In my left hand is a pamphlet about bus safety. In my right hand is a Bible. Let’s do a show about… THE BIBLE.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a Bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way.
Many ideas have been hung upon the Bible story of Adam, Eve, a talking snake and a piece of fruit: “The Fall of Man,” “Original Sin,” the loss of sexual innocence, foundations of marriage, snake evolution, and the perils of produce. Setting aside our own assumptions and agendas, we might rediscover an outrageous ancient text with deeply human and urgently relevant themes. If you can get past the talking animals and cherubim, this is a story about humans, about US.
Before we look at the story in detail, let’s have a quick recap of where we’ve come so far and a look at where we’re going:
Genesis is part one of the five-part Torah, which is a collection of foundational documents compiled by the family of Israel when it became the nation of Israel. These are the songs, legends, laws, histories and genealogies of a group of people who had once been wanderers, but were now settling together in one place for the first time. These songs and stories were shared around campfires and passed down through many generations before being written down and compiled in the Torah. As a result, the individual units of the Torah are very diverse, and the genre can change from chapter to chapter without warning. But as we observed in the last show, two major themes run through all of the material and give it coherence. These themes are: OFFSPRING, because this is the story of a family, and LAND, because nomadic shepherds are becoming landowners and farmers.
Keep this big picture in mind as we turn now to the text in question. We’re going to consider Genesis chapters two and three as a single unit today, but let’s read one chapter at a time to keep our bearings. So here’s chapter two (starting with verse 4):
4 These are the generations of heaven and earth when they were created.
When the Lord God made earth and heaven, 5 when no shrub was yet on earth and no grass had yet sprung up because the Lord God had not sent rain on the land, and there was no man to work the soil, 6 but a mist would go up from the land and water the surface of the earth, 7 the Lord God formed the man from the dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8 The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 And from the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and then divided and became four branches. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon, the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where gold is 12 (the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there). 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon, the one that wound through the whole land of Cush. 14 The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and tend it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You are free to eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it, for as soon as you eat of it you will die.”
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” 19 So the Lord God formed out of the ground all the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky and brought them to the man to see what he would call them, and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts, but for Adam no fitting helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall over the man, and while he slept he took one of his ribs and closed up the place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
“This one at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.
This one will be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24 Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife, so that they shall become one flesh. 25 The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.
We’ve only just moved from chapter one to chapter two, and we’ve already encountered our first major genre shift. Genesis 1 was a song celebrating the natural order of the universe, and now we have a narrative story which seems less concerned with the cosmos than it is with human beings and soil. Our twin themes of OFFSPRING and LAND are in full view, but in a more specific and colorful way.
A few literary features stand out. The opening line, “These are the generations of heaven and earth” is part of a formula which gives the whole Torah its structure. There are eleven of these “generations of” introductions throughout Genesis, and one more in the scroll of Numbers to complete the formula and remind us that the Torah is really telling just one big story. That’s a total of twelve, which of course is the number of tribes which make up the family of Israel.
The most notable difference between this account of creation and the one in Genesis 1 is the way that God is portrayed. In the creation hymn, God is elusive and distant, speaking commands from above and organizing the cosmos by his will. In this text, he is much more intimately involved in creation, forming man with his hands and breathing his own life into him.
Even the Hebrew words used to identify God are different in these two passages. In Genesis 1, he is “Elohim,” which is the more generic, formal word meaning simply “God” or even “gods” (!) In chapter two, he is called by the personal name of Israel’s God. Most English Bibles translate this “Lord,” after the Hebrew “Adonai,” the traditional substitute for the unspeakable holy name. Modern Jews simply call him “Hashem,” “The Name.” Scholars have tried to pronounce this name in different ways, from “Jehovah” to “Yahweh,” but the truth is, we don’t know how it’s pronounced. The Hebrew text is always obscured by unreadable vowels, since the name was never supposed to be uttered.
The point of all this is INTIMACY. The God of this creation story is personal and specific, and hands-on. This is Israel’s God, and this story is about how he shared his life and his creative power with human beings. In this account, man is given a proactive role in working the land and managing the animal kingdom. Humans are God’s representatives, entrusted with the stewardship of the earth’s resources. There is still accountability to the creator, evidenced by the single regulation concerning the special tree at the center of the garden, but humanity is given great freedom as well as responsibility.
The setting of this story is a garden. For most modern readers, a garden is a quiet place where you sit and enjoy “nature” as it were. But in the ancient world, a garden meant one thing: food. This is a place where humans take care of the land, and the land takes care of them by providing abundant food. The geographic details in this text, the list of “rivers,” has puzzled interpreters as to the exact location of the garden. There are theories which place Eden anywhere from Israel to Northern Africa to Mars (seriously). It seems pretty clear, geographic nitpicks aside, that the location is somewhere in the center of the Ancient Near East, the “world” as ancient Israelites knew it.
The last major event of this chapter is the creation of the woman as a partner for the man. Adam (whose name is related to the Hebrew words for “human” and “dirt”), is so excited to meet his mate Eve (whose name sounds like the Hebrew for “life-giver”) that he sings her a little song. And the little bow on the end of this chapter is that the two are united together, and they are “naked but not ashamed.” This isn’t only about physical nakedness and the shame that some societies attach to it. This nakedness denotes innocence, naivete. They are naked and vulnerable, but it’s OK. Their needs are met in their surroundings and in their relationships with God and each other.
Before we move on to the drama of chapter three, I want to distill the three distinct relationships we just encountered which form the thematic basis of this story, and much of the biblical literature. The three relationships at the heart of Genesis 2 are GOD, EARTH, and PEOPLE. Or, to put it another way, BREATH, FOOD, and SEX. This is central to the way the authors of the Bible look at life. These three relationships define what it is to be human. BREATH sustains life, moment to moment, FOOD nourishes and strengthens, and SEX enriches and literally multiplies life. This is the threefold blessing of creation.
