The Good Book Who Is the Snake in the Garden of Eden?
A Thought Experiment
There are many drawbacks to growing up in a community of religious fundamentalists. (Right-wing summer camps, for example, don’t tend to be quite as fun as liberal-minded ones.) But there are also some benefits to fundamentalism: reading the Bible as nonfiction is, in my experience, one of them.
At the Orthodox Jewish schools in which I was educated, we were taught that the Torah—that is, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy—was written by God himself (dictated to Moses). And, what’s more, those books were, we were taught, a sober factual report of history: every character in the story was a person who really lived and breathed, and every event described in the story, we were told, actually happened.
It’s hard to describe to people who didn’t grow up with these beliefs what it’s like to read the Bible in this odd way, what it’s like to believe that the accounts of Noah and Abraham and Moses are as fact-based as today’s New York Times.
To the uninitiated, this type of literal-minded reading can seem simplistic: Can’t a story be “true” even if it isn’t factually true? Is Moby-Dick less great because Ishmael is a fictional person and not a guy who actually lived and boarded a whaling ship in the nineteenth century? Doesn’t insistence on the historical realism of a text miss the point of a story?
Perhaps. But what if we could have it both ways, a powerful piece of literature that was also all factual? The Bible after all was intended to be taken as factual, and even though its literary worth may not depend on its historical accuracy, can we deny that it would be much more thrilling to the imagination if these sensational stories all turned out to be fact? Wouldn’t that make it a work of singular interest?
Even after I left the Orthodox fold, and read the text in a variety of different and less pious ways, I began to realize that there was something missing. Not believing in the realism of the story had created a kind of barrier between the text and me. Even though I could read Hebrew, it was as if I was no longer able to read the story in its original language; in losing faith, something was lost in translation. Even though I maintained that a critical approach to the biblical text was the intellectually honest position, I had to admit that something important had been lost in my personal experience of reading those stories: the energy, the drama, the electrifying sense of immediacy that comes from the knowledge that this really happened. All of that was gone. This wasn’t simply a loss of religious faith; it was a loss of literary faith. That paradise of true belief in a story was lost—or, at least, it seemed to be lost. Was it somehow possible to regain it?
• • •
During my former life as a religious reader, I’d learned that the text as nonfiction yielded the opposite of simplistic interpretations. On the contrary, the project of harmonizing religious faith with common sense and rationality required an obsessive degree of careful thought, a compulsive impulse to reread more deeply. One of the unique properties of reading a text in this manner is that it forces a reader to work a bit. A reader must actively mine the story for plausibility, for verisimilitude, where another reader wouldn’t bother. When reading the story of the Garden of Eden, most people are perfectly content to accept it as a fable, or an allegory. Just as nobody is bothered by the realism of Kafka’s talking dogs and chimps, or by Aesop’s tortoises and hares, no reader is bothered by the talking snake in the Garden. Why should it bother them? These things happen every day in the world of fiction.
Nor is a secular reader bothered that the creation story in general is riddled with contradictory details. In one chapter, Adam and Eve are described as having been created together. In the next chapter, Adam is created first and Eve is fashioned out of his surgically removed rib. To the secular reader, there’s a simple historical reason for this contradiction: when the Bible was being compiled there were different versions of the story floating around in different documents. A scribe, or group of scribes, simply cut two versions of the story from two documents and pasted them into the Bible (possibly as a clever effort to attract the fans of each version).
But to the religious reader, who believes that the text emerged more or less whole from the Cloud of Glory, the theory of multiple documents doesn’t quite suffice. To the religious reader, both narrative versions of the creation must somehow reflect a single set of facts, and the (apparent) contradiction was intentionally placed there for artistic purposes, to create the effect of layered meanings. In the case of the two dueling creation stories, the contradiction perhaps speaks to the contradictory nature of humans, how they were at odds with themselves from the moment they were created: sometimes they are coupled and sometimes they are individuals, sometimes their natures are in sync and sometimes they are in opposition to each other and to their surroundings. The human is a creature who wants to be a creator, a mortal who aspires to be a god. In short, if you believe that Adam isn’t just a character who appears in different literary documents but an actual person, with thoughts and emotions and clashing motivations, you are compelled to see him that way in the text. To the religious reader, the story’s inconsistencies show Adam and Eve as they really are: creatures of contradiction.
