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Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Serpent and the Woman

One of the great creation myths relating to the origins of humanity is the story of the Serpent and the Woman. It is found at the beginning of the Hebrew Scriptures though it is probably one of the later additions to the collection with sources in Mesopotamian mythology. Serpents and Trees of Life or Knowledge are also figures in mythologies worldwide.


The story has Woman (Eve) formed from Man (Adam) by Yahweh, the creator god, living without the need for labor--work or childbearing--in a beautiful garden of abundance. They could live blissfully in this garden without care. But there was one stipulation given by Yahweh. Eat the fruit of all trees except one, the tree of knowledge. But the Serpent talked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit promising they would be like gods and Eve got Adam to follow her. Yahweh therefore drove the couple out of the Garden and decreed that from then on they would have to work in struggle and pain.

There are lots of interpretations of this literary piece. It is an extension of the answer of the origins of the world and humanity's place within it. It is an answer to the question of the origins of pain in childbearing, of work, and of sexuality. It is an answer to the question of the hostility of nature and the need to "tame" it. Two interpretations predominate. I call one the "priestly" or establishment account; the other the "rebel" (prophetic) account.

The Priestly Account.

Priests are the sanctifiers of establishment order and the morality of the old ways. In CW Mills terms: they are the "advisors of the kings."

The priestly story of the Woman and the Serpent is a morality tale of the consequences of disobedience. The reason Yahweh told Man not to eat of the tree of knowledge was to get Man's free compliance to His order without questioning. The story is of the Fall of Man from an original state of harmony to one of disorder due to the prideful violation of authority: Man over Woman and all animals (including serpents), Yahweh over Man. The only way of restoring right order is by the act of obedience such as Abraham demonstrated when he was ready to sacrifice Isaac and by Israel's observance of the laws of Moses.

Christian priests (e.g. the Fathers of the Church) took the story farther when they taught that the original sin could only be rectified by an act of sacrificial obedience of the very Son of God, Jesus. The Serpent is Lucifer, the archenemy of Yahweh, who works through the Woman to frustrate God's plans for creation. The Serpent in many cultures is the symbol of both sexuality and of knowledge and uses both to elicit Man's Fall from grace. The only way for Man to become right with God is to be born again in baptism or in the blood of Jesus and follow the laws of the Church and Scriptures, including controlling sexual conduct, temple support, conversion or destruction of infidels, and hegemony of God's elected people. Some think paradise can be returned when humanity under Christ creates the perfect order founded on God's laws as found in His words. Others teach that this will happen only after death when the soul is reunited with Jesus in Paradise.

The Rebel Account

Rebels (often called false prophets by the priests) tell the story differently.

Man is born into a state of ignorance which is maintained by the established authorities. The Serpent fulfills the name of Lucifer, bringing light by agitating humans to question and even disobey authority. In a male dominated society, it is primarily through women and other persons at the bottom of the order that questions will be raised, enlightenment sought, and the mighty overturned. It is by eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge and free sexuality that the bliss of ignorance is dispelled. Man leaves his state of false paradise to go out to struggle for truth and freedom from authority. It is through this act that human consciousness is born.

Christian rebels carry the story farther. They see Jesus in a line of prophets that question the priesthood, destroy the temples, and upend the clientism and oppression of societies or parts of societies. They do so under no one's authority but their own and of the people who have been left out of the established order and its rewards.


There are of course lots of variations of the story of the Serpent and the Woman depending on the time and space in which it is told, but mostly depending on one's perceived station in the social order.

Which interpretation do you favor?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The first.

I proffer this hypothesis. If you were to take the Biblical accounts in the Old Testament as literal fact instead of allegory, or mythology just for the sake of inductive reasoning. Here are a few of the given facts in the Bible.

Adam and Eve walked in the garden and communed face to face with God, the creator of the Universe. Antediluvian man lived to be approximately 8-900 years old. Everyone spoke one language. Post-flood God shortened man's life to 70 years, plus or minus for good behavior (some would argue that plus is the punishment)and he confounded their language.

Now here are a couple of generalizations about a culture where these were facts. They would have had a much better understanding of the natural order of the universe, the stars, planets, etc having heard it explained by the Creator and then passed down over hundreds of overlapping generational years. They wouldn't need a written language because if you wanted to know something, you could pretty much ask the guy that was there and you would have hundreds of years of overlap to pass a story along verbatim. The story would be much clearer because everyone shared the same language and culture. Different peoples/tribes/clans would become the "holder" of certain types of institutional knowledge, ergo the comments about Tubal-Cain, etc.

What would be the result of instantaneously confounding the language of that type of culture and concurrently shortening lifespan. People would drift apart because of the language barriers and distrust. They would need to develop written language in order to retain knowledge. Knowledge would become broken up and certain groups would lose some institutional knowledge altogether, or the story would become mythical because the "holder" of that story was no longer available. That cultures knowledge of the natural universe would deteriorate, so where a culture like that might be able to develop a stonehenge, pyramid, calendar, Easter Island, etc. it would slowly lose that institutional knowledge...the ability to predict accurately what might take place in the heavenlies and how it might impact life on earth.