The fall in Genesis
The Fall in Genesis 3:1-24
The most striking aspect of the story of the fall of mankind in Genesis is that God proves to be wrong and the serpent right. Eve tells him that God has forbidden herself and Adam to eat of the tree of knowledge and if they do they will die. But when they do eat of the forbidden fruit as the serpent advises they don’t die. How are we to explain this? We need to understand the passage in the context of mythical narratives that often accompanied initiation rituals in the primitive world. This is an initiation account. We see the serpent as essentially evil. But Genesis doesn’t say this. It describes him as cunning and crafty. Generally in myths cunning is seen as a desirable quality and the trickster is a frequent figure who is presented with sympathy if not admiration. Logi the fire god in Wagner’s Ring is a good example and Odysseus in Homer another. The serpent also speaks. I seem to remember from Joseph Campbell that serpents were often seen as the genii of temples, the guardians of the threshold, most important personages. There were no other speaking creatures in the garden, indeed Genesis points out that the creatures only had names because Adam named them. They couldn’t name themselves. So to have language the serpent must have been some sort of a god, the “one of us” that is mentioned in a later verse. At this early point in theological evolution, in the strata of more primitive theologies that have survived into this story, Yahweh is only the most prominent of many gods, the concept of monotheism is still distant. True, the actual text we have is almost the latest part of the Bible to have been written but the story of the fall is embedded in much older material.
The point of initiation in the ancient world was usually to break the bond between a boy and his mother that hitherto had been the core of his emotional life, through forcing the boy to commit a ritual obscenity that abrogated all his previous moral values and thus transferred his deepest emotional allegiance to the male group. In Homo Necans Walter Burkert notes how often in the Greek annual founding rituals that celebrated the origin of the city or the polis an animal is sacrificed, but the accompanying myth indicates that originally the sacrifice had been that of a young woman. He traces this theme back to the paleolithic caves. In the animal world males fight for the right to mate with females that have come into season in order to pass on their genes at the expense of other males of the species. Sometimes these combats are fights to the death but more often they are brought to an end by appeasement rituals. This is an instinct so strong it will even over-ride aggression in the heat of a fight. The losing participant meekly submits and recognizes the superiority of the winner. Losing wolves, for example, roll over to expose their underbelly to their erstwhile opponent, who then urinates over his recent foe in the most friendly manner. Aggression is transformed into a bond of friendship. Burkert speculates that the price human beings paid for the development of reason and self-consciousness – an extraordinarily swift development over six million years only and a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms – was a drastic weakening of instinct, including the appeasement instinct that prevents the males of a species wiping each other out entirely. And, indeed, human beings are unique in their practice of intra-specific aggression. It therefore became imperative that a substitute be found for the appeasement instinct, and this could only be through culture. Burkert thinks, if I have read him rightly, that in the ice age caves paleolithic males practised group killing of the most desirable young female available. If one male cannot have her then none shall. It is a heinous obscenity, the deliberate destruction of what had been so desirable and so beautiful. The sexual drive is converted into a guilt bond, what had previously divided now unites. I think Burkert must be right about this. How else do we explain the remarkable extent to which human males wage war on each other, the adhesive bonding of the male group, and the humiliation, persecution and sometimes killing of women by bonded males that is found in many cultures.
A striking account of this ritual defilement of what had previously been held most sacred in order to break down the personality as a preliminary to re-moulding it, is given us by Bruno Bettelheim. When the Nazis marched into Vienna in 1938 many Jews, including him, were rounded up and despatched to Dachau. On the railway journey the victims were forced to blaspheme against their religion and utter the most disgusting and spiteful denunciations of their wives. An essential preliminary to the re-making of the personality is to be made to feel disgust with yourself. Burkert gives a similar example of ritual defilement from Arcadia in ancient Greece. Arcadia belonged to Apollo who we see as the god of song and beauty, but he was also a wolf god, Apollo Lupus, and Arcadia was the land of the wolf. In initiation rituals the neophytes were forced to eat what they were told was human flesh, and only afterwards was it revealed that they had been deceived, and actually they had eaten a dish of wolves’ meat. Deliberate deception is a regular part of initiation practices. Mircea Eliade draws our attention to aboriginal Australian initiation rites in which the initiands are imprisoned in a hut and an elder whirls round a bull roarer to make a frightening and unearthly sound and they are told a demon is coming out of the forest to devour them. Another example of ritual defilement is found in the ancient Athenian custom of sexual intercourse between a beautiful young man, the eromenos, and an older man, the erastes. The intercourse was crural, that is the man inserted his penis between the boy’s thighs. There are vase paintings of the eromenos looking bored into the distance while the erastes bends his knees in order to perform the act in a hilariously undignified position. It was sexual abuse. The semen dribbling down between your legs while this man you probably didn’t know breathed lust all over you must have been quite disgusting, and destructive of any romantic inclinations you might have. Greek literature is strikingly lacking in fables of men giving their whole hearts to women.