If you read the story as literally true, there is a greater need to account for strangeness, to puzzle out its mysteries. Religious reading, in my experience, demanded more of me. It required a great deal of clever literary maneuvering and creativity, an elevated degree of alertness and commitment and activity. It was an ambitious way to encounter a story, and it yielded results that were as brilliant and innovative as any secular reading. Ever since I left the fold, I’ve wondered if it was possible to recapture that unique mode of reading.
And so I decided to do a thought experiment: I would reread the story as though I believed in it. I would work on the premise that everything in the story has to make logical sense—as much as possible—and that it’s more than just a tall tale; it’s a chronicle of true events that happened in our world. Without actually becoming an Orthodox believer again, I could adopt the reading style of a believer.
• • •
In doing my thought experiment, it was only natural to begin with the story of the Garden of Eden—and not only because it’s the opening of the book. In a text whose story lines are deepened through the ceaseless repetition of themes, Eden is the Story of Stories, the narrative upon which every other story in Genesis, and beyond, is structurally modeled. It wasn’t an accident that the Gospels, that late addition to the biblical library, imagined its story as another rendition of the Genesis narrative and its protagonist, Jesus, as a second Adam. The story of Eden is the key to understanding many other stories in the Bible, and in western literature.
The challenge, however, is that Eden also happens to be one of the more notoriously difficult stories to imagine in realistic terms. Any thought experiment in literary realism must address the veracity problem posed generally by Genesis, with its six-hundred-year-old heroes and its mysterious passages (e.g., just who are those “daughters of men” who mate with the “sons of gods”?). But the story of Eden is especially weird, and its basic meaning is hard to figure.
True, most Bible stories are weird—but few are quite this baffling. Later in Genesis, for instance, when Jacob and his mother plot to hoodwink Jacob’s brother, Esau, by hoodwinking the aging Isaac, we immediately grasp the realism of that situation: it’s an inheritance plot, an all-too-familiar family drama. Even though the characters are nomadic shepherds living in the Land of Canaan in the year one billion B.C.E., we easily recognize the human story there.
But where’s the realism with the slick-talking Snake and the blissfully naked Adam and Eve romping around their garden? The setting itself is mystifying; it doesn’t seem to be happening on our planet. What is going on in this story? Even if we assume that it indeed happened, as per the thought experiment, what is it exactly that happened?
And, who is this Snake? To answer this question, the Christian tradition developed an entire prequel-like backstory to the Garden of Eden narrative. Without some kind of explanation, the Eden story hardly makes any sense: What, after all, motivated this Snake character to be such a troublemaker? The answer, according to those Christian readers, can be found in an untold history: there was a war in heaven, an armed rebellion against God led by a dissenting angel, who was then cast out, along with his fellow rebel angels, and subsequently became a devil who set up headquarters in the underworld, plotting revenge. The Snake, then, was actually this devil-angel in disguise, on a secret mission to sabotage God’s plans. Eden, in other words, was just one battleground in a larger war between God and the fallen angels, a battle in which humans are mere pawns.
It’s a great story. But it’s not a very enlightening read of Genesis. The Satan backstory only highlights the gaping hole at center of the Eden story in the biblical text: Just who is this Snake and what motivates him? Without much to go on, Christian readers can hardly be blamed for filling in the narrative gap by inserting an elaborate backstory. But that gap remains a gap.
Can we discern a true human drama in the Garden of Eden, a real story, or is it just a one-note moral allegory, or merely fodder for comic-strip punch lines? Is there a story in Eden, like the conflict between Jacob and his brother, that feels as real as a family drama?
• • •
As soon as we accept the premise that the Snake is real—as per my thought experiment—that he really said those things to Eve, the weirdness of this detail immediately demands that we make sense of it. When we’re forced to find realism in Eden, a story suddenly emerges so clearly that it’s surprising we didn’t see it there the whole time, hiding in plain sight: the Snake and Adam are brothers.
The story of the Garden of Eden is as dramatic as a family conflict because it is a drama of family conflict. The Snake isn’t secretly a devil out to take vengeance on God, but rather the conflict in the story is exactly what it says it is: an encounter between one character named “the Snake” and the other named “Adam” (or, to be closer to the Hebrew, the Adam—translation, “the human”). These two characters, the Human and the Snake, share the same father, and yet one is favored and the other is not. One has been given the mantle of leadership and the other has gotten nothing. This is the source of a conflict.
Like all brothers in the Book of Genesis, Adam and the Snake quarrel over an inheritance: Who will be given the right of dominion? Adam is given this right by their father, the Creator, but the Snake believes that he, the Snake, is more worthy, and he sets out to prove it.
