Talmidi commentaries on the Hebrew bible are written from a non-rabbinical and non-Christian perspective. A good commentary allows the text to speak for itself. Since our emphasis – the supremacy of YHVH over all, the maintenance of the Covenant, and God’s ongoing actions in human history – is the same as that of the Hebrew bible, we have nothing to fear or prove. We do not read theology into the text that is not there (which is what a lot of evangelical Christians do), nor do we read hidden mysterious meaning into the text that is not there (which is what some Orthodox rabbis do).
We accept that the Scriptures evolved over time into their present form. We value archaeological scholarship. However, we feel that the Scriptures are more than just a collection of myths – that there must be some historical basis underlying the stories in the Bible.
It is from this standpoint that Talmidi commentaries are written – that there is a difference between spiritual truth and historical truth.
This webpage contains sample commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, just to give you a flavour of what Talmidi commentaries are like. It contains commentaries on MT Gen 1:1 up to 3:24 / HTT Toldot 1:1-3:25
MT Gen 1:1-2:4a / HTT Toldot 1:1-35
The first thing I want to say, is that if we think that the opening verses of the Torah are about HOW God created the Universe, then not only are we reading the story with a modern mind, but we are completely missing the point of what the story is about.
One of the ancient names of the Book of Genesis is ha-Sefer Toldot, literally ‘The Book of Generations’ (each new section of Genesis begins, ‘These are the generations of …..the sky and the land, Abraham, Yitschaq, Jacob, Joseph etc). In ancient Hebrew, there was no word for ‘history’. Instead, the word ‘generations’ was used to mean ‘record’ or ‘account’, because the ancients saw history in a very different way to us. We moderns view history as whathappened and how things happened. But to the ancient, history was about learning lessons from what happened in the past, and passing on that wisdom to the next generation – hence ‘generations’ being chosen as the Hebrew euphemism for ‘history’. History doesn’t tell us what happened, but rather why things happened, and about the wisdom we are supposed to take from it and pass on to the next generation.
Therefore the first version of creation establishes, not that God created the earth over 4,000 years ago in 42 hours, but rather:
- that Yahveh is the sole creator of all that exists
- that God created order out of chaos
- that behind most things that happen, there is meaning and purpose
- that the heavenly bodies should be used to calculate the timing of the days and months, and the appointed festivals (mo`edim)
- that God set human beings as caretakers over God’s creation
- that God created male and female as equal
- why we have a seven day week
- why the Sabbath exists
The story of Creation does not give us the how, but the why. It is not the purpose of religion to tell us how – that is not its remit. Religion is there to help us understand the meaning of life; this is what it does best, and what it should stick to. Insisting that the story tells us how God created the universe, belittles God’s divine purpose, and distracts us from the ultimate Message of Yahveh.
The translation of this portion from Genesis was my own. Now, upon reading it, you may think it a little unusual, but I have done this for a particular reason. The vast majority of translators approach the text from a modern viewpoint – from a modern understanding of how the world and the universe are structured. They tend to forget that that is not how the ancients saw the universe. I have therefore translated the text as if I were an ancient Hebrew-speaking Israelite, rather than a modern, western Jew.
Our modern understanding of the universe is of a vast, almost infinite expanse of galaxies, stars, planets and comets, spanning distances unimaginable to the human mind. This is what we see in our mind’s eye when we read the Genesis account of creation. However, the ancient Hebrew view of the universe was most definitely finite. It consisted of a giant gathering or reservoir of water (miqveh), on top of which floated “the land” (not “the Earth”, as I’ll explain later). Over that was a metal dome (which most translations miss), which was “the sky” (not “heaven”), into which were studded the Sun, the Moon and the stars, like sequins sown into a vast garment. There was no allegory there – they actually believed there was a metal dome over the earth.
Once you understand that this is how the ancient Hebrews saw the universe, the account in Genesis makes much more sense. Once you get that, it’s obvious why people believed the earth was flat right up until after the Middle Ages!
“In the beginning, God was creating the sky and the land”. In Hebrew, the word for “in the beginning” – b’reishit – is an adverb; it therefore describes time-wise what God was doing, not what God did in one single moment. It was not a single completed action, but a continuous action. This has implications in respect to suggesting that this was just one thing that God was doing – creating the sky and the land; God might have been doing other things as well, and creating the sky and the land was not necessarily the very first thing God did, only one of several things done “in the beginning”. Some people even say that God is still in the process of creating.
