Arum: A Study in Genesis 2:7 — 3:24

by David Hawkinson

It is a witness to the extraordinary art of the biblical author that such a profound event is told with such simplicity. Our tendency has been to obscure this with all sorts of assumptions that intrude into the narrative in the form of demons, apples, prophecies and motives all of which are set to the doctrinal music of what has been labeled, The Fall.

So let us return to the story in its simplicity, through which we are given the finest description of ourselves as human beings. Abraham Joshua Heschel called this the beginning of a divine anthropology: a view of ourselves from God's perspective, which he argued was really the central concern of the biblical author. To read this story carefully is to find ourselves fully revealed to ourselves "and cannot express it otherwise than as something revealed". (Buber, supplement to Eclipse of God, 1952). The story has few actors and little dialogue. A man, a woman, a snake and God.

The story goes:

2:25 Now the two of them, the human and his wife, were nude, yet they were not ashamed.

3:1 Now the snake was more shrewd than all the living things of the field that YHWH, God, had made. It said to the woman: Even though God said; You are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden...!

2 The woman said to the snake: From the fruit of the other trees in the garden we may eat.

3 but from the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God has said: You are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it, lest you die.

4 The snake said to the woman: Die, you will not die!

5 Rather, God knows that on the day that you from it, your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods, knowing good and evil.

6 The woman saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desireable to contemplate. She took from its fruit and ate and gave also to her husband beside her, and he ate.

7 The eyes of the two of them were opened they knew then that they were nude. They sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8 Now they heard the sound of YHWH, God, who walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day. And the human and his wife hid themselves from the face of YHWH, God, amid the trees of the garden.

9 YHWH, God, called to the human and said to him: Where are you?

10 He said: I heard the sound of you in the garden and I was afraid, because I am nude, so I hid myself.

11 He said: Who told you that you are nude? From the tree about which I commanded you not to eat, have you eaten?

12 The human said: The woman whom you gave to be beside me, she gave me from the tree and so I ate.

13 YHWH, God, said to the woman: What is this that you have done? The Woman said: The snake enticed me, and so I ate.

(translation In the Beginning, Everett Fox, Schocken Books)

The story itself is beguiling. Its simplicity, seducing us to believe it to be harmless, carefully takes us through an inward journey until we come face to face with our true nature. But simplicity should not be mistaken for simpleness. Though not on the surface, the complexities and mystery of our human situation are present if we pause here and there, look between the words and explore the action of these characters.

I would like to follow one path into this story, by reflecting upon a single word as it is found and used in the hebrew text. We see it for the first time in verse 25: Now the two of them, the human and his wife, were nude, and yet they were not ashamed. The word for 'nude' or 'naked' is arum. The second time we find the word used is in verse 1 of chapter 3: Now the snake was more shrewd than all the living-things of the field that YHWH, God, had made. Here arum is translated by the word 'shrewd' or literally the most arum of all the living things of the field.

We miss this in translation by assigning different meanings to the same word, whether for theological reasons or simply because it has been the conventional reading. Still, the hebrew uses the same word to describe both human beings and the snake. Whatever their differences, they have something in common they are both arum. This is a classic word play, since arum can mean either naked or shrewd. Thus the humans can be shrewd and not ashamed, or naked and not ashamed. Similarly, the serpent can be shrewd or the most naked, a fitting description since of all creatures, the snake continually sheds its skin. Read the text again, Just time using the word arum when you read shrewd or naked.

Let us follow the course of the word arum through the story:

  • the humans are arum but are not ashamed.
  • the serpent is very arum, but with no mention of shame.
  • then, their eyes were opened and they knew that they were arum.
  • They sew fig leaves together (to hide?)
  • God walks in the garden looking and calling.
  • The human replies, "I was afraid because I am arum" (note: the human is not a shamed, but frightened)
  • God said, "who told you that you were arum"... and the man blames the woman and she blames the serpent.

It is a common practice of biblical writers to repeat words or phrases in order to highlight or focus on primary themes. That we return again and again to this word, suggests that a central concern of the story revolves around this issue of being arum, and what happens when people discover this about themselves.

The humans are arum before eating the fruit but are not ashamed. After their eyes are open, they know that they are arum and are frightened to the point of hiding and displacing blame. They discover this through the arumness of another inhabitant of the garden, who perhaps is drawn to the same quality he sees in them, but of which they are unaware. Is it because they are arum and unaware of it that compels the serpent to their side? If not, why can't it leave them alone? The aim of the seduction is to get them to open their eyes and to look upon themselves as they are. What's in it for the snake? Does its action have something to do with being arum itself?

