instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

The Concise Book of Lying

From Chapter One

The Bible: A Casebook

The story so far: God has created the heaven and the earth, and night and day. He has separated the water from the dry land and has made the earth bring forth grass, herbs, and fruit-bearing trees. He has made the sun, moon, and stars, and sea animals, birds, and land animals. Finally, he has made beings in his own image, male and female, to rule the world and has told them to be fruitful and multiply, replenish the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over all the animals. And he has seen that everything he has made is very good.

Now the narrative doubles back to the world as yet uncontaminated by life. A mist rises up from the earth and waters the land, and God creates a man (adam in the story's original language) out of the dust of the ground and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. A garden full of trees pleasant to the sight and good for food is next on the agenda. Two special trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, are in the midst of the garden. God instructs the man that he may freely eat the fruit of every tree, But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Deciding that it is not good for the man to be alone, God makes all the animals and shows them to Adam so he can give them names and find himself "an help meet" from among them. As it turns out, none of the animals will do, and God makes Adam fall into a deep sleep, takes one of his ribs, and fashions from it a woman.

The two versions of this part of the story of Genesis have been attributed by scholars to two of the three "strands of tradition" or "sources" that run through the Old Testament, Christianity's name for the Hebrew Bible, and they were written down centuries apart. These sources are known as "J" (Yahwist, from the German Jahweh), "E" (Elohist), according to the name by which God is called in the various passages, and "P" (Priestly, for the priests who are conjectured to have taught the P traditions). The first version, assigned to P and customarily dated after 539 B.C., offers a benign, uncomplicated creation myth. The physical universe comes into being in a series of stands-to-reason steps: the earth has to be separated from the water before plants can grow; the world is populated with animals; man and woman are created simultaneously, both in God's image, endowed with the ability to procreate and rule the earth.

The second version, attributed to the author who looms large in the J source, is dated earlier (ca. 950 B.C.) and is a great deal more elaborate and complex. It is tied to the mythologies of Assyro-Babylonian and other Middle East cultures: we have a golden age akin to that of Greek tradition in which men, unlike the gods, were mortal but death was neither painful nor fearful; presto, a magical talking beast appears — a serpent tempting mortals to hubris. A little later sons of God intermarry with mortal women and generate a race of heroes in another variation on a Greek theme.

But J is also explaining the roots of his own people. He traces back to first events the structure, workings, preoccupations, and so forth of the tribal society of which he is a member, and he accounts for the ever-present reality of death. The result is a far more interesting narrative. We now have a tree of life and a tree of knowledge of good and evil, an injunction against eating from the latter uttered by God (who somehow fails to mention the former), the threat of death, and a first woman, who in the very act of and reason for her creation is second and inferior to the first man.

The tale gets even more intriguing in a hurry: The serpent, "more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made," asks the woman: "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" She answers,

We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

The serpent begs to differ:

Ye shall surely not die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Liking what she is hearing, the woman eats from the tree, and so does her husband.

God finds out soon enough that his creatures have disobeyed him when he discovers Adam worried about being naked. Asked by God whether he ate from the forbidden tree, Adam snitches on his wife — she was the one who gave him fruit from the tree. God asks the woman, "What is it that thou hast done?" She answers, "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat."

The rest, one might say, is history.

In Judeo-Christian tradition, the serpent in the Garden of Eden stands for evil, and its talk with Eve is seen as the first instance of deception in the history of the world. In Paradise Lost, Milton has the animal's body invaded by Satan, and it is Satan, masquerading as the serpent, who tempts the as yet unnamed Eve to eat the fruit. He does so by telling her the lie that he acquired the powers of intellect and speech by eating fruit from a particular tree in the garden and suggesting that if he, formerly a mere brute, so profited from eating fruit from that tree, the woman and her husband will certainly become godlike once they eat from it. When Eve eagerly follows the serpent to this tree of miracles, it turns out to be the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent is undaunted. By feigning "zeal and love / To man, and indignation at his wrong" (Book IX, 11. 665-66) and repeating to Eve that she and Adam will be as gods, he gets her to eat.

This interpretation of the serpent as the devil who beguiled Eve ("tricked" in the New Revised Standard Version) was, by the time of Milton, a cast-iron element of Christian theology. According to it, the serpent and Eve represent the prototypical instance of something repeated over and over throughout the ages — the devil deceiving and tempting mankind in the hope of triumphing over all creation — and it is part of the West's cultural baggage. Genesis, however, says otherwise. Eve may believe the serpent tricked her, and certainly this subtlest of all beasts was deceptive when it feigned ignorance about something it obviously knew — that God had forbidden the man and woman to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But according to the text, this is as far as it goes. Divested of a mythological gloss given it much later, the serpent is unrecognizable as the Satan of Christianity, and no supernatural entity that is the archenemy of God and man appears in the story of creation or other early texts of the Hebrew Bible. Not until the third century B.C. and the apocryphal writings appearing even closer in time to the birth of Jesus does a character fitting the description begin to emerge in Judaism. An entity called "Satan" does appear in Job 1-2 and Zechariah 3:1-7 but he functions as an adversary or accuser of man, a servant of God whose intention is to expose the weaknesses of men esteemed by God. Job's Satan bears little, if any, resemblance to the creature the Pharisees call "Beelzebub [Hebrew Baal-zebub, literally Lord of Flies] the prince of the devils" in Matthew 12:24, or to Lucifer, the fallen angel of Luke 10:18, or to the Satan of Revelation 12:9, "which deceiveth the whole world."

The absence of an archenemy of God in the Old Testament and the presence of such an entity in the New Testament is emblematic of the differences between the worldviews embedded in the two books and, in particular, of a fundamental change in the relationship between God and his creatures. As we'll see, the two books' radically different approaches to deception bring this difference into sharp relief.

Copyright © 2001 Evelin Sullivan