The Fall of Eden: Reasons and Reasoning in the Bible and the Talmud

By Levene, Nancy | Philosophy Today, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Fall of Eden: Reasons and Reasoning in the Bible and the Talmud


Levene, Nancy, Philosophy Today


"Knowledge heals the wound that it itself is."

G. W. F. Hegel

For all the theological angst it has generated, the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve's birth, life, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1-3) is brief and relatively unsentimental. Like every such evocative literary tale in the Bible, it has given rise to countless streams of commentary in diverse traditions, periods, and genres. But it itself is short and to the point. Adam and Eve are created by God, first as equals, then with the woman in what seems a subordinate role to the man; they are placed in a garden as its caretakers, and invited by God to partake of its riches, with the exception of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; they are encouraged and ultimately persuaded by a serpent to disobey this single injunction; and they are punished by God with curses and expulsion for doing so. The explanation God gives for expulsion is that human beings, having now become "like one of us, knowing good and evil," must be prevented from eating from the tree of life and living forever.

The story leaves commentators much to puzzle over. Why are there two versions of creation in Genesis 1-2? What do the different accounts of the relationship between the man and the woman signify? Why does God prohibit the tree of knowledge? Who or what is the serpent and what is his role in the disobedience? What is the nature of the curses God visits upon the pair in punishment for their actions? Why is the tree of life mentioned only at the end? And perhaps most confusingly, why are Adam and Eve punished for becoming "like" God? These are just a few of the major questions one encounters immediately in the text, without getting into complexities of language, history, and context. The tale is called, in both Christian and Jewish commentarial traditions, "the fall" or "the (original) sin," meaning that these three chapters that open both the Jewish and the Christian Bibles are understood to capture something tragic or broken about human life.1 Simply put, the idea seems to be that human beings are created with an enviable situation in the world (closeness to God, peaceful surroundings), which, in very short order, through their own fateful choice, they lose.

The present essay does not aim to survey the fascinating literary, historical, and philological problems to which this brief biblical prolegomenon has given rise. Rather what I want to do is use the story of Eden to reflect in a general way on the philosophical nature of Jewish classical texts, specifically, the Bible and the Talmud-to reflect, in other words, on the concept of philosophy to which these texts give rise.2 This is to presuppose, on the one hand, that the Bible and the Talmud enunciate recognizable concepts of philosophy in the first place, a fact which obviously does not go without saying. Indeed the reverse is much truer: it is their unphilosophical character that is taken for granted in most commentaries, even if those commentaries are themselves philosophical.3 On the other hand, this is simply to propose that the question of whether the Bible and the Talmud can be seen as philosophical depends on what one means by philosophy, by reasoning (and, not incidentally, what one means by text). What I want to suggest with the story of Eden is that the Bible has a concept of philosophy, even if it is not the one that commentaries have themselves deployed. In the case of the Talmud, it is more fruitful to put the issue in terms of the various concepts of reasons that are giventar the laws and practices it discusses. In both cases, what I will highlight is the extent to which the judgment of the unphilosophical character of these texts has been promulgated on the basis of notions of philosophy that are external to them. It is thus unsurprising that the texts are found not to conform to-or at best, be merely compatible with-philosophy.

I begin with Eden, though my attention to it directly will be limited to the first half of the essay and then the conclusion.

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