Reflections on Genesis 2-3: (part 1) Freedom and Reason

This is the 2nd week of my Bible study on early Genesis, drawing heavily from Leon Kass wonderful book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis which takes a philosophical (wisdom seeking) hermeneutic in reading Genesis. This is not to necessarily replace other methods of reading this text, but can very well stand along side other methods and in the light of how this text can teach us with this method, we might very well benefit from such a reading, placing this alongside Plato and Aristotle in our classrooms using this type of teaching. We will break the second creation story into two parts, starting with reflections on what this text instructs us on Freedom and Reason … next week we go to sexuality and the relationship between man and woman. It should also be noted, that this text is was primarily developed as my notes for a Bible study I’m leading on Monday night, after which I’ll also post (in a separate entry) my reflections on the “aftermath”.

Why 2 creation stories?

An important point here to consider on our twinned creation stories is not about the different ideas of the J (Jawistic) & P (Priestly) documents, but why the redactor chose to include both.



Genesis 1

Genesis 2&3


Watery Chaos

Dry bare earth


Ends with

Starts with


Before man

After (possible companions

Man Is …

Image of God

Of Dust and Breath


Most of creation

Little, only that man’s aloneness is “bad”

God’s Name


YHWH ‘elohim


For man as food

Man is to serve and keep the plants


Badge of distinction

Source of our troubles

The narrative style is different. In the first, the reader is a spectator and is offered a cosmic vision of creation. In the second, the reader is seen as a fellow suffering moral agent and is given a genealogical and human story.

Given that these are so very different, that should lead us most simply to the conclusion that this is intentional. That we are supposed to recognize they represent different ways of looking at creation. And if we recognize that these stories are independent it means we must adopt in a principle in reading them of referring them independently as well. That is, we cannot use notions developed in the first while reading the second and vice versa. If we with to integrate their views this must be done after we have interpreted both.

To jump ahead of our story this places a natural/cosmic/ontological reading aside a moral-political account of man’s origins. To quote Kass:

The first story, addressing us as seekers of natural-cosmic knowledge, documents an eternal, intelligible, and hierarchic order of the world, in which we human beings stand at the top of the visible beings; the cosmos itself is not divine, for it has a higher, invisible, and partly mysterious source. Man, not the sun, is godlike, sufficient proof is contained in our mental ability to grasp the cosmology offered in the text. But as the second story shows, addressing us as seekers of moral-political knowledge, human life, considered here on earth and in its own terms, is for the most part hardly godlike; it has a sorrowful content for which we sense that we are somehow responsible. A life of sinless innocence and wholeheartedness is virtually impossible for a human being, thanks to freedom, imagination, reason-and-speech, self-consciousness, and pride, and in the face of neediness, sexuality, ignorance, self-division, and lack of self-command.

From these two accounts, we learn that neither the cosmos nor human nature will suffice us to live well.

Origins in this story

Earth -> dry dusty

Man -> dual nature of his origins, dust and spirit (breath of life).

What else can we glean about the nature of man at this point?

Human troubles are foreshadowed by possible conflicts deriving from his dual nature. Notably not in the image of God.

Read historically, this does not persuade the skeptical reader, but read anthropologically and morally it has insight. In fact it predates and has echoes in Rousseau’s writing.

(If the location of Eden arises, the orgin of the four rivers, two of which are historical the others is less clear but the lands do not adjoin. This literary trope can be seen in use in the Odyssey with the location of Ogygia (Calypso’s home) a the “navel of the waters”, which is an indication that this story is meant universally not historically. The point is if Adam and Eden are historical then this story has less not more universality.

Adam at the Beginning

At the start, our protohuman is upright, naked, and hairless. In his heart, he is ignorant, speechless, innocent, no shame, pride, anger nor guilt, malice nor vanity, no wonder nor awe or fear of death. Solitary and independent (not MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals) much like Rousseau would term “the sentiment of existence”.

