What Do the First Three Chapters of Genesis Really Mean? — Chapter 3, Original Sin
This is the thirteenth article in a series, following on from an introduction. It is preferable to be familiar with at least some of the preceding articles, the most relevant being part 9, part 10, and part 11, all of which discussed chapter 2. In the last article, I started to discuss chapter 3 of Genesis, how the serpent should be understood. (For links to the whole series, please see this list.)
Now I’ll discuss the consequence of Eve’s succumbing to the temptation of the serpent, the so-called ‘fall’. For convenience I’ll be using the same abbreviations as earlier in the series: NRSV, OF, OC, R, B, BEI. These refer to the following sources, as first given in part 3, and the background to which was explained in part 1 and part 2:
- the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible
- d’Olivet’s French translation of the original text of Genesis
- d’Olivet’s commentary on the original text
- Redfield’s personal rendering
- Shabaz Britten Best’s translation
- his esoteric interpretation of the text.
The direct consequence of the disobedience is described in verse 7. According to NRSV: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves”. This is one of the best known verses of the Bible, has remained in the consciousness of humanity ever since it was written, and has been depicted by many artists. It suggests, of course, that Adam and Eve were human beings, but we know from what has preceded that this is not the case. So the true meaning must be something different.
OC vehemently objects to this translation, saying that “it is evident that the verb used… signifies, to produce, to bring forth, to fecundate, and not to sew” (his italics). He calls this a “ridiculous expression”, basing his opinion on an examination of the Samaritan and Chaldaic versions, concluding: “One can see nothing in them which can excuse the Greek and Latin phrase (translated as ) and they sewed fig-leaves! The Hebraic word signifies neither a leaf, nor leaves, but a shadowy elevation, a veil; a canopy, a thing elevated above another to cover and protect it. It is also an elevation: an extension; a height”. OC also gives a lengthy explanation as to how the word translated as ‘fig’ is in reality an expression of ‘grief’ “not only in Hebrew, but in Samaritan, Chaldaic, Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopic”.
Bearing all this in mind, this is R’s rendering of verse 7 (which is closer to OF than B): “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were void of light (of virtue, sterile and unveiled in their dark principle) and they brought forth a shadowy covering, veil of sadness and mourning, and they made themselves pilgrims’ cloaks”.
And this is my own translation of OF (which has some minor differences): “And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were bare of light (sterile, revealed in their dark principle). And they created for themselves a shadowy veil of mutual sadness and of grief, and they made for themselves pilgrims’ clothes”.
Paraphrasing this, we can see that Adam and Eve suddenly realised their mistake — in B Aishah/Eve refers to it as her delusion — the consequence being that they were cut off from the light of their spiritual home/origin, and entered a world of darkness. This created a sense of suffering, great regret for what they had done, presumably with a deep longing for a return to their original state of being. They therefore became pilgrims. The word seems very appropriate, since it means travellers (literally those who have come from afar), who are on a journey, often arduous and lengthy, to a holy place.
Later in the chapter, following on from this direct consequence, we learn of God’s (Yahweh’s) reaction to their disobedience.
Yahweh first addresses the serpent. In NRSV we have at verse 14: “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life”. This clearly gives the impression that the serpent is a physical animal. Surprisingly perhaps, since we know that this is not the case, rather that the word ‘serpent’ is merely a symbol for ‘insidious desire’ or ‘covetousness’, the three sources say something similar. For the first part of the above, B is fairly close to NRSV: “…cursed be thou amongst all terrestrial creatures and amongst all elementary nature”. (For ‘terrestrial creatures’ R has ‘terrestrial animality’, and OF has le règne-animal, which literally means the animal kingdom.) Given the claimed symbolic meaning of the ‘serpent’, it is not clear to me what this means.
In the second part, however, the text noticeably diverges from NRSV. B has: “According to thy tortuous inclination shalt thou act basely, and upon thy corporeal illusion shalt thou feed all the days of thy life”. (For ‘corporeal illusion’ R has ‘elementary exhalations [corporeal illusions]’.) So ‘belly’ and ‘dust’ do not appear in the original, and we return to something closer to the original thread. The ‘serpent’ is condemned to live at a very low level of existence, remaining unaware of anything higher and stuck in ‘corporeal illusion’.
This theme continues in verse 15. NRSV has: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel”. This is very strange and seemingly incomprehensible, for we have no idea who this ‘he’ is, unless it refers to ‘offspring’ which seems plural. Even so, the phrase is weird. It presumably means that humans will attempt to kill snakes, as they are poisonous, by striking them, and that serpents will attempt to kill humans by biting their ankles, thus poisoning them. Why would such a trivial detail appear in a text concerned with the great drama of creation?
None of that appears in my three sources. For example, B has: “And I will put antipathy and natural aversion between thee and Aishah, and between thy progeny and the productions of her will; hers shall repress the venomous principle of evil in thee, and thine shall repress the consequence of perversity in her. (For ‘perversity’ R has ‘evil’.) We have to remember that this has nothing to do with a serpent and a woman, rather refers to the conflict between the tendency to live at a very low of existence immersed in the animal kingdom, and the higher aspirations of the soul. In human life, these will be in opposition to each other; as the text says, there will be an aversion between the inclinations (progeny) of the serpent and the productions of the soul (Eve).
