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The First “Fake News” Story (or, What the Serpent Would Have Said)

i.

The Trump-inspired movement’s misrepresentation of facts is an old human practice. Perhaps the first example – and one we still don’t want to acknowledge – deals with the biblical story of Eve and the serpent. The Genesis text presents a God of dubious moral character. Yet, this God has been sold by three major mainstream religions as a just one, and Eve and the serpent as the bad guys.

The consequences for moral misdirection by this striking distortion of the text cannot be overstated.  Even the revisionist Jesus of the “Sermon on the Mount” could not fully undo the damage.

The “Christian” followers of enemies-loving Jesus went on to forget his central moral teachings.  As time went by most “Christians” opted instead to retrieve and revive early biblical justifications for religious wars and persecutions, for torture and the death penalty, for slavery and witch-hunting, for gender-oppression, and for the embrace of unlimited wealth.

The tale of Adam, Eve, and the serpent is illustrative of cultural cherry-picking when it comes to its religious texts. Not seeing a text for what it is shows our tendency to submit to power, and not to trust our moral intuitions (the Milgram experiments come to mind).

ii.

The story, we are told, goes like this:  curious woman and cunning snake have a chat in the primordial garden.  The snake deceives the woman.  The first sin ensues.  This sin prompts various punishments at the hands of a just God.

Less known are the textual facts that have gone mostly unnoticed. Instead of a tale of human guilt and of just divine punishment, it is one of divine injustice and of human growth.  Everyone knows that “might does not make right.” Yet, in this foundational text the right is on the side of the serpent and of humans.  God has only the might.

Two questions arise:  why is this misreading important?  And why have we (as Jewish/Christian/Muslim civilizations) failed to notice it?

It is important because it set the stage for a certain view of religious ethics.  The predominant view we embraced is that being ethical is a matter of obedience to divine commands, whatever these commands say (Abraham, Paul of Tarsus, and Kierkegaard come to mind).  We could have done the reverse. We could have assessed religious claims based on whether they aligned with rightness and truth telling.  We could have followed the platonic insight that divine might and divine commands do not define rightness (and might even conflict with rightness). Had we taken this latter path, Judeo-Christianity and Islam might have led us on a different course.  This course would have made us more reflective about right and wrong, and… who knows… it might have made us more humane. We could have sided with the serpent.

Why have millions of educated humans, including learned rabbis and scholarly theologians, not noticed the real nature of the tale?  The reason lies in part on the human penchant for self-deception about things we don’t want to see – even if in front of our eyes. Beyond that, psychology experts will have to weigh in.

iii.

The tale has been misread for millennia.  How so?  Here are the pertinent passages from Genesis, Chs. 2-3:

… The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die

… Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 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.

…They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “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.”

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.”  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.” The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.  And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

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 forever”— 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.

(I am using the translation from the New Revised Standard Version.)

As all can see, the serpent is not the bad guy.  All he says to Eve is:

“You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Subsequently God admits that this is what has taken place:

“the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil”  — and has not died

Previously God had told Adam differently:

“…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die”

God clearly is the one who does not tell Adam the truth about the effect of the fruit. We can debate the why, but not the fact.  God made a false prediction (immediate death) and failed to reveal the correct consequence (moral knowledge).

Perhaps this God does not himself know about the impact of eating the fruit? Unlikely, since god’s original name for the forbidden tree is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. “    Note also a glaring element missing in this story that confirms God’s underhandedness. Upon discovery of the human disobedience, God interrogates first Adam and second Eve.  Each tries to transfer blame to others (Adam to the woman; Eve to the serpent).  Then… surprise:   God stops the inquiry and skips to the punishment phase.  God does not interrogate the serpent!  Why not? That would have been the natural thing to do.  Doesn’t the crafty serpent deserve a shot at justification before it too gets punished? The reason for the missing question is obvious:   if interrogated, the serpent would have had this devastating reply:  “I just told Eve the truth!”

The serpent might have added two more things:

1) “It is you, God, who lied to Adam!”

2) “I helped them to grow up morally, and to be more like you, God, as you yourself later observed!”

We, in turn, could add a further point.  When Adam and Even partake of the fruit, “their eyes are opened” and they realize that some things are good and others evil.  They notice things as being good or evil prior to god instructing them. It could be, then, that good and bad derive from the intrinsic nature of (some) things.  Eating the fruit only unveils this nature for us.

But doesn’t God make all things?  Sure. But God could have made all things without also possessing the power to shape their moral character.  God could have made the good/bad things, but not their goodness/badness.  Perhaps the agony of a migraine is a bad thing irrespective of how the world originates. To be omnipotent means to be capable of doing all that can be done.  To turn migraines into good things may be an incoherent impossibility.

The moral character of things, thus, may be neither a human nor a divine invention, but a matter that is up for discovery (or for covering up).  If so, at this point in the Genesistale humans discover this character (Of course, the first bad thing that Adam and Eve notice is nakedness – a curious choice, and one of particularly middle eastern origin. The ancient Greeks might have been ok with being naked).   The serpent facilitates this discovery.

The serpent might be the Platonist who views rightness as built into the nature of things, and is not a feature that needs the gods’ blessing to be what it is (think of the Euthyphro).  In risking punishment to help humans acquire moral knowledge, the serpent can be seen as a promethean figure who sacrifices himself for our sake.  It might deserve our human gratitude.

In any case, the text undeniably shows that the serpent is the truth teller, and that God is underhanded. This meaning is right on the surface, or very near it. Yet millions of scholarly eyes have poured over these lines, and missed it!  I have more and more saddened by this fact.

