This continues Brother Kieran Fenn’s analysis of the Genesis story of ‘our first parents’. Part One was published in the April issue of Wel-com.
Kieran Fenn fms
Whether humanity began with one or many sets of parents is partly a scientific issue; therefore, when speaking from a religious point of view we should be slow to align ourselves too firmly with one or other scientific position since neither is conclusively proved.
The Adam and Eve story asserts that, whether there was one or more sets of parents, they were all created by God – God breathed into them the breath of life, creating them good and not evil. The basic flaw, a tendency towards the wrong that goes beyond our personal sins, is part of the corruption that human beings are born into, the sinful world at our origin. The Adam and Eve account, along with the remaining chapters up to Abraham, is unsurpassable as an account of the origin of sin.
Let us be quite clear. At the beginning of last century there was a very literal approach to certain parts of the Genesis story; the existence of Adam and Eve, the appearance of the devil in the form of a snake, though how this was reconciled with ‘one of the good creatures God made’ at the time of the tempting, I can only wonder. We were told that we had to accept that woman was made from man and all human beings were descended from that first set of parents.
Look more deeply
In 1955 the secretary of the Roman Pontifical Biblical Commission announced that Catholics now had ‘complete freedom’ with regard to those earlier responses of the commission, except where they touched faith and morals. This had been preceded by Pius XII’s groundbreaking encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu which encouraged us to look more deeply into the literary forms and purpose in these biblical accounts.
Let’s investigate the meaning a little more closely. When God considers a companion (be suspicious of such terms as ‘helpmate’) there is a purpose of complementarity not subservience. The Hebrew term is ’ezer, and in Exodus 18:4 God is named as the ’ezer of Israel, hardly denoting subservience!
‘I will make a companion corresponding to the earth creature.’ This takes place during sleep for to create is the secret of God. In creating the woman, God took a bone from the side to place the woman at the side of the man; she is on the same level as he is, with the same dignity to be accorded her. In a patriarchal society this would have been a wonderfully challenging picture.
The fascinating little saying at the end, that they were both naked and not ashamed is most certainly not an indication that original sin had anything to do with sex. Again we have to look for the meaning involved.
The journey in life from the innocent nakedness of children to the embarrassment of puberty is a human growth pattern. And this is sometimes accompanied by the reaching of the age of reason, of consciousness of good and evil.
I like the saying that ‘nakedness with intimacy is a beautiful thing; nakedness without intimacy is its opposite’. But deeper issues are involved here, too.
When the prophets of Israel railed against the greedy exploiters of the poor, who took away the land and houses of the vulnerable widow and orphan, their punishment would fit their crime. Those who stripped away the possessions of the vulnerable would themselves be led away naked and chained together to go into captivity. They have this in common with Adam and Eve – the situation of garden or the city had defeated them; they have failed to live up to their dignity and call to create a just and caring society.
Another delightful touch is the word play involved. There is a very clever Hebrew pun underlying the terms ‘naked’ (‘arummim) and the serpent as ‘cunning’ or sly (‘arum). The nearest we can get to the pun in English is that the serpent promised Adam and Eve that if they ate the fruit they would become ‘shrewd’, but when their eyes are opened, their first realisation is that they are ‘nude’; shrewd/nude – big deal! They should never have let a serpent tell them what to do!
Images at odds
A fascinating feature of chapter 3 is the dialogue between the woman and the serpent. It is all God-talk, what we call theology. Where is Adam in all this? Some artists paint him as innocently asleep under a tree while all the action is going on.
They have not read the text closely enough. They have not read 3:6 which tells us clearly ‘she gave some to her husband who was with her’, strangely silent throughout, coming to speech only to blame God for the predicament: ‘The woman you gave to be with me’, and then the woman herself, ‘she gave me fruit from the tree’ (3:12). At least she put the blame on the serpent rather than her husband!
The story concludes with an ambiguous scene, the naming of the woman as ‘Eve’, zwh, ‘mother of life’. The ambiguity lies in the patriarchal action of naming her, for the only other naming was asserting the superiority of the human over the named animals. Is the first sin after the fall one of patriarchy, the last great dichotomy that Galatians 3:28 calls all baptised Christians to end (Jew/Gentile; slave/free; male/female)?
But is the naming also an expression of hope in the face of death? And Adam, told that on the day you eat the fruit you shall die (2:17), lives to be 930 years of age (5:5). Clearly the death that results from sin is death to the presence of God in the good garden. The entire account is one of love gone astray, between God and humanity and between the man and the woman. Indeed, sin at our origins!