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The Story of the Fall: A Trajectory Toward Magic



In Genesis 3, the narrator casts the serpent in a strikingly Babylonian role. “Now the serpent,” he says, “was more cunning than any field-creature that Yahweh-God had made.”[1] The word “cunning,” a pun on the word “naked,” suggests a semantic range of meanings from “clever” or “intelligent,” on the positive side, to “crafty” or “wily,” on the negative end. The cunning serpent recalls the very shrewd Babylonian deity, Enki/Ea, the god of magic.[2] Enki/Ea’s cunning usually benefitted human beings vis-à-vis the gods, especially Enlil, who tried to destroy them. But, according to the story of Adapa, Enki/Ea’s advice did not procure for one man immortality. Similarly, the serpent’s advice in Genesis 3 leads the first human beings and all their descendants to mortality.

In the brief exchange between the serpent and the woman, a subtle but far-reaching paradigm shift takes place. God’s statement to the man in Genesis 2:16, 17 is a direct, clear-cut command ending with the words: “In the day you eat of it, dying you shall die.”[3] This command is descriptive, not prescriptive because it does not enjoin externally imposed punishment. God’s command is more like that of a parent with a young child: “Don’t touch the hot stove, because if you do, you will get burned.”[4] Such a command rests upon cause-and-effect relationships and stands as unequivocally true. The most prevailing kind of law in our world that illustrates this is natural law.

The serpent slightly twists this clear-headed command of God’s when he asks the woman, “Has God said?” not, “Did God command?” Such a question belongs better to the realm of external control, where commands (laws) can perpetually be questioned for what they say and what they don’t say. Scientists don’t generally quibble over whether the law of gravity actually works or whether the consequences will change if that law is defied. They might discuss how it happens, but that it happens, or how to apply it to daily life, is never questioned. Natural law remains fixed because it rests upon inherent relationships of a consistent cause followed by a consistent effect.

Within western culture, prescriptive law is less consistent. Lawyers, with the greatest skill at interpreting the law, win their cases, and court room debates center on the meaning of the law and manipulate it to win the case. Judges vary in their sentencing from trial to trial. Variability pervades, because the law rests upon externally imposed punishment, and is, therefore, arbitrary (as opposed to natural), and external instead of inherent. By questioning what God has said, the serpent has made the start of a shift from thinking consistently about inherent cause-and-effect relationships to arbitrarily contrived relationships.

The serpent rapidly follows with the question, “Indeed, did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’” (v. 1). This overstatement of what God clearly commanded conveys the idea that God is highly restrictive and thus arbitrary. It further entices the woman to react, to speak back to the serpent.

And, of course, she counters his hyperbole, but adds to and changes what God has said: “About the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said you shall not eat from it and you shall not touch it lest you die” (v. 2). By adding the words—“you shall not touch it”—the woman has moved further into thinking externally in harmony with the serpent’s line of thought. The fruit itself—not disbelief of God’s word—has external power to cause her to die. The change from “you shall surely die” to “lest you die,” raises the question of certainty. Is death really going to occur? Here the woman shifts from a descriptive statement of reality and how things work in a consistent universe toward an externally contrived realm in which things are arbitrarily made to happen. She is ready for the serpent’s next logical step.

“Not dying you will die!” he says (v. 4, literally). The implications of this direct negation of what God has clearly commanded takes the woman rapidly further down the serpent’s trajectory, and leads her beyond externally imposed penalty into a world in which everything is mysterious. If the serpent is correct, then God is lying or else He Himself doesn’t know the truth. That the serpent intends the former is supported by his next words: “For God knows that in the day that you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will become as gods, ones who know good and evil” (v. 5).

The statement that they wouldn’t die if they disbelieved God and ate the fruit contradicts the realm of cause-and-effect, negating descriptive law. The next words—“for God knows”— implies that God is deliberately withholding this perfectly good tree because He wants to deny them knowledge that is superior to the realm of the logical sense: consistency, cause-effect, and predictability. Something beyond this is available to the woman if she will only eat from the tree.

The giveaway regarding what that is lies in what follows: “in the day that you eat of it, your eyes will be opened.” The verb “opened” does not refer to the natural opening of the eyes that have been closed, but to eyes opening to what goes beyond the usual powers human beings have to see.[5] Ancient Near Eastern people understood such seeing to belong to the realm of magic, the only means by which they could touch and even control the divine realm. Magic had to do with power, power over another. Here the fruit has magical power to open her eyes to a new dimension of reality. The next line of the serpent—“you shall be like god(s) knowing good and evil”—completes the suggestion of magic. By doing magic, one could possess divine power; more than any other practice, magic allowed its performers to think that they could control and exercise power over evil demonic spirits, and thus become “like” the gods. By using the hand to manipulate objects deemed efficacious or by using the voice to speak incantations, performers of magic could approach divinity.[6] At the same time, magic could be good or evil; one could exert that supernatural power over another for their benefit or to do them harm.