“…the sky and the land” – not “the heaven and the Earth”, as most translations put it. When these ancient words were written, the Israelites had no concept of heaven – in fact, they had no concept of an afterlife at all. God revealed the idea of heaven only gradually, and it only became part of Israelite thinking much later. So the sky was just the sky (or ‘skies’), and not heaven. And of course, to the ancient world, the Earth was flat, not a round planet of blue and white floating in the black velvet of space. When we use the word ‘Earth’ today, in our minds we get the image of this planetary globe. The Hebrew word “erets” here just meant land – a large, formless expanse of rock floating upon the primordial waters; this is the reason for my choice of words.
“….the land was want and waste….” There is a set phrase in Hebrew which is tohu va-vohu. It literally means, ‘formless and empty’. However, it is deliberately alliterative – how the words sound together is as important as the words themselves. So I have tried to replicate this by the English phrase, ‘want and waste’. The image conveyed to us is that the Earth was like a formless lump of clay, ready to be moulded by its sculptor.
“…. yet still from God, a wind caressed the surface of the waters.” I guarantee if you could read and understand this line in Hebrew, you would fall in love with the word merachefet – it just has this wonderful sound to it! Most translations render the word as ‘blew’ or ‘swept over’. But that’s not its regular meaning. It normally means to dote over, to caress or regard with tenderness. I chose the word ‘caress’ over the others, because it sounds similar to merachefet, in the hope it would have the same effect on an English reading of the line. Already we can see that God didn’t just on a whim decide to set about the work of Creation; Yahveh doted over the raw ingredients of the earth just like a woman caresses her unborn child.
“…. ‘Let there be light!” and there was light.” One of the purposes of the Hebrew story of creation, is to set it apart from the thousands of pagan versions. In most, the universe and the earth come into being as a result of the sexual union of the gods, or because of an act of violence (eg in the Babylonian version, Tiamat is killed, and her divided body becomes the sky and the land). However, what is different in the Israelite version is that things come into being because Yahveh God gives the command for it to be, and it is so.
“…. God was taken aback by the light – at how pleasing it was ….” This is normally translated as, “and God saw the light, that it was good.” However, this does not even begin to tell us about the nature of God’s reaction to the light. Actually the Hebrew simply says, “and God beheld the light, because [it was] good.” The Hebrew implies that God has a reaction to the light because of something God saw in the quality of the light. The list of things that God did is not simply a ‘to do’ list, that God embarks on blithely – it isn’t simply about God congratulating himself on a job well done! If you have ever seen the smiles on new parents’ faces, as they look in breathless and loving wonder at the new life they have brought into the world, you will get some idea of how Yahveh felt whenever God created something. It isn’t a self-gratifying statement of God admiring his handiwork; rather, it is a look of wonder as God falls in love with what God has just created – just as parents fall in love with their newborn child..
“…. And God called the light, ‘yom’….” Then God starts naming things. Now, to the ancient Israelite of those times, they believed that God – Yahveh – spoke Hebrew. Hebrew was considered the sacred language that our God spoke. Therefore, when God names things, God naturally gives them Hebrew names – not English, or Spanish, or French etc. So God calls the light “yom”, not “day”; and God calls the darkness “laylah”, not “night”.
“…. Let there be a metal dome in the midst of the waters….” Perhaps the most irrefutable evidence against religious fundamentalists who take the bible literally is the fact that the Hebrew text specifically says that the sky is actually a metal dome. Unless you really do believe that the earth is flat, topped with a metal dome, you cannot take the biblical version of creation literally. In Hebrew, the word is “raqia`” which is literally a metal sheet beaten thin (from the Hebrew root raqa`, to beat thin, as with metal sheeting). Most translations are dishonest and don’t translate this properly, knowing that if they do, they will be writing something that obviously cannot be taken literally. The furthest some go is to use the word ‘firmament’, which is from the Latin ‘firmamentum’, which refers to the solid, physical vault or arch of the sky.
Fundamentalists see new insights like this as attacks on the ‘word’ of God, as if ‘the word of God’ meant the written word on a page. But that’s not what ‘the word’ is. The ‘word of God’ is actually, ‘the Message of Yahveh’ – the fullness and entirety of what Yahveh is, and what Yahveh is conveying to us. The translated words of the Miqra might change, and we may gain new insights from such new understandings, but the Message of Yahveh is unchanging, and stands forever. One only needs fear changes if one’s understanding of what the phrase ‘the word’ means, is false. That is why we look to Yahveh directly for meaning, because Yahveh alone is infallible and eternally sturdy. Never be afraid therefore of a new understanding!
