If chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis set the stage for the development of humankind, Chapter 3 provides the frame. Chapter 2, verse 24 ended with a comment on how Adam and Eve felt after they had sex. The two of them were naked and felt no shame. How did they go from being naked and unashamed to being shamed? How did chapter 3 define the frame through which human relations came to be understood by millions of people?
A frame, according to the philosopher and linguist, George Lakoff, offers an ethical and political language in which to embed deep-seated and active values. (Cf. Don’t Think of an Elephant) Those who command the construction and interpretation of the frame determine in large part how we see and respond to the world. The vaguer the frame becomes, the more confused it appears to be, the more likely behaviour will be based on fears rather than on positive values and aspirations. Further, the more that one frame is reinforced by effective metaphors rather than logical arguments, by repetition, interpretation and other means, to that degree will possessors of the frame be able to resist challenges. For the frame is overwhelmingly unconscious and provides the conceptual basis for dealing with our lives and desires.
One interpretation of the Adam and Eve story has set the predominant frame in terms of which male-female relationships, from which all other relationships are derivative, are understood and entail certain types of actions and ruling out others. It goes as follows, recognizing that naming or branding them came later:
- Adam and Eve were commanded not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
- Eve was tricked by an unscrupulous and shrewd snake to eat thereof.
- Eve then seduced Adam.
- After they ate, they recognized that they were naked and became ashamed of their nakedness and donned clothes.
- God suspected something was amiss.
- The man and his wife hid from God ostensibly because they were naked.
- God then knew that the two had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and first confronted Adam.
- Adam said it was Eve’s fault.
- When Eve was confronted, she said it was the serpent’s fault; he had seduced her.
- As a result, the snake was cursed, forced to crawl on its belly and eat dirt, and there would hereafter be enmity between the snake and women.
- Woman was cursed a) with suffering extreme pain in giving birth and b) with a desire for her husband and c) acceptance that the husband would rule over her.
- Adam was cursed because he would be forced to work all his life by the sweat of his brow until he died.
Let’s call this the family conservative frame since if informs and is reaffirmed by most community conservatives. The frame is taken to mean what it apparently says, that is, it is perceived as a literal rather than metaphorical frame which makes it resistant to other interpretations. Desire and sex are viewed as the source of all evil, but a desire that neither man nor woman can avoid. Hence, the doctrine of original sin. Sex is then viewed as perhaps necessary to satiate uncontrollable desires and, of course, to procreate, but it should only properly take place between a man and his wife in a boundaried context of a mutual but asymmetrical relationship, the woman defined primarily by nurturing and bringing forth children in pain and suffering under the rule of her husband as the final arbiter.
Let us reread the text in terms of another frame, one which primarily accepts the narrative as a metaphor that requires interpretation. Further, instead of stressing negatives and prohibitions, it is a tale about overcoming superego trips for a life of creativity, responsibility and true companionship. Though there are many variations, let us call it the liberal frame. It differs from the conservative reading in the following respects:
- God’s statement to man and woman is not a categorical command but a conditional claim – if you eat of the tree of knowledge, you will die; knowledge of your mortality will be the consequence of having sex.
- Nevertheless, God allows his consequentialist declarations to be perceived as absolute moral prohibitions, whereas the task of humans is to see through this critically and to reinforce the rights of self-determination in opposition to such an imposition.
- Eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil entails man “knowing” a woman and a woman “knowing” a man, that is sex – this is the one common element of both frames.
- A consequence of having sex is both recognition of one’s mortality and that recognition is the ground and foundation for humans defining themselves in terms of ethics.
- The talking erect serpent is man’s penis seen by man as having a will of its own and is characterized as sly and subtle; the difference however, is that man must recognize this as an act of objectifying his own body, just as he objectified woman by conceiving of her as an extension of himself, and failing to take responsibility for his whole being and his actions.
