Biblical Exegesis

So I just picked up a Hebrew copy of the Bible (which, for some odd reason, is impossible to find in the States) and was scanning through it, and had some random thoughts come to mind on the interpretation of the second genesis story and the story of the Tree of Good and Evil.

Fair warning: This starts out as a somewhat social commentary (on why the expulsion from the Garden is in fact divinely planned from the beginning) but ends up with a more mystical digression which most people will probably find mumbo-jumbo or simply incomprehensible. I’m not sure I understand it myself. The most incomprehensible chunk has been suitably labeled for easy skipping. You have been warned.

At the end of the second story of the creation of Man (ref. Gen 2:24, last line of ch. 2; the second story is the one that involves making man of clay and breathing into his nostrils, [thus neshama = breath = the divine soul] and building a companion out of a rib) it says “And thus the man [ish; vide infra] shall (must) leave his father and his mother and bind to his wife [isha] and they will be a complete being.” (Sorry for the literal-minded translation)

Immediately following this is Gen 3, the story of the tree of good and evil. It begins by specifying that they were both naked and unashamed, and so on and so on… then at the end of that structural story chunk (Gen 3:16-19) God is handing out punishments, that they be expelled from Eden together. Immediately following this is the line: (Gen 3:20) “And the man [adam] called the woman [isha] Eve for she was the mother of all living.” (The reasoning makes sense in terms of the Hebrew word, not strictly relevant here)

Why the non-sequitur? First of all: On the naming of things, earlier (in another apparent non-sequitur, Gen 2:19, randomly in the middle of God looking for a companion for the man) everything gets named according to its function. The woman’s only name up to that point was “isha,” which essentially describes her role as part of the separated being, the Adam split into ish and isha.

(The relevant note on words: The man is “adam” (from “adama,” soil, out of which he was made) until the rib is removed from him; this entity has no gender. The words “ish” and “isha” for the man and the woman emerge immediately afterwards.)

Thus the woman did not have the reproductive function until it was explicitly ordained in the punishment list, in the same place that the man is given the role of farming the land. (Note that this can be used to support the usual Christian interpretation of this knowledge as sexual rather than moral, but vide infra)

But second: This really completes the story started in the last line of Gen 2. The man and the woman are separated in Eden, having no functions which bind them together – neither food nor reproduction nor a need for any support in times of need, which did not exist, but once expelled they become dependent on one another.

Thus: the two divided souls need to reunite, but they cannot reunite as partial beings; only after expulsion (adulthood) can they even begin this process.

Warning: Cabbalistic mumbo-jumbo starts here. Skip unless really, really interested or masochistic.

Another note on “partial beings:” when the man is created (Gen 2:7) God breathes the breath (neshama) of life into his nostrils, and he then has the soul (nefesh) of life. The latter can also be translated as the animal soul. (The word for “animal” is basically “living thing”) Now, these two words are also the names of the highest and lowest souls, respectively: the neshama is the divine soul (the will, the comprehending intellect; it is what allows the man to name things according to their function, and the thing which distinguishes him from the animals which are simply booted in place) and the nefesh is the animal soul (the thing which interacts directly with the physical world and is sensate). Missing from this is the middle soul, the ruach (lit. “wind”) which is the moral soul, capable of judging right actions from wrong; in the standard cabbalistic diagram it is the heart of the man.

Interestingly, if one notes that the man is initially given the neshama, note also that it is only after he acquires the moral intellect (by eating of the tree of good and evil) that he is given a need to interact with the physical world, having needs that require fulfillment and are not granted automatically; thus here the man does not receive the nefesh in its full force immediately, but rather receives the souls in a progression from highest to lowest. (Cabbalistically: Mirroring the creation of the universe, from the highest Sephira to the lowest? Immediately after receiving the nefesh, he is expelled into the physical world; the three souls plus the world (malkuth) together are denoted by the four letters of the Name, thus completing the process of creation)

Also cabbalistically, what then does the division of the man into ish and isha represent? First the divine soul (neshama, keter) is created, and the seeds of nefesh are planted; this is the beginning of the central line of the tree of life. Then the man is split by gender, forming the beginnings of the two pillars on the side, chochma (wisdom, male) and binah (understanding, female). A careful analysis could probably track how each of the Sephiroth are generated as one goes through this text; the acquisition of moral soul (tipheret), and ultimate physical existence (both yesod – the reproductive organs of the abstract man – and malkuth, the physical world, the nefesh) complete the construction of the tree. But note that the male and the female pillars do not descend all the way down the tree! The lowest of them (hod and netzach) appear immediately below tipheret, and in order to descend further – to enter into the physical world and to complete the abstract man – the two must first be united, both in yesod (which n.b. implies the generative organs) and malkuth.