It is a serious intellectual indictment to have countless scholars systematically distort the content of a simple story …  and turn the serpent into a malevolent devil while looking the other way at God’s underhandedness. The poetic minds behind these early sections of Genesis (authorship is unknown, and probably derives from oral traditions) would have a good laugh at our expense. Or they might feel deep dismay.

iii

Might these first few pages of Genesis be part of an innocuous slip? Perhaps henceforth the God of the early Hebrew Bible reveals itself to be a god of rightness and justice.  No, the bulk of evidence is on the other side. Some examples:  the flood (that will indiscriminately drown thousands of babies and kittens); the Babel episode (where human unity is punished with human divisions, leading to subsequent bloody discord);  Sodom and Gomorra (where entire cities are destroyed, including, again, babies and kittens);  the special divine contract with Abraham and his descendants (with disregard for other people, like Canaanites, Egyptians,  and Amalekites, who get massacred); the repeated demand for “clean” (and innocent) animal sacrifices; the God’s self-definition as “jealous” and punitive (even of children for sins of parents) in Exodus;  the call for death-punishments for everything from cursing parents to belief in other gods; the embrace of slavery.

The general view that the God of the Bible is consistently a just and merciful God is far from the truth – at least with regard to the early Jewish Bible. Again, all of this is on the surface. And, again, vast mountains of commentary have looked the other way.

Of course, there have been some exceptions.   Dissenting voices did read these texts correctly, and were horrified.  But they were declared heretic by the mainstream, and their views suppressed (and their texts destroyed).  Here are just three of these.  The early Christian second century author Marcion; various second century Gnostic texts; and the large 11th century Cathar movement in France and Italy.  In all three cases, the “Old Testament” God was viewed as morally inferior to the “New Testament” God.  It was a usurper, not the ultimate God. The Cathars identified the source of the Old Testament with the malevolent Satan. Significantly, this large movement, with its emphasis on “pure” living (non-killing, gender equality, anti-wealth) was suppressed in a bloodbath by mainstream Christian forces. The massacre was done in the name of correct religious belief (a kind of blind submission to authority), not in the name of immorality.  One could see the pacifist Jesus cringe, as his name is used to justify mass violence against peaceful dissenters.

Currently a number of sceptical voices have resurrected the textual and moral criticisms of the type I am making.  These range from the biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (now a self-identified atheist) to polemical author Sam Harris.  The time may be ripe for honest and humane theists to turn to a broader conception of God, free from the tribal insecurities spawned by the early biblical conception.

iv

Perhaps I have moved too fast and too far from the serpent tale.  Surely, the traditional interpretation of the serpent (as devilish deceiver) has some merit?

Perhaps God does not lie when predicting immediate death upon eating the fruit.  Perhaps by “death” God meant immediate spiritual death.  Perhaps to know good and evil is to die “spiritually.”  This will not do.  There is no notion of spirit or spirituality in Genesis, at least not for humans.  Life and death, rewards and punishments, are all earthy (“for you are dust, and to dust youshall return”).  There are angelic beings mentioned, but for humans there is no non-bodily life.  There is no after-life reward for innocent losers in life, like the children who drown in the flood.  Yes, humans do lose access to the tree of life (everlasting physical life?), but not by eating the forbidden fruit and having moral knowledge.  They lose this access because God chooses to expel them from Eden (because they have become like god, knowing good and evil).

Another standard way out is to attack the independence of ethics from theology.  Countless religious voices have clamored that there is no objective rightness outside of God’s pronouncements.   It’s either God or majority opinion or ethical relativism… when it comes to the basis of morality.  But these options ignore long-established traditions as alternatives:  among these are the Platonic, the Buddhist, the Utilitarian, the Kantian.  These traditions have based morality on claims of intrinsic value.  They often note that at the heart of genuine moral value is our susceptibility to harm (pain, loss or violations of freedom, loss of life, loss of capacities…).  And harm can occur only if things like life, pleasure, freedom, vision, … are intrinsic goods.  To harm these goods (without cause) is precisely what it is to do wrong.  A world of rocks or of robots devoid of inner experiences and genuine free will would have no need or place for ethics.  This basis of ethics remains so with or without a God.

One could object to these harm-based conceptions of ethics.  But at the very least these conceptions need to be acknowledged and rebutted.  When one does so, one point will inevitably come up. It is this:

If there are no intrinsic goods (if, say, freedom and pleasure are not intrinsically worthy), then divine commands would be based on no pre-existent value.  Divine commands would then become fundamentally creative of value — but also arbitrary.   In effect, right would then be, indeed, only a matter of might.  God could have commanded occasional sacrifices of babies (as actually happened in some cultures), and this would be a moral requirement.  Even many traditional theologians have shied away from this implication of divine arbitrariness.

Genesis itself points away from a groundless value-creation, as we have seen.  Even the otherwise obedient Abraham, in a rare challenge to God’s intentions (in bargaining to save Sodom), makes this appeal to an independent justice:

“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”    Gen, 18:23-25

So here we are.  By all means let’s keep God.  But let it be a God that is closer to Jesus and Buddha, and not Moses or Muhammad. Let it be a God that bans the killing of humans, including the “enemies” (Jesus).  Let it even be a moral force that goes beyond anthropocentrism, and bans  the harming of any “sentient being” (Buddha). And let it be a God that embraces intellectual curiosity and moral maturity (the serpent).

It is worth noting that among the many curious statements uttered by Jesus (maybe) to his followers is this:    “…be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matt 10.16).

Carlo Filice is a professor of philosophy at SUNY Geneseo.  He is the author of The Purpose of Life: An Eastern Philosophical Vision.      

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