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How the Snake Slithered into Eden
by William Sierichs, Jr.


1998 / March-April



Dan Barker's article on "Serpentine Logic" (TSR, November/December 1997) touches one of Christianity's most embarrassing problems. All Christian theology boils down to a simple statement: a talking snake made me do it.

It's fundamental to Christianity that because the snake misled Adam and Eve, the human race became inherently corrupt, and all of our crimes and "sins" followed, which is why the loving, merciful Christian god is going to torture the human race in the most agonizing way possible forever and ever, amen.

Our only chance of escape, Christians tell us, is to believe without reservation that the vast intellect that created and controls a universe stretching at least 12 billion light years in every direction came to earth as a mortal, allowed himself to be killed, spent three days in hell, and thereby redeemed those of us who believe in Jesus Christ... or who are baptized in his name... or who do good deeds... or who are "born again"... or who were predestined by god from before all creation... or....

Well, exactly how we are to be saved from endless, excruciating torture is not quite clear, considering how important it's supposed to be. Different biblical passages give different versions of "the only way to salvation." Let's hope god comes back in time to clear up for us just exactly how to make the right bet in the great Casino of Religious Fates so that we can sit and eat popcorn in the heavenly bleachers while watching everyone who bet wrong writhing in agony far below in God's Gulag.

Before I put my bet on Blaise Pascal's gigantic roulette wheel, though, I'm going to consider an alternate origin of the talking snake story. Since 19th-century archaeologists dug up the great, long-buried libraries of ancient Middle Eastern civilizations, scholars have known that the two contradictory creation stories in Genesis are based on two separate Mesopotamian myths.

The first chapter of Genesis, with its six days of creation, is an Israelite adaptation of an older creation story called the "Enuma Elish," in which a Mesopotamian god--the high god Marduk in the Babylonian version, the high god Ashur in the Assyrian version-- created the world. This king-deity had fought and killed the primal mother goddess, Tiamat, and cut her body up in six steps, using the parts to make the universe, earth, and its lifeforms. The "Enuma Elish" steps parallel the six Genesis-1 steps of creation.

Genesis may contain a hint of its origin, since in 1:11 and again in 1:24, Yahweh did not make life directly but commanded the (female) earth to create living things. Similarly, in 1:20, Yahweh told the waters to create sea life. The only lifeforms Yahweh and his associates ("Let us make man") actually made are the first humans, perhaps echoing Mesopotamian stories that the gods made humans in other ways than Tiamat's corpse.

The second Genesis creation story borrows from a Mesopotamian story about the Sumerian gods making a divine garden for themselves, and the god Enki fathering a gardener to tend it. One version I have read named the gardener "Tagtug." He was trained to tend the garden and could eat from all of its plants except possibly one. Some key lines are unclear, so the last point is uncertain, but scholars say it fits in with a discussion of the garden's plants and Tagtug's duties. The story later indicated that Tagtug was cursed for some reason--perhaps he ate the plant or perhaps he was the victim of divine jealousy--but in any case, he was expelled from this Sumerian paradise and became a mortal. Later, the gods made eight assistants for him, each of whom had some specialty.

Scholars point out that, according to Genesis 4:17-22, Cain had eight descendants, several of whom were associated with specific crafts: Tubalcain with bronze and iron tools; Jubal, the first musician; and Jabal, the first herdsman. The father of these three was Lamech, the great-great-great grandson of Cain. Scholars say that "Lamech" was a Sumerian name, a title of the god Enki, who was the patron of singers as well as Tagtug's father. (The names of the eight assistants of Tagtug are not said to be related to the names of Cain's eight descendants.) So at least part of the second Genesis creation story was derived from much older Sumerian stories. But where did that talking snake come from?

All across the Middle East, snakes were associated with the worship of goddesses, usually the "Queen of Heaven" under her various names, such as Inanna (Sumerian) and Ishtar (Semitic). The "Queen of Heaven" could have many powers, including love, sex, the fertility of life, healing miracles, and control over life and death. These goddesses were also shown nude sometimes, in association with a fruit tree and snakes.

It doesn't take much imagination to see that the story of Adam and Eve could be an attack on goddess worship. To an ancient Israelite, the story had nothing to do with "original sin," and the snake was not "Satan." The story was traditionally interpreted to explain how death and the hardships of life came into the original paradise. So the story also could be seen as showing that, when the first man obeyed the chief goddess--a naked woman with a snake and a magic fruit tree--the chief god cursed him.

This would be a purely speculative interpretation except for two things. First, the ancient Israelites worshiped a goddess named Asherah as the wife of their high god, Yahweh, and other goddesses. In The Hebrew Goddess, Raphael Patai sorts the evidence in the Jewish scriptures to show that the Israelites worshiped Asherah along with Yahweh in the first Jerusalem Temple for at least 236 years of its 370-year existence between the 10th and 6th centuries B. C.

That goddess worship was popular among most Israelites is shown by the complaints of Jeremiah and Ezekiel about the people's ritual observances, which included a form of sacrament involving cakes and wine. The goddess worshiped may have been Asherah or Anath (Patai's guess). In Jeremiah 44: 15-19, the women of Israel specifically blame their nation's troubles on the failure to observe the rituals of the queen of Heaven:

In Ezekiel 8:14, the women were "weeping for Tammuz" at the gate to Yahweh's house. In Mesopotamian belief, Tammuz was the husband of Ishtar, who once spent three days in death, hanging on a wooden stake or wall-peg in the underworld, before being resurrected. She then ascended to the earth's surface, where she appeared to various people and finally to her husband. He then took her place in the underworld for part of the year, while she ascended to her home in the sky. (Something about this story sounds very familiar, but I can't quite place it.) Goddess worshipers--including the Israelites-- annually mourned Tammuz's temporary death.

Patai and other scholars add that inscriptions have been found in several places in and near Israel that refer to "Yahweh and his Asherah." The scriptural claims that radicals repeatedly cleansed ancient Israel or Judea of idols, shrines, etc., to the goddesses are considered to be exaggerated if not flat-out fictions invented much later, after monotheistic Judaism was developed following the 6th-century B. C. E. return from the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had always been polytheists, although the Yahweh cult was considered the royal cult and thereby the state cult. The propaganda against Baal and Asherah was written after Yahweh worship developed either into a fanatical cult or a very greedy one that wanted all religious revenues for itself.

The second piece of evidence and the clincher to this argument is that an iron-age inscription gives Eve (Hawwah) as one name of the goddess Elat, which in turn is one of the names of Asherah, and ancient art shows a Canaanite goddess named Qudsu, yet another name for Asherah, as naked and associated with snakes and lotus plants (in Egypt).

So some Yahweh-only propagandist took an original creation story about the first man's being expelled from a divine garden and inserted a venomous attack on goddess worship. ("Don't give your donations to anyone but me and my god.") After monotheism was established in Judea, and the Israelites' polytheistic past was obscured and forgotten, people no longer knew that the story was simply anti-goddess propaganda that had slithered onto the scene and instead took it as proof that women were responsible for the world's problems.

Ultimately, the snake-Eve story both created and nurtured a vicious misogyny in Bible-based civilization, one that patriarchal versions of Christianity still implicitly endorse with their male-only clergy. It's long overdue for civilized people to tell Bible-worshipers to hiss off and take that talking-snake fable with them.

(William Sierichs, Jr., 316 Apartment Court Drive, Apt. 44, Baton Rouge, LA 70806)
 



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