The Biblical Creation narrative has always admitted multiple kinds of readings. Most of these readings are broadly allegorical; that is to say, they assume the text has more to say (állos agoreúein) than it lets on. Saint Augustine famously performed an allegorical reading at the end of his autobiographical Confessions, arguing, among many other things, that the “seas” referred to in Genesis 1:10 represent an embittered human race, which must be gathered “into one society,” and that the “huge sea-beasts” summoned on the fifth day stand for “great miracles.” Doubtless, such an approach has its merits, but it can also easily stray too far from the subject matter. This poses a danger not only to the interpretation, which can become overly fanciful or even irrelevant, but also, and more perniciously, to the original text itself, which the interpretation could obfuscate. Alternatively, a literal reading might be opted for to circumvent these problems, but, of course, this comes with its own set of caveats.
A literal reading is precisely what Augustine himself attempted in another, lesser-known work titled de Genesi ad litteram (“On Genesis, to the letter”). Here, again, he treats a whole slew of topics, ranging from the exact understanding of time as it relates to the chronology of God’s career, to the question of how Adam and Eve copulated and ate food while they lived in the garden of Eden. To see where Augustine’s reading might have faltered, we must consider what his understanding of literalism amounts to. As he affirms in Book 8 of de Genesi, a literal interpretation must treat the contents of its object as res gestae, as a series of things that have happened in a historical sense. Acceding to such a constraint burdens the exegetic enterprise with having to provide a factual, historiographic account. In Augustine’s day, this meant seeking a frictitious compatibility with Neoplatonic philosophy. Today, literal interpretations of Genesis have been placed under even more considerable strain by advancements in modern (evolutionary) science. By having to compromise with scientific descriptions of the universe, a literal reading forces the Biblical text to answer questions it was not designed to answer. Like its allegorical counterpart, then, literalism threatens to stray too far from the matter at hand.
The account of Genesis is mythological; it relates a storied past. To apply to myth the reigning science of the day, whether it be modern empirical science or ancient philosophy, in an attempt to transform it into a factual chronicle of human affairs, means inevitably to mangle what is most intrinsic to myth: its kaleidoscopic abundance, its playfulness, its immeasurable depth. To perform a literal reading worthy of the Biblical narrative, which I aim to do here, it is perhaps necessary to take seriously Saint Paul’s conception of philosophy as something “hollow and deceptive,” at least insofar as it pertains to scripture. A truly literal reading should approach the matter of Genesis as a narrative, as a story—as literature. Rather than chronicling what factually happened, an interpretation to the letter should aspire to be literary. And whenever one enters the sphere of the literary, one is sure to be dealing with a very mercurial substance. Literary events are, after all, very different from historical ones. Regarding the topic of literature, the Roman historian Sallust probably said it best: “these things indeed never took place at any particular time but are always.”
The Beginning of Beginnings
In the Song of Moses, while safeguarding the children of Israel on their journey through the “waste howling wilderness,” Yahweh is likened to an eagle as she “stirs up her nest, hovers over her young.” This image takes us back to the beginning of beginnings, when “the breath of Elohim was hovering over the face of the deep.” It is difficult to estimate, let alone translate, just how much is being communicated here: The breath of Elohim, ruah, gliding over Tehom, the primeval waters, in a manner that evokes the relaxed weightlessness of a giant eagle gently soaring overhead.
