The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Four

In Greek mythology, Zeus is called “father of gods and men.” But even though his procreative propensities are remarkable, it is not really true. Zeus is the son of Cronus and the grandson of Ouranos, the sky-god. He is preceded by a whole generation of Titans, the brothers and sisters of Cronus, whom he thrust from power, by the aid of strategic alliances with a few of those Titans, most notably the hundred-armed Cottus, Gyas, and Briareus – a boon to have on one’s side in battle.

He is called “father” rather because of the combination of force and intelligence which has resulted in his pre-eminence. His daughters, the Muses, confer some of that savoir-faire on men whom they especially favor. These men will not only see what is to be done but will be able, with their honeyed words, to persuade others.

In other words, the Greek religious system is a mythic presentation of the polis, founded upon controlled violence and persuasion – sometimes outright deceit. I don’t wish to discount the tremendous Greek achievement. It is a deeply human thing – but also a deeply fallen thing.

The first chapters of Genesis will have none of it. I am struck by the utter insouciance of the account of the Fall, which in so few words aims right at the heart of any attempt, ancient or modern, to raise political structures, and the violence they presuppose, to the status of idols. 

I’ve already noted the terrible change that sin works in Adam and Eve, replacing their nakedness with cunning. Now let us examine their response to the questions that God poses to them, starting with, “Where art thou?” 

God does not need to ask, “In what location may I find you?” In the psalms, to “dwell in the house of the Lord” or “to behold the countenance of God” is to dwell in a relationship of love. “Where are you?” is then an existential question. “Why have you not met me? Why do you hide from me? Why have you rejected me?”

Adam’s response is a childish dodge. He is hiding, he says, because of his nakedness. Again, we have been told that the nakedness is not a just cause of shame. It is rather shame that is the cause of Adam’s embarrassment. He is already alienated from his body and from the body of his wife. Nor can he be frank with his Maker. He is passing the blame.

Then God asks, “Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?”

        The First Mourning by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1888

What Adam then does should be seen as undermining the possibility of lasting communion and peace upon earth: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.”

It’s Eve’s fault. No, rather it’s God’s fault. We may well embellish the response in the fashion of Milton’s Paradise Lost. “The woman – you know, that woman that you gave to me for my companion, so perfect, so acceptable, so wise – that woman gave me the fruit,” and now the voice drops to a grumble, “and I did eat.” In this one sentence, Adam sets himself at enmity with both God and Eve – never so guilty as when he ducks his guilt.

Eve, “not so loquacious,” as Milton shrewdly notes, gives us her version: “The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” Hers is but half a dodge. The blame is placed on the serpent – on a creature beyond Eve’s control; and yet a beguilement requires someone to be beguiled, a fool, someone who places more trust in his or her own evaluation of things than in the commands of God. So Eve also suffers alienation in the very act of setting God aside.

I will treat of God’s judgment upon them at more leisure, in the next essay. For now, consider how much light these few verses shed upon the book of b’reshith – in Hebrew, “In the beginning.” For Genesis is, to the eye and ear of this reader accustomed to ancient poetry, a work of astonishing unity: I might say crushing and disillusioning unity, sparing no illusions of human greatness. 

Adam and Eve, cast forth from Paradise, beget two sons, Cain and Abel. Each son plies a trade without which there can be no human civilization: Cain is a farmer and Abel a shepherd. Of the two, the one most obviously necessary for cities is the farmer. There can be no city without a supply of dry storable grain. 

That, for the ancients, is what a city is: a place of granaries, protected by walls, political organization, and armies. It is no accident that when Cain is driven forth from his family, he “builded a city” and named it for his son. Cain is the elder son, the one who should principally benefit from inherited property. 

Yet we do not remember Cain for his seat on the chamber of commerce, but for his villainy. God rejects his half-hearted sacrifice, and Cain, seething with envy of his brother Abel, murders him. “And Cain talked with Abel,” says the verse – he “talked.” He used the medium of human intercourse – the verse does not say that they fought. Perhaps he took Abel aside, in a brotherly fashion but with evil intent. Then he slays his brother.

When God asks Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” the son dodges – as his father had. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks, casting God’s question back in his teeth. The malice that was skulking and ducking in Adam is now shameless. 

Cain’s rhetorical question, implying that it is absurd to believe that we are our brother’s keepers, is not only a sign of alienation. It is a celebration of it. A first fruit of the builders of cities everywhere.

Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire.