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The I of the Beholder: Serpents of Desire, Part 9

The I of the Beholder: Serpents of Desire, Part 9

Desire can confound our perception of the way things really are. A biblical case study.


I asked you last week to compare Eve's paraphrase of God's command to the original command itself. Clearly, the two are different. Some of the differences amount to outright inaccuracies; others, to mere changes in emphasis. But, just to drive home the point -- the question I'm interested in is: Taken as a whole, do these changes suggest a pattern of some sort -- or are they just random misquotations?

Let's reproduce the verses in question so it will be easier to compare them. Here they are:

God's Original Command:
And God caused to grow from the ground all sorts of trees that were good to look at and good to eat from, and the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (2:10). ... And the Lord God commanded Adam saying: From all the trees you may eat, yes eat. But from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat from it, for on the day you eat from it you will surely die (2:16-17).

Eve's Paraphrase of that Command:
And the woman said to the serpent: From the fruit of the trees of the garden we can eat. But from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden God said not to eat from it and not to touch it lest we die (3:3-4).

Okay, let's catalogue the differences. What did you come up with?

Here's my list:


  • Location of the Forbidden Tree. Eve identifies the forbidden tree as being in the "middle of the garden". In fact, though, according to verse 2:10, it was only the Tree of Life (which was never put off-limits) that was clearly in "the middle of the garden"; the whereabouts of the Tree of Knowledge are uncertain. [The verse states that God made "...the Tree of Life in the middle of the Garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil". The way it's put, the phrase "in the middle of the garden" modifies only the first tree, not the second one. If they were both really in the same place, the way to say it would have been: "...the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge in the middle of the Garden".].
  • Is Touching Against the Rules? Eve tells the serpent that she is forbidden to even touch the Tree of Knowledge. In the original command, it is only eating from the tree that is prohibited.
  • Fruit vs. Tree. God speaks of a forbidden tree. Eve speaks of forbidden fruit. In practice, perhaps, it's all the same -- but the emphasis is certainly different.
  • Is Death a Certainty? God says that if you eat from the tree, you shall surely die. Eve suggests that she and Adam better not eat from the tree "lest" they die. Eve implies a probability of death, not a certainty.
  • When is Death a Reality? God says that death becomes a reality on the day that you eat from the tree. Eve doesn't mention a time frame.
  • "All" the Trees or Not? Using repetitive language, God emphasizes that Adam and Eve "may eat, yes eat" from "all" the trees of the garden, except the Tree of Knowledge. When talking about the trees she and Adam may partake from, Eve removes the emphasized, double language, and also leaves out the word "all" [she says the more toned-down phrase: from the trees of the field we may eat...].



What are we to make of all this? Is there any rhyme or reason behind these discrepancies; anything that might explain why Eve made the changes she did in "explaining" the Almighty's prohibition?

It seems to me that the changes Eve makes in reporting God's command do add up to something. One might theorize that Eve deliberately distorted God's command or that perhaps she misunderstood the command. I can't conclusively disprove those theories. But to my thinking, a third possibility seems more likely: That the changes Eve makes were not deliberate at all; rather, caught off-guard by the serpent and in the heat of the moment, this was just how things looked to her; this was how she wanted to see them.

In other words, the subtle distortions in Eve's words do not, perhaps, bespeak an intellectual misunderstanding of what God said -- but a subtle attempt by the mind to recast God's command in a different light. To put it baldly: If eating from the tree marked the beginning of a more profound role for desire in the life of mankind, then this snapshot of a conversation gives us our first case study in the unseen mechanics by which desire can confound our perception of the way things really are.

Consider this: When we want something that we can't or ought not to have -- but we really want it anyway - what are the things we tell ourselves? How, exactly, does desire begin to work its magic? What do we say to start convincing ourselves that it's really okay for us to have the thing we want?

We look at the reality in front of us, and we play a game that involves exaggerating certain aspects of it and minimizing others. The game proceeds, more or less, along the following lines:

  • We might begin by exaggerating the extent of the restriction placed upon us. [e.g. "even touching the tree is forbidden"]. It's easier to rationalize a wrong if we exaggerate how difficult it is to abide by the rules. How could my parent expect me not to even get near the cookie jar? It's one thing not to eat, but how am I supposed to avoid the whole east wing of the kitchen?



  • Conversely, I might minimize the significance of what I can have. In reality, I may "eat, yes, eat" from "all" the trees in the garden, save one. There are thousands of trees that I am encouraged, maybe even commanded, to partake from. But the mind-games of desire shift the emphasis: Sure, we can eat from "trees", but we can't even touch the one in the middle...



