I’ve decided to start putting up my old divrei torah up on this website just for ease of access and so that I have at least a kind of head start on this blog being productive. I’m going to still try to write new ones every week, but this will at least give me something.
Here’s one I wrote in 2012:
There are very few things that seem to make sense about Chapter Three of Bereishis, also known as “the one with the snake, the apple (not really an apple, btw), and Chava”. For one, there is a talking snake. Additonally, there is a command to not eat from a certain tree. No justification is given for this command. Then this talking snake, for some reason, really wants Chava to eat from this tree, which brings us to a very unhappy conclusion. What is going on here?
First of all, it must first be established that it is very doubtful that the Torah here means to bring us historical fact, for a number of reasons. The talking snake is one. The pains taken to describe a location that does not exist is another. The description of a reality fundamentally different from ours, and how our reality came to be. Point is, there are a lot of elements that convey to us that this is to be read as a mythical account,not “myth” as in lie”, but as a story talking about fundamental human truths, rather than just a story about why snakes don’t have legs.
What would be the purpose of this kind of mythical story being put into the Torah in this fashion? The theory goes that the Jews receiving the Torah at Har Sinai were no doubt familiar with the pagan myths of creation that existed in the culture around them. Thus, in order to show the fundamental differences between the pagan religions around them and the new religion they had now accepted upon themselves, some of the stories in the Torah are put into a mythical format, while making fundamental changes that show the Jewish perspective over the pagan perspective. One famous instance is comparing the account of the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh with that in parshas Noach. Whereas the gods bring the flood upon humanity in Gilgamesh because humankind has become an annoying, overpopulous, noisy, neighbor, the Torah attributes the flood to man’s moral corruptness. In fact, the pesukim seem to take great care to point out that a population boom is not to be blamed here. Perek 6, Passuk 5, states that “G-d saw that mankind’s wickedness had multiplied on the earth,” specifically inserting “wickedness” there to show it is not due to mankind’s reproductivity, but due to their evil, that the floodwaters come.
Now that we have that idea, how can we apply it to understand the whole tree episode? I don’t know if the following works at all, but its an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a couple of days, so here it is. I want to focus on two aspects that we see frequently in pagan creation myths that relate to our story. The first is where the Gods and man originate. In both of the creation stories given to us in this parsha, there is no origin story given to God. God is merely taken as a fact from the very beginning, quite literally in this instance. In pagan creation stories, this is not so. There is no creator, or originator of all that exists. Rather, the Gods just emerge from this primordial “stuff”, and usually start fighting right after that. There is no God that creates the other Gods, or is in of itself superior to any of the other Gods, which is why they have to start fighting for supremacy. This makes sense, as pagan gods were based on the forces of nature, and there are no forces in nature that are necessarily superior to any other, a sense likely magnified by the lack of technological sophistication of that age. The rain does not just decide, “Okay, I’m going to fall now, I don’t care what anyone else has to say about it”. This explains why there are all these fertitlity rituals. You have to give the fertility gods the strength to fight off the powers of drought and famine. There is no god that transcends the very concepts of space and time and nature, and can make his own decisions uncontested.
Man usually ends up being created, as an afterthought, from some mud made by a god’s blood, after he has defeated the powers of chaos (we’ll get to that). While one result of this is that man is regarded to be fairly lowly, an afterthought of creation, made merely to serve the gods, the other result is that, fundamentally, there is no difference between man and god, save the fact that gods are just more powerful. Pagan gods are much more similar to superheroes, very talented versions of ourselves, then to our conception of God as a perfect and transcedent being. The gods in pagan theology are rather similar to mob bosses, actually. If you pay them tribute, they will provide you with protection from chaos and infertility, but if not, they will get very mad at you and cause you much harm. But, they, like mob bosses, though powerful, are still bound by the fact they are part of a closed system. The gods and man originate from the same stuff. So if you can find a way to manipulate the “stuff”, you can force the Gods to do your bidding. Thus, the concept of magic. By saying certain words, doing certain rituals, you can limit the Gods or manipulate them to your advantadge. By way of the mob boss example, I can’t necessarily defeat his whole criminal infrastracture, but I can, if I wanted to, put a gun to his head and tell him to go somewhere else. While in reality, that may not be a good idea, it illustrates that doing so is within the realm of possibility, as me and the mob boss are both human beings bound by the rules of nature. There are even accounts of people trying to defeat the gods, or win the secret of immortality from them, as in Gilgamesh. All of this would be impossible under a transcendent god, which, to my great chagrin, cannot at all be compared to a mob boss. The second aspect of creation stories is the accounts of the gods’ defeat of the forces of chaos, usually represented as a sea monster of some sort who is defeated by a god in a big bloody battle. This goes back to what we’ve been saying; in pagan theology, forces must be defeated, and there is no such thing as divine decrees just becoming reality. In fact our first creation story seems to be polemicizing against this very idea. God creates everything in an orderly fashion, there is no opposition or battle. Even the great sea monsters, the terrifying creatures that feature so prominently as forces of chaos, were created by God on the fifth day (1:21).