The scene is endlessly beguiling. Tehom, we now know, is cognate with Tiamat, the name for the Babylonian goddess who coupled with Abzu “when the heavens above had not been named, nor the firm ground below.” Tiamat, the salt sea, and Abzu, the nourishing freshwater underground. On the second day of Creation, “Elohim said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” This separation of “waters commingling as a single body” constitutes the first and perhaps most incisive act of violence committed by Elohim. The firmamentum inserted by Elohim to separate water from water, lover from lover, is the first solid piece of cosmic infrastructure. It is the raqia in Hebrew or the steréōma in Greek—the framework as such, that which holds and supports, a fundamentum inconcussum, an “unshakeable foundation.” Inserting something rigid into an inexhaustible formlessness means committing an original, necessary act of cruelty. Before, “the earth was without form, and void,” “unseen and unbuilt.” There was no earth as such, no sight of firm ground. First, the waters had to be differentiated. But even before that, there must be two other elements, more archaic still. In the Enūma Eliš, the waters are primordially entangled, yet they already form a dyad. In the beginning there were two, Tiamat and Abzu, who begot all the rest. In the Bible, there is no such sign of autogenesis. Before there were those two, there had to be two others: breath and surface, and an almost intangible sense of the one breezing effortlessly over the other, the way a lover’s breath gently tickles the flesh of his beloved.
The surface of the chaotic deep: a sightless, infinite vista. The breath of Elohim, furrowing the waters, creating a fissure in the immaculate surface—creating, as it were, a new vaulted surface called Heaven. Heaven: an intimation of Elohim’s unnameable eyrie, his place for brooding, nesting, surveying, the vantage from which he beholds and deems.
Eagles are the apex predators of the avian realm. They are known to have an eyesight vastly superior to that of humans, a razor-sharp gaze capable of spotting minute details from an impossible distance. This is thought to be attributable to their unusually large pupils, which minimise the diffraction of incoming light. When a wave of light encounters an aperture, a breaking takes place into distinctive shards. The light shatters and whorls, as when circular waves ripple outwards in a narrow strait. This then is Creation: diffringere, the breaking up of continuous waves.
From high up in the air, eagle vision approximates something panoramic. The face of the undifferentiated waters is, in fact, precisely such a panorama: an unbroken view, a continuous scene—the world not yet as cosmos, but essentially open, chasmic, yawning—gilded in pleromatic phosphorescence (an illumination without a definite source; a “world of wavering light”). Only slowly does the scene admit of particulars. First, the seas and the dry land, then the grass sprouting from the abundant earth, “the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in himself, upon the earth.” After this, “great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly… and every winged fowl,” and “cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth,” and finally, the serpent, who is “more subtle than any beast of the field which Yahweh had made.”
The Snake in the Garden
What is this subtlety so peculiar to the snake? In Hebrew it is specified as arúm, in Greek as phronimṓtatos, “most skilled.” The serpent, it seems, evinces a multiple subtlety. Something about the serpent avoids simple determination and the mere reduction to his kind. There is only the serpent, the singular entity; a peculiar focal point in the relentless, methodical process of optical differentiation. Subtlety is foremost something woven thinly (sub-tela). Something fine and thus hard to expose, but also something highly particular, exquisite, even keen. This keenness is amplified in phrónimos, which attributes the same kind of practical wisdom or phrónēsis so sought after by Socrates. Wisdom like this is of a strategic kind, delicate, and highly nimble, perhaps even polútropos, “of many twists and turns,” as was said of Odysseus. A tropos is like a spindle, a stitch in time. It is the “point of no return,” the “tipping point” in any given situation—but especially in war. Hence, the double entendre in the word arúm, itself cognate with aróm, indicating what is “naked.” The subtlest point of Creation hinges on the almost imperceptible transition between a blissful scene about a man and his wife, “both naked (arumím), [but] not ashamed” and the subsequent insinuation of the serpent, “more subtle (arúm) than any beast of the field.”
Man and woman are corporeally naked, but their minds remain “enveloped,” similar to how the minds of Odysseus’ men became enveloped when they came upon the land of the lotus eaters. There is a kind of innocence in this envelopment that is echoed in the habitat of Eden itself. It is said that “Yahweh Elohim planted a garden in Eden.” Eden, a boundless Eastern steppe, quite possibly intimating the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, is suddenly compacted. The garden of Eden is not the whole of Eden; it is rather a paradise. Both the words garden and paradise evoke the sense of an enclosure (paradise specifically means pairi daēza, a walled encompassment). Man and woman’s uncomplicated nakedness is enabled precisely because they have in some way been closed off. Yahweh Elohim has taken man and woman under His wing, so to speak. The plea expressed in Psalm 17 (“Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings.”) is precisely what God wants for Adam and Eve: to keep an eye on them, to take care of them, so that they will not have to take care of themselves. All He requires is their obedience.
