The entire story of Adam and Eve in the Garden is no more than 25 verses long. That's a pretty small amount of space in which to tell a story that changed the course of human history. The Encyclopedia Britannica would have devoted tens of pages to an event of such magnitude. We might wonder: How can the Torah communicate anything really profound with such a scarce amount of words?
One of the ways it can do so is by creating more than one "layer" of meaning in its narrative. Twenty-five verses may not sound like a lot, but it's plenty if the text is somehow "layered"; encoded so that it contains meaning far out of proportion to its size. Jewish tradition has long assumed that the Torah employs various techniques to help it "encode" meaning. One of those techniques is a device that's come to be known as "the leading word".
Every once in a while, when you are reading a Biblical narrative, you will find that the text seems to go out of its way to use a certain word, phrase or idea, consistently and repetitively throughout a story. When this happens, it often indicates that this repetitive element holds a key to the meaning of the narrative. The word or idea in question "leads" the reader, as it were, to a richer and deeper understanding of the text.
It just so happens that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden contains such a repetitive word. If you take a quick break to scan the story yourself, you may well find it.
Well, ready or not, here it is:
The word is arom -- the Hebrew word for "nakedness".
THE STRANGE PROMINENCE OF NAKEDNESS
Nakedness appears everywhere throughout our story.
Nakedness appears everywhere throughout our story. It appears at the beginning, just before the snake tempts Adam and Eve: and they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. It appears at the end, where God makes clothes for Adam and Eve so that they are no longer naked. And it appears right in the middle of the story, at its turning point, when man and his wife eat the forbidden fruit:
And the eyes of both of them were open and they knew that they were naked.
Strange, isn't it? If someone asked you to imagine how eating a fruit that imparts "knowledge of good and evil" would affect mankind, what would you have said? Perhaps Adam and Eve would become instantly aware of a whole new world of moral dilemmas that lay before them. Right to Life vs. Right to Choice; or: Ten people are in a lifeboat and the whole boat sinks unless you throw someone off, what should you do? All sorts of such dilemmas. Their heads would be spinning with possibilities.
But no. None of that preoccupied Adam and Eve. When they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the immediate effect was: they knew they were naked. It seems odd. Why does knowing "good and evil" affect our perception of nakedness? But there is nakedness again, front and center in the story.
Let's continue reading the text. Adam eats from the tree, and he immediately hides from God. Now let's ask, "why is he hiding"?
Before looking at the reason the text gives us, consider why it is that you would think Adam would be hiding. If the Bible had stopped its story just after Adam ate from the tree and hid from God, how would you explain Adam's act of seeking refuge? Imagine that some industrious CNN reporter managed to spot Adam hiding behind a bush and got an exclusive interview with him. He asks Adam a basic question: "I see you are crouching here behind this bush; you seem to be hiding from God. Can you explain to our viewers why?" If you were in Adam's shoes, what would you have said in reply?
You probably would have told him that you were embarrassed of what you did. Here you were, placed in Paradise, with the whole garden available to you for your enjoyment. One little thing God asked of you -- not to eat from a certain tree. And then you had to go and eat from it! You feel filled with shame; you've disappointed your Creator, and can't bear to face Him. If you are hiding, one would think that this would be the reason why.
But the text tells us something else. When God asked Adam why he was hiding, this was his reply:
I heard your voice in the Garden and I hid because I was naked.
Somehow, Adam's consciousness of being naked was so profound, so disturbing to him -- that it trumped in his mind even his sense of shame at having disobeyed the one command of his Maker.
Why is nakedness so important to this story? Why is humanity's realization of it the one natural consequence of eating from a "Tree of Knowledge"? And why would this realization be so disturbing that it is the only reason man can think of to explain why he is hiding?
In order to answer this, we need to realize that, surprisingly, we haven't seen the end of nakedness in this story. It actually makes one more hidden appearance. Believe it or not, there's one more creature in the garden that's naked, and he may hold the key we have been seeking. Can you spot him?
A PHANTOM NAKEDNESS
If you had trouble identifying the "phantom nakedness" in our story, it may have been because you were reading the story in English. As it happens, most English translations, almost without exception, conceal the missing occurrence of "nakedness". They usually render the telltale verses in something like the following fashion:
And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field... (Genesis, 2:25-3:1).
As you read these words, you surely noticed that Adam and Eve were described as unclothed. But you probably didn't observe anyone else described the same way. Now trust me on this one -- you didn't see it because you were reading the words in English. Try reading the verses now, when we substitute the Hebrew word for "naked" -- arom -- in place of its English counterpart:
And they were both arom, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed. Now the serpent was more arom than any beast of the field... (Genesis, 2:25-3:1).
One second. The snake is "arom" too?
Absolutely. Immediately after the Torah describes Adam and Eve as being naked, the Torah uses the exact same Hebrew term to describe the snake. It just so happens that "arom" can mean not just "naked", but "cunning" too.
The Torah seems to go out of its way to take this very key word in the story -- arom -- and attach it, backhandedly, to the "cunning" snake as well.
Well, what are we to make of this? In its simple meaning, the text is telling us about the crafty intentions of the snake -- that he is cunning; sly and deceitful. But it hardly seems a coincidence the Torah picked this particular word to describe the snake's devious intentions. The Torah seems to go out of its way to take this very key word in the story -- arom -- and attach it, backhandedly, to the "cunning" snake as well.
The mystery in all this deepens when we ask the question: Are the two meanings of "arom" -- "naked" and "cunning" -- related conceptually in any way? Are these apples and elephants, two entirely unrelated ideas, or is there some essential connection between them?
At first glance, the ideas "naked" and "cunning" don't seem to have much in common. But on reflection, they do seem related in a curious way. Mull the terms over -- "Naked and cunning, naked and cunning..." -- what comes to mind?
These words just happen to be opposites of one another.
When someone is naked, unclothed, there is no hiding. That person's "self" is laid bare for all to see. "What you see is what you get". On the other hand, when one is cunning -- he is sly and devious; he "cloaks" his true intentions and hides behind a facade. His true self is not seen.
Fascinating. The two meanings of arom are mirror images of each other. .
And this just adds another dimension to our question: Why would the Torah take the same word it uses over and over again to mean "naked", and then, when describing the snake, twist its meaning to convey the very opposite idea -- "cunning"?
Could the Torah possibly be suggesting that -- yes, the snake was of course cunning -- but somehow, he was not just cunning -- but he was "naked" as well?
What could that mean?
AN INNOCENT DECEPTION
Biologically, of course, a snake really is naked: It is a reptile, a creature that, unlike most other members of the animal kingdom, lacks fur or hair to cover it. But if we think beyond biology, what would it mean for the snake to be not just "cunning", but "naked"?
If "naked" is really the opposite of "cunning", then it seems to follow that the snake had both, opposite, qualities: He possessed both honesty and stealth. In other words, the snake really is deceptive -- but on another, perhaps deeper, level, he's very straightforward. It all depends at how you look at him. From one perspective, what he's saying doesn't really work for Adam and Eve, so his words are deceptive to them. But from another perspective -- what you see is what you get. He's just telling it like it is -- from a snake's point of view, of course.
As we shall see soon, this perspective seems to fit like a glove with a number of other clues scattered throughout our story. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. For we are not quite done yet exploring the snake's crafty disposition. There's one more important question we haven't asked yet. And that is:
What's in it for the snake?
We'll talk about that when we return next week.
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