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(11) The Serpent and the satan (Part 2)
Let me recall where we are going with this: we want to know how Paul made the connections between the satan, the law and the problem of interpreting Torah through the lens of zeal. This post will be just scratching the surface. Some have lamented (or complained) that my posts are already too long. But one cannot rethink 2,000 of Christian tradition without engaging a host of issues.
I sought to show that the use of the term ‘arum’ connects the serpent and the human in yesterday’s post. From a purely anthropological perspective, the serpent is (represents) that part of the human which responds to the prohibition in Genesis 2 not to eat of the tree of knowledge. We all know that when something is banned to us we want it all the more. There is something seductive about the forbidden. So we ought not to be surprised then when one part of the human reacts to the prohibition by questioning it.
The human is the only animal that once its needs are satisfied, does not know what it wants. That is, humans experience a lack. This lack is the problem of desire. If you recall the emphasis I have placed in these (and other) posts about our interdividuality, that we are not isolated, but inner-connected as a species, and if you recall that I have said that desire does not arise from within us but from without (that is, in relation to the other) and that this has been shown scientifically in studies in Brain research (neurophysiology, neural networks and mirror neurons), then it will not come as a surprise when I say that the serpent’s engagement with the woman is a literary way of showing the true problem of the human condition: desire is easily corrupted. That corruption can first of all be seen in the serpent’s question “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” God did not say that. God prohibited only the one tree. The woman’s response is a further distortion for she adds to the command not to eat of the tree the further prohibition “nor touch it.” The serpent compounds the deceit of desire by adding that the human, by eating of the tree will become God-like, that is, that the human will have all ultimate desires met (we call this ‘the desire for the being of the other’ in mimetic theory).
The fact is that when the woman eats nothing happens, her eyes are not opened nor does she die. It is only after the man imitates the woman that consequences abound. This text connects desire and imitation. Desire is mediated through the other. We want what others want, we value what others value, we take what others have thinking that in so doing we shall find fulfillment. The text shows that this is not the case and all we are left with when we imitate each other’s desires is a sense of alienation. Note that the male is not absent from this scene of discourse between the serpent and the woman “for he was with her.” All of this literarily suggests that the man, the woman and serpent are one big figure of the process of mediated desire and its consequences. The origin of evil, the opening of the eyes to discriminate stems not from some fallen angel who is outside of us, but from within us. We are the satan. We humans create the satan. The satan is the problem of mimetic desire which grasps. This is not the end of the story though. Genesis 2-3 is connected to Genesis 4 and the problem of rivalry and violence in the story of Cain and Abel. It is only after the murder of Abel that Cain founds “civilization.” This is the same process Girard argues occurs in founding murder myths: mediated desire, rivalry, violence and the origin of human culture and religion. So the Genesis text is not really different than ancient mythology in its structure; it is very different in what it reveals in these connections. Myths occlude these connections; they have to, for they hide their victims. The revelatory component of the Genesis text is that the victim is no longer hidden; the victim has a voice (“your brother’s blood cries out from the ground for vengeance”). And this revelation of the victim’s voice makes all the difference. From Abel to Jesus to Stephen to Auschwitz and beyond, human history has, because of the biblical anthropology, been able to progressively hear the voice of the victim.
This is what makes the Genesis text so powerful and so exceedingly relevant for today. All the evil in the world does not come from God, but from us. It has a structural form (culture) and it has a spiritual form (religion). Just as we humans are both ‘adama’ (clay, soil, humus) and ‘ruach’ (spirit, wind, breath) so also this reality we have created called civilization, human history consists of both dimensions. There is a physical side to evil and there is a spiritual dimension to it as well. The Genesis story has more to teach us about the problem of humanity than we realize. If we insist on a ‘personal’ devil we will always be able to ultimately blame evil on God. When we accept that we humans are responsible for the horrors of our history, when we realize that the creation has been subjected to death so that we won’t exist in this state forever, when we accept that Jesus’ defeat of the satanic is the defeat of our grasping acquisitive ways, when we see him as the model for how to desire God alone, then, and only then, will we understand that we cannot but desire, and that Jesus has opened our eyes to desire the only ‘object’ in the universe that lacks nothing, that fills everything, that truly satisfies, namely the One Jesus called Abba. God alone meets our deepest needs, yearnings, longings and desires. And that, in a nutshell, is the point of the story of the man, the woman and the serpent in Genesis.