God states his terms very clearly: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Yet, of all the peculiar utterances one encounters in Genesis, this might be the most peculiar one yet. Not only is it—given what we know to happen later—in sensu stricto, a lie. It also lays out a kind of cause-and-effect that Adam and Eve cannot possibly understand. Here we have the original catch-22: It is impossible to adhere to the imperative on the merits of its own logic, without already having violated it.
To better understand why this is the case, we must first grasp the meaning of the knowledge of good and evil. According to Genesis, our sense of good and evil is intimately tied to the polysemy of nakedness. The serpent embodies a nakedness that complicates the nakedness of the man and the woman. The serpent is the perfectly integrated creature. Its body is literally nu comme un ver (“naked like a worm”). In the same way, its mind is naked in the sense of being unveiled or uncovered. The serpent lays out God’s “lie”: “You shall not surely die: for Elohim knows that in the day you eat [of the fruit], then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be like Elohim, knowing good and evil.” Prompted thus by the serpent, Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasing to behold, and beautiful for contemplating.” So, curiously, it seems that even before she had her eyes opened, Eve became aware that the fruit of the tree was good for food. Even before knowing good and evil, what must have appeared good to Eve was the knowing itself—the departure from innocence. What happened then is well known: “the eyes of them both were opened fully, and they knew that they were naked.” Knowing good and evil means the same as knowing that one is naked. Becoming mentally naked (losing one’s innocence) entails becoming aware of one’s bodily nakedness. And this in turn means becoming ashamed and having now to recover a surrogate innocence (in lieu of mental innocence) by e.g., covering one’s nether regions with fig leaves.
Once they have eaten the fruit, man and woman become like Elohim. Like Elohim, they now live with open eyes. This translates to the following: “Adam and Eve hid themselves from seeing the face of Yahweh Elohim amongst the trees in the garden.” The literal wording here in Greek is prósōpon, meaning “before or towards the eyes.” Having opened their own eyes, husband and wife are now afraid of meeting God’s eyes. Man, the apple of God’s eye, is afraid to see himself reflected in God’s eye—is afraid to become, literally, a pupil, a pupulus, a little puppet boy, in God’s eye. Adam’s appropriation of the immortal vision of Elohim is tantamount to the fear he experiences in seeing himself in and through Elohim’s eyes: as a naked little worm.
Man first appeared in the image (eikóna) of Elohim, after His likeness (omoíōsin). The same breath that hovered over the face of the deep was “breathed into his nostrils,” giving him “the breath of life,” and thus “man became a living soul.” Then man was “put” in the garden. (Possibly, he was lifted up and flown over.) But never was it apparent that man could not die. Man could not die only insofar as death was alien to him. He was innocent of death. He did not know death. As such, he was not actually human. Using terminology borrowed from the philosopher Martin Heidegger, we could say: Man might have been able to perish like any other creature (not, after all, having eaten of the tree of life), but he was unable to die, that is, to exists towards his own life as a stretch of time always already ending. Having opened his eyes, man sees himself the way a bird sees a naked worm: as something incredibly vulnerable, as something God knew him to be all along.
Perhaps now we can appreciate why God’s first commandment must have seemed so opaque to Adam and Eve. To refrain from acquiring the knowledge of good and evil one would already need to have knowledge of good and evil—knowledge, that is, of mortality. But having such knowledge intimates a set of conditions that are already beyond the garden of Eden. “Evil” is rendered in Greek as ponērós, which refers to a “toilsome” state characterised by suffering—as opposed to a “good” state lived in privation of toil, free from worry. When God banishes the first humans from Eden, he is effectively condemning them to a life haunted by evil:
I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children… cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life… in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, til thou return unto the ground.
