Retrospectively, I can now identify the beginning point in my own inner movement away from a literalist religious perspective. It happened one morning when I was 19 years old during a college course on the Old Testament at a Baptist university in Texas. A bit paradoxical, I admit. But here’s the story…
While reading the bible’s two (yes, there are two) ‘creation narratives’ in the book of Genesis, the Baptist minister who was teaching the course let us in on this super significant detail: one of the two creation stories suggests literarily (not literally, but literar(y)-(i)ly) that Eve is the “apex of creation” (his words, not mine). Essentially, he said this to us: the literary movement of this story tells us that God ordered “His” creations to be increasingly more complex (“good”) throughout the course of those seven days of creation.
His crowning accomplishment? The woman (Eve).
This way of understanding this story struck me as supremely confusing at the time, and I actually did not know how to reconcile it with the rest of the things I’d been taught during my religious education up to this point. Consequently, it took years and years for that gem of knowledge to marinate in my mind alongside a wealth of other experiences and information to allow me to consider the rest of what I’m about to suggest to you now.
I don’t know about you, but I had been told repeatedly that when God created woman, he was creating a “helper” for man. Like a good little house wife or something! Right? A helper serves the person their helping, after all, and I imagined Eve being created to sort of “get Adam his slippers when he came home from work” everyday.
Well, as it turns out, God called woman a “helper” using the same language “He” also used to describe “Himself” in the role as “helper” to humankind. The Hebrew words for this are “ezer kenegdo”, and they are only used again throughout the rest of the whole Old Testament to describe the kind of help God offers to “His” people. [All those male pronouns referring to God are in quotations for a reason. It’s a colloquial habit of mine to refer to God as a “He”, but I also know that “The spirit of God”, Ruach Elohim in Hebrew, as referenced in Genesis 1:2 is a feminine noun].
I should probably pause here for a moment, and let all of these linguistic and literary morsels to sink in properly…
Okay, you got it?
Well, good for you. Because that stuff took nearly a decade to coalesce properly in my own brain.
I can’t offer a definitive explanation for how the type of help that woman is able to offer man is similar to the kind of help that God is able to offer mankind, but I think it HAS TO BE the lens through which we read the next part of the Genesis narrative.
So. With this perspective in mind, let’s revisit the infamous conversation between Eve and the Serpent, in which she soon becomes “responsible for ruining paradise”. Through our newly informed theological lens, I don’t think we can necessarily assume that Eve is somehow dumber, lesser, or weaker than Adam, and therefore a more vulnerable target for that sneaky snake. So then what can this part of the story possibly represent to us that we haven’t maybe been able to consider before?
Well, here’s a fun fact: the serpent – or snake – in nearly every other ancient spiritual tradition is often considered a feminine symbol, as it (like a woman) has an intimate, embodied knowledge about the cycles of life, death, and re-birth through it’s molting (skin-shedding) process. Menstruating women are also intimately connected to the bodily experience of life, death, and re-birth cycles through the shedding of their uterine (endometrial) lining, which is how the two creatures got linked to one another symbolically. So curious, no?
At this time in my pontification, I would like to encourage you to take a little risk with me, and consider how the serpent – and his/her objectives – may not be all bad. You can decide to reject this notion altogether and read no further, or keep reading and reject it later, or chew on it endlessly like I have been doing for the last 13 years, and come up with your own conclusions. Nonetheless, for the sake of our conversational purposes, that’s the argument I’m going to be making here. Obviously, the story tells us that God explicitly forbid Adam & Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And I am not dismissing this, I’m just going to put a pin in it, and re-visit it in a few paragraphs from now.
But first, let’s review this infamous moment between Eve and the serpent:
1″Now the serpent was more crafty (subtle) than any living creature of the field which the Lord God had made. And the serpent said to the woman, “Can it really be that God has said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, 3 except the fruit from the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘You shall not eat from it nor touch it, otherwise you will die.’” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You certainly will not die! 5 For God knows that on the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened [that is, you will have greater awareness], and you will be like God, knowing [the difference between] good and evil.” 6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was delightful to look at, and a tree to be desired in order to make one wise and insightful, she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of the two of them were opened [that is, their awareness increased], and they knew that they were naked; and they fastened fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.”