The point of initiation is to wrest the boy away from the innocent and tender world of women in order to make him into a hard and pitiless warrior. Gilbert Herdt tells us in The Guardians of the Flutes that an essential part of initiation rituals in New Guinea is fellatio in which the boys are forced to ingest the semen of older men. The rites are held in extreme secrecy and on no account are their secrets to be revealed to women. It is a long time since I read The Guardians of the Flutes but I seem to remember that In fact the women know all about these secrets and laugh at the ridiculous posturing of men as women do the world over. But I may have dreamt that. The rituals are accompanied by mythical narratives which are now recited with dire threats of condign punishment if they are ever revealed to the women. The myths tell how a long time ago mens’ magic was stolen by the women and it is now the duty of the men to wrest back these primal gifts. All the world’s woes originate with women. It is explained that the ingested mens’ semen is the true mother’s milk. As the mother’s milk had been the life-giving fluid, the conduit, of the boy’s love for his mother, so the semen now binds the boy indissolubly to the male group. Of course, the Genesis story differs from these accounts in significant ways, not least that we do not have two male initiands but a male and a female. But I hope to be able to show that there are nevertheless many points of contact that shed light on the passage in Genesis.
As in the initiation myths the candidates are tricked. They are tricked as in the pagan myths into committing a ritual obscenity. The serpent says to Eve that he hears God has forbidden the happy two to eat of any of the trees of the garden, which he must have known was a lie. How else could they have lived? So he acts the simpleton. But as politicians have long discovered, the human capacity to be fooled with a bit of flattery – well goodness me how wise you are, I didn’t realise that – is depthless. An alarmed Lord God says at the end of the passage that they’ll be eating of the tree of life next and live for ever. But of the two trees Eve says specifically that God has forbidden them only not to eat of the tree of knowledge. They were already eating of the tree of life and God must have known that. But not having yet eaten of the tree of knowledge they didn’t yet know they were going to live for ever. As in the initiation myths woman is revealed as the source of all mens’ woes. Medieval theologians, who misinterpreted this passage on a grand scale, are full of women beware women. According to The Hammer of the Witches published in 1485 and commissioned by the Papacy woman “always deceives, she is an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a desirable calamity, an evil of nature”. In the story sexuality is presented as disgusting and shameful. They realised they were naked and hid themselves. In the initiations myths sex is regularly presented in a disgusting form. But come on board, share our disgust. Initiation makes you “one of us”.
Yet for all these fragments of the pagan initiation myths that survive into the story this account is deeply subversive of them. Far from regarding Eve as “a desirable calamity, an evil of nature”, only at the end of the previous chapter had Adam cried out with ecstatic joy when he first saw her. She is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. She is not only my equal she is part of me. There is no hint of patriarchal chauvinism, that was read into the story by the later theologians. Adam eats the apple not because Eve tricks him, although later he will try to make out that that was the case, but because they do everything together. She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. The god who is alarmed because the initiation has gone wrong – they will eat of the tree of life they will disinherit us – is not Yahweh but an anachronistic survival, the chief god of the old pagan stable of gods, Zeus, Baal. Yahweh doesn’t come into the garden accompanied by a train of other gods, as is always the case in the pagan pantheons, but on his own. He treats them not as a tyrannical judge but as a kindly father. The husband shall rule over the woman but it is with a grievous sense of loss – the bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. He solicitously makes clothes for them, woman’s work. In the stock initiation accounts the initiation brings benefits, a coming home to the male group, a sense of belonging. But here it brings exile and hardship. We read the curses, the pain in childbirth, the toiling amongst the thorns and thistles, as punishments. But Yahweh doesn’t say they are punishments. It is “because you have done this”. He knew what he was doing from the very beginning. Did he send the serpent to snare them into it? Could it be that the hard road is in the end the better and Yahweh knew that? Can we really believe that this master story teller didn’t realise that the emotions of his audience wouldn’t be on the side of the king of the gods who cried out in alarm put down the rebellion next thing they’ll be eating of the tree of life and living for ever, but on the side of the miscreants who set out on the journey into the world together. Yahweh always knew that they would live for ever because they had already eaten of the tree of life. But they didn’t know that they would. Is it better to know than not to know, whatever the cost? He doesn’t close Eden down but sets an angel with a flaming sword to guard it. We read it as meaning he meant to keep them out. But it could equally mean to keep it safe for them because one day, one distant day after so many adventures which he will be so interested to hear about, they will return.