Remember, as discussed earlier, that the Genesis stories were amalgamated from several sources. After the newer Priestly story (Genesis 1), recounting the emergence of order from chaos, comes the second, even more ancient, “Jahwist” part, beginning, essentially, with Genesis 2. The Jahwist account, which uses the name YHWH orjahweh to represent God, contains the story of Adam and Eve, along with a much fuller explication of the events of the sixth day alluded to in the previous “Priestly” story. The continuity between
the stories appears to be the result of careful editing by the person or persons known singly to biblical scholars as the “Redactor,” who wove the stories together. This may have occurred when the peoples of two traditions united, for one reason or another, and the subsequent illogic of their melded stories, growing together over time in an ungainly fashion, bothered someone conscious, courageous, and obsessed with coherence.
According to the Jahwist creation story, God first created a bounded space, known as Eden (which, in Aramaic—Jesus’s putative language—means well-watered place) or Paradise (pairidaeza in old Iranian or Avestan, which means walled or protected enclosure or garden). God placed Adam in there, along with all manner of fruit-bearing trees, two of which were marked out. One of these was the Tree of Life; the other, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God then told Adam to have his fill of fruit, as he wished,
but added that the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was forbidden. After that, He created Eve as a partner for Adam.
Adam and Eve don’t seem very conscious, at the beginning, when they are first placed in Paradise, and they were certainly not self-conscious. As the story insists, the original parents were naked, but not ashamed. Such phrasing implies first that it’s perfectly natural and normal for people to be ashamed of their nakedness (otherwise nothing would have to be said about its absence) and second that there was something amiss, for
better or worse, with our first parents. Although there are exceptions, the only people around now who would be unashamed if suddenly dropped naked into a public place—excepting the odd exhibitionist—are those younger than three years of age. In fact, a common nightmare involves the sudden appearance of the dreamer, naked, on a stage in front of a packed house.
In the third verse of Genesis, a serpent appears—first, apparently, in legged form. God only knows why He allowed—or placed—such a creature in the garden. I have long puzzled over the meaning of this. It seems to be a reflection, in part, of the order/chaos dichotomy characterizing all of experience, with Paradise serving as habitable order and the serpent playing the role of chaos. The serpent in Eden therefore means the same thing as the black dot in the yin side of the Taoist yin/yang symbol of totality—that is, the possibility of the unknown and revolutionary suddenly manifesting itself where
everything appears calm.
It just does not appear possible, even for God himself, to make a bounded space completely protected from the outside—not in the real world, with its necessary limitations, surrounded by the transcendent. The outside, chaos, always sneaks into the inside, because nothing can be completely walled off from the rest of reality. So even the ultimate in safe spaces inevitably harbours a snake. There were—forever—genuine,
quotidian, reptilian snakes in the grass and in the trees of our original African paradise. Even had all of those been banished, however (in some inconceivable manner, by some primordial St. George) snakes would have still remained in the form of our primordial human rivals (at least when they were acting like enemies, from our limited, in-group, kin-bonded perspectives). There was, after all, no shortage of conflict and warfare among our ancestors, tribal and otherwise.
And even if we had defeated all the snakes that beset us from without, reptilian and human alike, we would still not have been safe. Nor are we now. We have seen the enemy, after all, and he is us. The snake inhabits each of our souls. This is the reason, as far as I can tell, for the strange Christian insistence, made most explicit by John Milton, that the snake in the Garden of Eden was also Satan, the Spirit of Evil itself. The
importance of this symbolic identification—its staggering brilliance—can hardly be overstated. It is through such millennia-long exercise of the imagination that the idea of abstracted moral concepts themselves, with all they entail, developed. Work beyond comprehension was invested into the idea of Good and Evil, and its surrounding, dream¬ like metaphor. The worst of all possible snakes is the eternal human proclivity for evil. The worst of all possible snakes is psychological, spiritual, personal, internal. No walls, however tall, will
keep that out. Even if the fortress were thick enough, in principle, to keep everything bad whatsoever outside, it would immediately appear again within. As the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn insisted, the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.