- Most importantly, this reflects on the male disposition to separate his conscious life of objectivity and viewing the world from his unconscious life, so that the male is characterized as inherently torn between an embodied self and a disembodied self that uses language to bring things into cognitive existence through the simple act of naming. Recognizing thought as primarily an act of unconscious framing provides a major step in overcoming this schizophrenia.
- The female disposition, on the other hand, is to be embodied, to be sensitive to sensual appeals rather than repressing them, to see relationships as modes of contact and communication rather than objectification, but when such dispositions are asserted, they are readily interpreted by the possessors of the conservative frame as subversive, so there develops a countervailing disposition under social pressure to expand injunctions, to perceive them as superego commands opposed to eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to not even touching; ideally, the woman should be a nun.
- The real sin of both the male and the female is one of a cover-up, both in the literal and metaphorical sense, and not taking responsibility for their actions; it is the decision to hide, not the drift into having sex.
- Transparency is to be lauded and not seen as a matter of shame.
- God does not like them having sex – He intended the future Eve to just be a help-meet, not even a companion and friend let alone a sexual partner.
- Through the failure to see the narrative as a metaphor, man perceives his life of work as a burden and a duty from which he longs for escape – either at the end of his days or when he can return to a paradisiacal state of leisure.
- For the very same reason, woman sees her life exclusively and burdensomely as a nurturer responsible primarily for giving birth, raising children and subjecting herself to a patriarchal order.
How do we allow one frame to develop and eventually command the way the world is viewed? One is by being educated in art as well as science, by seeing art and the imagination as absolutely critical and central to self-definition. Secondly, it requires using science, using the power of naming, to unveil the unconscious. Third, nurturing must be accepted, not only as the responsibility of both men and women, not only of the role of both men and women in the family, but of the conception of government in which care of one’s fellow citizens is first and foremost followed by care for the rest of the world.
That role of nurturing extends from government to all of civil society, including business and industry. Government is responsible for our health and well being, our safety, our use of public resources, our communications. Without highways and airports, telephones and the internet, our role as humans to facilitate contact and communication will be subverted. Further, and most audaciously, while interpreters of the conservative creed and the literalist interpretation of the core narrative code are perceived as allocating responsibility primarily to the family, the metaphorical interpretation views it as a prime responsibility of government to educate its citizens that government’s prime concern is caring and protecting, not retreating from its responsibilities. Adam Smith does not describe the wealth of nations simply to characterize businesses in open competition in order to maximize themselves, but as trustees served and protected by our governments to enhance the well-being of all. Though corporations may have a propensity to be self-serving, it is the duty of government to establish moral sympathy as the foundation stone and ensure, by means of regulations, that all businesses serve the public good.
Politics are grounded in an ethics of responsibility and accountability rather than an abuse of ethics to cover-up and hide, to be devious and celebrate deviousness. That requires offering your own narrative and interpretation of that narrative, framing and naming experience and thereby your own experience. It means making nurturing and empathy – traditional feminine values – as the core, rather than repression, hard-nosed discipline and patriarchy. The biblical tale begins with the latter, but with the message that it is up to humans to bring forth the former for otherwise the patriarchal God, Elohim, the God of power and domination, will never discover His other side, his mercy and that He is Adonai and not just Elohim. History is the vehicle for the education of both God and humanity. History is not reification but discovery and learning.
God is NOT the source of defining right and wrong. Males are NOT the source of defining right and wrong. Both have a history of failure. But both also have a history of learning from that failure and altering the framework through which they understand the world and act in and upon it. At Passover services the most interesting child is not the wise child who has learned all his lessons by heart, but the contrary child who raises questions about those lessons even as he mistakenly distances himself from the community in so doing. God begins by defining Himself as a strict disciplinarian, as a severe deliverer of tough love for His people, but discovers over and over again that tough love only leads to disarray and destruction rather than preservation and security. Reread the Adam and Eve story as an imaginative exercise with a very different frame.
With the help of Alex Zisman