A piece from Cartoon Kippah a couple of years ago
The following idea falls into the interesting category of ‘things which are obviously correct but I have no idea what they mean’ as well as the category of ‘fresh takes on things I thought I knew already’. I came across it last year in a book of essays by the philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, who is probably the most important Jewish thinker alive that no one has ever heard of. So allow me to share…
In chapter 2 of Bereishit (Genesis) God creates man and places him in a garden, gives him various instructions, allows him to name the animals, and finally notes that it is not good to be alone and so fashions Eve who will be for him his help mate, lover and partner. Thus chapter 2 ends. Chapter 3 features the story of the serpent’s temptation of Eve, the eating of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden. We have all read these stories a thousand times yet Wyschogrod picks up on a connection between the two chapters that I had never noticed before and which puts everything in a new light.
A careful look at the last verses of ch.2 reveals something interesting:
And the Lord God said: “It is not good for the human to be alone, I shall make him a sustainer beside him”. And the Lord God fashioned from the soil each beast of the field and each fowl of the heavens and brought each to the human to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name. And the human called names to all the cattle and to the fowl of the heavens and to all the beasts of the field, but for the human no sustainer beside him was found. And the Lord God cast a deep slumber on the human and he slept, and He took one of his ribs and closed over the flesh where it had been, and the Lord God built the rib He had taken from the human into a woman and He brought her to the human. And the human said:
This one at last, bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,
This one shall be called Woman, for from man was this one taken
Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they became one flesh. And the two of them were naked (arumim), the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.
Two things take place in these verses: God creates the animals and brings them to Adam to give them names and God creates woman from man to give him a partner to end his loneliness. Our natural instinct is to read these as two completely distinct events. Yet the text makes as clear as possible that there is only topic under discussion: finding the suitable partner for Adam. Note that the creation of the animals (v.19) occurs immediately after God has said that it is not good for man to be alone (v.18). This is not a changing of the topic, but a continuation of it: God seems to hope that Adam will find a suitable partner from the animal kingdom – yet, ‘no sustainer was found’, none of the animals were good enough for Adam. Only then does God fashion a creature from Adam himself and Adam’s positive response says very clearly that he has been on the dating scene for a while: This one at last! (v.23) – where all of God’s previous suggestions for Adam have failed, this time, the human finds favour in Adam’s eyes.
Despite how bizarre this interpretation may sound to us this is quite clearly the simple and correct reading of the text, as well as long established rabbinic and midrashic tradition. Rashi, quoting the Talmud in Yevamot, cites the midrash that Adam cohabited with all of the animals yet found none of them to match his tastes until Eve was created. As is often the way with midrash, it only makes colourfully explicit what is already implicit within the text.
At this point enter Michael Wyschogrod and his very simple question: what is the response of the animals at being spurned by Adam in favour of the human, Eve?! Are they to be expected to meekly celebrate with the happy couple or does their rejection mean that they will seek retribution? We only have to wait until the next verse to find out.
Now the serpent was most arum of all the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made and he said to the woman, ‘Though God said that you may not eat from any tree of the garden’… and the rest is history.
Arum is normally, and correctly, translated as cunning. The serpent is the most cunning of all the animals. But as is so often the problem with translation of Tanakh a single word obscures the multiple possible meanings of the Hebrew and rarely more so than in this case. If one follows in the Hebrew one is struck by the fact that the description of the serpent as arum, comes only a single verse after man and woman, now united in love, were described as arumim, or, naked.
If the serpent’s cunning explains the success of his mission, it is his nakedness which explains his motive. He, for some reason unknown to us, is the most hurt and incensed by Adam’s rejection of himself individually and the animals as a whole, and is the best placed to take revenge. This is precisely what he does, and it is the hurt of the animals, channelled through the serpent, that results in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden and into the brutal world. As Wyschogrod points out this reading also explains why the serpent approaches Eve rather than Adam with his malevolent plan. While the animals are also angry at Adam, their primary enemy is Eve who has replaced them in Adam’s affection and she must be made to pay.
To add a further point that Wyschogrod doesn’t make, when, at the end of chapter 3, the man names his wife Chava (Eve) because she is the mother of all that lives (chay), it is hard to ignore a word in Aramaic that sounds eerily similar to the name Adam gives her, chiva, which means of course, serpent.
This reading seems to me very compelling and we only usually miss it due to a) the sheer bizarreness of the idea and b) the fact that the later (Christian) chapter vision divides Adam’s taking of Eve and the plan of the serpent into separate chapters, thus breaking the narrative in two.
So what can this rereading of the most classic of stories mean? Wyschogrod suggests that:
For me, the most important lesson that emerges from all of this is a recognition of the proximity, from God’s perspective, of human beings and animals. However great the gulf may seem from the human perspective, from the perspective of God who is infinitely above both humans and animals, the gulf is not as absolute as it seems to humans… Humans and animals are both finite creatures and while, in the final analysis, only woman is the proper companion of man, animals are also companions though less than fully satisfactory ones. (Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, p109)
This idea is certainly an intriguing one and perhaps is the correct one, but for me the reading of the story itself is so powerful, that even a sophisticated interpretation of the meaning of it such as Wyschogrod’s appears to be a lessening of the awesome ambiguity of the story as a whole:
Mankind was expelled from paradise due to the jealousy of the animals, bitter at having been spurned in favour of woman as companions for man. Chew on that over your Friday night chicken.