Thus this story can be read as saying: In order to complete creation, several things had to happen. First the man himself had to be built; then the man had to be split into a male and a female part, thinking in different but related ways; then they had to acquire a moral soul, in order to really understand and interact with the world, since a divine soul cannot directly live in a physical world without moral judgement; but then they must interact with the world, leaving Eden and its simplicity, and this they can only do together, in a pair; and implicitly in so doing, they are creating the next generation, so this cycle continues indefinitely. Thus again, the expulsion from Eden is absolutely necessary for humans to make any sense.

End of mumbo-jumbo

Summary of idea: The humans, after their splitting and before their expulsion from the Garden, are simply not functional beings. They have this divine soul – a free will – but no ability to interact with the physical world, either intellectually (morally) or physically. (In terms of having no needs of their own) The only way that the image of God (the abstract man) can touch the physical, created world is to first be expelled from Eden, and this implies the dependence of the man and the woman upon one another which can only come through mutual need and suffering. This is the thing foreshadowed in Gen. 2:24; the man and the woman will not be complete until they are united, and this cannot happen until they have each become complete and left the Garden.

Thus this interpretation of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as something wholly negative, a sign of the intrinsic evil of man, as is favored by certain preachers I have heard – is just plain bullshit.

Second interpretation: (Mercifully, much shorter) (darklingrose, this one’s for you) Note that the man and the woman only eat the fruits of the trees and (possibly) the animals until their expulsion from Eden; part of the terms of expulsion is that they’re going to be stuck doing agricultural work. (n.b. in Gen. 3:18 the explicit last part that he will eat the grass of the field, something which apparently wasn’t the case beforehand) So is this also a historical reference to the transition from hunter-gatherer behavior to agriculture? n.b. also that the new position of women is specified in the preceding sentence…

Published in: on October 3, 2002 at 18:56  Comments (15)  


  1. I showed this to the Pastor here, because I found it so interesting (although I had to read the cabbalistic stuff three times to make sense of all the new words). He said that the idea of a certain inevitability to the expulsion is acknowledged by some Christian scholars. Not that man was doomed to Sin, he COULD have chosen not to, but God knew that he would someday try to be equal with God (disobedient) (this made a lot more sense when Pastor was explaining to me). Pastor also said something about Adam and Eve having a purpose in the Garden, namely to tend and keep the garden. I don’t know how that fits with your explanation of them having no need or reliance on each other, but I thought I’d mention it. Also… I could have gotten you a Hebrew bible. 😛
    Take care!

  2. Not mumbo jumbo!
    Let me pose a bit of a spin on interpretationin regards to Tipharet/h and the aquisition of moral soul:
    Maybe the ish & isha do not need a moral soul prior to the expulsion. The only moral quandry presented in the lifestyle in the garden was represented by the tree, and by eating of it’s fruit and understanding both of the physical world [malkut/h] and the moral choices dealing with it would entail, the ish and isha take on Identity- For is not a person’s identity comprised of their beliefs [internal] and the choices that are made as a result [external]?
    Also, it has been said that the qabbalistic tree of life is in fact a map of the human being, and has been called Adam. It then makes sense that the tree of life tells the story of the creation of man, and the makeup of man.
    I am of course, far from an expert on the qabbalah and certainly could be mistaken. But here’s my two cents- feel free tomake change 🙂

  3. fascinating. makes me wish I could chip-slot the full historic range of Hebrew language(s) and study this closer. The importance of the minutiae of language is very apparent in these old textual traditions.
    I always thought that if the Hebrew and Christian God was supposed to be omniscient and omnipotent, he hadda seen it all coming, and planned it, in fact. Too bad all this guilt and justification for cruelty was heaped on top of the mere process of creation. Too bad the Christians take out the references to Lilith; most women certainly would’ve benefited by hearing stories of The Original Riot Grrl. *grin* I know I sure did, when I finally found Her.
    That’s very interesting, the references to multiple souls. I’m discovering more and more cultures and traditions that perceive the Soul in multiple parts. Feri tradition isn’t so far off from what you’re describing here, (probably the latter heavily influenced the former) but I’m not an initiate of that tradition.
    Is it true that in the original texts, in the opening phrase of Genesis (“In the beginning there was God”) the word used there for god is actually multiple and inclusive of both genders? A Cabbalist friend of mine from years ago told me this, and I haven’t had the chance to confirm it.
    It’s always seemed to me that the best explanation for the Holy Spirit is that She is Sophia. Again, too bad the Christians (and the Jews, too?) take the Goddess out of God.

