What’s the best way to read a myth? That depends on the myth, of course. Some myths are crafted for the purpose of teaching a lesson by means of a fanciful story and should be understood as products of the rich human imagination, somewhat akin to art. Some point to actual events, retold in a much-amplified way and should be understood as embellished accounts of watershed occasions in a culture’s history. Many afford valuable insights into human psychology and the human predicament. A few can be read on several levels. Neither the first nor the second of the categories I’ve suggested is exclusive of the third or fourth. All four approaches include critical thinking as foundational to the methodology.
What’s the worst way to read a myth? To read it as though it were an accurate historical record of a person or event; to treat it as though it were sacred – hence infallible – scripture. To do that is to miss the point of the myth entirely and to clutter one’s thinking with absurdities. Those who make this mistake are called “fundamentalists.”
The contrast between these two approaches to myth-reading is beautifully illustrated by two books published about three decades apart.
The first approach mentioned above can be seen in Noah’s Flood, published in 1998 by William Ryan and Walter Pitman. Working from data gathered by research vessels equipped with sonar, those authors were able to piece together a fascinating story of the inundation of the pluvial Black Sea Lake by Mediterranean salt water some 7,600 years ago, sending the denizens of a prosperous Neolithic society running for their lives and trying to rescue such livestock as they could from flood waters rising so fast that the lake was probably eating its own shoreline at the rate of a mile per day in every direction. (I’ll have you know there’s not a single grammatical error in that meandering, byzantine sentence you just slogged through.) Those whose lives were horribly disrupted and forever changed would have had no natural explanation available to them to account for the catastrophe: an angry god must have been responsible. That is the kind of story that would be told and retold throughout the generations until finally written down thousands of years later. In the Bible’s Flood story, as Ryan and Pitman intuited, we hear an echo of species memory.
The other book I’m referring to is The Genesis Flood, published in 1961 by Henry Morris and John Whitcomb. Those authors proceeded on the basis of the approach mentioned in my second paragraph. They began with the assumption that the Bible is the Word of God, true in all of its details. The lead author, a hydrologist who should have known better, tried to support his contentions by a fanciful reading of his own science, invoking hydrologic sorting to account for the fossil record. (Last week I took a swing at Morris’s travesty.)The book is a sham and a scam, but half a century after its publication, millions of fundamentalist Christians continue to invoke it as settled science and a fatal blow to the theory of evolution. Ken Ham has made a fortune peddling that snake-oil to vulnerable, unthinking consumers.
But I offered the above as examples of the two different ways in which myths are read; the Genesis flood is not in my crosshairs today. I’m instead going to attempt a deconstruction of the story of the Fall.
The Fall is related in Genesis 3, but as it is set up by the preceding chapter, my examination of this myth must begin there. Chapter 2 really begins at verse 4; the first three verses belong to the preceding creation story, serving as a coda or postscript. Formally-speaking, the Second Creation Story commences as the first one had: with an introductory statement. (In Chapter 1, the often-quoted first verse is a general statement, the particulars of which follow in the remainder of the chapter; so also with the first half of verse 4 of Chapter 2.) I will quote a bit and intersperse commentary. All quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version published by Oxford University Press as The New Oxford Annotated Bible.
(4) These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, (5) when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; (6) but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground – (7) then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.
Looking past the clumsy interpolation of verses 5b-6, it becomes apparent that in this Second Creation Story we have a completely different order of creation than in the First. In the second story, the first thing God creates is a man. On the author’s agriculturalist/pastoralist view, it would have been pointless for God to have begun the creation with anything other than man, because as the last part of verse 5 makes clear, the plants and herbs mentioned at the beginning of that same verse would have had no overseer to tend them. God hadn’t even caused it to rain yet: what would have been the point, with no plants to benefit from the rainfall? I’m not even sure why that artesian spring mentioned in verse 6 was considered necessary. The opening four verses of this creation story clearly point to agriculture as being the proper pursuit of humankind. This story was told by agriculturalists. It was their story of how they came to be as they were, the story of the origin of their pursuits. They could not have imagined their forebears’ Paleolithic condition nor their successors’ modern one. The story must be read through their eyes if one is to understand it aright. This, of course, is precisely what fundamentalists do not do.
(8) And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (9) Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [We will skip another interpolation – the confusing geography lesson in verses 10-14 – and continue the narrative at verse 15.]
(15) The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. (16) And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; (17) 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.”
