I’m finishing up my course, Intensive Biblical Hebrew. The book I use (Allen Ross, Introduction to Biblical Hebrew) gives students the chance to read real biblical Hebrew in its final chapters. It takes them through chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis, and the verses in which the snake is cursed by God (3:14 and 3:15) prompted a student to ask: “Why is the Bible telling us about why snakes slither on the ground and why snakes and humans don’t get along? There surely must be something more going on here.” The student had a point, I thought. We have just been given a narrative about the origin of our shame at being naked, the very basis of our sexuality, and our becoming “like God (or like gods) knowing good and evil.” Why are we now being told a “just-so” story about snakes like the one Kipling tells about “how the leopard got his spots”? Is this just an intrusion of a folk tale or a piece of folk wisdom (snakes and humans are natural enemies) into the narrative, or can we somehow understand the human-snake relationship as constitutive of the human condition, at the same level as shame, and maybe somehow related to shame?
The student’s question reminded me of something I had just read in the New York Times about a recent discovery of 91 special neurons in the pulvinar region of the primate brain that are, evidence suggests, uniquely set up to detect snakes. The pulvinar receives messages from the eyes, and these 91 supplemental neurons in the primate pulvinar fire only when pictures of snakes are presented to monkeys in an experimental setting. (Actually, the experiments are ongoing to determine if other predator images may elicit responses from these neurons, but for the moment we can be sure that snake pictures do.) Other earlier experiments showed that snake detection by primates occurs even when the primate has never seen a snake. The researcher who discovered the supplemental pulvinar neurons, Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at UC Davis, has argued in a 2007 book that “the vision of primates became much more powerful so that they could detect snakes lurking in the foliage” of the trees in which they spent most of their time.
So, back to Genesis. If we can say that “seeing snakes” requires the ability to distinguish the shape of an animal that conceals itself by appearing to be a branch in a tangle of leaves colored like it is colored, we can say that seeing snakes is the skill of an animal that understands dissimulation and is capable of disambiguating appearance from reality. The snake is represented in the bible as the dissimulator par excellence. In an article I wrote about nakedness, revelation, and incest (which is described as “revealing the nakedness of …”) in the bible, I argued that the snake’s capacity for duplicity is shown in the fact that he has a skin that covers his skin, in other words, a nakedness to conceal his nakedness. The duplicity of the snake is reflected in the word play in the verse where he is first introduced as “the most subtile of all the creatures of the field” (3:1). The word “subtile” is aroom (ayin, resh, waw, mem; except for the waw, all the letters are part of the root of the adjective). In the immediately preceding verse, the human pair are described as “naked and not ashamed.” The word “naked” is aroomim (ayin, resh, waw, mem, followed by the plural suffix “im”; for this word, only ayin, resh, and waw are root letters). Now while these two words are really different, they appear exactly alike in both verses, with their difference only being that one is a plural form and the other a singular form. The word play reveals the identity of the snake: ambiguously naked and therefore capable of deception, subtile. Snakiness is a matter of self-concealment. It takes not only normal vision to disambiguate the snake’s deceptive trickiness, it takes a capacity to read between the lines, or better: to read two lines together and see the word play. Being blind to the snake means that you will be taken in by appearances. After eating the tree of good and evil, the human pair’s “eyes were opened.” Now they saw each other differently, and they saw themselves through the eyes of the other: the simplicity of the body is now caught in the objectifying gaze of the other. Shame results. The question that arises when the human pair (with supplemented pulvinars) learns how to detect deception as a strategy of a predator is this: will I in turn make ambush (attack at the heel from behind) my mode of existence, or will I face the other and “cover” his/her nakedness with mine, so that our two skins become a source of mutual protection?
Friend/enemy: The snake and the human are “enemies,” says the bible. Why? Because, as the poet Theodor Daübler says, “The enemy is oneself in the shape of a question” (unsre eigene Gestalt als Frage). The snake is the human in the shape of a question: use duplicity as an opportunity for seducing/tricking the other or for being open to the other (because only a self-concealing being can be “open”).
The friend/enemy question is posed precisely by the figure whose name is derived from “heel” in Hebrew: Jacob. Jacob is “Snake-Man,” therefore: his strategies for prevailing are those of the ambusher. Except when he is “doubled” at the river “Jabok” and wrestles with “a god.” “I have seen god face-to-face,” he declares. The next day, he faces his brother and extends his hand with a gift. “Hand” and “face” and “gift’ are the repeated key words in that narrative.
And now recall the trick that Jacob plays on his blind father against his brother: putting one skin over his own to seem to be his brother.
Israel, then, becomes the human in the shape of a question, posed to itself: Is my blessing acquired by reversion to the strategy of the snake or the non-strategy of the gift of/to the face? Israel/Snake is the condition of possibility of blessing. And that is our curse.