It’s more like a how-the-leopard-got-its-spots story

The snake’s other two predictions also come true. He says that the man and the woman will not die and that their eyes will be opened. Genesis 3:7 confirms the latter: “Then the eyes of them both were opened.” What about the former — the bit about not dying? Well, clearly they don’t die, right? Some (even some well-known biblical scholars) argue for a metaphorical death or a death of innocence or a loss of immortality and so on. But there’s really no getting around Yahweh’s statement, “On the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” I could go into excruciatingly painful detail on this, but, given the way it’s worded in Hebrew, it has to mean immediate, physical death. And that is precisely what they DON’T experience. Thus, this prediction on the part of the snake also comes true.

I would say that the whole story about the Garden of Eden is really not a creation story, per se, but a story that’s much more like Kipling’s “How the Leopard Got His Spots” (Kipling called his stories like this “Just-So Stories”). The Garden of Eden story explains how humans came to be as they are now. They’re not animals (naked and ignorant), and they’re not gods (immortal). They are, instead “like” gods — that is, they have knowledge, especially the knowledge about what’s good and what’s evil (or, at least, that’s what the story’s claiming, despite how many folks we might know who don’t seem to know the difference between much of anything). Perhaps an appropriate title for the story would be “How the Humans Got Their Knowledge.”

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2 comments
  1. Will Gensel said:

    I’m interested in your idea of the biblical understanding of nakedness and ignorance. Since we are talking J source here, how do you think this relates to the Sons of Noah story? When I try to understand it from my viewpoint I think “Well, Ham was a bad son because he didn’t do anything about his father’s nakedness. The other sons were good and took care of him.” And perhaps that is all there is to it?

    While I definitely see the Garden of Eden as “How the Humans Got Their Knowledge,” Genesis from J seems like a story of how God keeps thwarting humans (tree of life, limiting lifespan to 120 years, flood, tower of Babel, etc.)

    • Very interesting comment. When it says that Ham gazed or looked upon his father’s nakedness, I think that it implies some sort of sexual activity. The list of incest prohibitions in Leviticus 18 refers to having sex with someone as uncovering that person’s nakedness. On the other hand, the other two sons walk in backwards in order not to “see” Noah’s nakedness. So maybe it wasn’t something as egregious as a sexual assault of some kind.

      When it comes to the J source in Genesis 1-11, I would agree with your point that Yahweh keeps trying to thwart human progress. I don’t know how that serves the J-source’s purpose, but that does seem to be what’s going on.

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