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A Literary Interpretation of the “Fall of Man” Story in Genesis 3

By: Daniel Colbert

John Milton was sufficiently impressed with the second story of creation and the story of the “Fall of Man”, respectively depicted in Genesis 2 and 3, that he was moved to elaborate them in Paradise Lost, generally regarded as the greatest epic poem in the English language.  Though I lack the creative genius of Milton, these stories have also fired my imagination. The essay that follows reflects my understanding of these extraordinary stories through the lens of literary reading, i.e., setting down the baggage that comes from reading the texts as sacred and instead engaging with them as literature, as suggested by the literary critic Harold Bloom in his “The Book of J.”

Christians understand the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil as the “original sin” from which mankind must later be saved; i.e., for Christians, Genesis 3 is the story of how sin entered the world (the import and meaning of which is unclear, unless it’s simply the rather reductive point about disobeying God — who lied to Adam first, in any event!).  Jewish interpretation appears to be — though I am no biblical scholar — that these chapters account for the suffering of mankind — the banishment of Adam and Eve from Eden being the original example — in retribution for their defiance of Yahweh’s injunction against eating the forbidden fruit.  Part of Yahweh’s making man in his image is the bestowal on man of free will (which circumstance Milton centers his poem on): Will, after all, is Yahweh’s most salient characteristic.  Thus, man is free to choose to act even in ways that redound to his detriment, as is the case here with their expulsion from Paradise.

The Jewish interpretation seems to me a cogent allegorical understanding, much preferred to the fanciful and arbitrary Christian interpretation, though I think both betray  misreadings.  The Christian misreading is strong (in Bloom’s sense, meaning it is a wholesale reinvention of the author’s intention) — in fact, perhaps the strongest and most consequential misreading of any literature ever, yielding a worldwide cultural impact that cannot be measured.  The Jewish one is a rather weaker misreading that I will comment on below.  The corrective to these misreadings, I believe, is to read the chapters not as sacred text, but as literature, ascribing to the Yahwist writer (“J”) as powerful a literary imagination as has ever existed, on a level, as Bloom suggests, with Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.

The principal author of the book of Genesis (and much of Exodus, along with bits of Numbers) is referred to as “J”, about whom personally almost nothing is known (but much speculated).  He or she wrote this text in the 10th century BCE, just before the start of what is now known as “The Axial Age.”  This is the period between roughly 800 and 200 BCE when religious and philosophical writing in far-flung locations turned from simply propitiating deities to a more transcendent discussion of the spiritual meaning of deities, especially as they relate to humans.  It seems a serious error to omit the writings of J from the Axial Age, so I humbly suggest that its start should be marked at least as early as the J writer, moving it back one or two hundred years.

The principal element of most literary readings — and certainly of the Yahwist writer, “J” — is irony, as Bloom elaborates in his “The Book of J”, which submits J’s writing to standard literary critique.  I attempt a similar analysis here; it differs from Bloom’s, though I am in strong accord with him that J is a writer of immense imagination and a master in the use of irony to express deep meaning.  I have not discovered the interpretation that follows elsewhere — which perhaps counts as circumstantial evidence that it is wrong! — though I would not be surprised to find others have offered it, or something similar.

The essence of the Fall of Man story in Genesis 3 is that Yahweh forbids Adam (and later, Eve) to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  If they do, they will die: “the moment you eat of it, you are surely doomed to die” (Genesis 2:17). Eve, tempted by the serpent, eats the fruit — and — surprise! — she doesn’t die!  She then convinces Adam to eat it, and immediately, their eyes open to the fact that they are naked, and they cover themselves with sewn fig-leaves. They hide from Yahweh out of shame of their nakedness. When Yahweh finds them, he asks how they even knew they were naked, and upon hearing their confession, proceeds to expel them from Eden, along with other retributive punishments.

I begin my interpretation by noting how striking it is that the very first thing they knew with their newly opened eyes was that they were naked.  This is surely a powerful metaphor for vulnerability.  Vulnerability to what?  For a great ironist, what else than to death itself?  In Genesis 2:17, Yahweh tells Adam that if he eats from the forbidden tree, “you are surely doomed to die.”  Interestingly — and beautifully, from a literary perspective — the serpent redoubles the irony of Yahweh’s threat to persuade Eve to eat the fruit, saying, “you certainly will not die” (3:4).  I say that Yahweh’s threat is ironic because — and this is the center of my interpretation — what his threat really means is not that they will actually die (even if sometime later they will), but rather that eating the fruit will make them aware of their mortality (which, it’s reasonable to assume, though not necessary to this understanding, was there all along; see below).

In fact, the serpent’s brilliance goes even further than exploiting for his own purpose the more literal interpretation of Yahweh’s threat to convince Eve to eat the fruit.  Eve herself uses the point — it’s now become a meme! — to convince Adam also to eat (“see — I’m not dead!”).  It is my contention that such use of irony cannot be accidental, so that this is unlikely to be even a weak misreading.  This is a great story-teller who had to have understood her/his ironies — likely better than we are ever likely to understand their full scope.

The absence of any evidence that Adam and Eve were immortal prior to the eating of the fruit supports the reading of Yahweh’s threat as meaning that they will become aware of their mortality, rather than that they “will surely die,” since they were going to die at some point all along.  Thus, I see the story as an allegory of when humans first gained consciousness of their mortality, that they will someday die.  Could there be a more existential, universe-shattering moment for any being?  We can quibble about other primates’, elephants’, and whales’ degree of awareness of death (which does seem to be a matter of degree), but it seems clear that in this regard — for better or for worse — humans have a qualitative difference from all other animals.  Relating the process of such consciousness-dawning via a story that distills into a single bolt of lightning (consuming the forbidden fruit) is precisely what great story-tellers do, which again supports a literary reading of the text.