  4. Actually, I can answer the name of god question though I am neither Jewish nor speak hebrew–
    As far as I know, yes, the name is inclusive of both genders.
    Yoni, however, can beat me unmercifly with a birch rod if I am incorrect though. Or just give the correct answer.

  5. hunting-gathering/agriculture
    While it’s tempting to see in the story of the Fall a parallel between these two types of production, I’m a little dubious. Using a little hand-waving for the estimates here, let’s say that the transition for the Near East takes place around 6000 BC. Semitic peoples don’t start writing until, oh, I don’t know, 2500 B.C. Not that these guys necessarily have a religion comparable to any modern monotheism – these are the Akkadians. But that’s a long time to remember stuff without writing, and throwing in a couple of language changes on the side.
    Now, I’m not saying that nobody knew there had been a time when they didn’t farm – it’s not too difficult to figure out, if you’re (say) a first millennium BC writer and you’ve been exposed to a technologically crude culture like Egypt. You have to get the idea that your past was a little like Egypt’s present, and then you’re off to rewarding speculation.
    But it just seems infinitely more likely that this is an attempt to answer the question “why did God ordain that we lead lives of backbreaking toil?” One of the terms of the expulsion is that they’re going to be doing work of any kind, which there’s no evidence to suggest they did in the garden.
    Mind you, it says what it says and whatever it means to you, that’s what it means to you. It’s an interpretation, and the text would seem to support it. I’m just not sure it’s what I’d call “historical,” you dig?
    Catholic thinking, incidentally, has tied itself up in knots trying to understand why loving, caring God allowed his creations to fall, especially since – in Christian doctrine – this means they universally go to the bad fires for a good couple of thousand years. Judaism does not, I think, have this problem, since “God is a hard bastard” seems to be much more acceptable.

  6. Re: hunting-gathering/agriculture
    I quite agree that there’s a low likelihood of the historical issue being completely right; I was throwing that out more as a possible idea. The reason it occurred to me is because of the not-quite-contemporaneous (although dating is a bitch here) Sumerian Inanna cycle, which quite explicitly does discuss this transition. (Her two suitors, the hunter-gatherer and the farmer, and so on) Given that the copies we have of the Sumerian text come from Nineveh (stratum of imperial Sumeria, somewhat before the early Jews leave there) there’s still a possibility that there was some cultural maintenance of a tradition about this transition, even if the text at that point is by no means historical.

  7. Yes, there’s this whole obscure grammar issue: The word “elohim” used for God very often is actually a plural noun, although in 99% of all text it’s declined as though it were a singular noun.
    Details: The singular would be “eloha” (cf. Arabic “allah;” same word; also the diminutive “elil,” used to refer to everyone else’s gods, seems quite kin to Sumerian “Enlil,” which jibes nicely with the wind of god upon the sea in Gen 1:2). “Elohim” litterally should mean “the gods.” The only place in which it isn’t treated as singular is in chapter 1 of Genesis, where there are lines like “And the gods said, let us make man in our image…” etc. My preferred explaination from this is that the older stories in Genesis are basically translations of Sumerian text and things got butchered; there are various theological and cabbalistic interpretations too.