Notice how few words are used to accomplish its objective. The woman, once engaged in casual conversation really talks herself into eating as if the humans have already been considering it. Rabbinic thinkers suggest this possibility in the way she extends the prohibition to even touching the fruit — not a part of the original command. They seem to have been curious about this thing which they have been forbidden to do. Is this also what people do when they are arum? It is not necessary to assume sinister motives. We wait and watch as she stands looking at the tree, contemplating its succulent beauty, drawing closer until she holds it. Nothing apparently happens. The eating is almost anti-climatic, suggesting that since they didn't die after touching it, the serpent must be right concerning its actual eating. They might become "like gods knowing good and evil".

The new information which follows, however, does not have this intended effect. They do not become like gods. Seeing themselves as they are brings fear and an immediate need to deny what they have discovered by covering up their arumness from each other and hiding from God. What are they afraid of? Is it that others will now see what they know about themselves — that they are arum? And what will happen if others have that knowledge? Will they be accepted, or will it mean rejection?

Certainly being arum and knowing it has disrupted life in the garden. Human beings no longer think of themselves in the same way and so do not know how to relate to each other or to God. They are not different than they were 'in the beginning', except that seeing themselves with open eyes fills them with fear and the compulsive drive to hide and deny their arumness. Yet, how arum, 'shrewd', of man to displace blame on both God and the woman (note: "the woman you gave me"). How arum of woman to displace blame to the serpent. Ironically, in their attempt to deny and hide what they have seen in themselves, they become transparent to all of us. Even more, we recognize what they are doing. We are revealed to ourselves!

In these few verses is played the dominant theme, awaiting only the variations and implications, as the awareness and denial of being arum moves from a relationship between two persons into family systems and societies. Each step from the garden is but a variation on this theme, however horrible the consequences become — from murder between brothers, to an earth "filled with violence" (Gen. 6:ll), provoking God to its near destruction. Although this progression seems inevitable, we must keep ourselves from seeing these consequences as a prescriptive view of human history, as if human beings are the victims of some dark and unseen force invading us from the outside, whether of demonic origin or cold and disinterested fate. Rather, the story of the garden is one of superb descriptive force. We recognize this world as it is because this is the way people, who are arum, act. We cannot disentangle ourselves from our participation in the world as we have made it by seeing ourselves as it.

It is toward this dominant theme that God now acts, exiling humans from the garden as a blessing, in order to keep them from immortality. (Note: keeping them from the Tree of Life lies outside the curses of vss. 1419,) Death in this sense is not the curse, but a gift from a gracious God who, having just made new garments for his frightened creation, understands that without limits placed upon their lives, being arum would be more intolerable than it already was. Imagine an eternity of toil and pain and estrangement described in verses 14-19. Thus, we see God already conceding to the theme. Adjusting to this new situation. There is already, in the beginning, a hint toward the second dominant theme of the biblical landscape — deliverance and restoration. But it originates in the open eyed acknowledgment of the fact of human arumness and the turbulence which follows that knowledge. This movement toward concession culminates in the covenant. First with Noah and more decisively with Abraham. Through him and his seed humanity will find blessing. This unique covenant relationship begins from the assumption that people are arum, evident in the manipulation and deception within the very family that is supposed to be a blessing. The covenant — this rich mixture of tradition, experience, ritual, story and law makes it possible to live in community and is above all a gracious gesture toward human weakness. It proves itself time and again in the narrative of the biblical epic and in our own lives. Within its borders we come to trust, no longer fearing others discovering who we are, or needing to expend the enormous energy necessary for denial. The covenant concedes it!

When I sit in a pew next to you on Sunday morning I am transparent as Adam and so are you. The journey into Lent, the passion of Jesus, highlights this reality. In fact, we are sitting in the same pew because our eyes have been opened and we have grown weary of denying and displacing blame for our humanness. This covenant, flowing from the fullness of God's love, allows for us to be as it was 'in the beginning': now the two of them were arum, yet they were not ashamed, neither were they frightened.

David Hawkinson is a teacher of Bible, editor of Pietisten, and Pastor of Covenant Community Church, Jericho, Vermont.

See all articles by David Hawkinson