By Ellen Lubell
October 14, 2017
Adam and Eve are bigger than the Beatles. Cultures and religions all over the world, including of course the three Abrahamic religions, have adapted forms of this origin story and draw its lessons relevant to their perspectives. Adam and Eve permeate popular culture and media because they are so recognizable.
Bereishit, the Torah’s account of how God brought the world and its features into existence, actually tells two creation stories: one gives a day-by-day account of God’s orderly process, starting with the dark, chaotic void and ending with the creation of Shabbat on the seventh day, and the second tells the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden.
I’m going to talk about the second story. You know the details, or think you do: the tree, the snake, the fruit.
When I reviewed some Jewish midrashim and commentary on this second story, all of the writers were united in their use of the word ‘sin’ when it came to discussing the events in the Garden of Eden: Adam’s great sin, original sin, the snake’s sin, Eve’s sin, etc.
But I just don’t see the Torah’s story as a tale of sin.
I think God wanted to create and nurture people who would love and worship their Creator in return, people who would live ethically and morally, abiding by God’s laws. In other words, I think the Garden was supposed to be our incubator. But right there, right away, God gets the first of the Torah’s many demonstrations that humans will confound his plans and his hopes. In this case, they think for themselves. It may be why a famous midrash shows us the angels urging God not to create human beings!
Adam was made from the earth, from the adamah, Eve from [Adam’s] living tissue. They dwell in a garden with animals, trees and two magic trees in the middle. There is no concept of clothing and they are naked. According to Plaut, the word for shrewd, used to describe the talking snake who strikes up a conversation with Eve, is arum, the same word used to mean naked. Eve is both naked and shrewd. Shrewd is a strategy and her consideration of the value and beauty of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is strategic and intelligent. Perhaps Adam is happy to be, one of “God’s gardeners,” as Dr. Shawna Dolansky describes the intended plan, but Eve isn’t. She shrewdly evaluates the situation, and decides to go for the knowledge the fruit offers her. She thinks for herself; she wanted to know what God did not want them to know. She brings Adam along with her.
There is a sixteenth century engraving of this moment by artist Hans Baldung Grien, called The Fall of Humankind, which depicts Adam and Eve holding each other, while the snake, wrapped around the tree, observes them from the side. She’s about to offer a fruit to Adam, who is busy fondling her breast and vaguely looking at us. Eve engages the viewer with a level stare, making us all complicit in what she’s about to do. This is the only artwork of “the Fall” I’ve seen that does not depict shame and tragedy.
For Eve, the prohibition against eating that fruit came secondhand, not from God. But what is the snake’s motivation? Rashi posits that the snake was at that point a creature with legs, and was jealous when he observed Adam and Eve having intercourse. It’s not clear how his action would win over Eve, but it disrupts everything.
Is this a snare in God’s plan? Were they not ready for the fruit in his view? Or, were they in a kind of “2001” situation? In that film, uncovering the monolith on the moon signaled to some being somewhere that humans were ready to evolve. Perhaps taking the fruit was a signal to God that these humans were ready to start living outside the Garden.
As we know, God calls to them in the Garden, and they hide when they hear him, not because they are physically naked, but because their newly acquired awareness, their knowledge, is naked. They hide. This sets up my favorite line in the whole Torah. Adam tells God that they’re hiding because they are naked, perhaps to try to throw him off? and God bellows “Who told you that you were naked?”
This sentence says it all. It’s totally rhetorical. Of course God knows who is at fault, and punishes the snake, causing it to crawl on its belly forever. Of course Adam and Eve realize they are naked, that’s a low level of awareness. Is God really mystified about what happened, or, frustrated? God’s human creations seem beyond his control. But – more evidence that God had planned to launch them out to the world all along -- God doesn’t really punish Adam and Eve severely for disobeying him; he exiles them, and sends them outside of the Garden, to till their own soil.
But he clothes them before he exiles them. Why? It’s the gesture any parent would make: because nakedness is not appropriate in the populated world outside of the Garden.
Why else do I think it was populated? Bereishit’s text holds more clues.
- When God punishes Cain for killing his brother, Cain complains that “Anyone who meets me may kill me.” Who is ‘anyone’ if only his family is there?
- After God marks Cain so no one will kill him, Cain, who might be a teenager? goes to live in the land of Nod, and finds a wife there.
- The Tree of Knowledge is described as conferring the knowledge of good from bad. Good and bad are concepts that exist outside the Garden, so that is an appropriate awareness that Adam and Eve can carry with them when they go.
Perhaps because God made humans in his own image, he believes they innately know his laws. They clearly do not, and fairly quickly act so corrupt that God’s ongoing frustration leads to the Flood. It may also lead to God’s ultimate realization that he has to inscribe his laws as written commandments, and literally hand them to the people, so humans can study and learn them. Then they would have a tangible guide for living morally and ethically. That way, our origin story produces real value and importance, not shame.