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Serpents of Desire: Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. An Introduction

Serpents of Desire: Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden. An Introduction

Beyond the Lullaby Effect: Reading the Bible with open eyes.


Paradoxically enough, a big problem we have in studying the Bible is that the stories are so familiar to us. No matter where you grew up, no matter what level of education you've had, you've come across the story of Adam and Eve tens, if not hundreds, of times. We've heard the story in school, and we've learned it at home. We drink "Adam and Eve" apple juice, and see Adam and Eve icons on shampoo bottles. We know that story, we assure ourselves. Indeed, we know the story too well for our own good.

When we know a story "too well", we become easy prey to a syndrome I like to call "The Lullaby Effect". The lullaby effect retards our ability to ask -- even to see -- the really important questions that the Bible begs us to ask of it. The "Lullaby Effect" anesthetizes us through the stupefying effects of familiarity. Here's how it works:

When was the last time you bothered thinking about the words of the lullabies you sing to your children. Stop for a moment and think -- really think -- about what their words actually mean. For starters, try that perennial favorite of ours, "Rock-a-bye baby on the treetop". Imagine your child was actually paying attention to the words you were singing: "....when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, baby and all..."

Now, you can certainly get a kid to sleep by singing this. But if your sweet child was actually listening to what you were singing, she'd be in for a rude awakening. Lots of questions, I imagine, would quickly come to mind. If we bothered listening, they would come to our mind, too:

"Exactly how far off the ground was the cradle when it fell?"

"Did anyone call 911?"

"Who put the cradle on the bough in the first place?" "Was the parent trying to get rid of the child?" "Are you trying to get rid of me?"

But no one asks these questions. Few of us are even remotely disturbed by the violence that gushes from us when we sing our children to sleep. Why? Because we've simply stopped listening to the words. We have heard them too many times. We heard them as children before we even knew what they meant; and now, even as adults, they fail to shock us.

Biblical stories are a lot like lullabies in that way. Almost every major Biblical story has its "elephant in the room" -- some major problem, or a series of them, that cries out to be addressed. "Why would God tell Abraham to take his son and kill him, only to retract at the last moment and say He didn't really mean it?" What, exactly, did God have against the building of a Tower in the Land of Babel? Why would God bother bargaining with Pharaoh to let the Jews go, only to harden his heart once the Egyptian monarch finally agreed?

Embark on an adventure in Biblical text in which we read these stories that we thought we knew with fresh eyes, and ask the questions that any intelligent reader would ask about them.

But the stories are too familiar to us. We've heard about them so many times, they've become part of our cultural fabric. We soak in the stories through osmosis, the way we unthinkingly develop accents that reflect the place in which we grew up. We fail to see the problems anymore.

In this series of articles, I'd like to challenge us to change that. I want to ask you to come along with me on a journey; an adventure in Biblical text in which we read these stories that we thought we knew with fresh eyes, and ask the questions that any intelligent reader would ask about them.

If this idea makes you nervous, relax. We needn't fear these questions, for they are not really problems; they are opportunities. They are windows that the text gives us to begin to perceive its deeper meaning. Sure, you can keep the window closed and pretend it isn't there. But if you don't open it, the treasure that lays beyond -- a richer, three dimensional understanding of the Bible, not to mention an entire world of rabbinic literature -- Midrash and Talmud -- will remain sealed off to you forever.

So here's the deal:

Before reading these essays, I invite you to re-read the story of Adam, Eve and the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Read it in the Hebrew, if you know Hebrew -- and if you don't, read it in translation; for the time being, any translation will do. Yes, I know: You know the story already -- ever since sixth grade, you've had this image in your mind of the snake wound around the tree, offering Eve an apple. But that's precisely the point. You need to forget all that. You need to erase those images and read the story anew. You need to break the lullaby syndrome.

Read the story slowly and carefully. Just the text; no commentaries. And as you do, ask yourself these questions: If I was reading this for the first time, what about it would strike me as strange? What are the "big questions" that the Torah wants me to ask about this story? What are the elephants in the room?

Take some time to think about it. I'll meet you back right here next week and we'll compare notes.

See you then.

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October 27, 2007

Article 1 of 12 in the series Serpents of Desire

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) S f, October 9, 2015 6:42 PM

Great books

Rabbi, I read both of your books on Kindle ... Amazing teachings and they will be read over and over again. Please, please publish more! You made stories I thought I knew come alive in fascinating depth. It helps me with studying scripture, now I read and look for things to question and see things that I often overlooked. Thank you.

(10) Maiken, March 15, 2010 8:03 PM

Thanks Mr. Foreman

If God did not want Adam ande Eve to touch that tree, why did he place apples on it, gorgeous to eat? For me there lies a deep ambivalence throughout this story.

(9) Miguel, March 20, 2009 11:30 PM

This are only thoughts: Wasn't the verb who made all things? Wasn't the serpent made by the verb ? What KInd of Tree was that that the fruit is an eye opener? What are the effects of God commandments in the human nature?

(8) Rachel Garber, January 9, 2008 7:32 PM

I missed the snake walking upright

When I listened to Rabbi Fohrman on Rabbi Singer's program, I was so surprised to realize that the snake initially walked upright. I remember that the story says that the snake would crawl on his belly, but somehow, it didn't dawn on me that it had walked upright. Obviously if it was condemned to crawl on it's belly, it didn't always do that, but somehow it just didn't click with me that it had walked upright. Very mindblowing concept, because it seems to imply that the snake had legs (or at least feet) at one time. I also, recall hearing that "ring around the rosey" was actually a reference to the Black Plague, and "ashes, ashes we all fall down", references the burning of the corpses. Very strange that children incorporate such tragic circumstances into a game.

(7) marcy, February 26, 2006 12:00 AM

the questions

amazingly, i have asked these very questions almost immediately after reading scriptures, i can catch something that is off and doesn't make sense. and as you have listed in your article, i have asked the same questions for the same situations including the lullaby song that i never sung it to any of my children after my firstborn, i sung it a few times, less than i can count, and i heard the words...i couldn't beleive what it was saying! after that all the nursery rymes/songs...i have been careful to choose them...knowing exactly what my children hear gives me peace in my role as a mother. because i believe it is a greater responsibility on our part as the parents. i have read all your articles so far, and am greatly moved and stirred up within for deeper studies again, as i was at one point before. when you begin to ask these questions, i find, you will have a lot of haters along the way, i have personally endured it myself...which caused me to pull away. now i feel i am stronger spirtually to face opposition and let our G-d reveal to me what He chooses. thank you for your teaching.

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