Girl and snake part two

This post may seem like a partial digression, and certainly less relevant to current controversies in the Anglican Church of Canada, but I think it is part of building up a structure of ideas – and it is also perhaps just as well to wander off the immediate topic on a week when everyone is focussed on General Synod. (I will also leave some other speculative threads lying where I dropped them, and hope to return to them later).

One of the unmistakeable features of the story of what Christians have come to call “the fall” is that the woman, the still-unnamed ishshah, is clearly the more active human character. While this is not unusual in later myth and folktale, there is no direct parallel to this story anywhere else in ancient Near Eastern literature, and those faint parallels which might be adduced use gendered characters very differently. The closest comparison is a Sumerian text in which the male ruler of an Eden-like land cuts down and eats plants belonging to a goddess, who curses him. There may also be a very slight echo in the story of the humanizing of Enkidu by the sacred prostitute Shamhat in the Epic of Gilgamesh, at least insofar as Enkidu’s harmony with the natural world is broken. But, although female figures are involved in both of these stories (and the Gilgamesh parallel has been used by later readers to try to sexualize Genesis 3 more than the text will really bear), it is only in the Genesis narrative that the female creature is positioned as the primary representative of humankind. She holds the dialogue with the serpent. She takes the crucial actions, makes the crucial choice, and she bears what are arguably the heaviest consequences. It is, really, the ishshah‘s story. It is ours because it is hers, and she is us.

There is actually something quite radical in this literary move. It has been obscured by some centuries of reading the story as meaning simply that if you let women make decisions, you’ll have nothing but trouble. We have forgotten – or perhaps, male readers have never wanted to acknowledge – that, in this story, all of humankind,with its complex motives and flawed intentionality, is first and foremost, for good or ill, figured in a female body. We do not have to applaud Eve’s decision (whatever we understand it to mean) in order to admit that she is portrayed as the active ethical agent in the narrative – the central and viewpoint character in the tragedy of humankind — and that this is significantly unusual in the cultural context; so much so, that we’ve had difficulty perceiving it ever since.

It is even more striking because the story can be understood as a story precisely about being an ethical actor – about having the knowledge of good and evil, which is both humanity’s blessing and our curse. We may call it original sin, or the error bred in the bone, we may call it the consequence of our birth into a context of social evil beyond our control, or the consequence of a uniquely self-reflective consciousness, or simply an inherent tendency to choose wrongly. However exactly we think about it, we know that we are alienated from ourselves, from creation, from God, in a way that seems to be uniquely our human problem.

Not only are we, like other creatures, mortal; we know that we are mortal, and we tie ourselves into terrible knots trying to evade or cover up this knowledge. Our awareness of the limit and imperfection of the world is unusually constant and intense; we are a type of being doomed to experience more and different pains than most or all other sentient beings. And, most importantly, we are very nearly the exclusive possessors of the capacity for moral evil, for deliberate and conscious harm. We have free will, and a highly-developed ability to make complex choices, and more often than not we use this ability to damage ourselves and others, knowing all the time that we are doing so. The serpent does not lie. We do have the knowledge of good and evil, and it does make us more like God than other created beings are. It is, in many ways, a terrible knowledge to have. And yet, it is hard to think that it is wholly wrong for us to have it.

In an attempt to think through this paradox, a number of recent writers have turned back to the second century theologian Irenaeus of Lyons, who was the first known Christian thinker to sketch out, if briefly and incompletely, a sort of “fortunate fall” theology. In his Adversus Haereses (Book IV, chapters 37-39), he suggests that it was necessary for humanity to acquire free will and the knowledge of good and evil, so that we might consciously choose God and goodness. Because God does not coerce, but wishes humanity to come to God voluntarily, this creature must also have the ability to reject God; but human nature, he seems to imagine, may be gradually and generally, with the help of God in Christ, moving towards maturity and goodness.

It’s important to note that Irenaeus himself (who is writing polemic, not systematic theology, and often does not follow his ideas through in detail) does not believe that the fall, as he understands it, was a good thing, or that it was actually necessary – he is fully aware of Gnostic teachings which proposed that it was all a clever trick by Sophia to outwit the evil demiurge who created the material world by giving the humans spiritual knowledge, and he is entirely opposed to this reading. He hints, though he never clearly states, that he thinks that the main problem was that humankind came to knowledge too early, before they were ready to use it wisely, and that with more patience, we might have had the knowledge of good and evil without its current tragic consequences.