With verse 17 the stage is almost set for the story of the Fall. The two remaining dramatic leads must be brought onstage in order to complete what is clearly a formal exposition.
(18) Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (19) So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. [The serpent of Chapter 3 was, as we shall see, among them. – DG] (20) The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. (21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. (22) And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. [Skipping yet another interpolation – a famously lyrical one, and continuing…] (25) And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.
With that, the three primaries are onstage, along with the appropriate set and properties (but no costumes as of yet). Let’s review. Chapter 2 tells us that man was created for agriculture not the other way around. It tells us that someone in charge is making rules, and the penalty for breaking them is severe. It tells us something about the status of the other animals vis-à-vis humans, as Bronze-Age pastoralists understood the natural order. And it tells us something important about what the men who made up this tale thought of women: the equation of women with domestic animals is hard to miss.
Like many good myths, the story of the Fall explains more than one thing: it is a true genesis story and would have been understood on multiple levels by those who passed it around and on. It explains why women occupy the status they do, and why so many of them die in childbirth. It explains why agriculture is such hard, onerous work, and why the crops so often fail despite all the toil that’s lavished on them. It raises forbidden questions only to squelch them with the threat of the death penalty for entertaining them. Those questions are philosophical in nature, and they are placed off-limits by the authors of this tale, who had an agenda. The Mesopotamian sky deity, like the mortal monarch in whose image he is made, gets to do the thinking for everyone.
I want to mention in passing that one of the pious interpolations I skipped over – the last one – does contain a poetic gem (“bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”) and a clue to the family structures of Bronze-Age societies in the Middle East (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife…”). I think the last part is important: with the rise of societies such as the one that gestated this story, the extended family structure of Paleolithic societies tended to fragment; with increasing population pressures people became more mobile, seeking new territory. (In connection with this last, keep in mind that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are really a prelude to the real story of “The First Book of Moses,” which begins in Chapter 12 with the call of Abraham and the promise of new territory: Genesis is the story of the origin of the Jewish people.)
Before proceeding, I think it’s important to say this up front: no intelligent person believes in a talking snake. Anyone who thinks the talking snake story is true is either still young enough to believe in Santa Claus also, or brain-damaged (in which case it would be wrong to hold the believer responsible), or nuts (which I suppose also places him out of reach of the charge of culpability). The same, of course, applies to people who imagine they hear – or that anyone else has ever heard – the voice of the LORD God. But such targets are too easy and it would be short-sighted to dismiss the myth out-of-hand as silly just because a bunch of stupid fundamentalists take it literally – almost as great a mistake, I think, as the fundamentalists are making. After all, a good story does not become a lie until it is taught to children as being true. It isn’t laughable unless people take it too seriously. And such a story may contain valuable clues to who we are and how we came to be that way. We ignore our myths to our detriment. To continue with Chapter 3:
(1) Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (2) The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; (3) but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” (4) But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; (5) for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
There are times when it’s easy to spot the pious tropes in these early chapters of Genesis. They often take the form of structurally-obvious interpolations such as the three I’ve pointed out so far. Other times, they’re smuggled into the narrative structure in such a way as to slip them past the unwary reader. I suspect that the attribution of slyness to the Edenic reptile is such a trope: the priesthood couldn’t have the people thinking that the snake in this tale is actually the good guy, could they? But what has the snake brought to the woman’s attention? That there is a ruler who must be obeyed on penalty of death; that the crime that may bring down the death penalty is that of being able to decide for oneself what is right or wrong; that the distinction between right and wrong might be based on something other than the command of a ruler (perhaps on reason, or empathy). Such ideas are called “thought crimes.” Like many ancient texts, the Bible has a lot to say on this subject.
The rise of monotheistic religion was concurrent with that of a ruling class whose dictates had to be obeyed: that is what it means to rule. One doesn’t rule territory or herds of cattle: one rules people, by telling them what to do, and what they may do. Monotheistic religion was formulated to legitimize that rule; to place the divine imprimatur on the prerogatives of the ruling class: as in heaven, so on Earth. Any monotheistic religion recognizes an absolute ruler, the structure of whose heavenly kingdom closely resembles (oddly enough) that of the monarch whose prerogatives the priesthood protects by the most powerful propaganda tool ever invented. If the king whom the priests serve is “a man after God’s own heart,” as David was said (by David and the priests) to be, his reign is legitimized. No one dares question it. Such questions are forbidden. The ruling class have never appreciated it when the commoners dared question their prerogatives. The snake is dangerous because he dares us to ask those questions. The snake is a rabble rouser, a social reformer, and probably an atheist.