“…. Waters underneath the metal dome …. Waters on top of the metal dome ….” The ancients believed that above the dome there was an ocean of water; when it rained, the floodgates of the dome were opened, and the waters of this sky-ocean were released. Also, that there was an ocean (or ‘gathering-place’) of water beneath the earth; the land was therefore a flat rock which floated on top of this ocean of water – that’s how they viewed the earth!
For centuries, because of what Genesis said, both Jews and Christians thought that the earth was flat and a metal dome stood over the earth (there are even ancient drawings of people going to the end of the earth to where the dome supposedly touched the land, so that they could peak behind the dome and see heaven and the workings of the universe)! However, when it was finally discovered that the earth was not flat, and that there was no dome over the earth, the reaction of Christianity and the Jewish community couldn’t have been more different to each other.
Since to Christians, ‘the word’ meant the written word, they were outraged, and anyone who touted this idea of a round earth which was not in the centre of the universe was persecuted or put in prison. This was one of the biggest crimes against human intelligence ever, and belittles God’s divine purpose. The reaction of the Jewish community was different. There were no persecutions or executions of ‘round earth’ proponents. Instead, there was a communal sense of, “Oh. All right then.” Jewish scholars inwardly knew that the ancients had taken a pagan idea (eg from Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmology), and overlaid it with a Yahwist message – like many images in the Miqra. Our Sages focussed on the meaning of the Yahwist message, rather than its literal, underlying pagan framework (which is in fact what Christian fundamentalists are defending – a pagan cosmological framework)!
“Let the waters which are beneath the sky gather together into one gathering-place, so that the dry earth may appear.” I want to say a little about my translation of verse 1:9. It is substantially different from the one in the Masoretic text (the standard Hebrew version of the bible). I actually used the text of Genesis from the Dead Sea Scrolls for this verse.
Most people – especially fundamentalists – think that the text of the Hebrew bible has come down to us unchanged. Well, the discovery of a number of ancient Torah Scrolls at Qumran up-ended that view. There are a number of verses in the DSS which differ from the standard Masoretic text. The MT says “Let the waters which are beneath the sky gather together into one place”. The Hebrew word for ‘place’ is maqom (m-q-v-m). However, the DSS text says miqveh (m-q-v-h), which is a ‘gathering place for water’ or ‘reservoir’. In Herodian script, the Hebrew ‘m’ and the ‘h’ can look similar if written quickly.
The verse is also a bit longer. In most verses, God says what He will do, and then does it. However in this verse, in the MT, God merely says what He will do; the DSS then goes on to say that God does it. It looks therefore like the MT missed out the second bit of the verse, so in my translation I have restored it, after the evidence of the DSS text.
“Let the land sprout vegetation – plants ….” The Hebrew word for vegetation used here is deshe. It suggests plant life that grows of its own accord from the soil, implying what God has provided for nature and wildlife. It differs from the word used for plants – eshev – which implies plants that have to be cultivated and grown to produce their seeds and fruit. Before the creation of human beings, God is seen as the cultivator and tender of all plants.
“…. in accordance with their form ….” This phrase is quite significant in terms of how the creation of human beings is later described. Plants and animals were not created after the pattern of anything in heaven; they were made in accordance with an earthly pattern – ‘after their kind / form’.
“Let there be lights in the metal dome of the sky …. and let them be as signs of the timing of the appointed festivals, and for the reckoning of the days and the years….” Here comes the most relevant part for us as Yahwists and how we calculate the calendar. The ancient Israelites believed that the lights of the sky were “for signs of the timing of the appointed festivals, and for the reckoning of the days and the years”. In other words, both the Sun and the Moon were used to determine the calendar, rather than just the Sun. The Jewish month corresponds to the phases of the Moon, from New Moon to New Moon (the New Moon for Israelites is the first visible sliver of the crescent moon as it starts to reappear, rather than its complete absence, which is called an ‘empty moon’ in Hebrew).
“Then God set them in the metal dome of the sky….” This is where the earlier belief that the Sun and Moon moved round the earth came from. From the Hebrew it describes how the sun, moon and stars were placed into the metal dome of the sky, so logically they all moved around the earth. We know today that it doesn’t – another sign from God that we are not supposed to take these accounts literally.
