The Bible as Ethnography ~ 03 ~ Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake. But not in this case….

Genesis 2 ends with Adam and Eve being naked yet not ashamed. In Genesis 3, the Serpent, who is wiser than average, tricks Eve into partaking of the forbidden fruit of one of god’s two magic trees. This results in Adam and Eve recognizing their own nakedness, and compelling them to produce the first clothing. The word “naked” in the original Hebrew is either eromim or arumim. The former means naked (no clothes) and the latter means exposure as in exposing lies. The original Hebrew for the “clothing” that they put together, “chagowr” probably means “belt.” The parallel (and probably older) Babylonian/Sumerian story explicitly tells of “sexual knowledge.” Remember, the tree providing the forbidden fruit is the tree of knowledge. The only thing that is clear about this story is that it, the story, is heavily clothed in euphemism.

Origin stories sometimes refer to origins of sexual relations, sometimes prescribing and sometimes proscribing certain practices. The origin story for the Efe (Pygmies) and Lese (horticulturalists) of the Ituri Forest has the first Efe man teaching the first Lese man about sex. He does this by having sex with the first Lese woman. That is an incredibly outrageous concept. Efe men are not allowed to have carnal relationships with Lese women under any circumstances (though Efe women can marry Lese men). This, the Efe/Lese origin story is a kind of beginning and a kind of end for a certain sort of relationship.


From a purely ethnographic perspective, the snake is interesting. The snake is found in various origin myths. It may be the harbinger of a spirit or an ancestor. For example, among the Efe Pygmies, there is an entity known as “Njou” (pronounced, in – joe – oo), which is an animal linked to a clan, a totem in anthropological parlance that, from the perspective of any individual, may be an embodied ancestor. So if you are in a certain clan, your Njou might be a blue duiker (a kind of antelope), so any blue duiker you run into could be an ancestor. Therefore, you can’t ever kill or eat a blue duiker. The majority of Njou are snakes.

Snakes are rarely vilified to the degree they are in Genesis. Indeed, very few entities of any kind have ever been as vilified as the satan/snake of Genesis. But many of the instances where snakes are cast in a negative light (in mythology) tend to be European, including Greek, Roman and Norse mythologies. The intelligence of the serpent in Genesis is fairly typical of snakes in myth globally.

A particular species of tree having magical or spiritual importance is probably widespread, and is clearly seen in a lot of African belief systems. Having a particular tree play a special role (not a species or variety of tree, but a specific, individual tree at a certain location) is something I have encountered in the Ituri Forest and that I’m aware of from many parts of East Africa. I do not want to exclude other regions of the world from this pattern of mythology, however. The “tree of life” theme is probably largely Judeo-Christian, transplanted to many other belief systems, but there are many other trees in many other contexts.

The role of Genesis 3 seems to be two part, from a male perspective: 1) find a way to blame women for something really bad, and 2) work out a justification for sexual control of women and thus, indirectly for reproductive rights. These closely linked functions are found in Maasai origin stories, as well as origin stories in some Congolese groups. Again, I’m not suggesting a purely African phenomenon at all, just pointing out some cases where Africa pertains.

Another interesting aspect of this text is the specific reference to intensive male labor in agriculture. Various agricultural societies can be categorized by the degree (and kind) of male labor, ranging from very little to a great deal (ala Boserup’s work). Typically, traditional agriculture that involves a lot of male work also involves irrigation.

This text also makes a more specific connection between god and the two sacred trees in the Garden of Eden. It is reasonable to assume from this text that god obtains the power of knowledge, as well as the power of eternal life, by eating the fruit from these two trees. (This is yet another contradiction, because god had made these trees, among the different origin stories represented mainly in Genesis 1 and 2.)

If you ignore Genesis 1, and integrate Genesis 2 and 3, it is reasonable to suggest that God had been living off the land, and produced the Garden of Eden and humans to upgrade to irrigation (with the humans getting to do all of the work). This theme is parallel to the Sumerian stories, except that those stories start with higher and lower level gods, and the lower level gods do all the work, until they think up inventing humans to do it for them. If we look to origin stories as justification, we see in this scenario justification for a working or labor class (or role) related to irrigation.

The Bible as Ethnography Posts

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0 thoughts on “The Bible as Ethnography ~ 03 ~ Sometimes a Snake is Just a Snake. But not in this case….

  1. The role of Genesis 3 seems to be two part, from a male perspective: 1) find a way to blame women for something really bad, and 2) work out a justification for sexual control of women and thus, indirectly for reproductive rights

    Yes which would make sense to remove Lilith from the bible if you plan to keep your women-stock in check.

    BTW thank you for speaking at the Bell Museum for Darwin Day. All the speakers did great!

  2. So Johnny Appleseed was really God making sure there were enough magic trees around so he could travel without worrying about running out of life-preserving fruit?

  3. Idle thought: was being forced to leave the garden and work in the fields some sort of folk tale of going from hunter-gatherer to farmer?

  4. Khan, that’s been my interpretation of the expulsion form Eden, but given Greg’s analysis above I know wonder how the two interpretations would fit together (if indeed they would).

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