Until this point, none of this have been chiddushim, instead established ideas I’ve read from authors like Yechezkel Kaufmann (worth a read, btw) and others. Now, here’s where I attempt to be mechadesh. The first story is neat, orderly, and conveys the idea of a perfect divine system. But look around you. Is the world really that perfect? I think not. How did things get messed up? Which of course, mythologically speaking, is just asking how *do* things get messed up?
So, in the second story, we have a man created from the dust of the earth, breathes into his soul the breath of life (nothing in this story about tzelem elokim), and he becomes a living creature. He needs a companion. So woman is created, out of Adam’s rib. Instead of man being fashioned out of a piece of a god, meaning they are fundamentally similar, yet different, it is woman who is fundamentally similar to man, yet different. While this has a lot of more implications, specifically for gender issues, which I do not intend to touch with a 10 foot pole in this piece, an attempt is made to define man not vertically, by his relationship to a god, but horizontally, by his relation to a being both fundamentally similar and different than him.
Now, they are given a command. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, or else you’ll die. No justification is given on God’s end. (I don’t think the “you will surely die” is a justification, rather a consequence) Nothing about needing that tree for something else. Just don’t eat it. Now say you are used to a pagan world view. Now imagine, back to our mob boss analogy, the mob boss saying to one of his “protected”, here, eat at any restaurant you want, except that one. What incentive does he have to make such a request? He must be hiding something. Whatever’s at that restaurant must be fantastic.
On to the snake (I’ll get back to adressing “knowledge of good and bad”, soon). Though the same word is not used, I doubt that the image of a snake did not call to mind the ancient stories of the sea serpents battling with mighty gods for supremacy. Yet our snake is not a mighty sea serpent here. He is a cunning, slick talking fruit salesman. The Chumash may be suggesting a whole different kind of source for chaos and evil and suffering. Not through brute force does evil come to power, but through rationalization and moral weakness. The mind is the battlefield here. So let’s look at the content of the snake’s persuasion. The woman says she won’t eat from the tree, because she’ll die. The snake responds “You shall surely not die; for God knows that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as a god, knowing good and evil.”
Let’s analyze this closely. The consequence of eating from this tree is not death. Rather, you will become a god, which is defined as “knowing good and evil”. In a pagan worldview, it is eminently possible that this Man and Woman can become like God by eating of this magical fruit, which taps into powers that go above God’s head. They will not just become as powerful as pagan gods, because we’ve already established that there’s only One All-Powerful, All Knowing God. They will advance to becoming all-knowing and all powerful beings, able to understand the cosmos and manipulate nature, and can dispense with the need for God. They now know what is good and what is evil, just as much as God does. They have outgrown such childish, primitive nonsense, they can look at the world with their eyes opened, and make their decisions without his help, thank you very much. And they eat from this fruit, waiting for their eyes to open at a world they can now partake of without restriction, with no authority to answer to.
And their eyes are opened. And they realize they are naked. They realize how frail and vulnerable they are, not even given a coat to survive a winter, or reptilian thick skin, or claws or sharp teeth or prehensile tails endowed with nothing from nature except their larger than average brains, and maybe opposable thumbs. They are not gods, far from all-powerful, and further from all-knowing. They had disobeyed a divine command, thinking to raise themselves above it, but instead were brutally brought down to their place, far, far, far below God’s.