“Let us make human beings in our image, and in accordance with our likeness….” Here is where the creation of human beings begins to differ from that of the other plants and animals. For the first time, what God creates is crafted after something that already exists on the spiritual plane.
The ancient Israelites believed that there was a heavenly court (sodh in Hebrew). As human kings have an earthly court, and just as they speak on behalf of this court, so also Yahveh, our Divine King, speaks on behalf of God’s heavenly court (hence the use of the royal ‘we’).
The Genesis account describes human beings having “dominion” over the animals. Over the centuries, people have used this to give justification to the belief that humanity could do whatsoever we wished to the earth – to decimate it, to kill off whole species, to destroy and lay waste to whole forms of life, to ravage and rape life on earth with impunity.
Most commentators today would ask, ‘How are humans like God in His image and likeness?’ And they come up with the modern answer, ‘In our soul’. Even though I do believe in the soul, in order to understand this teaching I have to think like an ancient Hebrew, because they didn’t have any concept of the soul – again, God gave us that insight later.
The key to understanding this verse is one Hebrew letter: ve– , which usually means ‘and’. The line is normally translated, ‘according to my likeness; AND let them rule over the fish of the sea.’ However, ve– has many meanings. As a connecting word it can mean but, who, just as, therefore etc. Here it does not mean ‘and’, but rather, ‘so’. In which case, the line should read: ‘according to my likeness; SO let them rule over the fish of the sea etc.’
To the Hebrew mind, if human beings were made in the image and likeness of God, this means we are supposed to be like God in what God DOES. God rules justly; therefore we, as human beings, are also to rule justly over the living creatures of the earth. God cares for creation and all life in it; therefore giving us dominion over everything implies making us to rule over everything wisely and justly, just as God does.
At this point it is probably appropriate that I say something about evolution. Again, it comes down to a difference between the word, and the Message. The Message is not about how God accomplished something; again, this sensitivity over evolution is a peculiarly Christian thing. Few Jewish people today would even consider it an issue. For us, there is very little conflict between religion and science. The only hand religion has in science is in terms of ethics. If evolution upsets you and threatens you, then I would say again: faith is only threatened when it is based on an entirely false premise.
Evolutionary theory is not a threat to God, nor to any intelligent, enlightened faith. It is only a threat to a faith that is based on a false and fabricated foundation.
… Be fruitful and multiply; replenish the land, and make it abundantly fruitful … This line is normally translated as, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” The main difference is the interpretation of the Hebrew word ve-khivshuha (‘and subdue it’, from the root verb kabash). If one understands the 4th letter to be a shin, then the word means to subdue, oppress, subjugate, persecute. Personally, I cannot believe that God does this, nor do I think that God would expect us to be like this either!
If instead we take the 4th letter to be a sin (the letters shin and sin look exactly the same: ש ; only modern Hebrew differentiates them), then the root verb may be related to the root of the Hebrew word for lamb, keves, from a root meaning ‘to make abundant and fruitful’ (to be fair, I should point out the verb is not recorded anywhere as an independent verb). If the word is actually ve-khivsuha instead ve-khivshuha, then interpreting it this way would be much more in keeping with what we know of Yahveh’s personality – that Yahveh is a God who would instruct his children to cause God’s creation to be abundantly fruitful, rather than instruct us to oppress and subjugate God’s creation.
First-Day…. Second-Day…. Third-Day etc One further point – the mentioning of the days. The Hebrew does not say “the first day”, “the second day”, “the third day” – there is no definite article (“ha-” in Hebrew). They are in fact the normal Hebrew words for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. The days of the week are simply numbered in Hebrew: Sunday is yom rishon(“First Day”, or in ancient Hebrew, yom echad – Day One), Monday is yom sheni (“Second Day”), and so on. So one could translate the passages as “evening and morning came – Sunday…. evening and morning came – Monday…” and so on.
“….God saw everything that He had made, and was astonished at how excellent it was….”Here again, God beholds His creation, but this time in its entirety (not its completeness, because God is continually creating). God is awed and in love with what God has brought forth – just as parents are awed by their newborn children. Previously, God was taken aback by what was pleasing; now God is stunned at its excellence and beauty.
“That was an account of the sky and the land when they were created….” I also just want to mention that I have included verse 2:4a in this portion. Ancient Hebrew texts had no division of sentences or paragraphs; the words are written continuously, without anything like punctuation to indicate the end of sentences or the beginning of new paragraphs, let alone new chapters. Before the King James bible was written, there were no verses, only the Jewish division into sidra’ot (weekly reading portions).
