Saturday, March 13, 2010

Out On A Limb: Exploring The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

"The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. 'Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked.
'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end; then stop.'
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
To further consider the implications of the fall, I’m first going to have to climb the Tree of Knowledge and work my way out onto its precarious branches so that I can look more closely at its profusion of fluttering leaves.

By that, I mean that the story of the forbidden fruit is so fertile that as I approach it, I find myself needing to look at centuries of wisdom and foolishness as well as my own thoughts. There may be no biblical story that has been examined so exhaustively as the fall, no narrative that has been approached, pondered and probed from so many perspectives.

My challenge here will be to sift through what has been said and to somehow coherently represent it while carefully inserting my own thoughts.

Following the King’s advice, I’ll start at the beginning, with the words on the page.

What we read in Genesis 2 is that the Lord God creates a man from the dust of the earth; plants a garden in which to settle him; puts in that garden “every tree lovely to look at and good for food,” including two named trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; and warns the man not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, “for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die.”

Then, the Lord God determines that the man shouldn’t be alone, and decides to make a sustainer, a helper or helpmeet, for him. After fashioning the beasts and birds from soil and bringing them to the man to let him name them, He changes course and puts the man to sleep, then removes one of the man’s ribs and builds it into a woman, whom again He brings to the man for naming. (My friend Robin Abrahams has written an amusing blog post on this episode, in which she envisions it as a Monty Python sketch)

Genesis 2 ends with an assurance that the man and woman were naked and unashamed of it.

When we pick up again in Genesis 3, we are introduced to the serpent and told that he is the “most cunning” of all the creatures of the Lord God. The serpent talks to the woman, tells her the Lord God was fibbing about death as a consequence of eating from the forbidden tree, and convinces her to give it a try. She does so, giving the man some fruit as well.

At this point, we are told that their “eyes were opened,” they were suddenly aware of their nakedness, and they reacted by making clothing from fig leaves and then hiding from the Lord God, who was walking in the garden in the evening breeze.

He calls them out and questions the man, who spills out a story about them hiding because of their nakedness (even though they have those fig-leaf loincloths). The Lord God realizes at this point that the couple have eaten from the forbidden tree and accuses the man of doing so, at which point the man says it was all the woman’s fault (I would say he throws her under the bus, but we haven’t been told that buses were invented yet). The woman, in turn, blames it all on the serpent, whom the Lord God punishes by condemning him to crawl on his belly and eat dust and be hated by women and children.

Then He turns to the woman, whose punishment is increased pain in childbearing, longing for her mate and subservience to that mate. Finally, the man gets his: He will have to work the soil, which will be less productive than it has been heretofore.

Next, we are told, the man (here I’ll mention that the Hebrew for human is Adam) gives the woman her name, Eve. We are told the Lord God stops to sew some clothing for the couple out of skins, dresses them, and, in a moment of reflection, realizes that if they now eat from the Tree of Life, they will live forever. So he sends them out of the garden and installs cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the east entrance from their return. And so ends Genesis 3.

From that short tale have sprung millennia of shame, guilt, subjugation of women and repression of sexuality as dominant themes in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (I paint here with a broad and unfair stroke, I know, but do so with the intent of highlighting what I find to be troubling strains of thought in all three Abrahamic religions).

Over the ages since this story was first told, interpreters have taken it in wildly different directions. There’s no way that in a short essay I can cover all of these, but I want to consider some of the ones I find most interesting.

For many interpreters, the story of the fall has centered on the notion of free will. Adam and Eve make a choice to disobey God and pay a price, one that has condemned subsequent generations of humanity to a life of hardship but also has given these generations the freedom to decide whether to follow good or evil, the two notions embodied in the tree and its forbidden fruit.

Here’s Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans:
“They knew God, yet they failed to glorify or thank him as our God. And they grew cunning, in reasoning, and so their mindless heart fell deep into the fathoms of all darkness. They thought they were wise yet they were fools and they exchanged God’s imperishable glory for likenesses of perishable persons, and birds, and quadrupeds and reptiles. So God delivered them in their desires to filth and degradation of their bodies among themselves. They had exchanged God’s truth for falsehood in their worship, served the creature rather than the creator blessed forever.”
Paul is, of course, urging his followers to reverse that exchange, to use their powers of free will to turn back toward the one true God. But embodied in his words is the idea that we have a choice, and it is up to us to act on that.