This is not persuasive (probably then nor now) as history. But as an anthropological statement it has weight. Whatever we are, at the bottom we are also uncomplicated, with innocent attachment to survival and ease and note the goodness of their own aliveness.

Note, Adam at the start, shows no specific interest in the tree of life. Without the idea of death as “bad” (the knowledge of good and bad) there is no desire for a tree of life.

Tree of life and Tree of knowledge of good and

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Why the warning? What does it mean?

  • God’s commandment demonstrates a need for a restriction of man to stay away from this tree.

  • Why might a benevolent God warn this Man (of the type we have seen he is now) to stay away from the tree.

Kass argues that “evil” from the KJV and other translations is not precise. He holds that “evil” might better be translated as a more general and more broad meaning as “bad” not “evil”.

Why tree? Why does the author choose this imagery. What are the qualities of a tree?

  • A tree appears indepent.

  • Self-developing, self-sustaining and appears self-caused.

  • This appearance is deceptive. It in fact belongs to (depends on?) the earth

  • It may look lofty and strong, but contains no “breath of life” or spirit.

On “Knowledge of good and bad”,
what is that?

  1. Knowledge of the existence of good and bad

  2. the above plus a concern with the same, or

  3. true knowledge of what good and bad really 

“Tree” + “knowledge of good and bad” -> some autonomous knowledge of how to live, derived by human beings from their experience in the visible world and rooted in their own surroundings.

On Obedience.

Man is called to obey a command. Obedience is called for, the opposite thus proscribed. Disobedience implies freedom and choice. Any free choice is by definition, non-obedience. Non-Obedience and the act of reaching for the the tree entails already having tasted of it.

Free choice is tied to knowledge and reason. One cannot choose non-obedience without implicitly finding that the reason for that choice is that it is “better”, i.e., implies a knowledge of good and bad. Note that choice of the tree involves eating. Choice is tied to reason and eating (the choice taken) is tied to our appetites.

Precisely because we are rational and hence, free, we can freely desire things which are harmful to life, health, and well-being. Thus a proscriptive limit on human eating and human omnivorousness metaphorically (and perfectly) highlights the dangers freedom poses to healthy human

Trick question: “If God didn’t want man to eat of this tree, why did he put it in the garden in the first place? And why did He tempt them to eat of it via his prohibition?”

The resolution is that this is not a historical account but a literary vehicle for conveying permanent truths about the human condition and problems with human freedom.

Death and Knowledge

Death. Tree of life/Tree of knowledge of Good and bad. In the absence of the true knowledge of good and bad mean that mortality is a good thing? Prior to knowledge of good and bad, i.e., in a innocent proto-human state does the immortality/mortality answer/question come out different. Of could the death implied be a death of innocence? The experience we all have of losing our child’s innocence to die to being an adult (and is that transition related to the knowledge of good and bad).


In the Garden, at the onset. Man is alone and silent. Reason is not active? His first speech? God brings each animal forth to be named. Naming is an elemental part of reason. It encompasses classification and identification (separation) of distinguishing characteristics. It creates the world of words, a separate abstract world.

Creation of woman -> the first human sentence. What can we say about that first sentence?

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

He names woman, he gives a reason for that name. “At last” might indicate some longing, a fulfillment of a desire. Is he defining her in terms of his desire for her?


Note the serpent as one of the other animals was not seen as a “fit helpmate” but the serpent was “crafty”, “clever”, and “more cunning”, so reason and cleverness are not enough for a mate/partner for man. This may entail sexuality, which we will be discussing in some more detail next week.

Why snakes?

Serpent as raw (insidious) male power and a sexual seduction of woman. Snakes as feminine (as in many myths with rebirth/shedding and belonging to the earth. Also images of voracity (eating prey whole) and hyper-rationality (the stare). The text singles out cunning.

How do the snake’s questions work? Do they prompt self-awareness in Eve? The snake misquotes God. How is this misquoting insidious. It’s a leading question bringing highlighting the forbidden tree. She must also rise to self-consciousness about food and eating, reflect on God’s commands, the garden’s hospitality, and about herself in relationship to her needs. By raising opposition to her needs, it brings in to light precariousness of her needs in the face of God’s nay or yeah saying.

