Degree is Shaked II

When we might write a sociology book, the ancients would tell a story. Our preference for the literal, explicit, and linear should not be allowed to persuade us that our science is more sophisticated than narrative—as we have seen, the Iliad and the “Judgment of Paris” long anticipated sociology’s distinction between “ascribed” and “acquired” honor—nor to authorize our reading ancient narratives in the same manner as a textbook.

On this note, let’s return to Genesis. With a merely literal reading, we purchase six-day young-earth creationism at the cost of reducing the moral to “God gets vindictive when you don’t follow his incomprehensible rules” and “watch out for talking snakes.” If we permit a more figurative reading, the text has much to say of the nature of Adam’s choice, and of its consonance with the fallout, if you will. 

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion…And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed…the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil…And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 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…And the serpent said…Ye shall not surely die…in the day ye eat thereof…ye shall be as gods”

Genesis represents Adam as an integrity of mind and body. We learn that “they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed”—suggesting, among other things, that the mind had not yet learned to abhor the body—and that Adam was “formed of the dust of the ground,” yet “in the image of God created.”

Speculation about the meaning of “the image of God” will not end, but it is enough for my purposes to note that the only thing the story tells us about God at this point is that he creates. It seems reasonable to suppose that Adam possessed some measure of God’s creative faculty. 

Now God’s acts of creation follow a typical pattern: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” Observe the elements of this recitation: 1. Speech, implying knowledge (“God said”); 2. Evaluation (“it was good”); and 3. distinction (“God divided”). By considering these elements of creation, it should become clear in what way Adam might be creative: he might not make worlds with words, but speech, evaluation, and distinction are all powers of reason. 

The hybrid human—creative image and dust, mind and body—was given “dominion over all the earth,” and permitted to eat of the tree of life. Opposite Adam we find his subject, the snake, “more subtil than any beast of the field,” recommending instead the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” The name of this latter tree should recall the elements of creation—knowledge, evaluation, and distinction—identified above. The brainy snake was peddling words.

The setup then is this: Adam was invited to sacrifice the integrity of the whole—mind and body—for a part. His choice was evil because reason apart from the body becomes abstract and empty, entailing death: “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” In Schopenhauer’s terms: 

“Reason is feminine in nature; it can give only after it has received. Of itself alone, it has nothing but the empty forms of its operation…No science can be capable of demonstration throughout any more than a building can stand in the air. All its proofs must refer to something perceived, and hence something no longer capable of proof, for the whole world of reflection rests on, and is rooted in, the world of perception. All ultimate, i.e. original, evidence is one of intuitive perception.”

The result was the antagonism of snake and man, mind and body, abstraction and life. Immediately, we are told, mind learned repugnance of body: “the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” This situation was further exampled by the “head & heel” curse: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Fittingly, life strikes at abstraction’s head, and abstraction at the body’s support and connection with the sustaining earth.

The rest of the curse serves to recall abstraction to the body: the brainy snake would eat dirt, man’s creative labors—reproduction and agriculture—would be attended by sorrow and sweat, and, driven from Eden and God’s presence, body and mind would die together.

Another, and compatible, reading suggests itself when we note the sexual imagery in these passages: fruit, snake, nakedness, and perhaps the “knowledge” of good and evil (the word seems to share a root with the “knowledge” indicating sexual intimacy). Adam’s choice of abstraction over life may be likened to his cheating on God. 

The original sin involved abstraction and adultery. If this reading seems idiosyncratic, consider that it is precisely in these terms that idolatry, the quintessential Old Testament sin, is condemned: the prophets derided idolaters’ worship of “the work of man’s hands” and their “lusting” after other gods. Furthermore, the New Testament’s solution to the problem posed by Genesis is Christ, who is presented as both a fit object of worship, and as “the incarnate word,” a proper reintegration of mind and body, head and heel.

Leave a Reply