There is simply no way to wall off some isolated portion of the greater surrounding reality and make everything permanently predictable and safe within it. Some of what has been no-matter-how-carefully excluded will always sneak back in. A serpent, metaphorically speaking, will inevitably appear. Even the most assiduous of parents cannot fully protect their children, even if they lock them in the basement, safely away
from drugs, alcohol and internet porn. In that extreme case, the too-cautious, too-caring parent merely substitutes him or herself for the other terrible problems of life. This is the great Freudian Oedipal nightmare. It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.
And even if it were possible to permanently banish everything threatening—everything dangerous (and, therefore, everything challenging and interesting), that would mean only that another danger would emerge: that of permanent human infantilism and absolute uselessness. How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reasonto pay attention? Maybe God thought His new creation would be able to handle the
serpent, and considered its presence the lesser of two evils.
Question for parents: do you want to make your children safe, or strong?
In any case, there’s a serpent in the Garden, and he’s a “subtil” beast, according to the ancient story (difficult to see, vaporous, cunning, deceitful and treacherous). It therefore comes as no surprise when he decides to play a trick on Eve. Why Eve, instead of Adam? It could just be chance. It was fifty-fifty for Eve, statistically speaking, and those are pretty high odds. But I have learned that these old stories contain nothing superfluous. Anything accidental—anything that does not serve the plot—has long been forgotten in
the telling. As the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov advised, “If there is a rifle hanging on the wall in act one, it must be fired in the next act. Otherwise it has no business being there.” Perhaps primordial Eve had more reason to attend to serpents than Adam. Maybe they were more likely, for example, to prey on her tree-dwelling infants. Perhaps it is for this reason that Eve’s daughters are more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous, to this day (even, and especially, in the most egalitarian of modern human societies ). In any case, the serpent tells Eve that if she eats the forbidden fruit, she won’t die. Instead, her eyes will be opened. She will become like God, knowing good from evil. Of course, the serpent doesn’t let her know she will be like God in only that one way. But he is a serpent, after all. Being human, and wanting to know more, Eve decides to eat the fruit. Poof! She wakes up: she’s conscious, or perhaps self-conscious, for the first
Now, no clear-seeing, conscious woman is going to tolerate an unawakened man. So, Eve immediately shares the fruit with Adam. That makes him self-conscious. Little has changed. Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. They do this primarily by rejecting them—but they also do it by shaming them, if men do not take responsibility. Since women bear the primary burden of reproduction, it’s no wonder. It is very hard to see how it could be otherwise. But the capacity of women to shame men and
render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature.
Now, you may ask: what in the world have snakes got to do with vision? Well, first, it’s clearly of some importance to see them, because they might prey on you (particularly when you’re little and live in trees, like our arboreal ancestors). Dr. Lynn Isbell, professor of anthropology and animal behaviour at the University of California, has suggested that the stunningly acute vision almost uniquely possessed by human beings was an
adaptation forced on us tens of millions of years ago by the necessity of detecting and avoiding the terrible danger of snakes, with whom our ancestors co-evolved. This is perhaps one of the reasons the snake features in the garden of Paradise as the creature who gave us the vision of God (in addition to serving as the primordial and eternal enemy of mankind). This is perhaps one of the reasons why Mary, the eternal, archetypal mother —Eve perfected—is so commonly shown in medieval and Renaissance iconography
holding the Christ Child in the air, as far away as possible from a predatory reptile, which she has firmly pinned under her foot.— And there’s more. It’s fruit that the snake offers, and fruit is also associated with a transformation of vision, in that our ability to see color is an adaptation that allows us to rapidly detect the ripe and therefore edible bounty of c.a trees.
Our primordial parents hearkened to the snake. They ate the fruit. Their eyes opened. They both awoke. You might think, as Eve did initially, that this would be a good thing. Sometimes, however, half a gift is worse than none. Adam and Eve wake up, all right, but only enough to discover some terrible things. First, they notice that they’re naked.