On Fridays, I’ll be doing a series for several weeks on one of the books I received for Christmas, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve.
This book takes a different tack on the Adam and Eve story than other things we’ve looked at in the past.
I’ve usually been most focused on those who specialize in biblical studies, whose work is invested in analyzing and understanding the text itself.
However, Greenblatt wants to explore this saga from a different angle: he is interested in understanding how “the story of Adam and Eve has over centuries decisively shaped conceptions of human origins and human destiny.”
And one thing that attracts him to this tale is the fact that, as a literary scholar, he thinks an unprejudiced and plain reading leads to the conclusion that the account is “fiction at its most fictional, a story that revels in the delights of make-believe,” yet, still today, so many people accept it as “unvarnished truth” of the historical origins of the universe and the human race.
For reasons that are at once tantalizing and elusive, these few verses in an ancient book have served as a mirror in which we seem to glimpse the whole, long history of our fears and desires. It has been both liberating and destructive, a hymn to human responsibility and a dark fable about human wretchedness, a celebration of daring and an incitement to violent misogyny. The range of responses it has aroused over thousands of years in innumerable individuals and communities is astonishing.
Greenblatt notes that ancient rabbis read the story to understand God’s intentions in creating humans and why we are here. On the other hand, Christians have seen in it the story of humankind’s fall into sinfulness and the resulting consequences, undone by the work of the new Adam, Jesus Christ, whose work was designed to restore Paradise to the faithful. Muslims have seen Adam as the original prophet of God, who after his sin became the first teacher and caretaker of the world. Adam’s wrongdoing was an error, not an “original sin” with effects passed down to his posterity. The story is, in their view, a warning to the faithful to resist the Satan.
Stephen Greenblatt goes further, remarking upon how, throughout the development of Western civilization ascetics, physicians, linguists, natural scientists, and philosophers have read this story to speculate on how it speaks to their particular disciplines and practices. Artists, of course, capitalized on this text to depict nature and the human body. Above all, ordinary people have seen themselves in this story in a variety of ways.
The story of Adam and Eve speaks to all of us. It addresses who we are, where we came from, why we love and why we suffer. Its vast reach seems part of its design. Though it serves as one of the foundation stones of three great world faiths, it precedes, or claims to precede any particular religion. It captures the strange way our species treats work, sex, and death — features of existence that we share with every other animal — as objects of speculation, as if they were contingent on something we have done, as if it could all have been otherwise.
• • •
- What has been your experience with the story of Adam and Eve (the first three chapters of Genesis)?
- In what ways has this story spoken to you?