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.
The first humans were perfectly beautiful and very wise, but they lacked one of the five senses on which fallen humanity most depends: sight. In their original state, Adam and Eve were completely blind (Clem. Hom 3:42, in Evans 95). They had no need to see, since they were in a world designed to meet their every need. If they wanted something to eat or drink, it was always within grasp. And when God brought the animals to Adam for him to name, Adam simply reached out and touched each of them, knowing from the touch what name to assign. Perhaps their happy blindness—happy, of course, because they did not know that they could not see—helps to explain their transgression, since it might have been difficult for them to distinguish the forbidden fruit from all others, particularly if the enemy were bent on deceiving them. In any case, their condition helps to explain their complete absence of shame, for it was only after their fall that God removed the coating that had blinded their eyes. As soon as they could see, in the wake of their disobedience, they hastened to cover themselves: “And the eyes of the two were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.”
Did God really not know where the humans were hiding? Or did He see them, the way a parent sees a small child ineptly attempting to hide? If He did know exactly where they were, why did He say, “Where are you?” Parents ask the question in order to amuse their children, but the humans were afraid, not amused. And those other questions, too—“Who told you that you were naked?” “From the tree I commanded you not to eat have you eaten?”— did God not already know the truth? Why did He bother to ask?
God thought of ways to punish the woman for what she had done, without immediately killing her. The simplest way would have been to kill her offspring, as His rivals the Sumerian gods had done to their humans in order to keep the population down and lower the noise. But God had already blessed the humans and told them to be fruitful and multiply. He did something extremely clever: He arranged to punish the woman by giving her intense pain in childbirth, so that the fulfillment of His blessing would be agonizing. But He worried that the prospect of this pain would kill all of her desire, just as the sight of the veins and guts around the bone, in the first, failed attempt to build a companion, had killed the human’s desire. Humans are creatures who can refuse to reproduce. So He added to the punishment of pain a punishment of desire: “And for your man shall be your longing.” But again He worried: Wouldn’t this desire, along with the pleasure of offspring, simply erase the pain He wished to inflict on the woman? He therefore added that the man “shall rule over you.” Desire becomes punishment when it is directed at the one who rules.
“Cursed be the soil for your sake.” What has the soil done that it should be cursed, along with the snake? The snake had mouthed some words, either extremely clever or extremely stupid, by which the woman was beguiled. But the soil? It had provided the materials for the making of the human and for all the animals; it had done precisely what God asked of it. The key lies in “for your sake”—the soil has in fact done nothing wrong. It is cursed—cursed to bear thorns and thistles, to yield sustenance only though hard labor—as a kind of collateral damage, to punish the man at whom God’s anger is directed.
In deepest misery, Adam and Eve went forth from Paradise, their beloved home. They knew what to expect: a vast, unpopulated, untracked wilderness. They had even glimpsed this wilderness, before their disgrace, from the ramparts of the garden. But no sooner had they passed through the gates, guarded by the terrible cherubim, than they realized that what they had seen was an illusion. Instead of an empty wasteland or a pathless desert, there was a vast pattern of cultivated fields watered by irrigation ditches and interspersed with farmhouses and hamlets, while in the middle distance gleamed an enormous walled city. They were confronted not by eerie silence but by the braying of animals and the shouts of the farm laborers and the singing of workmen in the nearby brickyards. The world was already peopled, and it was clear that it had been peopled for a very long time. They were not, as they had somehow imagined, the first humans. They were late arrivals to a world that was already explored, mapped, and inhabited.
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.