Though rooted in inexplicable, mysterious connections, magic was as far removed from natural or inherent cause-effect relationships as is possible, because the latter could be rationally understood while magic could not. Causation in magic remained outside of the realm of logic and good sense, and stemmed very much from a belief in the supernatural ability of inanimate objects and words. It’s only logic lay in the perception that it “works.”

But to us, magic also seems far removed from the door the serpent opened to bring the woman from descriptive law toward a basis for externally enforced law. Later devised as prescriptive law, such order was systematic (not mysterious), prevented disorder, and operated logically, despite its being as variable as the human nature that invented and governed it. How can prescriptive law in any way be tied to magic? Yet, similarly to magic, prescriptive law attempts control over human behavior just as magic allows control over demonic behaviors. In other words, by inventing law and judicial court systems, ancient Mesopotamians found that they could be a little like the gods as they perceived them. In an external world control comes from the outside moving inward, through enforcement or control, manipulation, and fear. These forms of power comprise at least some of the ingredients of both law and magic.

Perhaps, this is why law and magic came together in the practice of divination. Looking through the lens of magic, diviners believed that signs had divine meaning beyond the practical sense of “reading.” Looking at those “signs” through the lens of law, diviners held that the gods’ messages were really verdicts of judgment on the inquirer (who asked the diviner to divine for him or her), predicted through the reading of the signs (omens). And like the variability of human prescriptive law, the verdicts were not inherent in the actions of the inquirer but were imposed on him or her externally by the gods. Therefore, the inquirer could attempt propitiatory persuasions to change the gods’ minds and thus the verdict. The god overseeing divination was, of course, Enki/Ea, known to modern decipherers of clay tablets as “the crafty god.”[7] This brings us full circle to the shrewd/crafty serpent of Genesis 3.

The trajectory the serpent introduces to the woman does indeed open her eyes. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was lovely to the eyes, and desirable for making wise, she took from its fruit and she ate and she gave also to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (v. 6). From believing God’s command, that on the day they ate from the tree of knowledge they would certainly die, the eyes of the man and woman are opened to perceive that the fruit has power to make them wise. By taking the fruit and eating it, the man and woman signify their belief that the fruit has magical power to create in them divine wisdom. They therefore surrender their internal locus of control to allow something inanimate and external to control them. So while the ancients believed that through the manipulation of inanimate objects, they could possess magical power to control their environment, in reality, they surrendered their internal control to those objects and to the forces they perceived to be operant in them. This led them to an artificial reality governed not by cause-and-effect but by manipulation. The fact that the first man and woman blamed others for their actions shows are far they had already come away from cause-and-effect descriptions of reality.

By contrast, God’s original command derived not from arbitration and control of the first human beings but from true wisdom that stems from love. It therefore took on the nuance of a warning of something very real that operates on descriptive law: broken trust leads to separation from the Lifegiver and thus to death. By believing the serpent’s implied thrusts against God’s character, the first human beings lost their faith in their Creator. Trust and love are dependent on trustworthiness and genuine love; they can only be descriptive in nature since they cannot be commanded or enforced.

Since the fall, we have felt the need for prescriptive law, but prescriptive law cannot heal our brokenness. At best, it serves as duct-tape to piece together fractured relationships and hold us to an appearance of righteousness,[8] but it can do nothing to transform us internally. By contrast, God’s power of command is rooted in creation where His commands created rational, coherent systems of life that illustrate the spiritual laws of love and trust. His commands are neither magic nor are they inherently legal (though they may appear legal in form); in principle, rather, they describe the reality of God’s eternal goodness, attracting, like the law of gravity does matter, all of us to Him, and setting off in us the appropriate responses of love and trust if, and only if, we so choose to respond.

[1] Gen. 3:1a. All translations are mine.

[2] Both names are applied to this deity.

[3] I have translated this literally to reflect the Hebrew as it stands for purposes of interpretation.

[4] The command is larger than merely eating the fruit, which was symbolic for consuming the serpent’s implied lies about God.

[5] HALOT 959.

[6] Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia (trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan; Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago, 2001), 192-193.

[7] Part of the title of a book by Samuel Noah Kramer and John Maier: Myths of Enki, the Crafty God (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[8] I owe this analogy to my colleague, Angel Hernandez.


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