Reading the Myths Aright, Part II
In Part I of this essay, I left off my reading of Genesis 3 with verse 7. At that point, the Fall was a fait accompli as evidenced by a sudden flush of shame and an ineffectual attempt by our first parents to cover their nakedness; all that remains to tell of this story is the defense, the verdict, the sentencing and the dolorous postscript. As I take up the tale at verse 8, I try to see it through the eyes of a Bronze-Age agriculturalist/pastoralist. It’s useful to ask oneself from time to time, “If I were a Mesopotamian farmer living 4,000 years ago and hearing a tale like this from a recognized religious authority, what would it mean to me?”
(8) They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (9) But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”
I cannot resist this digression, which some readers may find a little snarky in tone: when I think of Christian fundamentalists who take these stories literally, trying to reconcile the idea of a deity far vaster than the cosmos he purportedly created with that of an anthropomorphic God waiting until the cool evening breezes to take a stroll in the Garden of Eden lest he break a sweat, I cannot suppress at least a chuckle and sometimes gales of laughter. But the Bronze-Age author(s) of this tale had no such concept of God as later thinkers cobbled together, and the story would not have seemed so wildly implausible to those who heard it three to four millennia ago – although I imagine most of them understood it as metaphorical. End digression.
One of the things that jumps out at me from the foregoing passage is the fact that the ruler is not about to lower himself to speak to a woman: the LORD God specifically calls to the man and has no truck with his ribmate until the blame game begins. This relegating of the woman to a kind of second-class personhood – considering that cloning story in Chapter 2, isn’t it a derived personhood? – is of course a familiar theme throughout the Blessed Old Leather-Bound Bible, reflecting as it does the patriarchal culture that wrote the damn thing. (One of the things that makes fundamentalism so repugnant to me is that those who are steeped in it probably really do think that a quasi-Bronze-Age familial structure is the best way to go, rather than more modern, “liberal” arrangements that aim at equality.)
Driven by guilt and anxiety, Adam and his wife (who, unlike all those domestic animals, has not yet been named in the story) attempt to hide from God among the trees of the garden but are soon found out, whereupon Adam unwittingly spills the beans: he was hiding because he was naked. How is it that nakedness suddenly became a problem? It’s almost as if the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil transforms one from being unself-conscious to being painfully self-conscious – again, a psychological development that tends to happen around the time of puberty. This newfound self-consciousness can mean only one thing, and the interrogation begins.
GOD: Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat that shit I told you not to eat?
ADAM: That woman you gave me is to blame; if she hadn’t given me some I’d never have eaten it.
GOD (to the woman, finally): What the hell have you done?
THE WOMAN: The snake tricked me.
God has no questions for the snake. He just starts cursing him.
All in all, it seems to me that our first parents mounted a rather lame defense, but we should probably keep in mind how cowed people tend to be in the presence of absolute power – and of course that’s exactly what(how) absolute power wants people to be. The story of the Fall is a cautionary tale crafted for the benefit of those who would hear it generation after generation: the ruler is to be feared and obeyed at all times. The God of the Second Creation Story is an absolute monarch, who has much in common with Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar.
It might be worth revisiting those sweet nothings that the serpent whispered into the woman’s ear, those enticements that cost her her virginity, so to speak. The tree was pleasant to look at and its fruit was yummy; moreover it could make one wise. Or as certain opportunistic teenage boys have claimed, “it will cure your acne.” Am I overdrawing things here? Am I reading too much into the woman’s “nor shall you touch it, or you shall die?” (Other penalties have been suggested for “touching it.”) I cannot shake the impression that there’s a subtext in this story that runs somewhat along those lines. On the author’s view, there were no other people around to witness the nakedness of these first humans: those fig-leaf loincloths were designed to hide their naughty parts from each other. (Did the first experience of sexual arousal put them off?) The legend of the Fall has long been associated with sexual maturity, as referenced in “Inherit the Wind:”
HENRY DRUMMOND: What do you think of sex, Colonel Brady?
MATTHEW HARRISON BRADY: In what spirit is this question asked?
