Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, a man whose moral sense I respect, posted an image on Facebook with this accompanying text:
What is most godly about us is our knowledge of good and evil. That awareness, and our ability to act on our own moral impulse, represents an opportunity and a challenge. Today, act with such bountiful justice that God can respond, “Behold, it is good!”
It got me thinking, because what he posted conflicts with the interpretation I was taught as a Christian. Perhaps it is viewed differently from a Jewish tradition. The passage from which the quote in the image is taken says,
And the serpent said to the woman, “You shall not surely die: For God knows that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
Don’t get me wrong, I liked the thought expressed in the post. It may be a more useful interpretation of the legend of Adam and Eve than what I learned. But in light of my background, it seemed odd to see the words of the serpent presented in a positive light. Personally, I wouldn’t trust someone saying, “You shall be gods.” On the other hand, knowledge of good and evil does seem like something one ought to strive for.
So I commented on Rabbi Artson’s post: “It appears that you have an insight into the legend of the fall that I have missed. I thought the Lord wanted mankind to avoid that knowledge, then punished them for acquiring it. Where did I go wrong?”
Artson responded, “God never punishes us for knowledge, but for an ethical lapse. Why would God want to shield us from knowledge of good and evil if we are to aspire toward righteousness?”
“Why indeed?” I replied. “I agree with what you say, I just can’t see how you get that meaning from Genesis 3. Apparently, the serpent gave Adam and Eve good advice, but then the Lord threw them out of the Garden. For disobedience, I suppose, but they couldn’t have acquired that knowledge without disobeying. I’m willing to see the story as metaphor, but metaphor for what?”
Since Artson hasn’t gotten back to me on that yet (he is a busy man, I’m sure), I did some digging. Most of what I discovered repeated the viewpoints I was familiar with, but one fellow had a different take.
Naked and Cunning
From Rabbi Benjamin Hecht comes the following:
The key word is arum. “They were both arumim, Adam and his wife, and they were not embarrassed.” Arum, in this context, is usually translated as naked. “And the snake was more arum than all the animals of the field…” In this case, arum is usually translated as cunning. These two verses are beside each other. They both use the word arum, which cannot be by coincidence. What is this word arum that can be translated as both naked and cunning?
I feel Hecht was getting close to something useful for our purposes when he said, “Prior to the Tree, Adam did not have to analyze himself. … Just like the angels, he was programmed to be Adam.”
Arum can indeed have the meaning of “naked,” as in a tree stripped of leaves or bark, or even having flesh stripped from the bone. From our current point of view, Adam and Eve were stripped of the sophisticated knowledge we have. From their point of view, they lived—nakedly in touch with their environment—without having to analyze life. Partaking of the tree, then, was to gain self-knowledge and lose living simply in the present. In place of living unselfconsciously in our own nature, we now tend to reflect on everything we do, and that separates us from nature, from the Garden.
You Shall Be Gods
In other words, we are not just animals; we are something more complicated, more promising and more dangerous. The ability to contemplate and judge our own actions, to act on our moral impulses, is both a curse and a blessing. We have lost our innocence, and know the depths of evil we are capable of. We also have the ability to rise to the challenge, to use our knowledge for good. We have lost the shrewdness of the snake, the ability to experience reality without interpretation, and we have gained the ability to understand reality and evaluate our own actions. We are as gods, knowing good and evil.