If you wish to write a code of laws from scratch, you must first invent the universe.
More precisely, if you want someone to listen to your advice, you must first show them that you understand their situation. If you are considerably more ambitious and wish to propagate a set of basic operating protocols for a civilization, you may want to demonstrate that these protocols account for the nature of the world well enough to reliably work well within that world. Or you may want to show that they are well-adapted for learning how to better interact with the world.
If your ambition is the latter – to design a process with the capacity to learn – you may find it worth your while to separate your account of the origins of cosmic order from your account of the development of your particular system of interpretation. To clearly indicate the relation between the territory and the mapmaker.
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 of the Elohim plants a garden, in which he fashions Adam out of clay, commands him, and gives him a wife to command.
Sabbath and singularity
“El” is the generic Hebrew word for a god. It served this function for the Canaanites as well, since their chief god was known as El, and sometimes as El Elyon (אל עליון), 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 usually takes singular verbs and pronouns.
First, Elohim creates all the things in six days. 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.
- Finding the work complete, Elohim blesses the seventh day, and rests (shavat, שבת).
This account is strikingly similar to the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma Elish, and is similar to a variety of other creation myths from the same general area. In Enuma Elish, the world is carved up from the corpse of the goddess Tiamat. The account in Genesis is less personal; at first, darkness is upon the face of the deep (tehom, תהום), likely from the same root. The ensuing sequence of divisions made is almost identical.
Both cultures also have sabbath traditions. The Babylonian shabatu is a day to appease otherwise potentially angry gods, and avoid activities that might attract attention and risk their anger. There is some evidence that the early Israelite sabbath was thought of similarly.* The Egyptians likewise abstained from work or even leaving the house on unfavorable days. But the Biblical shabbat (שבת) is a blessed day of satisfied rest.
These perspectives are compatible.
Elohim spends four days making distinctions – for the most part between inanimate objects. (Plants are also created on the third day, but it is easy to imagine writing them off as mostly passive scenery.) 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 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 (the next stage takes only half a day, then a quarter, and so on), but Elohim stopped on the seventh. What was the next stage of generativity, after life itself, that Elohim abstained from making?
Perhaps the blessed day of satisfied rest is also a vital protection against something that would quickly spiral out of control, were it to be created.
Gardener of men
As soon as the earth gets wet and starts sprouting plants, Yahweh of the Elohim begins to act 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, suggesting that Yahweh was an historical actor of a particular place and time. Specifically, the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, the fertile network of river valleys that produced so many of the great cities of antiquity.
Lord and cultivator
Yahweh makes a man. Adam (אדם) is both a generic term for a person, and his name. It is also related to the words for soil (adamah, אדמה) and red (adom, אדום). Yahweh 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 Adam’s dominance somewhat. Patriarchy tends to be patrilocal; a woman leaves 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.”
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 do eat the fruit, persuaded by a serpent, 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 tov (טוב), meaning good, complete, or fitting, beginning with the light, right before he divides it from darkness. The other uses of “good” are likewise evaluations of the outcomes 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 (דעת) – 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.
The price of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is the separation between the thing and the symbolic representation of the thing.
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.”
Life under self-consciousness
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 with a protective surface to block outward information flows.
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 a high price.
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.
Self-control on the part of the head of household is a crucial part of the machinery by which he can control his environment. This control extends to Eve herself; Adam will rule over her.
The is-ought distinction is the price we pay for the knowledge of good and evil. Cut off from the source of life, preference is no longer part of an integrated means of survival, but an empty formalism, implemented by arbitrary force.
The serpent is a traditional symbol of adversarial intelligence. Built to move towards food and engulf it, it immobilizes its prey – or defends itself against predators – by injecting harmful information, in the form of proteins optimized to disrupt some natural life processes of the target. Frequently, venom disrupts ordinary biological process because it has important structural similarities to proteins that serve important signaling functions. Even nonbiological poisons such as heavy metals work by similar means. You could think of poisoning as a primitive physical example of a harmful lie, representing as good something which is not.
The serpent in this story injects dangerous information with words.
Serpents are also a traditional symbol of medicine, the practice of precisely dosing what are otherwise poisons to produce a salutary effect.*** In this origin story, it is not clear that Adam and Eve were doing anything interesting until this precisely dosed poison pushed them out of a stable state:
And Yahweh of the 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 of the 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.
Cherubim, or Cherubs, are typically depicted as a sort of compounded creature, with the head of a man, the body of an ox, the claws of a lion, and the wings of an eagle. The Sphinx and the Assyrian winged bull are closely related.
Cherubs are typically displayed as guardians of a boundary such as the entrance to a temple or throne room, or as the protective base of a throne. Their wings don’t form a surface for pushing against the air, but a protective canopy that can be expanded or withdrawn according to the judgment of an intelligent agent. Cherubs, like Sphinxes, guard secrets. Just as Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness and covered themselves, hiding the secret of procreation, Yahweh himself covers the nakedness of the garden, and the dangerous information it contains.
Jews refer to the Torah, the five books traditionally attributed to Moses, as the Tree of Life (etz chayim, עץ חיים). It begins with an explanation for why we might need a book to help us find our way to the source of life.
* Morris Jastrow’s The Original Character of the Hebrew Sabbath describes this in detail.
** The Alphabet of Ben Sirach notoriously parodies this dual account. According to the Alphabet, Adam was originally created alongside an equal, Lilith, but their equality led to disagreements about who should be on top during sex. Lilith departed to become a baby-killing demon, and Adam got a new, subordinate mate.
*** In the European tradition this is traditionally symbolized by the rod of Asclepius, a single snake winding around a single staff. But in the past several decades this has been confused with the Hermetic Caduceus, a winged staff with two serpents winding around it. Hermes is of course the god of secrets and commerce, and while the wings are usually attributed to the god’s penchant for travel, it seems to me that they might also be meant to symbolize a protective screen to conceal information, much like the nobility in some places have carried fans to cover their faces.
Commerce is an obvious symbol of a potentially valuable but dangerous carrying of information (price signals) across boundaries. And money is pure representation of value, which has no intrinsic value of its own; only possible, with all its potential for misalignment, because of the potential for the symbolic representation of good and bad.