Over the centuries, there have been innumerable interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve. This week on the Daily, Stephen Greenblatt, the author of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, retells some of these legends in modern idiom, and invents a few of his own.
William Blake, Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (detail), 1808.
The serpent, the subtlest of all the beasts of the field, had observed with interest the humans’ sexual intercourse in Paradise. He saw that Adam calmly willed his penis to stiffen and then gently inserted it into Eve’s vulva. The act caught his attention in part because he thought that Eve was extraordinarily beautiful and in part because he had already noted a certain resemblance between Adam’s penis and his own body, which he could also harden or soften at will. One day, he approached Eve—Adam was away surveying a different part of the garden—and proposed that he stiffen his body and enter her, as Adam did. Lacking any knowledge of good or evil, Eve gladly consented. The snake made himself hard and penetrated the woman, moving his head this way and that to see what might be of interest. But it was dark inside and, after a while, concluding that Eve was more beautiful without than within, he withdrew. Eve, however, had experienced something intensely pleasurable, and she determined that when Adam returned she would teach him how to imitate what the snake had done. (Williams 57–58; Slavonic Enoch)
The newly created humans were not only physically beautiful but also supremely wise. Fashioned in the image of God and appointed king over all the earth, Adam’s nature was entirely without passion. There was not a single moment in which he felt a hint of the irrational, the slightest trace of anger or of lust. Indeed had our first parents continued in the state of innocence and righteousness in which they had been created, they would certainly not have generated offspring through the sexual intercourse in which humans now engage. Our race instead would have been propagated in an altogether noncarnal way, a way suited to the supremely rational, unimpassioned creatures we once were. And as befitted their original perfection, Adam and Eve fully grasped from their inception the difference between good and evil and hence fully understood the divine commandment not to eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. To believe otherwise would be the height of madness. For how could God have prohibited transgression to one who was ignorant that transgression was a bad thing? (Gregory of Nyssa)
“And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.” How did they show that they were not ashamed? By having intercourse in the open, in the eyes of all the creatures around them. The serpent, the most cunning of all the beasts in the field, was aroused by the spectacle. He desired the woman and began to converse with her.
The human had sexual intercourse with his companion, just as he had had sexual intercourse with many of the animals God had brought to him to name. The intercourse was in all of the cases entirely without pleasure or interest. It was calm, deliberate, and rational. What was exciting to the human was to live with a being that came from his own body: “This one at last, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”
The human had sexual intercourse with his companion, just as he had had sexual intercourse with many of the animals God had brought to him to name. The intercourse with the animals was calm, deliberate, and rational, to test whether one or another of these animals was a suitable companion. But with the human companion, it was different: it continued to be rational, as it had been before, but it was now also intense, passionate, and deeply pleasurable. What was exciting to the human was to merge with a being that came from his own body: “This one at last, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”
Surrounded by the animals, grazing and playing and on occasion mating, Adam and Eve lay down to mate for the first time. Adam willed his penis to become erect, and it did so exactly as he had directed it to. And he inserted his penis quietly, gently, almost imperceptibly into Eve and released his seed within her. The couple then arose and continued with their gardening.
Noticing with some distress that the gardening labor was exceeding their power, Adam and Eve lay down to mate, to produce offspring to help them with their tasks. Adam assumed the act of mating would be like his walking and other motor skills, that is, subject to his will. He knew—the way he knew everything, just by innate understanding—that he needed to insert his penis into Eve and release seed. He tried to do so, but his penis was too soft and small to enter her. He looked about with some perplexity, but there was no one he could turn to for advice. He tried again and again, but still no success. He finally had the idea that if his penis were stiff, it might be able to enter Eve. So he willed it to become stiff, just as he willed his legs to walk or his mouth to chew his food. But in this one instance, his will did not seem to move his member. It remained soft and small.
Adam attempted to will his penis to enter Eve, just as he willed his legs to walk or his mouth to chew his food. But in this one instance, his will did not seem to move his member. It remained soft and small. As he poked it gently, Eve, seeing his distress, joined in the enterprise, kissing it, and as she did so, it became stiff. But just as Adam’s failure was out of his control, so too his success was not fully of his own volition. After all, it was Eve who had brought his penis to life, making it as hard as bone. It occurred to him then that his penis was somehow not quite his own, that it was Eve’s bone.
Looking up, Adam saw God bringing Eve toward him. He felt something he had never experienced before. Everything he had seen had pleased him, but nothing he had seen—neither the plants nor the animals nor God himself—had aroused him. Even the animals that God brought before him to name—though many of those were quite beautiful and put him in mind of the fact that he was missing something in his life—had left him unmoved in the way he now felt moved. The woman, and the woman alone—“This one,” as he ecstatically declared—kindled in him an excitement that ran through his body like the current he felt when he had touched an electric eel. He found that his penis, which had served him until now as a vehicle for urine, was erect and leaning up and out toward Eve. He found that it entered quite easily into her, and he felt himself releasing his seed within her. But the fact that he did not and could not will this physical movement, as he had willed everything else, was strange. The experience left him with a peculiar sensation of longing and love, and a small undercurrent of anxiety.
Stephen Greenblatt is the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author of The Swerve and Will in the World. His latest book, published this week by W. W. Norton, is The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
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