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The value of knowledge

Traditionally, the story that opens chapter three of Genesis is called ‘The Fall’. In the Christian tradition, both the name and the interpretation of the story associated with it were made canonical by Saint Augustine in the first decades of the fifth century AD, about fourteen hundred years after Genesis was written down. The interpretation, which derives essentially from Paul’s letter to the Romans, is as follows.

Before they ate the knowledge-giving fruit, Adam and Eve were, we are told in the last verse of chapter two, “naked and not ashamed”. (According to Augustine, their nakedness was not shameful for the odd reason, which has no basis in the Bible, that the physical signs of sexual arousal were until then under their voluntary control).

Satan, a fallen angel, envious of man’s innocent and non-fallen state, chose the serpent to “insinuate his persuasive guile into the mind of man” because “being slippery, and moving in tortuous windings, it was suitable for his purpose” (City of God, 14.11).

God had told Adam he would die if he ate the fruit, but Eve was persuaded by the serpent that the threat was empty, and that if she ate the fruit she would herself become like a god. Adam was not persuaded, but he yielded to Eve, “the husband to the wife, the one human being to the only other human being” (14.11).

This is the orthodox interpretation of the story in the Christian tradition, and the canonical interpretation in the Roman Catholic church. But it cannot be be right.

Augustine acknowledges that it may not be immediately obvious that Adam and Eve committed an act of “great wickedness” (14.12). But he insists that we should not think that the sin was a small and light one, because it was committed about food. On the contrary, “obedience is the mother and guardian of all the virtues”, and preferring to fulfil one’s own will, instead of the Creator’s, “is destruction” (14.12).

This is how Augustine summarizes his interpretation of the story: Adam and Eve committed such a great sin “that by it human nature was altered for the worse, and was transmitted also to their posterity, liable to sin and subject to death” (14.1).

This is the orthodox interpretation of the story in the Christian tradition, and the canonical interpretation in the Roman Catholic church. But it cannot be be right.

First, nakedness was not regarded as a sign of blissful innocence when the story was originally told and written down, but as primitive and animal-like. It is extraordinary that commentators continue to miss this point. For example, the Cambridge New Bible Commentary on Genesis glosses the last verse of Genesis 2: “Although they were ‘naked’ there was no shame in it.” But this is not what the verse says. It says, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and not ashamed”, which is of course quite different.

The Temptation and Fall of Eve (Illustration to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”) by William Blake. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Second, Satan is not mentioned in the story. He appears in Jewish writings about four centuries after Genesis was written down; and there, in Job for example, he is clearly subordinate to God and unable to act without his permission. He only emerges as an independent personality, and as the personification of evil, in the first century AD, and the earliest statement in Jewish writings that he was responsible for the Fall is at the end of the first century.

Third, as for the serpent himself, there is no indication in the text that he is wicked. He is described as “arum”, which means, crafty, shrewd or cunning—like the Greek word polymetis, which Homer uses as Odysseus’s epithet. What is clear is that he knows that the humans will not die upon eating the forbidden fruit, but will become “like Gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis, 3.5), as God himself acknowledges they have done: “’Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (3.22).

Fourth, the orthodox interpretation of the story ignores God’s lie. God says to Adam: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (2.17). The serpent says: “Ye shall not surely die” (3.4), which turns out to be true. Ever since Paul, commentators have finessed this point by reading “die” as “become mortal” or “become susceptible to eternal death”. But “die” is not used to mean these things anywhere else in the Hebrew scriptures. And besides, the creation story implies that Adam and Eve were mortal before they ate the fruit, because God expels Adam from the Garden of Eden to ensure that he will not become immortal, by eating from the tree of life (3.22-3).

Fifth, it cannot have been wicked or sinful on the part of Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, because when they ate it they did not yet know the difference between good and evil. Of course, they knew they were disobeying God. The story implies that this is something one can know without yet understanding evil, wickedness or sin. And no doubt this is correct. But disobedience in a state of moral innocence or ignorance, even deliberate disobedience—for example, by young children—is not evil, wicked or sinful, regardless of whom one disobeys.

Sixth, knowledge in general, and knowledge of good and evil in particular, are good for human beings. This has always been acknowledged as the greatest obstacle to regarding God’s commandment not to eat the fruit as just, as Milton explains in Book 9 of Paradise Lost, when the serpent advocates disobedience to Eve with consummate forensic skill.

For these reasons, it seems certain that the story was not originally meant to be about human sin and just punishment by a just God. Like the story of Prometheus, it is about a deceitful god who is jealous of human progress and visits the most terrible retribution on the man and woman who take the first perilous and defiant step towards civilized human life, and on the semi-divine character who helps them. In sum, it is the earliest affirmation in our culture of the value of knowledge for human beings, and its indispensible place in human life.

Recent Comments

  1. Ernesto A Pretto, Jr

    According to Genesis, God said to Adam: “on the day you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will surely die”. The message being disobeying God is tantamount to a death sentence. The statement Hyman is making is Adam and Eve did not die after they ate the fruit, hence God is a liar. And, knowledge is good no matter the source, hence the serpent is truth.
    Therefore, Hyman is attempting to recast God as wanting to deprive mankind of a good thing.

    However, who is telling the truth may be ‘buried’ deep within the scientific mystery of death, which only God knew at the time, and since then science now also understands better. The fact of the matter is that science now understands death not as an immediate event, but rather, a gradual process that takes a lifetime to complete.

    Prior to the fall Adam and Eve were themselves earthly biological beings who according to the Biblical narrative were immortal (read: may have been genetically programmed for immortality). Perhaps after ‘the fall’ a biological change happened, whereby the cells in their bodies were altered or genetically re-programmed for death (introduction of a death gene into the human genome or epigenome?). ‘Eating’ from the tree of life ensured their bodies would not begin to die.

    This may sound like science fiction but to believe Hyman is to believe God is the liar and Satan is the truth teller, a complete reversal of the Biblical intent.

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