An aside:  The use of the word “fruit” as a metaphor for “consequences flowing from” must be very ancient, almost certainly substantially predating J’s writing. Thus, we see an additional example of J’s majestic power of ironic imagination at play in the story with the ironic use of fruit at the center.

With this understanding, is it any wonder why this story of the Fall of Man is so proximate to the creation story itself?  We have merely 15 verses of Chapter 2 of Genesis (which provides the “Second Story of Creation”, provided by J) before Yahweh’s prohibition against eating the fruit.  I see this close proximity as support for understanding the event of “opening our little peephole” (as Kurt Vonnegut describes our dawning consciousness) as a cosmic one.  After a description of the creation of the cosmos and man, what could be of greater cosmic import and imaginative fodder than telling the story of man’s unique consciousness:  Specifically and most ponderously, awareness of our mortality?  As Cormac McCarthy said, “death is the major issue in the world… To not be able to talk about it is very odd.”  Great writers take up this matter.

Parenthetically, it seems to me that telling the story of this cataclysmic awakening also motivates the remainder of the Jewish sacred texts.  After all, the word torah means “law”.  Animals don’t need laws — they go about their eating, reproducing, and social interactions in (relatively) complete ignorance of their eventual demise.  (And with a wholeness with the universe that we have lost — perhaps seen by J, in another majestic layer of irony, as the true “Fall of Man”.)  However, saddled with this knowledge, we need laws of behavior if we want to live in anything other than chaos.  (See, for example, Wells’ “Animal Farm.”)  Eden really was Paradise before we became aware of death. A secondary message of the story appears to be that ignorance really is bliss.

I have neglected discussing one item that must now be confronted:  The forgoing would do if the forbidden tree were simply called “The Tree of Knowledge.”  But it isn’t; it’s called “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad [or Evil].”  We must therefore account, within this interpretation, for this good and bad part.  Fortunately, it’s rather easy to do, and actually adds to the richness of the proposed interpretation.

From Wikipedia:

The phrase in Hebrew, טוֹב וָרָע (“tov wa-raʿ”) literally translates as “good and evil”. This may be an example of the type of figure of speech known as merism, a literary device that pairs opposite terms together in order to create a general meaning, so that the phrase “good and evil” would simply imply “everything”. This is seen in the Egyptian expression “evil-good”, which is normally employed to mean “everything”. However, if “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is to be understood to mean a tree whose fruit imparts knowledge of everything, this phrase does not necessarily denote a moral concept. [Emphasis added]

If this is correct — which it appears most scholars agree it is  — then it’s “The Tree of Knowledge — of Everything,” which might as well be — with a crucial difference described below — simply “The Tree of Knowledge.”  This adds strong support to the foregoing interpretation of the story by explaining that our “little peephole” has not only been opened to our ultimate mortality, but to all sorts of things about the world around us (without quibbling on the extent; surely, there is still infinite space into which our consciousness can yet expand).  Thus, the Fall of Man story is not just about gaining awareness of death, but about awareness writ large.  We can compare this with what else was going on in the Axial Age:  Buddhism, just a few hundred years after J was writing, is all about awareness.  Analogous transcendental writings were appearing in other parts of the world.  Humans were awakening to their awakened state.  Again, once it’s in the mind of someone who sees a bit ahead of others (such as J), how could a person with such insight choose not to write about it?

Bloom writes, “Dividing consciousness is the knowledge of death; I do not hear threat or punishment in this, but rather a statement of the reality principle, or the way things are.”  I couldn’t agree more, though I think that Bloom oddly shies away from drawing the full logical conclusion to his own understanding, as he construes the story as merely being about the end of childhood.  We will never know what J was working to communicate, but isn’t it prettier to suppose the grander intention?

There’s another aspect of the “Good and Bad” bit that further enriches this interpretation:  The introduction of dualistic thinking.  Again, animals don’t judge in their ignorance.  I contend that the most elemental instance in humans’ nature of seeing the world in dualistic perspectives is the awareness of death.  What’s a more fundamental duality than life/death?  (Note that Yahweh invented the idea of dualism by planting separate trees of Life and Death.) Next up in the dualism hierarchy:  Distinction between good and bad.  In a survival sense, we categorize all action and thought on this scale.  I suppose that animals do, too, in some sense, but we extend the use of the good/bad scale light-years beyond what’s needed for immediate survival purposes.  This extension is partly an attempt to avoid chaos, but we also use the measuring stick of dualism to ascribe meaning to our lives, rightly or wrongly.

Once again, Buddhism is deeply concerned with dualistic thinking, ascribing to it a large share of our suffering.  So, perhaps a better way of understanding this part of the allegory is not that eating of the tree (and our subsequent awakening) is our original sin, but rather that it explains the origin of our suffering.  In this sense, the normative Jewish understanding has it right, though I would argue it does so in some measure accidentally, as it misses (to my scanty knowledge) the essential connective literary element of the eating of the forbidden fruit as the moment we gained awareness of our mortality — a moment about which I can’t help but suppose that J at the very least feels deeply ambivalent, and perhaps truly remorseful.


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