Fraternal conflict, the fight over which son is favored, is the central recurring motif in the Book of Genesis. According to the usual reading, this motif begins with Adam and Eve’s children, Cain and Abel, and the cycle of fraternal strife repeats with Isaac and Ishmael, then Jacob and Esau, and concludes with Joseph and his brothers. I would suggest, however, that this motif starts earlier in the book, at the very beginning, with Adam and the Snake. As it turns out, Eden is the first and archetypal instance of brothers at war.
And, like other brothers in Genesis, they are joined together as opposites. Like Jacob and Esau, the soft-skinned tent dweller and the hairy hunter, the Snake and the Human are twins, two sides of a single principle. We meet these twins in twin statements. In the first, we see that “the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed.” The Hebrew word for naked is ’arum. In the very next sentence, almost as a non sequitur, we are introduced to a new character: “Now the snake was more shrewd (’arum) than all the living-things of the field . . .” In two consecutive verses, this word ’arum is used to describe the main characters—but the meaning of this single uncommon word is completely different in each verse, indeed opposite. The humans are naked, ’arum; everything, including their motives, is out in the open. They are guileless. But in the next sentence, in connection with the Snake, the word ’arum means shrewd, sly; the Snake is a trickster who keeps his intentions hidden. Adam and the Snake are brothers because they share a single father, and they are twins because they both embody a single word, a single quality, the two-sided coin of ’arum-ness.
Note that it doesn’t say the Snake is evil or immoral. He possesses shrewdness, which is a skill set and not a moral value. In other Bible-era sources, the Snake of Eden is shown in an explicitly positive light. In a Gnostic version of the Bible, for example, the Snake in Eden is celebrated as the knowledge-giver, a role associated with the snake gods in Near Eastern cultures and perhaps later hinted at in the Bible itself, in the Book of Numbers when Moses fashions a copper snake in order to heal the people from plague. The snake gives knowledge and medicine to man.
Even though the Hebrew scribes might be trying to satirize the Near Eastern snake fixation—a cult of worship associated with the serpentine-shaped Nile River—perhaps a trace of that heroic role for the snake migrated into our version of the Bible. Even if he’s shady, he might still be gallant. In the ancient world, the trickster type can indeed be a hero. Odysseus is praised for his clever ruses. Because he’s a noble person and our hero, we relish his deviousness, just as we cheer for Robin Hood.
Jacob, later in the Genesis story, is a fine example of this kind of heroism. Jacob lies and cheats. He swindles his brother, his father, his uncle, whomever. And for his wiliness, Jacob is rewarded with the distinction of being the father of the nation. Jacob, in fact, is suggestively linked to the Snake of Eden by dint of his name: in Hebrew, the name Jacob, or Ya’akov, is derived from the word ’eikev, which means heel—this because Jacob is born tightly grasping the heel of his twin brother. This same word, eikev, is invoked in the memorable punishment meted out to the Snake at the end of the Eden story: “upon your belly shall you walk and dust shall you eat . . . [humans] will bruise you on the head, you will bruise them in the heel (eikev).” Jacob, a heel bruiser like the Snake, is a crafty hero, skilled in the art of domestic intrigues.
The Eden Snake is shrewd in precisely this manner. Just as Jacob offers delicious stew to his starving brother and, dressed in a disguise, gives juicy morsels of grilled meat to Isaac, their father—all part of an elaborate scheme to steal an inheritance—the Snake offers Adam and Eve a delicious treat. And his intention is the same: he believes that Adam is laughably unworthy of this honor. When it says that the Snake was “more shrewd [’arum] than all the living-things of the field,” the story’s narrator is actually communicating the Snake’s point of view, for this shrewd quality of mind is the Snake’s own political claim: he, the Snake, has the sole right to rule over man, and everything, because he is smarter than all. Shouldn’t the ruler of the earth be the most intelligent? It’s certainly a fair claim. With lawyerly precision, the Snake demonstrates that Adam is the original emperor without clothes: a fool and an impostor, not a king.
Whoever he might be, the Snake is something more than a snake. He’s a complex character, torn by mixed motives, who seeks justice while also indulging in petty ambition; he is tormented and ultimately undone by his wounded nobility. He is, in other words, as human as Adam. To read the Garden of Eden as a theater of conflict between siblings might seem odd, but it actually brings the story in line with the rest of the Book of Genesis.
When we start with the premise that these stories describe actual people, we are given the ability to see them as precisely that. Was the Snake real? If you believe that he was, you will be motivated to look for him. And what you will find is a vividly real character looking back at you.