Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Genesis 2: What Is Death?

Biblical scholars have long noted that the opening chapters of Genesis contain not one but two creation stories. The first is cosmic and grand: God speaks the universe into existence and creates humans (both sexes simultaneously) on the sixth day--a crowning achievement.

The second version of the story--perhaps more familiar to modern audiences--is grittier and more intimate. In it, God molds man from the earth, breathes life into his "nostrils," and creates woman from man's rib a little while later.

When God first speaks to Adam in this second tale, he plays both waiter and schoolmarm, first laying out menu choices and then issuing a dire warning: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die" (Genesis 2:16-17).

As greetings go, this is closer to "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service" than "Welcome Home," and we can imagine that Adam might be a little taken aback at being scolded right out of the ground. Nonetheless, this is the famous command whose breach leads to the infamous fall. There's just one rule in the garden, and it boils down to the easiest diet in history: do not eat this fruit, lest ye die. (Take that, Atkins, you demanding prig.) However, the first couple can't help but binge, and thence comes "all our woe," in Milton's phrase.

But the allure of the forbidden is real: even Homer eats his soul donut. And we should be lenient in judging our first parents, at least in part because rules, as Douglas Macarthur reminds us, are mostly made to be broken.

But perhaps we might cut Adam and Eve even more slack, because while God's sanction seems simple--eating fruit=death--we may wonder if the naked pair can even understand the terms. Said differently, how can the first humans know "death" when they barely know life? And how can they make an informed decision on the fruit if they don't understand the penalty that will result from their eating it?

Now, I don't mean to malign Adam and Eve as bumbling imbeciles here. Rabbinic authors depict Adam as intelligent from the beginning, endowed with the wisdom of the universe the instant he springs from the earth.

But still ... in these first moments of being, it seems to me that you can fit all that Adam and Eve don't know into one of the less impressive Great Lakes--an Ontario or an Erie. Can they know "death" when they don't know how good cupcakes taste? Or the best way to get across Central Park without taking the subway? Or why Taco Bell isn't "real" Mexican? Or that the filibuster is too often misused by obstructionist politicians?

You may think I'm splitting hairs here--that this level of Biblical speculation is stupid. But I'm not alone in asking the question, do Adam and Eve really know what death is? Even John Milton--the great English poet who composed the Renaissance midrash Paradise Lost--wonders if Adam can get his mind around the notion of his own demise. In a conversation with his wife in Book IV of that great epic, Adam recapitulates the divine sanction--an "easie charge," he calls it--and proves his own thanatological ignorance (look it up!):

"of all the Trees
In Paradise that bear delicious fruit
So various, not to taste that onely Tree
Of knowledge, planted by the Tree of Life,
So neer grows Death to Life, what ere Death is,
Som dreadful thing no doubt" (IV, 421-426)

Adam, Milton guesses, does not know "what ere death is," and though he infers that it is "dreadful," he cannot confirm his surmise. So when his wife and he eventually eat of the fruit, they cannot possibly know what's coming next. So perhaps the original sin is a little more forgivable than we first thought.

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