Bible as Literature: Genesis 3 – The Price of Knowledge

This story is a direct continuation of Genesis 2. Once again we have a physical God who roams around the garden rather than a transcendental celestial God. However, God leaves the man and the woman (who are unnamed up to this point) to themselves and like little children they end up doing no good.

The serpent dares the woman to eat the fruit by challenging her: “Did God really say not to eat the fruit from that tree?” The snake convinces the woman that God’s threat of death is not true. The serpent is challenging her, daring her even. This scene challenges the idea that the Bible is foreign to our psychological make-up; sure, we might doubt the existence of talking snakes, although talking animals are pretty standard stuff in fables, but I’m sure most of us have seen a thousand stories in books, on television, in movies where some kid challenges another for being too chicken.

After the woman eats, the book describes that the tree “was desirable as a source of wisdom.” With knowledge comes shame and the realization that they’re naked, which never seemed to bother them before, but now they seek to cover themselves. It is through the attempt to cover themselves that God learns of their disobedience and kicks them out of the garden.

Often in more traditional religious interpretations, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is presented as granting moral knowledge and thus giving humanity the capacity to choose right from wrong. Sometimes this is coupled with the idea of Original Sin, which presents a philosophical problem: can Adam and Eve be held accountable if they had no knowledge of good and evil? From the answer of Ancient Israelite culture and Ancient culture in general the answer seems to be: yes! Leviticus, especially, suggests that a person may be guilty of a sin and need to offer a sin-offering, even if they didn’t sin on purpose (they lacked intention); likewise, Greek Tragedies like Oedipus suggest that despite marrying his mother in ignorance and unwittingly killing his father he still must face the consequences as a scapegoat in order to lift the plague the gods have inflicted on Thebes. Sins (a kind of personal pollution) are a matter of actions, even when unwittingly performed, not individualistic intentions or motivations; this is fundamentally different than our modern worldview.

We need not rely on traditional religious approaches in trying to interpret this textual feature. The very name of the tree of good and evil screams symbolism. Recognizing the literary technique suggests that the tree of knowledge is not only a tree of moral knowledge, but a tree of ALL types of knowledge. The “good and evil” part of the tree of knowledge is a merism, a literary technique found throughout the bible in which two contrasting words stand-in for an broader concept, usually by including everything in between the two concepts. The man and the woman don’t only learn about good and evil, but everything in between, hence why it is “a source of wisdom.” The purpose of the tree and story is to explore the price of knowledge.

Adam and Eve gain knowledge, but they lose their innocence in the process. Before they were ignorant, but once they ate of the fruit, “the eyes of both of them were open.” They are embarrassed by their nakedness, which never bothered them before. Indeed, God recognizes that they ate the fruit simply by the response the man gives that he is naked (the third time this detail is repeated). Genesis 2 also explicitly mentions to the reader that they were naked. So embarrassment is a new emotion for them. This can be read symbolically in the sense that the acquisition of knowledge makes us realize how “naked” (i.e. ignorant) we were before.

It would be easy to mischaracterize the moral as knowledge is bad. The real point is that knowledge comes at a price. Other myths from Mesopotamia, such as the myth in which Inanna steals the me (the arts of civilization; pronounced, May) from the god of wisdom, Enki, makes a somewhat similar point. The me from that tale is very similar to the wisdom of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In the Mesopotamian myth, Inanna steals the me from Enki by getting him drunk on beer. Of course to create beer in the first place you need the knowledge of the me, the arts of civilization, but beer also makes you temporarily lose your senses and do things you wouldn’t normally do and ultimately leads him to give up his treasured prize. The me embodies a paradox. Civilization and its products define us as human and different than most the animal kingdom, it is the special quality that humans possess, but its products (alcohol in this case) also causes us much grief and creates many new problems. The same basic idea is being expressed in Genesis 3. Knowledge comes at a price: loss of innocence and blissful ignorance. Knowledge means we have grown up.

People often claim God curses the man, the woman, and the serpent. However, a close reading of the text shows that the only one of the three he actually curses is the serpent. Like the Greek myth about Arachne which explains the origin of spiders, this tale serves as an etiological myth explaining why serpents crawl on their bellies, and why serpents and humans have animosity for each other. Serpents would have been dangerous creatures in the ancient Israelite world and a constant plague for farmers and shepherds; this story attempts to explain why they attack humans.

Returning back to the punishments, the snake is not the only one who faces God’s wrath. While God curses the snake directly, for the man he only curses the ground.

To the man He said: “Cursed be the ground because of you;
by toil shall you eat of it
All the days of your life:
Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you.
But your food shall be the grasses of the field;
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground–
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:17

In a sense, the only consequence is that God is kicking them out of the Garden where everything grows with ease. If man wants to eat and survive he will have to struggle and use his new found knowledge. Man’s knowledge comes at a price, now he must use that knowledge to survive the harsh world outside this Utopian garden. Like any cosmological story, it is trying to explain the order of things, in this case, as seen from the ancient Israelite perspective. One can picture the ancient storytellers trying to address a fundamental question for them: Why is the world so harsh and difficult? Why do we have civilizations and cultures while other animals do not? This story was their answer to these questions. We can have Utopia or we can have knowledge, but God won’t allow us to have both. Knowledge is the tool needed for facing the real world and allows for the innovation needed for survival; Utopian gardens cannot survive the coming of knowledge because the ability to innovate removes the possibility of keeping things static and thus everlasting. The man is leaving the Utopian fantasy of the Israelites and entering a land that resembled the real world in which they occupied, a tough daily life of getting infertile land to bloom.

