neutrality and knowledge, etc, is to operate entirely within the ideological frame.

  14. Adam, let me recommend Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative and especially the final chapter, Narration and Knowledge. I am not sure this is necessarily a Jewish way of looking at things. I think Kierkegaard could (and maybe did) understand Genesis to be God’s pseudonymous authoriship or, maybe better put, the only possible narrative choice for someone who wanted to represent God as a pseudonymous author. And this takes me to danbarber’s point: can any analysis of the content of Genesis as ideological be properly dialectical (and wouldn’t we expect any ideological analysis to be dialectical?) if it fails to take into consideration the narrative form itself in which the content is presented? What is the way that the authorial power manifests itself in the narrative form? Is it not as a power that, first of all, tells stories and enjoys the telling for its own sake? Is this a narrative voice that needs deconstructing, or is it always already deconstructing itself? To only read for the plot is maybe the ultimate joke on the reader of Genesis: the point is to want to read more (and tell more stories). I guess midrash as supplement to the origin (the story of the origin) is what I’m talking about.

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