  • What of the consequences of transgressing? That's something I tend to trivialize also. We won't die right away will we? No. Even God only meant that today we would become mortal -- but death itself won't happen for years and years. Why, of course I should stay away from the tree -- but only in case I might eventually die...



  • Finally, I might exaggerate the significance of the thing I can't have: It becomes my focus, the center around which my world starts to revolve. Remember: Which tree is in the "center" of the garden? For any given observer, the center of a forest might just be the tree that he's looking at. For God, the center of the garden, what occupies His "focus", is the Tree of Life -- a tree that, interestingly, was not originally placed "off-limits". For Eve, though, the tree I can't eat from becomes the center. Desire focuses on the forbidden and magnifies it -- not because objectively the thing is important, but simply because I can't have it.


Don't be too quick to embrace your impeccably constructed arguments about why you really should eat that fruit.

In portraying Eve's conversation with the serpent the way it does, the Torah seems to be constructing for us a case study in the dynamics of desire. Here is what it looks like, the text seems to be saying, to struggle with the phantom boxer, the boxer named desire: In subtle ways, things can start to look either bigger or smaller than they really are. The implied warning is clear: Don't be too quick to embrace your impeccably constructed arguments about why you really should eat that fruit. First, ask yourself: Am I seeing things the way they really are, or just the way I want to see them? Even if I'm not exactly lying to myself about the facts, am I playing with how I emphasize them? Am I exaggerating the importance of some things, minimizing the significance of others?


If desire played itself out so powerfully in the very first decision of Adam and Eve -- whether or not to partake of the forbidden fruit -- how did the consequences of that choice make themselves felt? How did eating from the tree -- how, perhaps, did even the struggle of whether to eat from it -- change Adam and Eve? How has it changed us?

To grapple with this, we need to look carefully at the rest of our story -- namely, what transpires once Adam and Eve eat the fruit. Let's keep it simple, for now: What are those events? Let's catalogue them:

  • Adam and Eve realize that they are naked and hide from God.
  • God asks Adam where he is.
  • Adam answers that he is hiding because he is afraid that he is naked.
  • After dismissing Adam and Eve's explanations for contravening God's command (she told me to do it; the snake told me to do it), the Almighty imposes various punishments on them, including death, exile, difficulty farming, and pain in childbirth.


Earlier, we pointed out some strange aspects of these events. But in reality, the list of troubles is even larger and more comprehensive than we let on before.. Each of and every one of these "post-eating-from-tree" happenings, is, I think, perplexing in its own way. Let's go through them one by one and see how:

  • Adam and Eve realize they are naked and hide from God. Earlier in the series, we mentioned that the emphasis on nakedness here seems strange: Why, of all things, is this the cardinal consequence of eating from a tree bearing "knowledge of good and evil". After attaining this knowledge, Adam and Eve do not become aware of a whole new realm of moral dilemmas. Instead, they realize they are naked. Why?



  • God asks Adam where he is. One second; you mean to tell me the Almighty couldn't find him? Why is God asking a question to which He already knows the answer?



  • Adam answers that he is hiding for he is afraid because he is naked.


    Read that line again and see if that's the way you would put it if you were Adam. First of all, as we mentioned earlier, it is strange that Adam singles out his nakedness as the reason he is hiding. If you and I were in Adam's shoes, we probably would have said we were hiding out of shame that we disobeyed God. But for some reason, in Adam's mind, this sense of shame is trumped by something even more overwhelming: His awareness of his own nakedness. Again, we're back to the naked theme: Why was this so important to him?

    Why, in Adam's mind, does his nakedness inspire not embarrassment, but fear?

    But the question is really a little deeper than this. Again, put yourself in Adam's shoes. If you were going to hide because you were naked, what emotion would you pinpoint as the reason you want to hide? I don't know about you, but I would pick either shame or embarrassment. How do we feel when we are naked in public? Embarrassed, I would think. But strangely, Adam talks about something else. He says he is afraid because he is naked. Why, in Adam's mind, does his nakedness inspire not embarrassment, but fear?


  • The Almighty imposes various punishments on Adam and Eve. Okay, let's think about these punishments. We might expect, I think, of an omniscient and perfectly just God, that the punishments He would choose to impose would fit, in some sense, the crime. There should be some logical correspondence, some "tit-for-tat", as it were, between what the people did wrong and the consequences they are made to bear. But what connection is there between punishment and crime in our story? At face value, it seems almost as if the Almighty reached into His celestial grab-bag of consequences and randomly doled out lightning-bolts: "Let's see, Adam? You're the one who works the fields around here -- OK, no more easy street for you. From now on, you'll have to work to get harvest out of the land. Eve? Right. You're the one who bears children -- let's make that a little tougher. And the snake? He'll crawl on his belly and eat dust, and there will be eternal hatred between his progeny and those of Eve. While we're at it, death to everybody; nobody gets to live forever anymore. And one last thing: Exile. Everybody out of the pool."


