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April 01, 2004

A Wack Job on Adam and Eve

Limbicnutrition recently had an interesting post on the derivation of the English word "Allegory":

Allegory. From Greek allos meaning "other" and agora meaning gathering place (especially the marketplace). In times past, it was common to do one's chatting at the marketplace. Some of the topics discussed were clandestine in nature and when people spoke about them, for fear of being punished, they would speak indirectly. That is to say, they would speak about one thing in such a way as to intimate the actual information to the listener. Thus, the persons discussing clandestine matters were said to be speaking of "other things" in the marketplace. Eventually the words joined and became associated with the act of speaking about one thing while meaning another.

Based on this definition, I would like to propose an allegorical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, using as background my series of posts (here, here, and here) on the emergence of dominance hierarchies at the dawn of civilization.

As a point of reference, recall the pithy results of our first thought experiment in Part II: Conquest, I submit, though seldom mentioned, was a cultural innovation every bit as important as the domestication of plants and animals; it was the original sin that dare not speak its name.

What follows is an admittedly outlandish attempt on my part to get a hearing for a proposition that will strike many of you as a little, well, strange. So let me soften you up with a couple of observations:

1. Wouldn't it be curious if the setting of the Adam and Eve story, somewhere in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the early 4th millennium BCE, could be shown to coincide in both time and place (based on a lot of circumstantial and archeological evidence) with the first conquest in history?

2. If you can accept the argument I made in (Part III ) that the first conquest in history was also the single most important event in history: an event which almost certainly occurred in the full light of day, and which devastated the lives of the vast majority of ordinary people who were around at the time, and the lives of their children, and of their children's children after them -- well, if you can accept this much, then is it out of the question that these people might have tried to tell the story of what had happened to them, and to keep it alive (despite their masters' interest in blotting it from memory), if only to explain to their descendants why they were living like dogs?

In any case, this is exactly what I am going to argue the Adam and Eve story is all about, and what its historical provenance is too, for that matter. Now, I know, that's a tall order, and I'm not sure the best way to proceed. But I am sure the most entertaining way is to tell a funny story that will show just how crazy I used to be (my wife says still am) when I was around razib's age, thirty years ago.

At the time I was an "itinerant carpenter" in the words of a local newspaper reporter ("short-haired hippy" would have been a more accurate description) who had returned to my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee after an absence of twenty years. I was coming back to help build a retirement home for my parents, who were also coming back, in their case from Washington, D.C., where my Yankee father had wound up in his long and semi-lustrous career in the American labor movement. I was also secretly hoping to patch up my relationship with my father, which had been strained to the breaking point during the period of my adolescence (and it was a long one) by the clashing egos of two strong-willed personalities. I mean, if you were an FDR-style social democrat, how would you like it if your son came home spouting Nietzsche?

Anyway, no sooner was the house done and my parents moved in, than I started to think that maybe the old hometown wasn't such a bad place to live after all. No doubt this was related to the fact that I'd moved something like 25 times between 15 different cities since I graduated from college, and was frankly getting near the end of my rope. It also may have had something to do with those "social networks" razib likes to talk about, which make it easier to succeed in a big impersonal country like the United States. Case in point: my father, who was on the board, informed me that the local ACLU wanted to bring a case to get the teaching of the Bible out of the public schools. It concerned a Bible studies program I'd gone through myself in my grammar school days, sponsored by the local churches, and taught by what were, for all intents and purposes, pious Sunday school teachers -- in other words, a blatantly unconstitutional teaching of religion, but also deeply entrenched, owing to the fact that we lived in the Bible belt. (Btw, I must admit I liked a lot of the Bible stories we read back then -- stuff like Samson slaying his enemies with the jawbone of an ass -- and I doubt I ever would have been exposed to them otherwise, given that both my parents were militantly secular in their outlooks).

Now the fact is I was never an ACLU type of guy -- they were way too liberal-mushy for my taste -- despite my being aware, in the back of my mind, that I might someday be in need of their services, if only to protect me and my right to utter some of the more outrageous ideas that were floating in my brain. One of these ideas, it so happened, was my whacked-out theory of Adam and Eve, which I'd just recently worked out to my own satisfaction.

Well, I saw the possibilities in the situation almost immediately. So I said to my father, "That's interesting; why don't you introduce me to the other members of the board and the lawyer you've found to prosecute the case? He was agreeable, and I duly met Daddy's new group of friends down at the local Unitarian church -- the only church, he liked to say, where you didn't have to park your brains in the parking lot before you came inside (later, when new-age paganism started coming into fashion amongst Unitarian-Universalists, his conscience couldn't accommodate the change and he resigned from the congregation; I always admired his integrity).

Anyway, I am introduced to the lawyer, and it quickly becomes apparent to me that the guy can barely string two sentences together in a logical way (pretty typical for these parts, btw, so to that extent those send-ups on Saturday Night Live -- or coming out of the mouth of my New York wife, for that matter, who's especially good with the accents -- are not far off the mark). This guy needs help, I think, if I am going to get my chance to come riding to the rescue of the Bible in the schools, by making the only argument that both honors the truth-value of scripture and can pass constitutional muster: namely, the argument for teaching the Bible as history. So I volunteer my services (which he quickly accepts) to research and write the first draft of the brief for the plaintiffs; neglecting to mention that I am also writing a brief amicus curae on behalf of the defendants (unbeknownst to them), which include not only the board of education, but the local evangelical organization that is financing the Bible studies program, on whose conniving and dissembling board sit current and former mayors and city councilmen, along with the head of the largest family-owned insurance company in town.