How does Eve misquote him as well? (telephone and misunderstanding). She adds “thou shall not even touch”, but restricting the prohibition to just the one tree (correctly). She forgets that she is to avoid it because it was commanded, not to avoid deadly consequence. This addition, of course, could have been added by Adam in transferring this prohibition to Eve. This “don’t touch” is a protective addition.

The serpent then exploits the mistaken interpretation of Eve’s that the prohibition was to avoid death (not as command). The snake impugns God’s veracity and His motives. God is a liar (and jealous of his prerogatives).

Eating of the fruit of the Tree

Freedom and reason have eroded the prohibition against eating. In this light, the fruit is good for food, a delight to the eyes, and to be desired to make one wise. After they eat … was this prediction fulfilled? Well, no.

One of the first things, these two mortals on discovering a knowledge of good and evil find … sexuality. They knew they were naked and sew clothing. Their recognition of good and evil leads to the desire to do something about it, in this case inventing craft and technology (sewing and manufacture) that is civilization.

Meeting with God
after Disobedience

Where are you? Physically or psychologically? Adam’s answer meets both questions does it not?

Both man and woman although passing the buck on the reason admit “I did eat”. Are they repentant?

God curses the serpent, but has consequences (logical ala modern childrearing maxims?). These consequences are the consequence of seeking civilization.

Fall or Not to Fall?

The fall read, anthropologically can therefore be as a rise of rational thought and independence. Is this bad? Is this not a rise from a prehuman status.

The punishment for man is … civilization. The reaching for reason, self-awareness, and self-sufficiency Man gets exactly what he wants, and finds it isn’t exactly what he wanted after he got it.

If we view the fall as a rise to rationality and away from his proto-human state, then how do we then view the Christian response, i.e., Christ as healing the sin of the fall? St. Paul points to Christ being God’s response to healing the problems of the garden. If the “fall” from the garden was not so much a fall, but a rising to real humanity from a proto-human state, what is the reparation made available by Christ?

Resurrection and the promise of Christ also implies a loss of the fear of death which was brought about by the “knowledge” gained that Death is bad, which is a return to the pre-fall lack of a fear of death. Eucharist, like the tree, is an act of eating and involves similarly appetite. How does Christ and his feast meet the failure of reason to satisfy appetite?

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  1. positions and shows how these are inadequate for a fuller moral foundation. Our other resident philosopher, Mark of Pseudo-Polymath, compares the story of creation in Genesis chapter 1 with the account in Genesis chapters 2 and 3 in his post Reflections on Genesis 2-3: (part 1) Freedom and Reason. Joe of“>Help With Everything presents some questions that present conundrums in his post, It takes more faith not to believe. This is a short, but very effective post. It left me thinking for hours about those

  2. Pseudo-Polymath Series on Genesis…

    I’ve been intending to mention this since last week’s Christian Blog Carnival came out, but I’ve been distracted. Mark Olson at Pseudo-Polymath has started a series on Genesis from a philosophical perspective. The first entry is Ref…

  3. […] For my notes on how this is arrived at, see this post (or get the book linked there). […]

  4. […] The footnote, noted above, is on an interesting passage, which has a slightly different take on mortality than I’ve seen from the West. It has often been written (elsewhere) that our mortality is a result of our “fallen” state, harking back to Genesis 2/3 and the 2nd creation story, specifically, Eve, Adam, the Serpent and the fruit. Everything from mortality, to St. Augustine’s “happy fall” have been ascribed to that story. As I noted some months ago (here) some of the results of a more modern philosophical reading of this story. However, Maximus links mortality to the biological nature of the human hypostasis. Hypostasis began in Greek thought as the idea of “essence”, but by this time hypostasis had been linked to being (a loaded word in the shadow of Sartre as I am now). So Maximus is noting that our unique identity (being or hypostasis) is mortal because it is tied to our biological being not on account of the events of the Garden story. […]