And to the woman He said, “I will make most severe
Your pangs in childbearing;
In pain shall you bear children.
Yet your urge shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” – Genesis 3:16

Yet another infamous line abused by fundamentalist Christians to justify misogyny and often times cited by critics of the bible to “prove” the backwardness of its ideas. However, in my reading of Genesis 2 the text is actually presenting the man and woman as equals. If I am correct about my earlier suggestion that Genesis 2 and 3 probably were once a single story separated artificially at a later date, there is even more justification to support this reading as it is rather unlikely that the author(s) had a sudden change of heart in the middle of his or her own story.

Feminist scholar Carol Meyers provides a softer translation of Genesis 3:16:

“I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies; along with work you shall give birth to children.”

Translating the lines this way gives a very different picture of what is actually being said. This also goes to show how meaning, connotations, and tone can drastically shift depending on the translation of a single passage (2). The original translation suggests that women could originally give birth without pain, but now God is going to make them suffer as a punishment. However, the text if rendered along the lines of Carol Meyers’ translation, which many scholars support as being more accurate than the traditional English rendering, is instead describing the actual state of the world for the Israelites where women have to work a double-shift for the sake of survival (and notice how this fits in better with the man’s punishment); they must produce babies and help harvest the food (3). In fact, the woman’s punishment is the same as the man’s. Basically God is telling her, your work is going to get a lot harder once I kick you out of this lush garden and since women have the babies it will be ten times harder for you still because here in the Garden if you got pregnant the land is so fertile the man could have done all the work, while you rested, but now that you are getting kicked out into the real world you won’t have that advantage.

God isn’t going out of his way to punish women more than men as the original translation implies. This isn’t an additional punishment because God hates women, but instead it’s a description of the natural consequences of what will happen when they are kicked out of the garden and must replace the fertile environment that they have thus far known, which required minimal work to produce fruit, with a desert environment that requires a lot of work in order to survive.

As far as the line “Yet your urge shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you” goes, this line seems to be about sexual desire. When they say “he shall rule over you” I understand this line to mean he shall rule over your desires, and not in the sense that he will order his wife around and she must be obedient to him in everything he says. The line connects with the earlier description of pregnancies and hard work in that despite the potential negative consequences it could mean to the woman, she will still have sexual desire for her husband; to put it another way, their own libido will betray them. One needs to remember this is an age before modern medical technology, this is an age where pregnancy often meant death for women, but despite that they will still have sexual desire for their husbands. Even though it will mean more work for her, even though it might mean her death, her own desire will lead her to want to copulate with her husband and have babies.

Whether you think these ideas are still sexist or not, this reading is an improvement from the literalist reading of the lines as a straight forward “women should listen and obey men. Period.” When we consider the reading I just put forward, I think the text is far more egalitarian than modern audiences tend to give it credit. At the same time, this is clearly a far cry from our modern ideas of feminism.

Ultimately, while not a perfect text, I do think the text strives for a certain amount of equality between the man and the woman. The most poignant moment of the text occurs at the end. In the end, Eve is the first named character in the Bible. It’s not the man who is first named, but women. What about Adam? As I already covered Adam simply is a Hebrew word for man, and it is only tradition that renders this as his actual name. The woman, on the other hand, is actually named: Eve, the mother of all living.

Now we are left to address what motives God might have for preventing them from eating the fruit, a question that has perplexed theologians and readers for centuries. The text states that God is afraid the human beings will transform themselves into divine beings. There is a throwaway line about a tree of life also existing somewhere in the Garden, a common motif in Ancient Near Eastern Mythology. This again functions as a symbol; I don’t think from the author’s perspective we are supposed to really believe God is scared humans will eat this fruit and become his equal, but rather the Ancient Israelites were more interested in the symbolism and what it states about the nature of man in relationship to God. By having both a tree of knowledge and a tree of life that God fears humans will eat and become like a divine being, the text is symbolically describing exactly what separates us from God. God has wisdom and immortality; humans have only wisdom. If the tree of knowledge is a symbol to show what separates humans from animals (our rational capacity and wisdom, which allows us to create culture and civilizations); when read in this light, the tree of life is there to explain what separates humans from God (our lack of immortality and thus eventual death). This in turn sets the larger conflict of Genesis: the relationship between God and humans and its boundaries.

1) The original manuscripts of the Bible did not contain chapters and verses. We owe our modern divisions of the Bible to Stephen Langton.

2) That applies to all literature, not just the Bible.

3) I have yet to read a scholarly book that mentions Genesis 3 or listen to a lecture on the topic that doesn’t mention Carol Meyers’ translation. This rendering of the passage is widely accepted as an accurate and often better translation in the Biblical Studies field.


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