  8. …well, the Cabbalists would certainly agree; they would say that in the beginning was Keter (the divine principle, the will that created the universe) which is genderless, and the first thing it created was Binah (understanding, the true Torah, the complete conception of the idea of the universe at the instant of its creation) which was female; then Chochmah (wisdom, the active principle that let it be implemented in reality) which is the male principle and causes Binah to be expressed in the lower, physical worlds. Sophia shows up often as another name for Binah… and Monte can probably explain this about 10 times better than I. 🙂

  9. Re: Not mumbo jumbo!
    I think so too. I’m thinking that both they don’t need a moral soul prior to expulsion, and that the posession of a moral soul necessitates their expulsion, but OTOH (because of the line about the need for a man and a woman to bind to one another) they need to be expelled, and thus to acquire moral souls, in order to become complete. So the state of the Garden is like a state of childhood…

  10. Interesting; I’ve never heard about these thoughts about the purpose of Adam and Eve in the Garden. I’ll have to think about those.
    And as far as being doomed to try to become equal with God, and thus to be smacked down: The story of the Tower of Babel comes up shortly afterwards in the text, and it’s the same thing; man attempts to become divine. Similarly even the throwaway lines in Gen 6 about Nephilim and God telling the angels to stop fscking with the human gene pool… I wonder what it means that there are so many stories like these in a row?
    And BTW, thanks everyone for commenting so deeply on this! I wasn’t expecting so much… 🙂

  11. Go Lillith! Do you have any credible sources for her? I’ve only been able to find sketchy ones, and I really want a source I can point others to (both converts and skeptics). The Genesis story makes a lot more sense with it, and more is explained about the Biblical view of women, IMO.
    I remember when I heard about Sophia in my Intro to Religion class. I almost burst out laughing with glee in class; it’s such a great story.
    This reminds me of this Native American myth we read (can’t remember which tribe) that involved a man, a woman, and a tree up in the Sky. The woman “fell” (pushed? jumped? slipped?) down to the earth, where she had a daughter, who had two sons, Good Twin and Bad Twin. There seem to be lots of stories about adventurous/curious women who cause trouble but are responsible for Creation in some way. I sense a trend . . . 😉

  12. Re: Not mumbo jumbo!
    re: Tree of Life = Map of Man
    Isn’t there an interpretation that identifies the right and left sides with male and female (or f/m)? mentioned something about that to me, and pointed out a way to read it that placed “justice” on the female side and “mercy” on the male side. Heh . . .
    This is one of the many areas I’d like to learn more about, it’s really kewl!

  13. Re: Not mumbo jumbo!
    Yes, one of the interpretations has correlated the far sides of the tree with the genders. The qabbalah is a fascinating area of study, in all respects. The tree of life has so much meaning on so many different levels, that it truly could take a lifetime of study to become an expert.

  14. Re: Not mumbo jumbo!
    So that the state of adulthood is comprised of union?
    Wow, I can see some alchemical ties to that as well. And in correlation with the tarot, or course, the symbolism becomes even deeper and more amazing. I don’t know which cards correspond to the sephira off the top of my head (let alone the paths!), but I’m sure with some research I could find something applicable…

  15. What a pleasant read!
    Being a Cabbala junky, it was excellent to read a series of comments like this.
    Zunger, though you mentioned I might be able to explain things 10x better, I’d say you did an excellent job. I feel strangely proud.
    I just wanted to drop in and note a couple of things:
    In the Zohar, the Sefiroth are explained and interpreted as Macroprosopus and Microprosopus, essentially the ‘Greater and Lesser Countenances’. Yes, they can be referred to as Adam, but it should be noted most believe this is in reference to God creating Adam in God’s own image, rather than a proclamation of Adam’s divinity. God is all-encompassing, and so by default, we are all within God, but being finite, we cannot BE God.
    Cabbala is the science of trying to understand God. From the Cabbalistic standpoint, true understanding of God is impossible; God is infinite. Therefore, we can never have the necessary perspective or wisdom to comprehend God. Thus, in order to better understand God, one must observe the echoes of God, the ripples that God makes.
    These ripples are the Sefiroth.
    Even Keter is not God; it is the purest expression of God that we can understand. But Keter is still just an emanation, God expressing God in a finite sense.
    About the business of good and evil… that’s a Cabbalistic argument that’s been going on forever. Obviously, an omnipotent and omniscient God isn’t going to be surprised by anything. Everything that happens happens within God’s plan, even free will. Why? Because God gave us free will, knowing that no matter what choice we make, we are still in God’s plan.
    OBVIOUSLY God planned the ‘fall from Eden’.
    Other interesting bits: speaking of evil, note that originally, Satan and Lucifer were in fact separate angels, and neither one ever ‘fell from grace.’ Also, to clarify, Lilith was NEVER HUMAN. Human-ish, yes, but definitely not Human.

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