I feel like a child who has been playing in the woods not far from home, who has suddenly stumbled upon a giant, abandoned candy store. Something grand, from the 1950s perhaps, with tall, white-washed wooden walls and glimmering glass through which the delicacies within could not only be enticingly seen, but also smelled.
I’ve always read Genesis as an archaic myth, a story about humanity which is so out of date as to have lost all value. “People didn’t understand history then, so they made this up,” I thought. “It’s nice, but so are all of the other myths. And like them, it is false.”
Then this winter I took a course on the Philosophy of Religion, wherein our professor reacquainted us with Genesis, not as a myth of origins, but as a coming-of-age story. It was the story of any young man, at first living under the word and law of his father. The young boy would have been acquainted with women, or rather girls, as well, but would have made no notice of them – they would have just been other people. Then, one day, something would change in the boy – a pain in his abdomen would signify that things had changed. That pain would feel of loss, an absence that could only be filled by this newly arrived creature: woman.
It is poetic genius then to suggest that woman is made out of man’s rib. The coming-of-age significance is all the same: before the pain there had been no woman as opposed to man, just the two sexes, together made in the image of the heavenly ones.
With the appearance of woman comes a longing, but more importantly it brings an ‘Other’ to whom allegiance and love may be bestowed. Now it is no longer just God and Man. Man and woman both realize that their love for one-another is greater than their love for God in just the way we as adolescents begin to dissolve our exclusive devotion to our parents. The result is predictable: children disobey the Father and set out on their own, facing the inevitable consequences – the pains of childbirth and the toil of working the fields for one’s own food.
But it’s not all bad: they have eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they are no longer the ignorant children of Eden. By their own will they have asserted themselves against the father, and by their own will they are left to make it in the world, our world.
The moral of the story? We all must emerge from the law of our father and make it on our own. If we do well enough, we then will become the father/mother and watch our children follow the same pattern. It’s difficult. “Life is no Eden,” our professor instructed us. But it is this way for us all, and as such it is up to each of us to make the very best of our pains and toils.
But something fundamentally changed with the onset of agriculture. We became dissatisfied with wandering in the world and wanted to just settle down. We categorized the world around us, we gave names to every living creature encountered. But this did not satiate our urge for dominion. To do this we needed total control, command over the fields and beasts around us. For this, we needed agriculture. With agriculture, rather than being on par with nature, we played as lords over it. With this the world became ‘for us’, as if all of creation was ours, is ours.
This shift is the story of our civilization today. The premise that the world is ‘for us’ and that we are separate somehow from the rest of creation is the premise of our culture. It is the story we tell our children before bed, but also the story we hear on the evening news and on the corporate billboards, in the academic curricula and in the novels we read. And, according to Ishmael at least, it is the premise of a dying culture. It is a myth gone bad.
Ah-ha. That is the big story. The story we tell ourselves without even knowing it. It is the paradigm we live unconsciously. This is our mythology, and it’s not just in Genesis, but everywhere in our society. Can you see it? And what now?