In my opinion, there’s more than two ways to read this, but I want to highlight the positions on either end of that interpretive spectrum for now. You can choose to read this literally, and that’s fine, that’s your prerogative – Godspeed. OR you can read it as if it were an attempt to communicate some complex and mysterious truths about the origins of human beings using a kind of symbolic language. As evidenced by the way in which Jesus himself used parables (symbolic stories) to teach people about the nature of God, I don’t think I’m reaching too far into the realm of sacrilegious sentiment by suggesting this. After all, story telling and poetry, music, art, and other forms of symbolic language are often the only way we can communicate about things too infinitely unknowable for our finite language expression.
If you’re still with me here, I’m going to step even further into the abyss, and suggest that from a symbolic perspective, that this “conversation with the serpent” could be understood as the woman’s first uniquely feminine initiation related to some phenomena of change occurring in her womb. Maybe her first menstruation, maybe the birth of child… I don’t presume to know this, and won’t try to nail it down either, but I like the idea that this might be talking about menstruation, as it lends itself to the loss of innocence we often associate with the onset of adolescence.
Somehow this feminine initiation experience then gives birth to a kind of adolescent doubt on Eve’s behalf. She begins to question (represented symbolically by the dialogue between herself and the serpent) the prohibition against eating from “The Tree of The Knowledge of Good and Evil” (another symbol).
I don’t know what to make of the tree nor the fruit as symbols yet, but the description of the tree itself, and the suggestion that eating from it would give someone the knowledge of the difference between good and evil is pretty obvious to me. Isn’t this the kind of knowledge that separates humans from animals? Animals just do. There’s no reflective processing of their behavior, or even of themselves as separate from their own instincts. This seems clear as day to me in the story of Eden, as we immediately see both Adam and Eve become “aware” of themselves; understanding their own nakedness is a reflective mental process that was previously unavailable to them before eating from this tree.
I suppose the next symbolic question to then ask ourselves then is how this new awareness gets them kicked out of the garden? Is it all just because they broke the rules? And what do we make of the snake’s seductive little statement to Eve about how eating the fruit would make her “like God”? Here’s my best guess: being able to think reflectively is a divine kind of mental and spiritual capacity, and therefore we could no longer exist in the garden of blissful unconsciousness anyways.**
From a developmental perspective, it would be easy to understand the symbol of the Garden itself as one of fertility, new life, the womb – maybe even the whole of the female reproductive organs – the lap of the Mother, the place of fusion with Caregivers, and a consequential innocence about our own responsibility in the world, which leads me right back to my hunch that in some ways this a tale about human development, and more stunning still: a tale about the inexplicable human capacity for a kind of god-like consciousness among all the other sentient beings on earth.
It’s a privilege and a burden both. And Eve walked that path first because she’s a badass. (Also because she needed to be able to “help” Adam get there too).
If – like me – you are at all familiar with popular culture’s version of the Christian narrative, you may now be asking yourself “okay, then why did Jesus have to come and ‘save us’ all from our sinful natures, which we supposedly inherited from Eve after that whole banishment from paradise fiasco?”. Well, here’s what I think about that in a very small nutshell: Jesus showed up to heal us from our own shame about being separate from God, and lived his life in a way that would compel us to remember that the Garden we are ever-seeking still exists within us. As Jesus himself said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed or with a visible display; nor will people say, ‘Look! Here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For the kingdom of God is [already] among you” (Luke 17:20-21).
… I believe that trying to wrap your heart around THAT mystery is the heart of the whole spiritual path.
** Another thought: when Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden, God told Eve that one of the personal consequences she could expect to experience as a direct result of eating the forbidden fruit was super painful childbirth(s).
So, I would like to point out that humans – with their fancy divine-like consciousness capabilities – have the biggest brains (in relation to their body size) of any mammal on earth, which means they also have the biggest heads per body mass, and this makes it very difficult to push the human head out of the human pelvis, which = MAJOR, MAJOR OUCH (trust me, I’ve been there, and it felt a lot worse than dying).