Today, we moderns call Genesis a book. That is, a whole and complete text. However, Biblical scholarship suggests it may, instead, be a collection and compendium of varying and sometimes contradictory mythologies of the known world, rooted in ancient Canaanite, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Akkadian traditions. Ancient writers would have known it as an “account,” a retelling of stories from ancient anonymous sources. The title of Genesis is taken from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which was borrowed from the Greek title meaning “Origins.” The Hebrew word Beresit refers to the opening words of the book, “When God began to create…” (using Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Hebrew Bible).
The first part of Genesis concerns the Primeval History (Chapters 1-11), a tale of the origins of the world: land, vegetation, animals, and humans. Then it tells the story of the spread of the known peoples in the fabled of Babel, as the people spread from Greece to Mesopotamia and also Asia Minor. It is an account of the early people, the spread of languages, and traditions.
The second part of Genesis concerns the Patriarchal Tales (Chapters 12-50), which focuses on the rise of Israel and the promise delivered by God to Abraham in Ur (Chapter 12) against the Chaldees. It is a story of Israel’s nationhood. Importantly, the nation has cosmic origins parallel to the birth of the world, not unlike the cosmologies recounted by Hesiod in his Theogony or Socrates in Plato’s Republic.
The first parts of Genesis express the importance of birth and reproduction, beginning in the Garden of Eden with the injunction to be “fruitful and multiply” and continuing with the promise to Abraham and his offspring of a great nation spawned by his seed. The Torah, in general, is a compendium of human wisdom and learning, but also it is a recounting of God learning how to handle His new human creation.
First, God creates humans “in [his] image” in the first creation story (1:26-32), but then in Genesis II a second creation story of humans occurs. God “fashions” humans from the soil and breathes life. He places the human to the “east” where He planted a garden in Eden (a word derived from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian origins most likely meaning a “well-watered plain” or “steppe”). The rivers are listed, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates, and gold and lapiz lazuli are abundant. He places the human in the garden to “till it and watch it” (2:16-17).
However God makes one infamous command. “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die” (2:17). He opens by explaining everything the humans are allowed to eat, except for one. He thus draws great attention to the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil. He says this just prior to creating a “sustainer” or woman for the human, so she presumably does not hear this law announced, though she later reiterates God’s first law to the serpent (3:2-3). The only difference in her account is that she adds that humans may not eat the fruit or “touch it” lest they die. Why does the woman add the element of touch to God’s prohibition? Recall that God’s first law initially only prohibited eating the fruit of the tree. Perhaps she had touched the fruit on another occasion and found that she also did not die.
God’s injunction forewarns to the humans of what will happen if they break the law. It is a threat of punishment. However, the cunning serpent (cunning is a play on the Hebrew word for naked) suggests that God is lying, and that he knows the humans will “become gods knowing good and evil” (3:6). Whereas God’s law had promised death, the serpent’s tantalizing promise is far more compelling. With the serpent, we are exposed to a fundamental truth in humans, one that befuddles God. Humans respond to positive incentives, rather than to threats of punishment. It is better, or more compelling, to dangle a carrot, than to threaten imprisonment. However, how can this be? Laws cannot all be positive incentives. The threat and the follow-through on punishments is key to the law. A person must be made to feel guilty if they break a law so as to preserve the integrity of the law. The law that threatens must follow-through on its threats if it is to remain credible, though it risks cunning people being persuaded by promises of incentives for those who break the law. Law is not neutral. It exists to enforce a a set of values.
What is it that convinces the woman to eat the forbidden fruit? The serpent promises her personal gain – from a human to a god. After the serpent plants this idea in her mind, she looks at the tree and sees that it is “good for eating” and that it is “lust to the eyes” so she takes the fruit and eats it, giving it to her man, as well. The “look” of the tree suddenly becomes the doorway to becoming godlike. For humans, laws are made to elevate humans above their base desires and instincts, but also to prevent them from gaining too much ground. Laws reflect the particular character of our being. In Eden, the woman has competing desires – one desire to follow the law of God, and another to capitulate to her desire to become a god. Recall, St. Augustine in his Confessions describing his lust for doing that which he did not want to do, like eating a shiny and tantalizing apple. In Romans, Paul also laments his need for law because he finds himself in a situation doing things against his own wishes. The law is the arbiter, the guide for the competing wills of humans. If done properly, the law will compel and persuade humans to pursue the good and just way, with a combination of prohibitions, threats, and promises.
However, as we know, God’s punishment is complicated. The serpent was correct, as admitted by God (3:22) that the humans became like gods knowing good and evil. As a result of eating the fruit, the humans suddenly realize their nakedness and they clothe themselves. When God discovers this, the man passes the buck to the woman, who blames the “beguiling” serpent. Thus god punishes them in reverse order: He orders the serpent to slither on the ground in enmity with the humans, the woman’s punishment is pain in child birth and longing for a man who will rule over her, and the man is punished with working the soil, sweating from it until he dies and returns to it one day (“from dust to dust”). We thus conclude that God introduces death to humans in Genesis by banishing the humans from Eden, because he is threatened by their potential to also eat from the tree of life, and live forever. Humans only become like gods in their moral knowledge, though they are physically barred from living forever. He establishes a “cherubim” with a fiery sword (winged beast in Near Eastern mythology). In this way, both God and the serpent were correct in their promises of what would happen if the humans ate fruit from the forbidden tree.
For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.