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The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Three

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

On the Fall of Man, recounted in but a few verses in the third chapter of Genesis, one might well fill many shelves full of books, so rich is the mythic presentation of what Newman called the aboriginal calamity, a disastrous turning away from God wherein we are all involved.

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All I hope to do here is to point out one feature wherein the nature of sin is seen as it were in the evil kernel, and therefore also the contradictions inherent in the unredeemed human condition.

The sacred author is careful to tell us that Adam and Eve were naked, and were not ashamed.  Here we would do well to recall the Greek myths of the so-called Golden Age, when Cronus (Saturn) ruled, before his son Zeus seized his empire. 

During that time, human beings lived in peace, but also in rustic barbarity — a not-quite-human innocence, or rather innocuousness, a life of gathering acorns and drinking from the streams.  They were not holy, godlike, or naked.

But Adam and Eve are, in the beginning, all these things.  They have been made in the image and likeness of God; Adam has exercised the divine power of the intellect in naming the beasts; and he has burst into praise upon seeing the goodness and the rightness of his wife Eve, brought to him by God. 

Eve is not a Pandora visited upon mankind by a malevolent Zeus.  Adam and Eve are naked, implying that they belong to one another frankly and freely, with nothing to hide from one another or from God, because as Adam says, "a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh."

God is the first in Scripture to command: He spoke, and they were made, as the Psalmist says.  But Adam is the first to prophesy, and that too is a godlike act.

So the nakedness is not a symbol of foolishness.  A remarkable pun in the original Hebrew text is of tremendous consequence.  Adam and Eve were naked, 'erom, but the serpent was the subtlest beast of all the field, 'erom, pronounced with a glottal opening before the initial vowel. 

Milton seems to have caught the pun and made it one of the central dramatic motifs in Paradise Lost.  So Satan, on the fateful morning of the temptation, appears in the body of that subtlest beast, "in whose mazy folds / To hide me, and the dark intent I bring." 

Satan is always hiding, from God, the loyal angels, his fellow demons, Adam and Eve, and himself; even his initial plan of rebellion against the Son is couched in terms of secrecy and duplicity, as he whispers to his bed-mate Beelzebub: "More in this place / To utter is not safe."


And Adam and Eve, after they have eaten the fruit of the forbidden tree, and made love in the fury of first licentiousness, find themselves not clad "in naked majesty," as before, but cloaked in confusion and shame:

Up they rose
As from unrest, and each the other viewing,
Soon found their eyes how opened, and their minds
How darkened; innocence, that as a veil
Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone,
Just confidence, and native righteousness,
And honor from about them, naked left
To guilty shame; he covered, but his robe
Uncovered more.

Those last words ending in the broken line, with their astonishing reversal of images, are among the saddest in all of literature.

Those last words ending in the broken line, with their astonishing reversal of images, are among the saddest in all of literature.

Sad because true, as the sacred author means to show us.  We are compelled by the pun to set the cunning against the nakedness.  The telltale of sin is the need to hide, or, to put it another way, to present a false front, to cloak nothingness in a pretended glory.

Adam and Eve in their nakedness are for one another and are free to speak with God as friend with friend.  It is not subhuman but perfectly human and therefore divine.  But the cunning, the subtle cloaking of the serpent is meant to spoil that nakedness.

His lie about the forbidden fruit is a lie about God and about the love that God has showered upon the human couple — the lords of Paradise.  "God doth know," he says, "that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."

He is calling God a liar and a concealer: as if Adam and Eve do not already enjoy the knowledge of good as such.  That includes the goodness of marriage itself.  For, after all, if Adam and Eve are to fulfill the command, "Be fruitful, and multiply," and if they are to cleave to one another, bone of bone and flesh of flesh, then they must know one another in the powerful sense of the Hebrew verb, so often and so stupidly obscured by bad modern translations.

After the sin, Adam and Eve require the pathetic fig leaves to hide their nakedness, and when God approaches them in the garden, they are still in hiding.  In other words, they are no longer 'erom, naked, but 'erom, cunning, subtle — and foolish.

For who can hide from God?  God probes the inmost heart, and sheds light upon those dark corners of the heart where we huddle, trying to hide our eyes from Him and from our own selves.

Adam and Eve hide "from the face of the Lord," another verse now stupidly translated so as to remove the Hebrew word for face: because to face someone is to look upon him openly.  So the Psalmist cries out: "When shall I come and appear before the face of God?"  And Saint Paul looks forward to that time when we will know, even as we are known, because we will see God "face to face."

Then will the original lie be undone forever.

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Acknowledgement

Anthony Esolen.  "The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Three." The Catholic Thing (August 15, 2012). 

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved.  For reprint rights, write to: info@thecatholicthing.org.

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The Author

esolen54smEsolen6Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. He is the author of Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 The Catholic Thing
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