Shrewdaic Studies

Serpent and Eve 1Stained whiteboards. Walls pained yellow or sickly green. Scraped up floors and gray windowpanes. The smell of sweat and the after-odor of Chik-fil-A.

It’s my classroom, the classroom I’ve inhabited for decades, in various states and a number of universities. The most amazing things happen in that worn space, that aging, decaying structure. It’s divine.

Last week, in my class “God and Sex in Hebrew Bible,” I told my students that there is a pun going on in Genesis 3.

“The serpent is arum,” I said, “usually translated as ‘shrewd.’ But arum can also mean ‘nude.’ Adam and Eve are described as arumim after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Are they nude or shrewd?”

Discussion ensued. A student raised a hand:

“If the serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals, if he had so much knowledge he even knew what God would or would not do if they ate, why wasn’t he punished for that?” the student asks. “Why is he only punished after he passed knowledge on to Adam and Eve?”

“Snap!” another student said. “Snap, snap, snap,” the student continued, with finger-fomented percussion.

A contribution from another quarter: “Is that whole scene between the serpent and Eve sexual? Is eating the fruit meant to symbolize a sexual act?”

I took the opportunity to tell the class that there is a midrash that claims the serpent saw Adam and Eve having sex and immediately craved a little nookie for himself (Bereishit Rabbah 18:10). The student, in turn, speculated that the sharing of the fruit with Adam might be another sexually charged act.

“I always knew the world began with a threesome,” the student said.

We all laughed.

In my classroom, my students are asked (not just permitted) to treat the text as a site for multiple possibilities, multiple interpretations. They do have to argue from the text, from what they have learned about its authors and the culture it comes from, but they are free to be creative, to speculate. We try to avoid retrojecting our assumptions; modern ideas do not generate ancient agendas. Ancient Israelites had no acquaintance with the Devil, with the capital D.

YHVH is a character in a narrative in our classroom setting. The texts we study are not the word of God but a human product. Whatever they once thought was “the original” is a product. Luck may have played a role in its transmission; certainly human choice did. The Book of Yashar once was on the best-seller list for ancient Judeans; it fell out of favor, disappeared, or was, at some point, dropped from the list of “must-reads” for later generations.

We know of a short version of Jeremiah and a long one. One is found in the Septuagint, the other in the Masoretic Text. How will my students decide which is “better” or “more important”? Why didn’t the Book of Jubilees make the cut for our canons? How about the Book of Enoch?

Once they get over all the shock value, they begin to realize: what we have of biblical literature extends far beyond any bible. It is a rich, vast corpus.

Take away the blackboards and whiteboards and smelly leftovers from fast food joints. Imagine a small sanctuary with windows looking out towards the naked, gray branches of wintering trees.

I am in conversation with congregants. YHVH is not just a character for most of us, but our questions and our freedom to ask them is equally untrammeled. Jewish tradition has enshrined the right to treat our texts as earthly products. The humanness of the authors and their characters is not just appreciated but valorized. Torah, we believe, is accessible, human, altogether ours. It is not too baffling for us to understand; it is not unreachable or incomprehensible (Deut. 30:11-13).

In any setting, I am nourished by this fact: These texts ask us to think. About ourselves, about our world, about all that is human and (perhaps) divine, too.

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