But then things get weird… Now on to chapter three:
1 Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees in the garden. 3 It is only the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or touch it, lest you die.’” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die. 5 But God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods who know good and bad.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
8 They heard the sound of the LORD God moving through the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 The LORD God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” 11 Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman you put with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” 13 And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done!” The woman replied, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”
14 Then the LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you did this,
you are more cursed than all cattle
and the wild beasts;
On your belly you shall crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
He shall bruise your head,
and you shall strike at his heel.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will intensify your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bear children.
Yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
17 To Adam he said,
“Because you did as your wife said
and ate of the tree
about which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
By toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life;
18 Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you,
but your food shall be the grass of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you shall get bread to eat,
until you return to the ground,
for from it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
20 The man named his wife name Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. 21 And the LORD God made garments of animal skins for Adam and for his wife, and clothed them.
22 Then the LORD God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” 23 So the LORD God banished him from the garden of Eden to work the soil from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he stationed cherubim and a flaming, ever-turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life.
Just when the story starts to seem relevant and relatable, suddenly we’ve got talking snakes and curses and cherubim. These elements immediately take us out of any reality the narrative may have had for us, but that’s only because we’re not familiar with ancient symbolic imagery. Today even most conservative Bible interpreters recognize that this is a mythic story which employs tropes and images which would have been familiar to ancient hearers, but which are all but lost on us. To focus on the veracity of a myth like this one is to miss the deep and powerful things it wants to say.
In many traditions, the serpent is just assumed to be Satan. In fact, the New Testament hints at that interpretation, most strongly in the similarly symbol-laden book of Revelation. “Satan,” or “hasatan” (“the accuser” in Hebrew), is a sticky subject, and one I think we’ll save for another show as it is not explicitly mentioned anywhere in this text.
In most ancient cultures, the serpent held some symbolic significance. The snake has an obvious phallic association, and those who read this story as a fable of either sexual awakening or sexual shame latch onto that symbolism. That’s plausible, but there’s perhaps a more historically appropriate connection to be made.
In the mythologies of the pagan cultures which surrounded and so often clashed with Israel, the forces of chaos, danger, and death are often represented as snakes or snake-like monsters. There’s Tiamat, the serpentine chaos monster from The Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, and Yam, the ocean dwelling serpent of the Canaanite pantheon, among others.
Whatever the identity of the serpent, it is something from WITHIN creation. This is not some “anti-god” or rival god, or devil, it is one of God’s creatures. Perhaps it’s a leftover from the pre-creation forces of chaos described in Genesis 1:2, or maybe it’s just a symbol of the rebellious free will in the hearts of Adam and Eve. In any case, it shrewdly convinces them to violate the only boundary in their idyllic garden arrangement.
The climax of the story is usually described in terms of the “Fall of Man” and “Original Sin.” But the words “sin” and “fall” don’t appear anywhere in the text. And while the offense of Adam and Eve and the “curse” it brings upon creation are often seen in terms of heaven, hell, and spirituality, the actual language of this story is very different. In fact, it is startlingly earthbound and practical.
The immediate effect of eating the forbidden fruit is that Adam and Eve gain “the knowledge of good and bad,” which causes their eyes to be “opened,” and then they “know” they are naked. This is not about the state of their immortal souls. That concept would be foreign to ancient Israelites. This is about their perception of the world and themselves. Before, they were naked and vulnerable, and it didn’t matter. Their needs were met and they were content. Now they have glimpsed their own nakedness, and they can never go back. They are aware of their own weakness and dependency.
Likewise God’s “curse” does not consist of damnation or supernatural punishment. Rather, he simply declares that life on the earth, while it will continue to be good, will also be difficult and bittersweet. There will be hostility between humans and animals. But of course there will be companionship and affection too. Childbirth will be painful, and men and women will clash, but children and families will still bring joy and fulfillment. Farming the land will be back-breaking and difficult, but it will continue to produce good food. This is ancient Israel’s explanation of how the world got this way. Everything works, and everything is good, but everything is compromised because men and women insist on making their own determinations of what is good and what is bad.
This is the observation at the heart of the “Adam and Eve” story: that the three relationships which defined human life and happiness in chapter two, BREATH, FOOD, and SEX, are also the boundaries of mortality. Stop breathing, and your life is forfeit. Give up food and again, you’re finished. Isolate yourself from others, and you don’t have a chance. The very things which bring ultimate joy and meaning to our existence are themselves limitations. We must breathe, we must eat, and we need each other, or we die.
Many modern readers laugh at this story and the simplistic ideas that are often attached to it. But for the ancient Israelites who told this tale to their children, it was an honest and insightful way of coming to grips with the often harsh realities of their journey to become a nation. The bloodline of Israel was often threatened by marital conflict, closed wombs and sexual politics, and the land to which they found themselves drawn was light on rain and full of dangers. Israel was vulnerable and dependent and they knew it.
This isn’t the story of why man is at war with the devil. This is the story of why man is so often at war with God, the earth, and himself. And the rest of the Bible is characterized by the tantalizing hope – the expectation – that the peace and pleasure of the garden are not lost forever, that the goodness and order of creation will win out over the powers of isolation and sin.
For many of us the Bible seems too dense and culturally distant to have any relevant meaning. But with the right kind of ears we can learn to hear the very human voices calling out to us from inside the text. Talking snakes and magic trees may seem like a dealbreaker, but what do you think ancient Israelites would make of Wall-E, or the Snorks?
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. My name is Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.