Review of The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, Part Three

Chapter Three: Knowledge, Sexuality and Immortality

Barr begins this chapter by returning to an evaluation of the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3. His first object of discussion is the tree of life which fades into the background of the story following its introduction in Gen 2:9, only to resurface in 3:22. For Barr, the tree of life belongs to a separate story that was added later to the Garden narrative. However, its inclusion into the Garden narrative has “altere[d] very substantially the total general direction for the story,” making it “the sole express motivation for for the expulsion from the garden” (59). This means that Barr is “taking a ‘canonical’ approach, giving full value to the ‘final text'” (59). Based on God’s comments regarding its removal, Barr feels confident from a grammatical perspective that the couple had not yet previously eaten from it.

As for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Barr finds none of the current scholarly explanations regarding its significance very satisfying. “To me, it seems most likely that the power of rational and especially ethical discrimination is meant. This is something that belongs pre-eminently to deity, and particularly so in Israel. Before their disobedience the humans had no need for any such power. Their disobedience gives to them that power, but with it the perception of their own weakness and limitations” (62). Thus, Barr transitions from knowledge to sexuality.

Barr rejects the traditional Christian reading of this story whereby the nakedness is made to express the true feeling of guilt for the commission of a serious rebellious act against God. The knowledge gained by eating from the tree of knowledge brought about it the awareness of nakedness, and as a matter of propriety they hid themselves from God. Barr goes on, much as he did with the subject of death in chapter two, to evaluate nakedness in the Hebrew Bible. Among other things, he outlines the social impropriety of nakedness outside of a few exceptional contexts (marriage, prophecy) concluding that Adam and Eve were motivated to hide due to “a coming of consciousness of lines that must not be crossed, of rules that must be obeyed, and in this sense a discernment of ‘good and evil'” (64-5).

Before transitioning from nakedness to actual sexual activity, Barr entertains a tangential and speculative explanation of the origin of Eve, relating her name to Aramaic and Arabic cognates for ‘snake, suggesting that Eve herself might have, in an earlier strata of the text, been some sort of “‘serpent goddess’ who was perhaps, the goddess of life.” He admits that this is “perhaps incapable of proof,” but he does find it very attractive (65).

Barr spends a relatively large amount of space exploring the question of sexual activity, since many have interpreted this text as a story about the “achievement of awareness of sexuality” (66). Barr argues that the cultural assumptions of sexuality provide the most natural reading of the text. “Just as the natural cultural assumption was that humans were innately mortal, so it was the cultural assumption that they were sexually aware and active” (66). Among other considerations, Barr reflects on the exhortation for a man to “stick like glue” to his wife and to become “one flesh” earlier in the narrative, calling it “anticlima[ctic]” should they not actually become sexually involved until much later (69). Tying this in with the larger concerns of the narrative, Barr relates the knowledge offered by the cunning (ערום) snake with the new-found knowledge of their own nakedness (עירם), a knowledge that “reacts unpleasantly upon one’s own self-understanding” (69-70)

Barr also discusses technogony, but sees it differently than the text of Genesis 4. “Unlike the descendants of Cain later on, Adam and Eve do not learn anything technological. Covering themselves with leaves indicated the absence of technological improvement. Clothes, indeed, are now necessary for the humans, but it is God who makes them, not they themselves. . . . Civilization, if it means anything, means the making of distinctions, especially of ethical distinctions, and the consequent burden of differences, limitations and regulations” (70).

Finally, Barr briefly addresses the concept of the image of God (rejecting those who argue that this image was somehow defaced by a “fall”) before concluding this chapter:

The power of knowledge endows humans with a transcendence over the absolute limitations of their physical existence. The same knowledge, however, brings with it self-knowledge, and in particular self-consciousness plus the possible awareness of fault and shame. Moreover, the fact that man fails to add immortality to his knowledge only reinstates on another level his weaknesses and limitations. Knowledge may involve contact with the eternal, but sickness, mortality and other aspects of the human condition bring about another set of tragic weaknesses.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five


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