If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Did they fall, or did they rise?

Who says that Genesis 3 is about a "Fall" anyway? That’s how it’s interpreted, and in fairness by Jews as well as Christians; though clearly Jews, whose story it was first, don’t think it has the implications for our eternal destiny that many Christians do - and that alone should give us pause. But the story has no title, no "argument" as chapter summaries used to be called: the assumption that this story tells us how human beings came to be sinners is exactly that, an assumption. If you’re wondering what else it might be about, let’s try doing something fundamentalists are always telling us to do: actually reading the Bible. In particular, note the tragic ambivalence of v7:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Maybe you zero in on that second clause. Nakedness has become shameful, in contrast to ch.2 v 25. Man and woman disobey God, guilt is the consequence. Agreed, but look at what else happens: their eyes are opened. They become aware - self conscious - enlightened. Even on the most hardline fundamentalist assumptions, a metaphor is being used here. Adam and Eve were not literally blind before. Now, here’s a challenge: find me an instance of this figure of speech being used pejoratively. Anywhere in world literature, that gives you plenty of scope. If eyes are opened that is categorically a good thing because awareness is better than absence of awareness almost by definition. Sight is better than blindness. Enlightement is better than ignorance. You might not like what you become aware of, but that’s different. Indeed, this is Adam and Eve’s tragedy and ours. They pass from a state of pre-conscious innocence into fully conscious self-awareness of which the immediate consequence is shame - but they then discover some basic craft skills, not previously required, and deal with the situation. They become resourceful. In this transition there is both loss and gain.

This story isn’t just about sin. It’s about what it takes to be human. "Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone" sang Joni Mitchell and that’s the story of Genesis 3: two people in paradise who didn’t know it was paradise until, by dint of doing the one thing that enabled them to realise, they got themselves kicked out. Ask yourself this: would you really want Eve NOT to have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Would you want a world in which people, like animals, don’t have moral concepts but just follow their instincts? And, pushing it further, do you really think God wanted Eve not to have eaten the forbidden fruit?

Joni Mitchell also sang "we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden", forgetting that its gates are barred by an angel with a flaming sword. On a literalist view of this I might ask if the sword ran on unleaded or diesel, if the angel’s arms didn’t ache, or why God didn’t stick up an electric fence and have done; reading the story sensibly, we can see what that angel represents. You can’t get your innocence back from the lost property office. But we don’t entirely want it back anyway: it’s called growing up.

In Stephen Sondheim’s magical Into the Woods various fairy-tale characters have a lot of growing up to do. Little Red Riding Hood is the first; delivered from the clutches of the wolf, she comes on stage for her big number. You need to see the show to get the full impact of this - and why in the name of all that’s holy haven’t you ? - but here’s a snatch:

So we wait in the dark
until someone sets us free
and we’re brought into the light
and we’re back at the start
and I know things now, many valuable things
that I hadn’t known before;
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you the way that they should
And take extra care with strangers
Even flowers have their dangers
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.
Now I know, don’t be scared
Granny was right, just be prepared...
Isn’t it nice to know a lot?
And a little bit .... not.

Little Red Riding Hood met her wolf and lost her innocence: in the garden of Eden, for wolf read snake. "Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit ... not" Adam and Eve might have said those very words to each other.


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