HENRY DRUMMOND: I’m not asking you what you think of sex as a father, as a husband, or even as a Presidential candidate. You’re up here as an expert on the Bible. What is the Biblical evaluation of sex?
MATTHEW HARRISON BRADY: It is considered Original Sin.
But more to the author’s point, the takeaway lesson here is “don’t overreach your station in life: the monarch’s privileges and prerogatives are not shared with commoners like you.” That snake sure tricked her, all right. She thought she could become like the Dear Leader. Why should the Dear Leader have all the fun?
But what should we make of Adam’s response? He never said that the woman tricked him – only that she gave him some of the forbidden fruit and he ate it, which squares with the narrative in verse 6. I’ve always found it interesting that Adam never divulges his motives. We are not told whether he even found that forbidden fruit attractive: only that he ate it when the woman gave it to him.
Saint Paul would later write of Adam that he “was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (I Timothy 2:14) This probably reflects a Pharisaical interpretation, perhaps very ancient, that Adam was fully aware of what he was doing. Paul cited it as justification for the second-class status of women within the early church.
Some commentators have suggested that Adam’s eating the fruit was an act of love, a decision to die alongside his wife. That’s a pretty notion, but I suspect the more likely intended message goes something like this: women are inconstant creatures who are easily led astray by all kinds of temptations; they must be kept under close watch and guarded jealously. Do not allow them to talk to strangers, or there’ll be hell to pay. And above all, don’t be seduced by their blandishments (a lesson that King David, who was directly responsible for having many of these “sacred scriptures” compiled and disseminated, learned the hard way).
(14) The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you among all animals
and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
(15) I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
The two verses just quoted have a folklore-like quality, along the lines of “How the elephant got his trunk.” The passage aims to explain why it is that snakes crawl the way they do (it seems they were shorn of their legs, and some say, their wings) and why “enmity” exists between our species and so many of theirs. It seems odd to me that verse 15 has actually been read as a Messianic prophecy. That seems something of a stretch.
(16) To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.
Let it be noted that God has only half as much to say to the woman as he did to the snake, and about a fourth of what he has in store for her husband. She is a woman, and easily dismissed. Again we have a folklorish account of the difficulty of childbirth and the second-class status of women. I find this last part particularly revealing owing to its place in the narrative right before God’s most extensive verdict, which has everything to do with Bronze-Age agriculturalists’ relationship to the soil they tilled and the women who had taught their ancestors to do it. As I mentioned last week, there’s good reason to believe that women invented agriculture and that men resented it. Here, we have an echo of “species memory:”
(17) And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
(18) thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
(19) By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
In light of the fact that no such God as described in Genesis has ever spoken to anyone, verses 17-19 can be read as Adam’s lament: simply change the third-person pronouns to their first-person equivalents. Thus is the grinding misery of agricultural labor rendered poetically, and the blame for that misery is laid squarely at the woman’s doorstep.
It is a grim fact that with the onset of the Agricultural Revolution human longevity didn’t increase: it plummeted. During the Paleolithic, if you survived childhood (a dodgy proposition for the young of any species considering that the vast majority of them are eaten), you had a good chance of living until age 40, say. You might not even experience any serious health problems beyond your tooth enamel wearing out and sealing your fate. But with the onset of agriculture – which is roughly concurrent with the domestication of “livestock” – longevity was reduced by about half(cite) (and didn’t really start to rise again until the gradual onset of improved medicine in the 18th century) for several reasons, including living in close quarters with domesticated animals and working themselves into an early grave in the fields. The second of those reasons became especially severe as cities grew up (as administrative centers for the agriculture) and societies became stratified, with privileged monarchs perched grandly atop a pyramid whose base consisted of disposable, short-lived slaves numbering in the thousands. I sometimes have a hard time seeing the birth of agriculture as a great leap forward.
The two verses that follow the poetry of verses 14-19 have the character of another formally-clumsy interpolation; perhaps they were later included in the interest of “tidying up loose ends.”