A few centuries later, Augustine turned the notion of free will around 180 degrees, arguing that rather than opening us up to free will, the Fall had taken away the free will that Adam enjoyed in the garden. Augustine interpreted another passage of Romans – 5:12, which reads, “Because of one man, so death came through sin and death spread to all men, since all men sinned” – to mean that through the Fall the very nature of humanity was changed, and that as a result sin is an inevitable aspect of human life. Thanks to Adam, we have no choice but to be sinners.

Because he believed that this sinful nature was passed on through the generations by semen, Augustine posited that only two men in history were exempt from it: Adam and Jesus, neither of whom were created through transmission of semen. Given freedom of choice, Adam chose sin and Jesus chose godliness.
Augustine’s concept of the sinful nature of humanity may have been radical at the time, but, as Elaine Pagels elucidates in her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent, it fit very well into the emerging Christian politics of the Roman Empire. In short, because no individual human could be trusted to reject sin, it was necessary and just for men and women to subject themselves to the authority of the state.

From The City of God:
“Such, as men are now, is the order of peace. Some are in subjection to others and, while humility helps those who serve, pride harms those in power. But as men once were, when their nature was as God created it, no man was slave to either man or to sin. However, slavery is now penal in character, and planned by that law which commands the preservation of the natural order and forbids its disturbance.”
It is worth noting that a thousand years later, Martin Luther made similar arguments in supporting the power of the state.

For the communities of early Christians known as Gnostics, who flourished during the time between Paul and Augustine, the point of the fall was not freedom but knowledge. And in some of their writings, the story becomes one not of tragedy but of triumph.

The Other Bible Although today we group these communities together, their thought was in fact quite diverse. The Gnostic author of the Gospel of Philip, for example, sticks largely to the tragic thread of interpretation, but views it as a loss of primal unity. For this author, the tragedy is not in the disobedient act of eating from the tree, but in the very creation of Eve from Adam’s rib:
“When Eve was still in Adam, death did not exist. When she was separated from him, death came into being. If he again becomes complete and attains his former self, death will be no more.”
Philip argues that the way to regain wholeness is through knowledge, and specifically the knowledge of Christ:
“If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and to again unite the two, to give life to those who died as a result of the separation and unite them.”
Later, the author argues that the olive tree, from which men obtain the oil used in the sacrament of chrismation, is a new tree of knowledge that gives humans eternal life, because it imparts knowledge of Christ and of the original unity of humanity. “Ignorance is a slave. Knowledge is freedom. If we know the truth, we shall find the fruits of the truth within us. If we are joined to it, it will bring fulfillment.”

A very different take on the creation and fall can be found in another Gnostic text, the Secret Book of John. This radical author presents an alternative cosmology in which the creator god (called Ialdabaoth) is not in fact the true God, but a flawed emanation several generation removed from the ultimate God of Truth. Successive waves of creative generation from the God of Truth create a community of Aeons, one of whom, Sophia(Wisdom), conceives a thought without the participation of her consort, and through this generates the creator god Ialdabaoth, who is “imperfect and ugly in appearance, because she had made it without her Consort … She pushed it away from herself, outside those places, so that none of the immortals might see it, because she had brought it to birth in ignorance.”

This flawed deity, obsessed with his own power and jealous because he knows he is not the ultimate god, is referred to by the author caustically as “the self-satisfied one” and “the abortion of darkness,” and it is he who is responsible for the creation and fall of humanity. In this telling, the Tree of Life is the poisonous tree – “its root is bitter; its branches are shadows of death; its leaves are hate and deceit; its sap is an ointment of wickedness and its fruit is the desire of death” – while the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the “Thought of Light.”

Ialdabaoth’s placement of Adam in the garden is described as an act of trickery, and Eve’s consumption of the forbidden fruit is an act of courage and grace, a step toward knowledge of the true God.

In the entertaining new horror novel Horns, author Joe Hill (a son of Stephen King) makes not Eve but Satan the hero of the story:

Horns: A Novel“In a lot of ways, I guess Satan was the first superhero.”

“Don’t you mean supervillain?”

“Nah. Hero, for sure. Think about it. In his first adventure, he took the form of a snake to free two prisoners behing held naked in a Third World jungle prison by an all-powerful megalomaniac. At the same time, he broadened their diet and introduced them to their own sexuality. Sounds kind of like a cross between Animal Man and Dr. Phil to me.”
While few writers have been as bold in their interpretation of the story as either the author of the Secret Book of John or Joe Hill, the idea that obtaining the knowledge of good and evil should be a sinful act has fascinated and troubled many.