Most modern bibles translate this verse as one sentence, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created”. However, the first part of the verse is in fact the ending line for the first version of creation, and the second part of the verse is the opening line (a title almost) of the second account – or version – of creation (“What happened on the day Yahveh God made land and sky:”)
So what was the point of having this portion, this sidra, in the bible? After all, the passage we will be reading next week is in fact an alternative version of creation with an alternative (and contradictory) sequence of events, rather than simply additional detail. We are not being told “how” creation came to be, rather “who” did it, and “why” things are the way they are. This passage gives the reasons for having a Sun and a Moon, for having seven days in a week, for using the Moon to determine the months, and for establishing the seventh day as a day of rest.
This chapter also establishes Yahveh as the great and wondrous creator of all that exists – the original spark and instigator of everything, the One by whose will everything came into being, the One Author who laid down the laws on how the Universe shall function and operate into eternity. It also makes momentous and ground-breaking assertions about God – that God is outside of space and time; that Yahveh is not like the pagan gods who are creators of bits and pieces of creation, but rather that Yahveh is in fact the creator of everything – ALL of it; and unlike the pagans and their gods, this account shows no interest in God’s origins, implying that unlike false pagan gods, Yahveh has no beginning, no birth, and no ‘growing up’ story.
Now read the portion again. Forget your modern mind, and read it with the mind of an ancient Israelite. See the images they would have seen, the meanings they would have read, and you will understand why this passage is there.
MT Gen 2:4b to 3:24 / HTT Toldot 2:1-3:25
The bible does not have one, unified version of creation, but two. In the first, which we read last week, the land is created first, then plants, then animals, and finally human beings. In the second version, the land already exists. Man is created next, then plants, then animals, then finally, woman.
The two versions come from different traditions. The first (Gen ch 1) came to us from the later settled, agricultural period of Israelite history; the second story, the one we have read this week, is from a much earlier period, when the Israelites were a desert-dwelling, nomadic people. Given some of the theology contained within it, it is very old indeed, on a par with the story of Job (around the time of the Patriarchs).
The two stories, when you examine the intimate order of their detail, are irreconcilable. Yet this fact alone should tell us something. Fundamentalists who take the bible literally, kind of take a mental ‘squint’ at the details to blur and smooth everything out and ignore the differences. We however, who take an honest, sensible and mature approach to the bible – one which brings respect to the reputation of God among the nations – we have to acknowledge that the editor of the book of Genesis purposefully made no attempt to reconcile the discrepancies. We have to take note of the fact that he deliberately left them there.
Many translators also, believing that there are no discrepancies in the ‘perfect word’, desperately try to smooth over the differences by altering their translations. In contrast, I have concentrated on the bible as the Message, telling us about God – not about scientific or historical details. I have therefore not hidden any discrepancies. Talmidaism focusses on spiritual truth, for the sake of the good reputation of God’s name.
We are supposed to notice the fact that the two stories are different, and look beyond the detail to what the stories are trying to tell us. The first chapter of Genesis tells us vital things about the nature of God; the second tells us vital things about the nature of human beings. If we took the second version as literal truth, then we would have to believe that women are an after-thought of God; that women are the cause of all the problems in the world, and that women are inferior to men.
The clearest indication that we are moving from one source to another, is that in the first account, God is referred to simply as Elohim – ‘God’. But in the second account – the earlier, Israelite, Yahwist version – God is throughout called Yahveh Elohim – ‘Yahveh God’.
Yahveh is cast in the guise of a potter. We know now that human beings are not made from clay, but that is not the point of the story – the story is not telling us what human beings are made from. Just as a potter adds water to his mix of clay, so God sends a mist to water the surface of the soil, and from this mixture of water and soil, the first human is created – a man, to be more precise. As a pot is fashioned by the potter, so Yahveh fashions the first man (or rather, the first human). And God’s natural word for human – of course, a Hebrew word – is ‘adam’.
Today, we have etymologists to tell us where words really came from. They can research books, other documents, compare sources – all to tell us what language a word came from, how it has evolved over the centuries, and what it meant originally.
People in ancient times had no such resources or etymological method. They made crude and – more often than not – incorrect guesses as to where words came from. If a word merely sounded like another, then that was proof definitive to the ancient mind that the words had to be related.
