Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
--John Keats (1795-1821), “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820)
We grow and develop, year after year; our lives change to adjust to the circumstances surrounding us. The books we read, the music we listen to, often remain the same, serving to anchor us in a world of uncertainty. Above, Keats tells us that the static figures depicted on the Grecian Urn will never change; they will be the same forever. It is the same with the Torah—its characters, stories, drama and morals are eternal. Of all the sacred literature which we Jews have gifted to humankind, it is the best-known to us—but what do the messages mean? How do they impact our lives? Adam, Eve, the serpent—not in his Christian guise as Satan, nor Michelangelo’s, as a female, neither of which do we Jews accept—and the Lord God Himself (yes, in Genesis, God’s masculinity is very much in evidence) all appear in this earliest, mythic story of our origins. The question remains: how do we interpret it? How does it affect our view of ourselves as men, as women, as Jews?
The very earliest cultural anthropologist (indeed, he invented that field of study), a Scot named James George Frazer (1854-1941), in a seminal work named Folklore in the Old Testament (1918), made a study listing comparative creation-myths found among various world cultures. He shone fresh light on the well-known story of our ancestors’ stealing the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. After studying and comparing similar Creation tales from around the world, Frazer theorized that the original form of the Genesis story ran as follows: after God created both Adam and Eve from the earth and blew into their nostrils the breath of life (no degrading rib-story here!), He placed them in Eden where they could partake of perpetually blooming fruit-trees, and enjoy the company of peaceful animals. He also gifted them with two trees: one granting perpetual life, the other instant death. God intended to let the happy couple themselves decide which tree they would choose, but needed an animal to bring them the instructions. God chose a faulty messenger, however, because the serpent fatally changed the message: instead of telling them to eat of the Tree of Life, and live forever, the wily snake told Eve to eat of the Tree of Death, and live forever. While the trusting humans ate of the Tree of Death, the serpent himself ate of the Tree of Life—which is why snakes shed their skin, thereby appearing to live forever (at least, so they appeared, to the ancients).
How can we believe Frazer’s version? He found a common theme running through the majority of world myths: The Story of the Altered Message. It is a story common in Africa: the Bantu version told by the Zulu people states that Unkulunkulu, the chief of the gods, decided that people should live forever, and sent the chameleon to tell the mortals the good news. Unfortunately, the chameleon was slow and dawdled, taking time to eat and nap. Meanwhile, the god changed his mind and decided that people should die eventually, and sent the lizard to send the altered message. The lizard ran quickly (as lizards will), spreading its sad message first; so, when the chameleon finally arrived, humankind would not heed it, but was fated to die. Similar stories may be found throughout Africa—and we should recall the many years which our people dwelled in Egypt, which is an African country. Who knows how much of our culture was formed there?
It is important for us to always remember that Judaism did not come to exist in a vacuum. We have always undergone what I call “cross-pollination” with other cultures, taking what was valuable from them and adding a particular Jewish spin. I hope that this unusual drash/Torah interpretation has given our readers a new look at an age-old story.