While this may seem overly cruel to creatures who could not have understood the gravitas of their transgression, it is really just an inevitable consequence of the schismatic condition of a fallen human nature. Humanity was condemned to a mortal existence—a historical existence burdened by the need for survival—by its own divine perspective (i.e., by God).
When God forced Adam and Eve to leave their natural habitat, He made them “coats of skin, and clothed them.” Having become aware of themselves as abject, helpless creatures, the first humans appropriated the traits of other animals to transcend their bare existence. In particular, man donned a second skin to protect his furless nudity against the elemental harshness of the world. Having procured this skin, God revealed Himself as an avian hunter, and hunting itself became the first in an endless series of human attempts to escape an inherently immanent, snakelike state of being. Each of these attempts functions as a more or less sophisticated prosthetic, an artificial extension of the original human condition. Later will come technology: weaponry, vehicles, cities, etc. But the most basic prosthetic is the skin ripped from a dead animal. This coat of skin is man’s first bulwark against the shame that he naturally feels in being himself—in being nu comme un ver.
While an uncanny parallel exists between the sinuous coils of the serpent and the mortal coil suffered by mankind, the same serpentine image can also signify to us something that points beyond a fallen state. In the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, we are offered a counterpoint to the serpent’s damning portrayal in Genesis. The eponymous hero has just acquired the plant of rejuvenation, which will help him restore his former youth. The plant is effectively a remedy “against decay.” When Gilgamesh leaves the plant unattended for a moment to go bathe in a nearby spring, suddenly a snake “[smells] the fragrance of the plant” and snatches it away, leaving the king deeply despondent. This is said to be the origin of the snake’s ability to shed its skin, a trait which visualises the creature’s capacity for renewal. So, while in Genesis the serpent is “cursed above all cattle,” forced to slither on its belly and eat dust, here it figures as an intimation of eternity.
The Christian narrative is quite clear on the remedy “against decay.” To regain entry to paradise, one must join with Christ. We are here reminded of a certain thief who was crucified alongside Jesus. Right before they both expired, the thief pleaded: “remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” To which Christ replied: “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” To be with Christ, then, originally meant dying on the Cross. More generally, however, it could mean embracing the fate of martyrdom wherever and however it presents itself. Embracing martyrdom is the same as regaining paradise. What is involved in martyrdom is therefore nothing less than a complete reversal of history. The path of the martyr reveals to us that paradise is found by those who stop fleeing from the human condition. Immortality is achieved, paradoxically, by those who finally accept their mortality.
The example of Christ is here at its most elementary. During the ninth hour of his crucifixion, Jesus echoes the words of Psalm 22: Eloi, eloi, lima sabacthani? (“My God, my God, for why did you abandon me?”) The Psalm itself is much more extensive. The lament continues: “I am but a worm, and not a man; the scorn of men, and a contemptible thing of people.” Despite what the paintings and statues show, it is quite well known that the crucified were usually naked when hoisted onto the Cross. Here, then, a man who voluntarily subjected himself to one of the most horrible punishments in all of human history. A man rendered naked, having shed his armature, his dead animal skin, and nailed to the Cross, where he experienced the agony of pure torture, and was made to contort like a helpless worm.
In the figure of Christ, we see the absolute redemption of humanity and the reintegration of the divided human state. After all, Christ fully embodied the innate vulnerability and abjection of humanity, and was not ashamed—that is to say, He overcame the mortal fear that so naturally afflicts each one of us. It is in this sense, perhaps, that we ought to understand the “constriction of time [sunteleías aiō̃nos]” (as it says in Matthew) that will be brought about by the Messiah. Perhaps, the Messianic Age is nothing other than the hazy brilliance of an authentic life, or, as D.H. Lawrence once put it, “the soul living her life along the incarnate mystery of the open road”—a personal stretch of time lived in the abnegation of time, and for all eternity.