As Madalyn Murray O’Hair observed, “An atheist is a person who questions every kind of authority. And this is the thing that is important, because if we can, without blinking an eye, question the ultimate authority – God, who must be obeyed – then we can question the authority of the state, we can question the authority of the university structure, we can question the authority of our employer, we can question anything.”
But the author of this tale is not cheering for the snake. To continue:
(6) So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (7) Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
In the first part of verse 6 the hedonic richness of “coming of age” (or “loss of innocence” as the clergy whose livelihood depends on their congregations’ sense of guilt would put it) is suggested along with the crucial equation of wisdom with discriminating between right and wrong. But according to this priestly narrative these things – hedonic enjoyment and wisdom – are not the prerogatives of the lower classes: Genesis 3 makes it clear that those are the domain of the ruler(s). The woman in this cautionary tale entertained a forbidden question, saw the injustice in denying her the gift of free agency (which after all depends on discrimination between alternatives, “right and wrong”), dared to think for herself, overreached her station in life and paid dearly.
I have so far confined my remarks to that dimension of the story that applies to whole cultures, stratified as they were, where a few ruled and many were ruled. The authors of this story are clearly concerned to send the message “Thou shalt not question the Dear Leader.” In fact, that’s pretty much what the whole Bible is about. It is a tool for keeping people in line, transparently so. But as I indicated earlier, the richest myths may be read in multiple ways, and I want to touch on one of the alternatives briefly.
In addition to being read as the story of a culture’s beginnings, the legend of the Fall can be read as a metaphor for something that happens to all individuals who survive early childhood. With gradual maturation, and especially at the onset of puberty, they “fall from grace.” Who among us has not experienced it? To cite just a few examples: do you remember that awful moment when you discovered that your parents were not perfect? That the authority figures in your life often lied to you? That you will someday die? That the Holocaust happened? Do you remember when you started growing hairs? When you first started obsessing over someone else’s anatomy? When you were ejected from the garden of childhood by the ravages of puberty and forced to join the lifelong contest for food, prestige and mates? Weren’t those the watersheds that defined and defiled your life? Looking back, don’t they seem like a “loss of innocence?” Let’s not forget that unforgettable equation of sadness and wisdom in the closing stanza of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” We have all been driven from Eden, and as the end of the biblical narrative makes plain, there’s no going back. (The worst single aspect of this story as related by the biblical author[s] is that the one who has “fallen from grace” is blamed for his loss.)
Speaking of the end of the narrative, this essay is fast becoming a TLDR (a literary form in which I excel, pronounced so as to rhyme with “builder”), so I will break off quoting Genesis at this point and will return to verse 8 next week for a continuation of the narrative and further commentary. I will close this installment by pointing out that in Genesis 3 we also hear, I believe, an echo of species memory. The legend of the Fall is a poetic retelling, in Bronze-Age agriculturalist/pastoralist language, of the story of the Agricultural Revolution. And the blame for that innovation is placed squarely on the woman. Let’s consider why:
In the Paleolithic condition, there is little if any social stratification such as one sees in late Neolithic societies: there is usually a chief, but he is not a person with special privileges (without granaries and refrigeration, how could one person hoard what others can enjoy only at his whim?); rather, he is more often vested with special responsibilities and is often elected by direct democracy. So long as he makes good decisions on behalf of the tribe, he is apt to keep his post; if he proves incompetent, he will be replaced. I have generalized, of course, but a cursory examination of extant hunter-gatherer societies confirms this general rule.
There are, however, biologically-conferred divisions of labor among hunter-gatherers. Specifically, it is most often the men who are doing the hunting (gallivanting around in the woods, having a high old time) while the women are confined to the settlement because the latter alone are equipped by nature to rear the young to some degree of maturity. And given those circumstances, it is more likely the women who would have noticed what happens when a seed falls into a furrow: the women, confined to home and surrounded by a kind of natural laboratory, were the first scientists.
Sooner or later, the women would have thought it only fair that instead of running around in the woods all day whooping it up, maybe the men ought to put their hand to the plow, help out on the farm. And men resented the hell out of it. Look at Adam’s lament later in the chapter. Look at the war on women that’s been prosecuted for at least the last 7,000 years. It’s a war of revenge. Have we men gotten even or what?
Madalyn Murray O’Hair: https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3DgLyvyQLlodc