The Hebrew word for man is ‘adam’, and the word for soil or earth (US: ‘dirt’) is ‘adamah’. Because they sound similar, the ancients concluded that man is called ‘adam’, because he was taken from ‘adamah’ – the soil. And by the same token, woman was called ‘ishshah’, because she was taken from ‘ish’ – another word for man.
The original text of the Torah took things further; in comparing the standard text with the Greek Septuagint and the Samaritan text of the same verse, it says that she is called ishshah (woman), because she was taken out of ‘her man’ (ish-ahh).
For the ancients, this folk etymology was enough. After all, this was a story about beginnings, and why not include snippets of folk tales about where various words came from?
When man is formed in the book of Genesis, he is a lifeless lump of red clay (because the Hebrew word for red is adom – again, folk etymology at work). He needs the spark of life. By breathing divine breath into the clay, the divine potter causes man to become a living being.
The Hebrew uses the term ‘nefesh chayyah’ for ‘living being’. ‘Nefesh’ is the usual word used to translate ‘soul’ (or more properly, ‘life-force’) in biblical Hebrew. However, it has many meanings, and we must here resist the temptation to translate the verse as ‘and man became a living soul’. As much as we believe in a soul, we have to remember that at the time this story was being told in its earliest oral form, the Hebrews had no concept of a soul – an insight and understanding that came later within the Yahwist tradition.
Eve (Chavah in Hebrew) is described as being created out of Adam’s rib, and flesh was enclosed over it. In a midrash from the Targum Yonatan, the flesh used is said to be part of Adam’s heart. Now, to the modern mind, the bible story seems to say that woman is made only of a small, insignificant part of a man. However, to an ancient Israelite – and even to a modern Hebrew speaker – this choice of a rib near the heart is significant.
To the ancients, the seat of human personality and emotion was not the brain, but the heart (in Hebrew, the word lev means both ‘heart’ and ‘mind’). It was exceedingly significant that a bone near the heart was taken, as well as flesh from the heart itself. This implies that much more than just a small, insignificant piece of a man was taken to make a woman.
It is a basic, fundamental Yahwist principle that Yahveh is neither male nor female. Yahveh’s personality is neither male nor female, and we are not to seek to separate out one part of God’s personality from another; to do so, would be to create copies of Canaanite gods, which were always in male/female pairs (hence the overly sexual nature of Canaanite religion). God’s personality is what we would consider to be an amalgam of both male and female traits. If the original human personality was created to be in the image of God, we are given to assume that originally, the human personality was also a balance of male and female qualities; psychologically, Adam was not ‘man’ as a man is now. When God took Adam’s rib, and enclosed it with the flesh of his heart, God in effect divided the human personality in two, giving some of God’s traits to the woman, and giving the man what was left of God’s traits. Woman, in effect, was given what was close to God’s ‘heart’.
Verse 2:24 says that a man joins to his wife so that they become one flesh; this state of affairs is supposed to restore the wholeness of the human psyche. The man and the woman are supposed to complement each other – complete each other, restoring what was divided by God.
Before the creation of woman, God is described as planting a garden in the East. That garden is called ‘Eiden (Eden), which literally means ‘delight’. Now, part of the land of ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) was known in ancient Aramaic as Bit ‘Adini – the land or country of ‘Adini. Some folk etymology may have been at work here again. The words ‘Eiden and ‘Adini could be related, or simply it could hark back to an even older Sumerian word, meaning ‘plain’.
This ‘plain’ or ‘garden of delight’ was then planted with every living plant that God thought the man would need – the perfect place. It enigmatically also contains a tree of life, as well as a tree of the awareness of good and evil.
Before I begin to discuss what good and evil are, I just want to take a look at the serpent in the garden. Because of the theology we have all grown up with, we automatically think that the serpent is Satan – especially since he tempts the woman into doing something she shouldn’t. However, during the very earliest Hebrew period – the time this story comes from – the pre-Sinai Hebrews did not have any concept of Satan (as lord of all evil, equal and opposite of God).