(20) The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. (21) And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
I’ve heard verse 21 interpreted as a Messianic “type:” in order to cover the sinfulness of Adam and the lately-named Eve, an innocent animal had to shed its blood. I’m sure you know where Christians take it from there, even if you’ve never run into it before. Perhaps there’s some deep symbolism in this verse that escapes me, but I rather suspect that its purpose is more for the reinforcing of points already made: you will wear what the Dear Leader wants you to wear; he will prescribe that for you, as he does everything else. Do not presume.
The coup de grace follows in the form of a postscript, and begins with what appears to be a confab – an embarrassment that Christians have various methods of explaining away.
(22) Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – (23) therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. (24) He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
These closing verses are cluttered with entertaining, distracting details but I think they can be reduced to this, which certainly does the passage no formal damage: the birth of agriculture was not only a watershed: it represented a burnt bridge. This is to my thinking the most impressive echo of species memory in the entire Bible, an echo that makes the story of the Fall a very fine and rich myth in my estimation. The fact that fundamentalists cannot see its richness because they stupidly believe it to be historical fact actually makes me very sad. Let’s consider a few points:
At the dawn of agriculture, a few of our ancestors made a choice. Their choice was between eating what the Earth grew for them, and eating what they grew for themselves (those options represent two completely different ways of understanding one’s relationship to the rest of life). But once they made that choice, they made it for all future generations. With vanishingly few exceptions, the overall trajectory of the human story has been from foraging to agriculture not vice-versa. So while “Adam” and his Paleolithic consort seem to have had options, their descendants have none. The author of this tale clearly believed that Adam had made a bad choice, and resented having to live with the consequences. The Original Sin is agriculture.
Far be it from me to romanticize our Paleolithic forebears, to imagine them to have lived wisely and graciously in some kind of Edenic harmony with Mother Earth. Like humans at all times – hell, like all animals at all times – those hunter-gatherers went after the low-hanging fruit first. Anything that couldn’t outrun or outsmart them was liable to die. The thing that made those human hunters different from all the other animals – and that has left us so horribly out of balance with the rest of the planet – is that their developing technologies far outstripped their prey’s ability to adapt. Where are all the North American Pleistocene megafauna?
But there is a special kind of brutality to an agricultural way of feeding ourselves. Over the course of the past 9,000 years, the violence against the Earth has increased exponentially: from merely digging in it, to pulling “weeds” and declaring certain plants “off-limits,” to plowing it, to fertilizing it, to bombarding it with herbicides and pesticides… while our hungry numbers just keep growing to eat whatever surplus we manage to wrest from a drilled, mined, fracked, pumped, burned-out lithosphere. What thinking person imagines that this can go on forever?
Basta! I don’t want to get all morbid here: I’d rather focus on something about the closing of this story that I find beautiful in a bittersweet way. That gripping metaphor of angelic guardians and a flaming sword is an apt way of capturing the most fundamental fact of our lives: that time’s arrow only moves one direction, and there is no rewinding the clock. Our trajectory is from birth to death, from innocence to shame, from happiness to woe, from health to illth. “Adam’s” expulsion from his blessed Paleolithic condition into an unwelcome Neolithic one is just a special case of a general rule: all things come to an end. That is true of species – including, obviously, ours – and ultimately of life itself. It is true of every living planet in the universe, at all times. It is true of every star and will ultimately prove true of the universe as a whole. We might as well buck up and face it. No god is punishing us: it’s just the nature of reality.
Another thing I see in this closing passage is a general rule of “watersheds” in human history. They always represent burnt bridges, and this story captures that beautifully. Once farming begins, there’s no going back to foraging. Once a city is built, there will be no end of cities: the planet will end up covered with them. Once a war is fought in the name of some hallucinated deity or another, wars will be fought in God’s name forevermore: God will be invoked by all parties to the conflict (Gott mit uns!). Once the burning of fossil fuels begins at scale…
Well, hell: it looks as though I ended up in morbid territory after all. The legend of the Fall tends to do that to anyone who reads it aright.
I think I’d like to continue in this vein for at least a couple more weeks. There are other Biblical myths that I think are worthy of attention and comment, and one of them – the story of the Tower of Babel – contains yet another “echo of species memory.” Join me next week if you’re so inclined.