Changing Senses in Genesis B

By Davis, Glenn M. | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Changing Senses in Genesis B

Davis, Glenn M., Philological Quarterly

In Genesis 3:5 the Tempter presents the forbidden apple to Eve as he makes her this well-known promise: "For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil." (1) What appears in the Book of Genesis as a brief mention of a change in Eve's vision, generally interpreted as a metaphoric transition from ignorance to understanding, becomes an elaborate treatment of the bodily senses in Genesis B, the Old English verse retelling of the Fall of Man. (2) The Genesis B poet expands the Tempter's promise of enhanced vision into a total of nearly sixty lines of verse that explicitly consider the changes registered in Eve's faculty of perception. The amplification of this sensory allusion is not only a quantitative one, however. The biblical description of the opening of Eve's eyes takes on a literal cast in the Old English poem; there, the poet depicts the actual transformations that alter the capabilities of Eve's senses of hearing, touch, and taste, in addition to sight. Her senses undergo fundamental, internal changes that impair her ability to judge the Tempter's motives accurately, and ultimately persuade her to convince Adam to eat the fruit. Despite the conspicuous magnification of the sensory component of the Fall, however, a systematic study of perception in Genesis B has not yet been undertaken. Because of this, the important role the corporeal senses play in the Tempter's seduction of Eve, and then in Eve's seduction of Adam, has been overlooked.


St. Augustine's explication of Genesis 3 is arguably the most influential in late antique and medieval thought, and also in modern critical assessments of Genesis B. Close scrutiny of Genesis B, however, specifically of the sensory nature of the temptations faced first by Eve and later, through her, by Adam, prompts a reconsideration of the fitness of using Augustinian doctrine as a primary interpretive filter. Augustine centers his analysis of the Fall around the chain of seduction in Eden: the serpent first persuades Eve to eat the apple with a sensory promise; Eve, fallen, then approaches Adam and persuades him to eat as well. According to Augustine, Adam and Eve each have different reasons for taking the fruit: Eve eats because she believes that to ingest the fruit would be to become like God--the sin of pride is implicit in her actions. Adam, however, does not wish to achieve divine status, but freely chooses to eat out of loyalty and love for his wife. (3) Augustine clearly outlines this position in Book 11 of De Genesi ad litteram and in Book 14 of De Civitate Dei, quoted here in that order:

Dixit ergo serpens mulieri, Non morte moriemini. Sciebat enim Deus, quoniam quo die manducaveritis de eo, adaperientur vobis oculi, et eritis sicut dii, cognoscentes bonum et malum. Quando his verbis crederet mulier a bona atque utili re divinitus se fuisse prohibitos, nisi jam inesset menti amor ille propriae potestatis, et quaedam de se superba praesumptio, quae per idem tentationem fuerat convincenda et humilianda? (4)

(Then the serpent said to the woman: "You will not die the death. For God knew that on the day on which you would eat of it your eyes would be open, and you would be like gods, knowing good and evil." How could these words persuade the woman that it was a good and useful thing that had been forbidden by God if there was not already in her heart a love of her own independence and a proud presumption of self which through that temptation was destined to be found out and cast down?) (5)

ita credendum est ilium virum suae feminae, uni unum, hominem homini, coniugem coniugi, ad Dei legem transgrediendam non tamquam verum loquenti credise seductum, sed sociali necessitudine paruisse. (6)

(Similarly, when we consider the situation of that first man and his woman, two fellow human beings all alone and married to each other, we must suppose that he was not led astray to transgress the law of God because he believed that she spoke the truth, but because he was brought to obey her by the close bond of their alliance. …

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