Over the next two weeks, I'll try to pull all these threads together, as we begin to close the curtain on our look at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

At long last, I think we're in a position to answer these difficulties. Having seen the connection of this story to that of Adam naming and rejecting the animals; having defined our choice to partake of the forbidden fruit as a trial that asked us to understand why really an animal could never be our soul-mate; having seen the subjectivity that lurks both in "da'at", the internal, experiential kind of knowledge, and in "tov and ra", the Brave New World of looking at right and wrong; having seen all this -- we are finally in a position, I think, to understand more deeply the aftershocks of eating from the Tree: God's strange question "Where are You"; Adam's intense focus upon, and fear of, nakedness; and the Almighty's seemingly random imposition of punishments.

Over the next two weeks, I'll try to pull all these threads together, as we begin to close the curtain on our look at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In the meantime, if you'd like to pause and reflect a bit before reading further, you might ask yourself: Are those punishments really as random as they seem? And -- given the nature of the Tree as we've begun to see it -- why might fear of nakedness be exactly the response one might expect from a being who suddenly wakes to find himself inhabiting a radically new world of "good and evil"?

Talk to you soon.



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October 28, 2007

Article 10 of 12 in the series Serpents of Desire

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) julia, April 17, 2006 12:00 AM

a good story from a rabbi

a rabbi visited my mother's church, i am a convert, and told this story: in the garden of eden adam and eve were teenagers spending their days doing whatever pleased them as there were no consequences for any of their preferences. Then g-d gave them a choice to make, the only moral choice available to them, whether or not to eat of the tree. think of it this way, a parent says to his children i am going away for the weekend, do what ever you like. you may have parties, keggers, friends over whom i don't know & wouldn't approve of, do what you like but do not look in my top left sock drawer. what is the first thing the children will do, even as their parents are driving down the street at the beginning of the weekend, look in the top left sock drawer! choices, real choices not preferences, are only possible when there is a right & wrong, before right and wrong though there is good and bad. the only coice available was to eat from the tree or not, the stasis of things was to not eat, in order to self actuate free will, the ability to choose, they had to make a bad coice, since so far they had started with all good and unconsequential choices. in this way g-d set them up so they could attain free will. you can not simply transfer power, it has to be taken, through action. i absolutely loved the breakdown of how desire works, i will include that in my understanding of the story

(2) Jonathan Narloch, April 10, 2006 12:00 AM

"To eat or not to eat,"-biblical shakespere

I really enjoyed reading the article on the details of why events happened as they did in the Garden of Eden. I am learning how to deepen my understanding of the Bible. I gained knowledge on paying attention to every word that is written, with nothing being written without a reason, this is one of the greatest lessons I have learned. The wisdom of the Bible, divinely inspired, has a wealth of information that most people miss. Thanks for the articles and I look forward to taking these lessons and teaching them to my Bible study class. God Bless, Jonathan

(1) Andy Gras, April 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Sin has a domino effect

It seems to me that the serpent had first sinned and then got Eve to sin who in turn got Adam to sin. And so all rebelled and sinned against thier Ruler who was God.
But how did the serpent sin?? I answer..... By being the first to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. For no doubt the serpent knew good and evil when he tempted Eve. And so when Eve also ate of the tree, then she also knew what she knew. And this of course led her to get Adam also in this knowledge, because she didn't want to be alone in this knowledge without her husband.
Therefore Adam either was also decieved before he ate, or else, if not, then he chose to eat so that he might die with his wife rather than to live eternally with his God.
And that goes to show that Adam loved Eve more than Him who gave him Eve. And this made him an Idolater. Because anything loved before God is idolatry.
Remember one thing. In returning to the subject of the eating of the trees of the garden......
This eating was for all. And not just the man and his wife. ALL the animals were to eat of the green herb and fruit of the trees to live. (But the tree of Life was eternal Life) And so then the tree of Knowledge must have been forbidden to the animals also. And that is why I believe the serpent ate first. Because how else, or why else would he want Eve and Adam to eat?? Because he already was a sinner. And sinners always want fellowship with sinners so that they will not be alone in thier transgression and death.

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