The social psychologist Erich Fromm, who was brought up in Orthodox Judaism, cited the story as “the first act of freedom, that is, the first human act.” Like the author of the Gospel of Philip, Fromm sees the fall as an allegory for the destruction of a primal unity. In Escape From Freedom, Fromm writes:
“The act of disobedience as an act of freedom is the beginning of reason … The original harmony between man and nature is broken. God proclaims war between man and woman, and war between nature and man. Man has become separate from nature, he has taken the first step toward becoming human by becoming an ‘individual’ … He is alone and free, yet powerless and afraid. The newly won freedom appears as a curse; he is free from the sweet bondage of paradise, but he is not free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.”
In Living the Science of Mind, Ernest Holmes, the founder of the Religious Science community, sees Adam and Eve as metaphors for the two sides of human nature, and provides an interpretation clearly influenced by Freud (it may seem surprising that Freud himself never wrote about this story):
“We can liken Adam to the intellect, to our conscious self-choice, and we can liken Eve to our subconscious reaction, for this is what the story originally meant … We are all Adam and Eve, and when our intellects become coerced or misdirected they still find a subconscious reaction. When the subconscious reaction becomes powerful enough, it controls the intellect because of the unconscious thought patterns that are laid down in the mind. Finally, when these thought patterns become dominant, they control even the intellect. This is what produces most insanity and the psychosomatic relationships between the body and the mind.”
For the Toltec mystic and wisdom writer Don Miguel Ruiz, the point of the story is the origin of judgment, and specifically of harmful value judgments about ourselves and each other. Ruiz writes in The Voice of Knowledge:
“Before humans ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we lived in truth. We spoke only truth. We lived in love without any fear. After we ate the fruit, we felt guilt and shame. We judged ourselves as no longer good enough, and of course we judged others the same way. With judgment came polarity, separation, and the need to punish and be punished.”
Clearly, many minds greater than mind have pondered this fertile story and come up with a multitude of interpretations. Nevertheless, I want to add to them some of my own thoughts. And while I acknowledge the validity of all of these possible interpretations, I view the story of the fall in a somewhat different way, as a tale of growth and development.

In Genesis 1, God creates the entire universe through speech, but in the second creation narrative His words are ineffectual. Only action speaks; words do not act. God issues a warning that his creations ignore as soon as a tempting counter-argument is made.

Anyone who has been a parent can sympathize with His wounded outrage over their behavior, I suspect. In his fascinating exploration of the “development” of God’s personality through the sequence of the Tanakh (see God: A Biography), Jack Miles points out that God is not referred to explicitly as a parent until the books of Samuel. But Genesis 3, the story of the fall, portrays the relationship between God and the first humans in a way that evokes the troubled bonds between parents and adolescent offspring throughout the millennia.

One element of the story that gets surprisingly short shrift in most retellings is God’s action between his discovery of the first couple’s disobedience and their expulsion from the garden. He stops, makes them clothing and then dresses them in that clothing. This strikes me as one of the most poignant images in all of the Bible, and yet I searched in vain for a work of art that depicts it. The fact that God takes the time and effort to clothe his creatures – once they have become aware of their nakedness – before he sends them out into the big, cruel world is, to me, a touching act of parental responsibility. It’s an acknowledgement that the kids are grown up now, there’s not much more He can do for them, but He’s going to do what I can to make sure they are safe and warm. He has told Adam that he’s going to have to work for a living, and Eve that she’s going to suffer and yet be compelled to stand by her man. Now He’s got to set them free and let them experience things on their own. If suitcases had been invented, I’m sure God would have packed one for them.

Although it’s never stated, it’s as if God recognizes that he put this whole series of events in motion when he planted that damnable tree in the center of the garden and put the serpent there to tempt his favored creatures. After all, if this story had happened today in the United States, somebody would have filed suit against Him for creating an attractive nuisance. And probably won.

That whole forbidden fruit thing strikes me as a trap. Not a malicious trap, mind you, but something more like the challenges parents sometimes set up for their kids, a situation that says, “Okay, if you’re so grown up, how are you going to handle this?”

God’s creative acts – the tree, the snake, the couple – have a power that exceeds His words of caution. To quote Ernest Holmes again: “Well, man is a curious creature. He is born with an innate desire to explore everything. He has a great curiosity, and sometimes he wants to know exactly why he cannot do exactly as he pleases and get away with it.”

In the spirit of Jack Miles, I think it’s important to note that if these events are happening to humanity for the first time, they also are happening to God for the first time. And in contrast to the popular image of God as all-seeing and all-knowing, the God of the Bible often seems surprised by what the humans will do. It strikes me again as just like the feeling we parents get when we just can’t even believe what our kids just did.

Watching your progeny develop minds of their own can be a real bitch.

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