Well, all was going smoothly with my writing of the briefs for both the plaintiffs and the defendants, until I realized that unless I wanted my case for the defendants to be laughed out of court (it argued for inclusion of the story of Adam and Eve in the world history curriculum of every elementary school in the city) I'd better do something to show that my novel interpretation of Genesis -- on its face bizarre, maybe even absurd -- was in fact not absurd at all, but enjoyed wide popular support throughout the community. Actually, I had no idea whether it enjoyed wide popular support, or any support at all. But I decided to find out.

So I drew up a petition, and worked up a little spiel in words that were so simple they could be understood by even the simplest and least educated adults in town. Next, I set up a card-table outside the entrance to our local public library, over which was draped an enormous and beautiful serpent's skin (a python's, I think, originally from India) which I'd purchased in NY, and start soliciting signatures. I am there not thirty minutes before the head librarian comes out and informs me I will have to move my table, because what I am doing isn't allowed on public property. I say, "Really, Mrs. Arnold? In that case I'll come inside with my table, where it?s more comfortable," which I proceeded to do. Naturally, it's not ten minutes more until the cops arrive, along with some reporters and cameramen from the local news media (this is a sleepy town where nothing exciting ever happens, unless you count homicide) and the next day I have a great spread in the morning paper by a writer who actually manages to get the story right: who accurately summarizes my spiel, and what I am trying to accomplish. What's more, upon reflection, the city attorney admits I probably do have a legal right to petition in the library (at least until proper legislation can be drawn up and rushed through the town council, which of course they have no idea how to draft) and so I remain in the library for the next six weeks, gathering hundreds of signatures from all manner of persons -- black and white, educated and uneducated, believers and unbelievers.

What follows is the wording of my petition, along with the short spiel I insisted on giving in full to every person before I would let them sign it. For what it's worth, most people did give me their signatures, very few were offended by what I had to say (only two or three men in business suits), and no one threatened me with physical assault, as I was afraid might happen. Even more surprising to me, on more than one occasion I was informed by my respondent -- make of it what you will -- that they already knew this interpretation, and thought it was right; and they claimed they hadn't read it in the paper.

Anyway, the petition read:

We the undersigned [citizens of Chattanooga] hereby petition [the board of education and the Federal District Court], to allow the teaching of the story of Adam and Eve in our public elementary schools; on the grounds that it is a true story; that it tells the invention of agriculture, which brought slavery into the world; and that our children should learn it so they can understand the past, where we came from, and how we got here.

And my spiel went something like this:

Before agriculture people lived in hunting-and gathering societies, in which the men hunted animals, and the women gathered fruits, nuts, seeds and berries. Man was the hunter, and that's why Adam names all the animals in the story. Together with Eve, he lived in a garden that, we are told, already had in it everything that was pleasant to the eye and good for food; the only thing they had to do was to dress it and keep it. Now, it's a well-known fact that women invented agriculture, which they did when they discovered that by dropping a seed in a hole in the ground, a plant would grow. This is symbolized in the story by the serpent, which lives in a hole in the ground, and tempts Eve with the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Agriculture was good, of course, because it was good for food (Eve ate, and found that it was good for food); but it was also evil, because it tied people down to a place, and made it possible for one group to capture another and make them work for them. (Before agriculture, there was no way one man could capture another and make him work for him, because you could always run away and live off the land; but after agriculture, you had to stick around and tend to your crops or else you would starve.) At the end of the story Adam and Eve receive three curses as punishment for what they have done. First, Eve is condemned to suffer pain in childbirth. Well, everybody knows what causes pain in childbirth: it's our big human heads. So the meaning here is plain enough: If you hadn't been so smart, then you wouldn't have invented agriculture and fallen into servitude. Eve's second curse is that from now on she must obey her husband's command. This refers to the new relationship of domination and submission that has entered into all human relationships, not only between men and women, but between masters and slaves. Before agriculture -- or rather, before conquest -- the sexes were more or less equal in society, symbolized by the fact that Eve is created from a rib taken from Adam?s side (as opposed, say, to a bone taken from his heel or his foot). Whereas before she was his helpmate and companion, now she has become is his servant. Before, they were naked and "were not ashamed," but now there is work to be done, and no time for sex -- a change symbolized by the fact that they must put on their clothes. And finally, there is Adam?s curse itself: henceforth he must "earn bread in the sweat of his brow" -- a clear reference to the hard life of servitude in the fields, and to the growing of grain, which has become the new lot of the human race. At the very end of the story, Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden -- signifying the way our ancestors were forced to exchange a life of ease and plenty, which was their original inheritance, for a living death of endless toil.

Well, let me tell you, this spiel worked like a charm. As I said, most of the people who heard it -- I'd estimate above 90% -- signed the petition. However, I don't expect the majority of readers on this blog site will be so easily satisfied. Tell me, GNXPers, have I made my case or not? Is the Adam and Eve story plausibly the oldest verbal artifact in existence? Or is this a less than convincing way for me to proceed, my taking a poetic, metaphorical approach to its interpretation, treating it like the riddle of the Sphinx? What additional sorts of evidence would I need to adduce in order to establish my claim for the historicity of the text, on empirical grounds alone, to at least a reasonable degree of probability? Don't spare my feelings (I know you won't Abiola) but let me hear your toughest criticisms, and see if I can answer them. At the very least, give me a chance to prove that I'm not completely insane on this topic, lest the guys in white coats show up and try to drag me away.

(to be continued)

Posted by lukelea at 02:25 AM