What do chapters 2-3 of the Book of Genesis say about gender relations and the deep human hunger for emotional and sexual intimacy? What was the serpent that lured the woman to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Is there something wrong with “knowing good and evil”?
In Genesis 4:1, “Adam knew (yada’) his wife Eve, and she became pregnant.” The knowledge that leads to pregnancy is knowledge in practice and not just in theory. Here, knowing is inseparable from doing. In the case of marriage, ideally it is intimate knowledge that is gained from shared activities not just in the bedroom, and it goes beyond the shallow knowledge from casual sexual encounters, where many people choose to remain nameless or to give false identities. Truly intimate knowledge among spouses raises marriage to sanctity rather than promiscuity in contrast to the animal that mates with any partner out of instinct.
Similar to knowing one’s spouse, knowing good and evil in Genesis is primarily practical knowledge, which is gained from doing and not just from thinking. Furthermore, the expression “good and evil,” like “light and darkness” and “heaven and earth,” can refer to a scale or a continuum of everything in which the two terms are the extremes. Thus, “knowing good and evil” can mean doing everything or at least being capable of doing everything.
God told the man: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die (or you are doomed to die many times)” (Gen 2:17). The desire to do everything or to be able to do everything has brought death and destruction to human beings across many generations.
The serpent told the woman, “The moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (Elohim) who know good and evil” (Gen 3:5). “Elohim” can be translated also as “rulers” or “mighty ones,” and thus the message could be: “you will be like (absolute) rulers who attempt to do everything.”
In society, no individual, family, or group should be given the ways and means to do everything they want. Absolute rule by anybody or any group should be avoided, and an effective system of accountability, check and balance and the review and oversight of the decisions and actions of rulers should be put in place. The exercise of power without accountability will arouse greed, envy, lust and other base instincts that will cause death and destruction to oneself and others possibly from one generation to the next.
The principle of check and balance can be discerned even in God’s choice of a helper for the human creature. “The Lord God said: ‘It is not good for the human to be alone. I will make for him a helper (ezer) as in front of him’” (Gen 2:18). What is “a helper as in front of him,” which is usually translated as “a suitable helper” or “a fitting partner”? None of the wild animals that God formed and brought to the human proved to be such a helper (Gen 2:19-20).
God formed the fitting helper, the woman, from the tsela’ (Hebrew for rib or side) of the human creature. While most biblical translations choose “rib,” it is possible to translate tsela’ as “side” especially if one brings into the picture what some ancient peoples especially ancient Greeks believed: the original human creature had four arms, four legs, two faces, and two sexes like twins joined at their backs or like Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man with four arms and four legs in a square and a circle.
The original human creature was lonely in the absence of a familiar face, and did not see such familiar face in any of the wild animals that God brought to be “a helper as in front of him.” Finally, the man recognized the familiar face in the woman that God took from his side. For German rabbi, Samson Hirsch (1808-1888), “woman was created from man to show that only in partnership do the two form a complete human being.”
A superior partnership can be formed where there is face-to-face interaction and where the partners can freely unite or separate from each other, unlike in the original human creature where male and female had no choice in the back-to-back conjunction. “Man needs to live face-to-face with the Other, dancing to the choreography of his own freedom” (Avivah Zornberg). The complete human being entails a face-to-face partnership into which the sexes should freely enter.
“A helper as in front of him” can also mean “a helper against him.” The medieval French rabbi, Rashi (1040-1105), says: “If man is worthy, the woman will be ‘a helper;’ if he proves to be unworthy she shall be against him.” Thus, for man, the woman is "katapat" (Filipino): “an equal who can face him as worthy confidant or worthy opponent.” No animal can be a worthy or effective opponent of man when he chooses to be cruel or oppressive.
What about the crafty serpent that deceived the woman to eat the forbidden fruit? Many religious teachers have considered that serpent to be the devil and the real opponent of humankind.
For most biblical scholars, the serpent is a multivalent symbol of cunning, life, and the ancient fertility cults. The serpent is a symbol of cunning because it can move quietly and secretly before it makes a deadly strike. It can symbolize life because it seems to regenerate itself whenever it sheds its skin. It also resembles the phallus, the erect penis.
It is suggested in Genesis 3 that the serpent used to stand erect, for the punishment for its deception was “on your belly shall you crawl” (Gen 3:14). Some religious teachers have concluded that the fault of the woman was lust, for she decided to set aside God’s prohibition as she attended to and interacted with an erect serpent.
Biblical scholar, Bernhard Anderson, describes the ancient fertility cults involving the god or Baal in Canaan, where the Israelites settled, as follows: “The Baal of a region is the ‘lord’ or ‘owner’ of the land…The astonishing revival of nature [after winter] was due to sexual intercourse between Baal and his partner...Farmers were not mere spectators of the sacred marriage...Human pairs, by imitating the action of Baal and his partner, could bring the divine pair together in fertilizing union.” Thus, there were temple prostitutes with whom worshippers could imitate the sexual action of the gods in order to revive and preserve the fertility of both the land and the people.
The God of Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David is a God who understands the very human desire for sexual intimacy, but is a God who does not require the sexual act whether to achieve emotional intimacy between human beings or to achieve a sacred union between the divine and the human. God can be so close to us as one who chooses to dirty his hands in forming the human creature from the humus of the ground (Gen 2:7) or to act like the father of the bride who leads the woman to her man (Gen 2:22). Yet God is free from the human condition in which sexual self-discipline has been a perennial challenge especially for men in authority.
After the woman and the man ate the forbidden fruit, they began to feel the desire to do everything including the desire to dominate, and concomitantly they felt fear and shame about their nakedness, which makes one vulnerable to domination by another. The couple lost great trust in each other, became ashamed of their bodies, and thus underwent their first “death.”
After their offence, they hid from God, who sought them out and asked questions like a wise parent who apparently knew already the problem (Gen 3:8-11). “God opened the dialogue to give the man the opportunity to acknowledge his sin and be pardoned. Instead he hurled against God the very kindness that God had shown him, the gift of the woman.” (Midrash Aggadah)
A blame game begins: the man blames the woman, “whom You put here with me” (Gen 3:12), while the woman blames the serpent, an animal God had made. The worsening offence damages the relationship among human beings, the rest of creation, and the Creator. Alienation or estrangement among them is a state of sin, and the sacred writer describes the disorder of such a state (Gen 3:14-19).
Sin turns the partnership of man and woman into a relationship of domination: “I will increase your labor and your pregnancies; in pain shall you bring forth children. Yet your desire shall follow that of your husband, and he shall be above you.” (3:16)
In ancient or traditional communities, “women would be facing up to 8 pregnancies and would understandably be unwilling at times to be sexual” (Carol Meyers), but husbands would insist on sex and expect to have their way, whenever they desire sex. Sin denies or obscures a woman’s right to have equal say on the times for sex, the manner or style of sex, and the frequency of pregnancy.
A relationship of domination of the husband over the wife greatly increases the woman’s pain in bringing up children, as she is usually expected to be solely or primarily responsible for child-rearing. Thus she will experience more pain than her husband will, as the child grows into a distinct individual and begins to detach from her with the attitude that, while woman is to be loved or cared for, she has to be kept subordinate.
Among the lessons of Genesis 2-3 is the following: God’s original vision of gender relations involves equality and mutuality and not domination among the sexes even in the realm of the satisfaction of the natural hunger for sexual intimacy. Equality and mutuality among spouses in our communities have national consequences in the long run. The authoritarian and undemocratic tendencies of many of our political, economic, and religious leaders can be partly but firmly traced to the examples of their parents and the way they were brought up as children.