If you wish to write a code of laws from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
The Book of Genesis begins with two distinct creation stories. In one, a self-sustaining universe containing human life is systematically created by Elohim. In the other, Yahweh (YHWH) plants a garden, in which he fashions Adam out of clay, commands him, and gives him a wife to command.
Elohim and Yahweh
“El” is the generic Hebrew word for a god. It might have served this function for the Canaanites as well, since their chief god was sometimes known as El and sometimes as El ‘Elyon, typically rendered as “God Most High.” Taken on its own, “Elohim” is the plural of “El.” This might imply that it represents many gods, except that in the Bible, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns.
YHWH, or Yahweh, or Yahuah, is the proper name of the God of the Hebrews. A core part of my project here is to understand just what sort of a god Yahweh was. The Bible as written is mostly monotheistic, but seems to reflect earlier henotheistic traditions from a people who worshipped – or perhaps were once ruled by – someone called Yahweh, or sometimes Yah.
When the Bible calls Yahweh by his proper name, this should clue us in that we are being told about the distinctively Yahuish mode of religion (i.e. social organization) – the core technology of the Tanakh. Statements about Elohim are more likely descriptions of how the world works for all people at all times.
Elohim, singularity, and sabbath
First, Elohim creates all the things in six days. He spends four days making distinctions between inanimate objects. Then, once the distinctions have been drawn finely enough, the next two days are spent explicitly recursing – the divided objects are finally generative, bringing forth living (and therefore generative) things (albeit supervised by Elohim). The period of animate recursion culminates in the creation of sexually dimorphic (divided) human beings. Finally, Elohim declares his creation complete and rests on the seventh day.
The days are described as follows:
- Elohim makes light and separates it from darkness
- Elohim separates the waters below and the waters above the firmament.
- Elohim separates water from dry land.
- Elohim distinguishes day and night by means of the stars, moon, and sun.
- The waters generate fish and fowl.
- The land makes beasts, and Elohim makes humanity, male and female.
The 4-2-1 pattern is suggestive of geometrically accelerating progress. Each stage is half the length of the stage before. The eighth day would have been a singularity (half a day, then a quarter, etc.), but Elohim stopped on the seventh. What was the next stage of generativity, after life itself, that Elohim abstained from making?
Yahweh and Eden
Next comes the Garden of Eden. Yahweh is briefly identified with Elohim (he’s first called “Yahweh Elohim”), the creator of the world, but as soon as the earth gets wet and starts sprouting plants, he starts acting on particular named places. He plants a garden by a river, which branches into four named rivers, at least two of which go through Babylonia. While this may not be an actual location, and if so the description is probably garbled, it suggests that Yahweh was an historical actor of a particular place and time.
Lord and cultivator
Yahweh makes a man (Adam is both a generic term for a person, and his name) out of dust, and breathes life into him, and puts him in the garden. He then gives the man an instruction: “From any tree of the garden, you may 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 die.”
Yahweh’s first interaction with Adam is as his lord, commanding him. Yahweh’s next action is to give Adam a helper to command. First, he brings the animals before Adam, who names them, but finds no helper among them. Then, he makes a woman out of Adam’s rib while Adam is sleeping.
In the Elohim creation story, the text reads, “Elohim created Adam/Man in his image. In the image of Elohim he created him; male and female he created them.” Elohim created a single sort of creature, with sexual dimorphism. Dual but equal in priority.
By contrast, Yahweh puts Adam into a doubly superior position. The male Adam is created first, and the unnamed woman is created as Adam’s helper. She is also made out of a part of him. “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”
(The next verse complicates this somewhat. Patriarchy tends to be patrilocal; a woman is thought of as leaving the house of her father to go into her husband’s house. But here, the text reads, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” I find this surprisingly touching.)
Foresight, mortality, and the knowledge of good and evil
We’ve looked at the form of Yahweh’s first interaction with Adam. Now let’s look at the content. Why would you die from knowledge of good and evil?
Taken literally, this is an empty threat; both humans eat the fruit, and neither of them dies; they are merely expelled from the garden. Yahweh will in fact back down from the death penalty repeatedly in the Bible, when someone makes a good argument, or someone he likes a lot makes a heartfelt plea. But here, there’s no challenge, and no description of relenting.
Is there a sense in which the first man and woman to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil did in fact die?
Before Adam and the woman (later named Eve) eat the fruit, Eve is approached by a serpent, which claims that she would not necessarily die if she eats the fruit, but would instead become like a god, knowing the difference between good and evil. Notably, in the first creation story, Elohim spends the first days distinguishing between things. And the very sparse text points out several times that he calls things good, beginning with the light, right before he divides it from darkness. The other uses of “good” are also evaluations of the product of Elohim’s actions.
Not all cognition uses foresight. If someone throws something at me, I will dodge, flinch, or try to catch it, before there’s time to consider anything. If I run barefoot through a field, I don’t think about maintaining my balance. I don’t consider how much force to apply with each muscle. I simply perceive, and adjust, in a fully present, authentic, spontaneous dance with reality.
Behaviors supported by the tree of life alone can be surprisingly sophisticated. But it is only in deliberation that I have occasion to imagine different possible actions, and evaluate whether an outcome is good or bad.
But the second tree is not the tree of evaluation of good and evil – it is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. What does this mean?
The Hebrew word for knowledge – da’at – also refers to sexual intercourse. And sex – good sex – is generally not deliberative. It requires the sort of trust that lets you act directly based on your perceptions, and respond to what you’re feeling and desiring in an unmediated, unfiltered way. You don’t have sex about a person, you have sex with them, in a shared experience of mutual touching and being touched.
So, what does it mean to eat from the tree of knowledge? What does it mean to take that sort of intimacy, and experience it with the concept of goodness and badness? It means that you have an intimate experience of your evaluation of a thing, rather than the thing itself.
How does this relate to death?
A mind that acts directly on its perceptions – however sophisticated those perceptions are – cannot contemplate its own death, because it does not contemplate anything that is not actually present. It is purely life, expressing itself. But the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is the tree of foresight. A mind with knowledge of good and evil can imagine future events, even unto death. Its own potential death can be real and present to it. In this sense, it is true that “in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” It is also true, as the serpent said, that “in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
This is an important clue as to what particular sort of a god Yahweh is, and what powers he has to offer.
Out of Eden
Once they have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve notice that they are naked. They don’t just gain the capability to notice their own evaluations; their self-consciousness leads them to notice that other people might evaluate them. They feel, for the first time, the cost of giving away information before they have a handle on the situation. So they cover themselves up. For the first time, they conceal.
This, of course, tips off Yahweh, who asks them what’s going on. When he learns that they have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he curses them and exiles them from the garden. Some aspects of the curses are worth noting.
Eve is cursed with difficult childbirth. Biologists tell us that as evolution selected for brain size, hominid brains grew larger until the resulting difficulty getting a baby’s head through the birth canal became grave enough to begin offsetting the fitness advantage from improved intelligence. This got us past a critical threshold, but at the price of this curse.
Adam is cursed with the necessity of difficult and painful toil for food. Indeed, when humanity applied foresight to food production, we ended up with organized farming, which requires levels of toil and self-control beyond anything natural to a species that evolved as comparatively easygoing foragers.
I’ll finish by quoting the end of the third chapter – where I understand, no commentary is needed, and where commentary is needed, I do not understand.
And Yahweh Elohim said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever.” So Yahweh Elohim sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to work the land from which he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the path to the tree of life.