What Do the First Three Chapters of Genesis Really Mean? — Chapter 3, That Mysterious Serpent
This is the twelfth 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. If you are a new reader, please feel free just to jump in. (For links to the whole series, please see this list.)
- d’Olivet’s commentary on the original text — this will obviously be according to Redfield’s translation
- Redfield’s literal English translation of d’Olivet
- Redfield’s personal rendering, what she calls the ‘Correct Translation’. She says that in her literal translation she has “retained his selection of words some of which are now obsolete”, but that in her version she has “set aside some of the quaint words making choice of more modern ones”
- Shabaz Britten Best’s translation
- his Esoteric Interpretation of the text.
For convenience I’ll be using the following abbreviations to refer to these sources: OC, OE, R, B, BEI.
In verse 1 of modern English translations we meet the notorious serpent. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given that there were no words for ‘Eden’, ‘garden’, or ‘rib’ in the original version of chapter 2 that I’m discussing, there was also no mention of a serpent in chapter 3. The actual word used is ‘Nahash’. OC, having compared the analogous meanings in Chaldaic, Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic, concludes that “there is nothing in these which restricts us to the idea of a serpent”, much less a cunning serpent (‘serpens callidior’ as found in Saint Jerome’s Vulgate). He calls this a “wretched interpretation”. It means rather “eager covetousness, self-conceited, envious, egoistic, which indeed winds about in the heart of man and envelops it in its coils, but which has nothing to do with a serpent, other than a name sometimes given metaphorically”.
B uses this metaphor in his translation: “Now egoistic covetousness was an insidious serpent of desire, a subtle adversary and blind passion in all creatures that IHOAH had made”. OE and R choose not to use the metaphor, however, so that the word ‘serpent’ cannot be found in them, as suggested by OC.
What tempted ‘Eve’ (the soul principle) to descend towards physical form was therefore an aspect of animal nature which ‘she’ obviously found appealing. OE has: “Covetousness (self-conceit, envy*, concupiscence) was a-general-ruling-passion (blind principle) in-the-whole life of-Nature”. R has: “Now Nahash (egoism, envy, covetousness, concupiscence) was an insidious passion (blind principle) in all elementary life which YAHWEH Aelohim had made”. (* ‘l’envie’ in French is usually translated as ‘desire’.)
The terminology used in these first three chapters is difficult to penetrate to its precise meaning — what follows is my own personal attempt to come to terms with it — but the general message is clear. The divine being known as Elohim had a plan for the creation of humanity, and therefore created a spiritual being known as Adam. We might call this a blueprint, or prototype, or at the very least the ultimate source/essence of a human being. This may have some connection with what the Hindus call Atman, or what in esoteric circles is known as the Monad, a spirit-soul which is a spark of the universal life-spirit. That is what chapter 1 verses 26-27 suggest (as in B): “ And AELOHIM said We will make Adam — Mankind, in the similitude of Ourselves… So AELOHIM created the potential existence of Adam — the human kingdom, in His reflected shadow and image, in the nature of AELOHIM HE created them: male and female HE created the universal soul of them”.
The descent from there to the material plane is a complex process involving the acquisition of various bodies/levels. (In esoteric traditions some of these are known as mental, astral, etheric, soul, and so on.) This is what is being described in chapter 2 of Genesis where we find “the sublimation of the most subtle parts of the Adamic elements”, “an exalted essence of lives”, the “organic enclosure” (i.e. the Garden of Eden), the four ‘rivers’, which are actually “emanating and generative principles”, and the separation of Adam into male and female principles, Eve representing the soul. (This was discussed in the previous three articles.)
According to chapter 3, the divine being Ihoah (Yahweh) had a plan for this process, but at some point the soul principle (Eve) went against the divine plan, tempted by the attractions of the lower levels (her own will/desires, symbolised by the serpent).
It is not clear (at least to me) what the divine plan for humanity would have been if Eve had not succumbed to this temptation. The suggestion seems to be, either that Adam and Eve were in some sense intended to supervise the evolution of humanity from a higher level, or that they were intended to incarnate as physical humans in a purer ‘spiritual’ form, uncontaminated by the blind desires of the animal kingdom.
It seems that Eve’s disobedience is not actual incarnation into physical form. In chapter 2 the androgynous Adam clearly remains beyond physicality. BEI refers to “the higher sphere of temporal existence, the super-physical realms”, “a perfect human form of super-physical and ethereal substance”. It was only later that humankind “eventually became more condensed and materialised”. Verse 24 in B says that Aish (Adam) and Aishah (Eve) “shall be as one corporeal substance, one single being in one same form”. The use of the plural perhaps suggests that this is not yet a reality. This is confirmed at verse 25: “they were both entirely uncovered, without corporeal veil to conceal their mental conceptions”.
All this is clear. However, in chapter 3 things become more complicated. B has:
- at verse 21, “and IHOAH made for Adam and his intellectual companion, sheltering bodies of increasing density, and enveloped them with care”
- at verse 23, “IHOAH therefore separated Adam from the ethereal sphere of existence, to elaborate the adamic element from which he had been extracted”
- at verse 24 “And IHOAH cast forth Adam from the realm of primeval consciousness…”
All this takes place after Eve’s succumbing to temptation, which takes place earlier in the chapter. We are left to wonder what the exact meaning of her disobedience is, if it is not the actual incarnation into a physical body, which seems to be merely the consequence of her disobedience, Ihoah’s/ God’s ‘punishment’ for it.
According to B, in response to the ‘serpent’s’ question, “Why, hath IHOAH declared ye shall not feed upon all the substance of the organic body?”, Eve distinguishes between the “fruit-growing substance of the organic body” which is permitted, and “the fruit of the substance itself, which is in the base of the organic body” which is not permitted. In simple terms, Adam and Eve are permitted to experience that which creates the fruit, but not the actual fruit. B has “ye shall not carry your desires into it”, and R adds in parenthesis “breathe out your soul”. This is not permitted , because this would “cause your unavoidable dying — the transmutation of your temporal substance”.
This suggests to me either that Adam and Eve were permitted to descend only as far as a higher level, perhaps the etheric/astral (that which creates and sustains the body, which therefore is its ‘fruit’), but no further. Or they were intended to somehow inhabit only the higher aspects of the body, perhaps the crown chakra and third eye (pituitary and pineal glands), but not the base chakra. The first interpretation is perhaps more likely, since the ‘organic body’ probably does not mean in this context the physical body, but its ‘base’ may do.
According to B, Aishah’s/Eve’s reason for disobeying is that “this substance was good for assimilation, and pleasant for the perception, that it was desirable in order to universalize the intelligence”. This suggests that she thought that humanity would benefit from the higher spiritual knowledge of the soul, which it would otherwise have no access to.
If that is the correct interpretation, then that decision had unforeseen and unfortunate consequences for her and Adam. I’ll discuss that in the next article.
Given the complexity of this subject matter, I would be extremely grateful for any observations or comments from esoterically and spiritually knowledgeable readers.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.