Saturday, October 3, 2009

Levinson on Gen 3

Last week’s post on Gen 3 was made up of random musings gleaned from a cursory casual reading of the text, so I was gratified to see that others have made similar observations about the narrative based on their sophisticated and thoughtful close readings of the text.

One such close reading that I want to bring to your attention is titled “The Seductions of the Garden and the Genesis of Hermeneutics as Critique” by Bernard M. Levinson (pp. 40-47 in Levinson, The Right Chorale, Mohr-Siebeck, 2008). Prof. Levinson was kind enough to forward his essay to me. I read it through twice now, and I am amazed at how well it highlights (in my mind, at least) the distinction between the simplistic results of a surface reading of the text with the weighty implications pulled out from a deep reading and analysis. Much of what we think we “know” about the Bible falls in that first category – simplistic reading that more often than not is plain misreading. Levinson attempts to combat typical misreadings of Gen 3 by focusing on the paradoxical and complex relationship between humanity’s lack of knowledge and their freedom to choose to obey or disobey God’s command. There’s another curious thing about this text that I hadn’t thought of. If Adam and Eve lacked knowledge to discern between good and evil, how could they understand what it meant to obey? How would “death” hold any power as a deterrent if they didn’t know what it meant to die?

Here are a few excerpts from the essay. I recommend reading all of it for any of you working on Genesis interpretation and how it characterizes God and his methods for disseminating knowledge. Check the library or I can send you a PDF. Better yet, buy the book for yourself! (kidding – you’d have to fast for a month to afford a Mohr Siebeck book).

Despite the linear form of the text, the structure of its thought is, from the beginning, paradoxical. Consciousness is everywhere presupposed—there is no single point in time in which there is a fall, understood as a loss of immediacy. The serpent’s question is the agent of reflection about God, about truth, about history, about the conditions for life in the world: “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” (Gen 3:1). As soon as Eve, upon being addressed, begins to respond, she has already begun to reflect upon the conditions of her life, her relation to God, her relation to Adam, and her freedom of choice. [43]

. . . 

[H]ow could Adam properly understand the instruction in any meaningful way as a command if he had no knowledge, the very thing from which he is to abstain? Absent the forbidden fruit of knowledge, Adam could not distinguish between the instruction as a command requiring his obedience and the instruction as merely describing an inevitable law of nature. No more could he distinguish between death as punishment for infraction and death as the natural result of eating a poisonous fruit. If the command were meant to test his obedience, surely his knowing it as a command—and thus his possession of that which is forbidden him—is essential to that test? . . .  Although presented in narrative time prior to the fruit’s having been eaten, the command can only make sense as a command if it is breached. [44]

. . .

In creating man and woman in his image, capable of independent action to the point of disobeying him, God has in fact created them as autonomous persons. The literary form of the biblical narrative in effect provides a philosophical defense of freedom and agency as the essential ground of human existence. [45]

I always enjoy the realization that the story’s much more complex than I originally thought. I hope you enjoy it, too. Any comments on this new development? If they lacked knowledge, how could they know what it meant to obey"?


  1. I would appreciate a copy of the article. joseph dot r dot kelly at gmail dot com.

    I have argued before that it is absurd to tell someone not to do something when they do not possess the capacity for discerning good and evil. I need to revisit an earlier conclusion of mine that in eating from this tree, Adam and Eve become like God in that they discern for themselves good and evil, creating an arbitrary and subjective standard divorced from God's. They have become morally autonomous creatures, the epitome of depravity as outlined in the unfolding narrative.

  2. I too would like a copy. My email is tarrer at gmail dot com. Having read Barr and Moberly on this passage (albeit with a decidedly different intent), I am eager to read this essay.

    Many thanks,