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The doctrine of creation is not an ambiguous aspect of the Bible. The first four chapters of Genesis contain the primary biblical information on creation; therefore, they provide the basis of the biblical doctrine. This seemingly straightforward portion of the Bible, however, has for several millennia remained the object of considerable speculation by various writers who have placed interpretations upon the text that have little to do with what the writer(s) was originally trying to convey to his audience. The meaning of the serpent in Genesis 3, and the origin of evil and relationship between Adam and Eve from Genesis 2-4, each supplemented by three different authorial analyses, lends considerable support to a bold literary notion. Clearly, the meaning of Scripture has more to do with the perception and understanding of its original audience than with the perception and understanding of future generations.
Ever since the dawn of civilization, serpents have played a pivotal part in most of the world’s mythologies and cults (Sarna 26). As far back as the 4th millennium B.C.E., Ancient Near Eastern societies recognized the snake as both a symbol of fertility and even as a figure of deification. Hebrew Scripture, specifically Chapter 3 of Genesis, also features a very influential serpent, probably the most famous of its kind in recorded history. Despite lacking an anglicized name or true power of speech, it critically alters the landscape of human nature with a few brief phrases in one brief conversation. In the treatise Understanding Genesis, Sarna describes the Hebrew incarnation as “not an independent creature; it possesses no occult powers; it is not a demoniacal being; it is not even described as evil, merely as being extraordinarily shrewd” (26).
According to Dr. Sarna, this creature possesses no supernatural qualities whatsoever. The snake cannot think outside of its limited animalistic faculties, cannot perform miraculous rites of magic, and cannot communicate with Satan or other demonic beings. Sarna also reminds readers that, after the successful seduction of Eve and the equally successful follow-up investigation, God does not forcibly interrogate the serpent regarding its role in the crime. Rather, the brunt of His wrath is laid upon Adam and Eve for easily falling prey to basic human desire. Sarna theorizes that the serpent, contrary to popular belief, did not function as the direct corruptor or manipulator of Eve’s soul. Through verbal instigation, he shrewdly drew out the temptation that already lay dormant within her heart. One might even question whether or not the serpent existed in the physical realm at all. What if this creature merely dwelt inside the mind of its victim? Knowledge of ancient Israelite religious practices provides a historical link to Sarna’s theory: Israelites did not practice paganism or any other form of idolatry. Therefore, serpents could not have possessed Godlike admiration in Hebrew monotheistic society.
Kimelman presents a very similar, if not slightly altered perspective on the Eve-Serpent interaction. This writer elects to shed light on the relatively brief period of time that elapses during the Seduction of Eve sequence. The short time span certainly raises significant doubt as to the unquestioned culpability of said serpent (Kimelman 4). After all, he enters the scene after God, man and woman in Chapter 3:1 and exits before God, man, and woman in 3:15; he clearly does not act as a primary mover of action in the narrative. If the serpent possessed no abnormal powers of persuasion, as previously outlined by Sarna, how could he corrupt the morally pure Eve in a matter of minutes? The answer is surprisingly simple: thoughts of deviance had crossed the mind of Eve before our sly serpent had even arrived on stage. The evidence supporting this radical proposal lies in the contradictory accounts of Chapter 2:16-17 and Chapter 3:2-3. For example, God commands Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge, “for on the day that you eat from it, you will die, yea surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). The will of God is obviously absolute; His commands do not leave room for loopholes or other alternate solutions. However, Eve tells the snake that God said “…but from the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden…You are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it lest you die” (Gen. 3:2-3). According to her, God merely advises against consuming the fruit of knowledge and alludes to the possibility of grave consequences. Without outside help, Eve originates the idea of original sin: that mankind can make morally conscious decisions autonomous of God’s divine authority. From this startling development, we can deduce that “evil is a product of human behavior, not a principle inherent in the cosmos” (Sarna 27). Israelites, fiercely loyal to their One God and His stringent commands of moral obedience, frowned upon individuality and its potentially radical consequences. In the biblical/Israelite sense of the term, evil can simply be defined as human freedom, and unlimited freedom will more often result in outright destruction than boundless opportunity. If Eve, the first woman, actually originated the concept of evil as Sarna and Kimelman both strongly suggest, we may now logically explain the reasons behind Adam’s ordained leadership in their marriage. Blindly accepting God’s chauvinist adjustment to holy matrimony would naturally conflict with our ongoing search for historicity in the Book of Genesis. Before original sin, God did not distinguish man from woman. “Male and female he created them, and He blessed them, and He called their name Adam on the day of their creation” (Kimelman 7). Even though Eve emerges out of a rib in Adam’s body, the notion that Adam automatically dominates the relationship from Day One is nowhere to be found. One might recall the feelings of equality expressed in Chapter 2:23-24:
“This one at last, is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called Woman, for from man was she taken. Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”
Adam pays no heed to the presence of female genitalia; he can only speak of basic similarities in human anatomy. Yet, as previously asserted, the biblical status of women changes significantly after Eve succumbs to desire and subsequently creates the force of evil. The exposure of Eve as a sinner compels God to place her under the control of husband Adam, who is still looked upon as a symbol of righteousness. The incident in the Garden of Eden brings to the fore a sharp psychological division between men and women. Moments after the discovery of their treachery, Adam pleads for his own forgiveness and throws Eve to the wolves in one fell swoop: “the woman you put at my side- she gave me of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). With a little connivance, Adam successfully caters to divine approval of blind obedience and thus receives from God full power over his unfortunate companion. Thus, the notion of male superiority invades history. To make matters worse, Eve gains the sole responsibility of bearing Adam’s children- and carrying his children will not be an easy task. She is warned: “I will make most severe your pangs in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).
Despite collaborating with Eve in the rebellion against God, Adam emerges from this major error in moral judgment as a benefactor. His reward comes in the form of newly granted sexual pleasure and unquestioned familial rule. What does wicked, sinful Eve receive as a token of God’s generosity? She obtains the privilege of giving birth to Adam’s living property, and all the mandatory pain and suffering that this privilege demands of her body. From a historical standpoint, ancient Israelites certainly looked upon their women in degrading fashion. Whereas women in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia could divorce their husbands and even retain custody of dowries, Hebrew women would spend their entire lives at the mercy of a male figure. Before marriage, the father dominated her every move, and the bond marriage would transfer absolute authority to her husband. As in Genesis 1-4, the patriarch dominated his family with but one restraint: the will of God. In short, Scripture dictates that men (who govern by reason and truth), receive the right to rule over women (who accede to the rule of men for lack of either value), from the irreproachable authority of God (Gen. 3:14-19).
Fishbane, Michael. Text and Texture: Close Readings of Select Biblical Texts. New York: Schocken Books, 1979
Kimelman, Reuven. “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden.” Women in Judaism 1.2 (1998). <http://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/article/view/170/203>
Sarna, Nahum. Understanding Genesis. New York: Schocken Books, 1966.
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