A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Companionship Across the Abyss

Is there a hidden meaning behind the story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent? Jonathan Crane takes a “deep dive” into this ancient myth and explains what it may be telling us about our relationship to our fellow animals … and how it could have been otherwise.

(Session #2 at the “I Am NOT an Animal!” symposium, Feb 24th, 2017, in Atlanta.)

We all know the story of how the Creator of the first human gives him a beautiful garden to live in, and then lots of animals to keep him company, and finally Eve to be his partner.

But then there’s the story of the “serpent.” And that’s where this almost fairy tale-like story gets quite complicated, with interpretations and theology and “original sin” and all three characters getting punished and everything going awry.

In this talk, bioethicist and rabbi Dr. Jonathan Crane, author of Beastly Morality: Animals as Ethical Agents, takes a “deep dive” into the original Hebrew text, into commentaries that span almost 3,000 years, and into how great artists have portrayed the story.

He concludes that, in earlier times, we humans must have had a very different kind of relationship to our fellow animals than we have today.

A few of the key things to watch for in this talk:

  1. The Hebrew word “Nakhash,” translated as “serpent”, is feminine and suggests a being who is a lot more than just a talking snake.
  2. The word “arum” is translated as “naked” when describing Adam and Eve, but as “shrewd” when it refers to the Nakhash/serpent. Whatever the underlying meaning of the word, the humans and the “serpent” clearly share some of each other’s features.
  3. The three characters engage in conversation with each other. Over centuries of interpretation of the story, rabbis have written that all living things once spoke the same language.
  4. For the curse to make any sense (“I will put enmity between you and the woman”), the Nakhash must have been a close friend of Adam and Eve. Martin Luther described the Nakhash as being like a beloved pet.
  5. In paintings, especially during the Renaissance, the Nakhash is usually portrayed as a creature with partly human form, sometimes looking very much like Eve herself, and sometimes like Adam. Below: Portrayal by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
  6. The Hebrew seems to suggest that Adam had sexual relations with the other animals before the creation of Eve. Other ancient texts say that the Nakhash was the father of Eve’s first son, Cain.

Putting it all together, Crane argues that this foundational story is less a treatise about “sin” than it is a meditation on what it means to be a partner. Nor is the story just an exploration of how we humans relate to each other, but also about the nature of trans-species companionship.

At the end of the discussion that follows his talk, Crane offers his own view as to what the story might be telling us today about the negative relationship we have with the other animals.

“It could have been otherwise. And it could be otherwise. The choice is ours. How we interpret this text and manifest it in our home life, in our communities, in our companies, in our cities, regions, countries, it’s our choice.

“We are not passive agents in shaping our relationship with the more-than-human world; we are active agents if we choose to be.

“We need not be trapped by the ways we have been told to think of ourselves in relationship with other creatures – or with ourselves.”

Jonathan Crane’s talk runs about half an hour, and is followed by about 45 minutes of discussion. You can watch it at the top of this post or on YouTube. And for more about the symposium, go here.