Then the eyes of both were opened and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together and made themselves aprons. Genesis ch3 v7
The ancient story of Adam and Eve in Genesis has a perennial and pervasive hold on our imaginations. An important reason for this is that it can be read in several different ways, each drawing our attention to something of profound significance for us as human beings. Consequently, it repays, even demands, return visits. Unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably with such a multilayered myth, the story can also be, and often has been, interpreted in ways that have had disastrous effects on people’s lives; one reason for revisiting the story is to try to exorcise the damage that has been caused by its abuse.
In the story, Adam and Eve, wanting more from life than they already had and persuaded that doing so would make them like gods, disobediently ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and were immediately conscious of what they had hitherto taken for granted: the difference between them, a difference they took steps to conceal – while incidentally accentuating – by the intelligent use of fig-leaves. Consciousness and intelligence: the story is drawing our attention to our possession of these related characteristics, characteristics that in a limited way some other animals may share but that we humans possess in incomparable measure. The coming of consciousness and intelligence was not in fact a sudden, once-and-for-all event; many minute evolutionary steps were necessary as animals without any consciousness or intelligence developed into us, and along the way many other species with some degree of our consciousness and intelligence diverged from our line. That said, the Genesis myth can see that there is a vast difference in consciousness and intelligence between us and the other animals, even as it implicitly acknowledges that they are somehow additional to what our more animal-like ancestors possessed before these characteristics developed.
Genesis also suggests that the coming of consciousness and intelligence was not desirable; it is accompanied by punishment. We’re accustomed to thinking about consciousness and intelligence as unalloyed benefits, and certainly without them many of the richest satisfactions about being human would be unavailable to us. Genesis puts a question-mark over this assumption. In one sense, this is a matter of logic: to know what it is to love is only possible if you also know what it is to hate; to know what is good is only possible if you also know what is evil. Other animals may kill and co-operate, but they do so without hatred or love, and if we lacked the knowledge of evil, we like them would also lack the knowledge of good. For all that though, our consciousness and intelligence can and do sometimes lead towards disaster, for, as the myth understands, we may become like gods, but we are not God; our consciousness and our intelligence are limited, and in any case we often lack the will to follow where they would try to lead us. The unintelligent, unaware dinosaurs lasted 150 million years; we, conscious of our formidable intelligence, may well have sown the seeds of our own destruction already, within much less than 100 thousand years of the appearance of modern humans. It may turn out that the experiment – whether you call it God’s or nature’s – with intelligent life has been an evolutionary dead end, disastrous for humanity. And that, of course, is pretty much what the Genesis story suggests.
Adam and Eve’s first instinct after attaining consciousness is to cover their genitals. No other species makes any attempt however rudimentary to clothe themselves; practically all human societies do, and when they do they start with covering the genitals. Despite what naturists tell us, going naked in social settings is not natural for us; it practically always carries a sexual charge of some kind, and it does so because we are conscious that sexuality has a complexity and interest that seem somehow to defy definitive intelligent analysis. It is because Genesis notes the coming of sexual modesty in between Adam and Eve’s disobedience and their punishment that we have been led to suppose that sex and sexual awareness ought somehow to be suppressed. But in context, the Genesis story is simply drawing attention to aspects of the human condition that the development of consciousness has rendered existentially mysterious and perennially intriguing: sex is one of them.
The other is death, which the Genesis story includes among the unforeseen and uncomfortable consequences of Adam and Eve’s coming to possess consciousness. In reality, it’s not the mere fact of death that is our human problem. Death itself affects all life, but most life doesn’t know that; we do, and it’s that consciousness that can be a burden. Good as it can be, we know that life is limited. There’s logic here once again: if we were conscious of having unlimited, everlasting life, that life would surely feel valueless; we’d have no choices to make about how and with whom to spend our time, since our time budget would never be spent. It is death that makes life valuable to us in a sense in which it would not be valuable to us if we weren’t conscious that we are going to die. All that being understood, we still don’t, generally speaking, want to die; death mostly feels like a deprivation we’d prefer to avoid. And that is what is meant by saying that we are under the dominion of death; it’s what Genesis means when it sees death as part of the punishment for becoming fully, consciously, human.
‘Sin’ and ‘punishment’ is inadequate and inaccurate shorthand for what’s going on in the story of the Fall. Unfortunately, the shorthand has been taken literally all too often, causing religious folk to devalue sex and to misunderstand resurrection. One of the meanings of the story is that we humans have developed a consciousness and an intelligence that goes far beyond anything possessed by the rest of life on earth not just in quantity but in quality; it’s not just that we know more, but that we see patterns, learn complex skills and foresee the future. I wouldn’t want to be without our knowledge, pattern-spotting, skilfulness and foresight; but they sometimes impose a burden that feels a bit like, if not a punishment or a penance, at least an onerous quid-pro-quo.