The idea of Satan only entered Judaism after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, influenced by Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism, when the bible’s “Satanic verses” were inserted (eg Job 1:6-12, 2:1-7a; 1Chr 21:1 – see the original, equivalent passage in 2Sam 24:1). Originally in Israelite theology, Yahveh is supreme (Dt 4:39, Isa 43:11), and has no equal or opposite (Isa 40:25). In the early Patriarchal period when books like Job were written, misfortune on earth was thought to be caused by supernatural wild beasts (iyim in Hebrew, pronounced ee-YEEM), like the leviathan and the behemoth (Job 41:1);
The serpent in the Garden of Eden was just one of these iyim, and not an incarnation of Satan. These supernatural wild beasts were the agents of chaos – that is how the ancient Hebrews thought disorder was perpetuated in this world. The serpent is not Satan, but a supernatural wild beast (of disorder in the human soul), like leviathans (the supernatural wild beast of disorder in the sea) and behemoths (the supernatural wild beast of disorder on land). The serpent, the leviathan and the behemoth are an example of Israelite theology that is now defunct – we know now that it is not supernatural wild beasts that cause disorder in the world.
So what is good, and what is evil? When a male lion takes over the pride of another lion, its first act as its new ruler is to kill all the cubs of the previous owner of the pride. This may seem a cruel and heartless act to us, but to a lion, it is a necessary act in order to bring the pride’s females back into oestrus, so that the new ruler of the pride can mate with them.
With animals, there is no awareness of what good and evil mean; they hurt and kill, they do what they do, and none of their actions can be described in terms of moral right or wrong.
However, if a male human were to commit the same actions to human children, his deeds are rightly described as evil, because human beings have an awareness of what good and evil are. In human beings, evil is what is harmful or destructive (the Hebrew word for evil – ra` – comes from the verb ra`a`, which has several meanings, the relevant one being ‘to be harmful / hurtful.’
When the first man and first woman metaphorically ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, their “eyes were opened” – that is, they suddenly became aware of the concepts of good and evil, and what they meant. They abandoned the innocence – or maybe moral neutrality – of the animal consciousness, and achieved the sentience of human consciousness.
Some palaeontologists theorise something like this actually happened in human evolution. The first physically modern humans appeared about 140 to 100 thousand years ago. However, their behaviour was no different from that of their immediate ancestors. They made stone flints, hunted for food, made fires, and that was it.
Then about 70 to 50 thousand years ago, something changed. We achieved sentience. We started to think beyond ourselves; we developed culture, art in the form of cave paintings, primitive jewellery and carvings. We started to cover our dead in red ochre and bury them with reverence, instead of just leaving them where they fell. We started to care for our sick and injured, as evidenced by skeletons found with serious injuries, but these individuals survived and evidently flourished despite their injuries. Even though their wounds and broken bones would normally have prevented them from hunting and providing for themselves, they were looked after by their peers, well into – what was for them – old age.
It would seem though, that with sentience comes a price. In knowing good and evil, we also became aware of joy and emotional pain.
The one thing that sets us apart from other animals, is that we have the ability to plan ahead – far ahead. We can imagine concepts beyond our daily needs. Animals feel joy; they feel physical pain too. Animals experience pain when they bear their young, and they go through the ordeal of having to search for food. Eve certainly wasn’t the first female to feel pain in childbirth, and Adam wasn’t the first male to have to work hard to find food. However, sentience brings an added dimension to pain.
When God is described as saying that, post-disobedience, everything man and woman do will be in pain, God isn’t saying that before this there was no pain. Rather, knowledge of good and evil brings with it an ability to experience pain even when the physical source of pain is absent.
We worry about looking for the means for our survival, even in those moments when it is not an immediate issue. We worry about our children, even when they are not in immediate danger. And we worry about growing old, and about the frailty of our own mortality, long before our final time comes.
For me, this is what the story makes us think about – not what happened, but rather about the upsides and the downsides of being sentient, human men and women. With knowledge of good and evil comes responsibility – we cannot just do what we like, like other animals can – like our primitive ancestors once did.
I also think that, the moment we achieved sentience, all those thousands of years ago, it would not have been too great a step for us to go on to develop spirituality. Sentience must have brought with it a fear of the unknown, but it also might have brought with it a realisation that we human beings cannot just do as we please. For if we do, we will hurt others, and in turn, we ourselves will suffer.
Alone among all the animals in creation, we go out of our way to help others, even when they are not related to us, even when we do not know them, even when helping others will bring no reward to ourselves.
I think spirituality and religion developed partly out of a need to reconcile what the individual needs, with what the group needs. To be human is to be spiritual. With knowledge and understanding comes pain, but the ability to feel pain also protects us. And if we are able to feel and understand the pain of others, it even ennobles us.