In verse 16 Yahweh turns his attention to Eve. NRSV says: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you’ ”. This verse has resounded down the centuries, influencing social and political thinking about family life, even until recent times. Since Eve is not a woman, however, rather the soul principle, the literal meaning cannot be the true one.
B has instead: “Unto Aishah He said, I will multiply the obstacles opposed to the execution of thy desires, and thy mental conceptions, and in sorrowful travail shalt thou bring forth thy productions — of aspiration and altruism; and unto Aish thy intellectual principle shall thy desire be, and he shall rule and be expressed in thee”. Here we can clearly see that what is being described is a process taking place within a single entity, the conflict between the higher self/soul and probably the lower self (ego) and its desires. Whether this is actually a punishment by God, or merely the consequence of the descent of Adam into lower levels is an interesting question.
BEI is possibly helpful here: “The inherent antagonism of opposing forces within man, the spiritual versus the physical, is at the root of all the tragedy and drama of human life… The assumed creation of Eve represents the awakening consciousness of the feminine psyche, or soul, in the higher self of every individual. This unfoldment of latent faculties happened long after mankind had attained physical maturity. Therefore the ensuing contest of interests was at first unequal, and the egoistic lower self had apparently an unfair advantage over the soul. This is implied in v16: ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’ ”. (This is probably what is intended by this verse, although this interpretation seems to me not completely consistent with what has preceded.)
Yahweh then turns his attention to Adam in verses 17–19. NRSV seems to leave no room for doubt that he is addressing a human: “And to the man he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ ”.
What all this is supposed to mean is not clear. Why does Yahweh punish the ground rather than Adam? Do humans actually eat the ground? Thorns and thistles may grow, but we don’t eat them, so what’s the problem? B’s translation is somewhat different: “ …cursed be the Adamic elements because of thee, in painful travail shalt thou feed upon it all the days of thy lives. Harsh and rough, imperfect and disordered productions shall germinate abundantly for thee, and thou shalt feed upon the bitter and withered fruits of elementary nature. In continual mental agitation thou shalt feed upon it, until thy restitution and reintegration into thy source and primordial state (R has ‘the Adamic element’), for out of the spiritual element wast thou taken, and into the spiritual element shalt thou be restored”.
This makes much more sense. We see that the spiritual being Adam will suffer through being enclosed within a physical body, and that there is the promise of a return to ‘his’ original state, from which he has removed himself. This is much more in line with various spiritual traditions, and is especially reminiscent of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Then in verse 20 NRSV has: “The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all who live”. We are led to exactly the same conclusion as in previous verses, that we are talking about the first human couple, and therefore that all humanity descended from Eve. This verse has even permeated the world of science, where in genetics we find references to ‘mitochondrial Eve and her descendants’. (Search for ‘Eve found in Africa’.)
B has a different understanding: “And Adam called the name of Aishah — his faculty of freewill and the feminine companion of his intellect, Hevah — elementary existence, because she was the mother of all that provided existence and the consciousness of experiences”. Thus Eve (Hevah) is not the first human woman, rather a spiritual mother figure, something like a deity or goddess in traditional mythologies.
For verse 21 NRSV has: “And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them”. This is presumably intended to refer back to verse 7, where “they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together…” Again we seem to be talking about actual human beings, embarrassed by their nudity. B’s translation, however, is as follows: “And IHOAH made for Adam and his intellectual companion, sheltering bodies of increasing density, and enveloped them with care”. It would seem that the androgynous spiritual being known as Adam has finally been incarnated into physical form. It’s worth noting that the text says bodies in the plural and that they are of increasing density. It is not clothes covering naked bodies, rather physical bodies covering over the other levels of what it is to be human. This conforms to esoteric traditions, which describe various levels/bodies of a human being — etheric, astral, mental, and so on.
From here to the end of the chapter the terminology in Best’s esoteric translation becomes harder to understand. For verses 22–24 NRSV has: “Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’; therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life”.
This seems to mean that the gods(?) understand good and evil and Adam, because of his ‘sin’, now also understands. This apparently offers him the opportunity to become immortal while he remains in the Garden of Eden. Since God does not want this, He therefore expels Adam, and places great difficulties in the way to prevent him returning.
The message of B’s verses 22–24 is broadly similar, but offers some extra detail: “And IHOAH said, behold Adam the universal prototype of man, is become like one of Us knowing good and evil; now lest he put forth his hand and also take from the elementary substance of lives and feed thereon, and live for an infinite period; IHOAH therefore separated Adam from the ethereal sphere of existence (R has “the organic sphere of temporal sensibility”), to elaborate the adamic element from which he had been extracted; and IHOAH cast forth Adam from the realm of primeval consciousness (R has ‘the universal anteriority of time’), and caused the Cherubim — like innumerable legions, to abide near the organic sphere of temporal existence, and a whirling flame of destruction separated one realm from another, to guard the elementary substance of lives”.
Although this is a very complex passage, as indeed is the whole chapter, the precise details of which I can’t penetrate, the general outline is clear. The androgynous Adam, the universal prototype of humanity, has been expelled from the spiritual realm, and ‘God’ has determined that the return will be very difficult, even though at verse 19 there was the promise that this return will take place. Adam has therefore become a pilgrim on a long and arduous journey, or as the Gospel of Luke says, a Prodigal Son.
Best’s translation of chapter 3 is one and a half pages long, whereas his esoteric interpretation (BEI) is eleven and a half pages. There is therefore much more that can be said, so in the following article I’ll look in more detail at what he says there.
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