Some of the modern writers who have drawn on Irenaeus, notably John Hick (in Evil and the God of Love) have been more inclined to see the fall as necessary and perhaps even good. Hick is rather sanguine about our life in the fallen world, the world in which we have ethical choice and use it badly, as providing us with a valuable developmental phase, leading us towards a more fully adult relationship with God; but while this is appealing in many ways, and a valuable corrective to an obsession with original sin, it is not a theology which can fully accommodate the fact that our human experiments with good and evil have led to genocide on an industrial scale on multiple occasions, and are currently threatening to create the complete collapse of organized human society.

Nevertheless, that fundamental dilemma – that we must be these creatures, that the imago dei within us makes us both astonishing and terrible, that we were never meant to remain in Edenic innocence, and yet, that being the creatures we must be brings with it pain and destruction – this is the human problem which the story of the tree lays open. And it does so with, at the centre, an active, concious, female representative of humanity; not deciding well, perhaps, but deciding, inevitably, to become us.

A woman representing humanity as a whole was not an image that was ever likely to survive retellings and interpretations of the story, and for most of history since the story was written down, it’s been understood, and referred to, as a story of Adam’s failing, Adam’s fall (though often still posed as Eve’s fault, which is a bit different). Adam becomes the tragic figure, the representative human. And yet a certain sort of central female role will make a late return, if only by way of a theological error.

When Paul began to work out the idea of Jesus as the “second Adam”, in Romans and First Corinthians, it is likely that he was thinking of the adamah, the original undivided human nature (Paul, after all, would have been able to think in Hebrew as well as Greek). The human nature recapitulated in Christ is, and must be, universal humanity. But the image was very quickly boiled down to Jesus, a man, redeeming Adam, a man, and thus requiring a female counterpart to redeem Eve, as a kind of secondary operation. And that female counterpart was, of course, Mary.

There is no scriptural basis for this idea, other than a tendentious reading of the prediction that the woman’s seed would bruise the serpent’s head, and it is theologically suspect, if not outright heretical. Any sense that the human nature taken up by Christ is so gendered that it does not fully include women simply cannot stand, and even a high Marian theology would rightly stop at openly suggesting that she had some independent role in saving female nature. And yet, both ideas have lingered long at the edges of theological thinking, can be found in Justin Martyr and Irenaeus and medieval hymnography, underlie art and poetry to this day. There is an exception to the pattern which draws from John 20:1-18, where the imagery suggests that the author is positioning Mary Magdalene as the Eve antitype, but this never engaged the general theological imagination in recasting the fall the way that Mary the Virgin did. Mary of Nazareth has, for the most part, dominated the narrative of girl and snake part two.

And there is also one way in which the idea of Mary as Eve’s antitype actually does make perfect, and theologically orthodox, sense. For it is at the moment of the Annunciation that, once again, one woman stands in the narrative as the representative of all humankind in the face of God. God waits for Mary’s fiat; andshe, like the first ishshah, must now be an ethical actor, a choosing and deliberative being. The Incarnation is too important to be undertaken without humanity’s consent, and the one chosen to give consent, on behalf of us all, is a single young girl in a backwater town under military occupation. She will speak for the whole complicated human project, and she will say yes.

It might, at this point, be worth returning to the question of why the Genesis story is written the way it is – why, unlike other comparable stories from its cultural context, it foregrounds the female character. If we look at the consequences, most specifically biological reproduction (which is described as a source of suffering for her), and her naming as “the mother of all living”, it suggests that this is a story which is working with some anxieties about that area of human experience, and quite possibly with the specific (heterosexual male) anxiety about the fact that women have knowledge about, and some degree of control over, this part of life, in a way which men – for whom reproduction is nevertheless politically and economically crucial – cannot quite grasp, especially in societies which are highly gender-segregated. The whole long narrative which unfolds after Eden is one which has an intense interest in genealogy and descent, and in interventions into that process by both God and mortals (most often women) – an interest which is sometimes anxious about these interventions, and sometimes quite sympathetic. Irregularities of birth and lineage are so recurrent they become something like a running theme.

And God’s invitation to Mary, and her consent, constitute the most dramatic intervention of all, and one which launches a very different, and very much queerer, narrative about bodies and families. Assuming that we will still be interested in issues of gender and relationship after General Synod 2019, I will return to that narrative in a later post.

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