These verses transition into what became, in the text’s Christian afterlife, one of the most important passages of Genesis: the curses and consequences. But to begin with, let’s look at them apart from their Pauline afterlife and see what they have to say on their own.
The curses are rendered in verse, as was Adam’s rhapsody on the creation of the woman. Here the Lord is not rhapsodizing but cursing; nevertheless the verse form has the effect of setting apart, lending emphasis to what follows. It moves the Lord’s voice into a new register, to take up again the notion of heteroglossia. Yahweh’s voice has always been authoritative, but heretofore it has been an oddly improvisatory, limited, negotiated authority: Yahweh failed comically in his early attempts at creating a companion for the human, his instructions are flouted by his own creatures, and the limits of his knowledge are highlighted by his questioning of Adam and Eve.
At the beginning of verse 14, however, Yahweh begins to speak with a new formality, gravity and design, qualities lent to his discourse by the verse form. The absent King has returned to restore order to a world upside down, but true to the logic of carnival the re-ordered world is changed and enriched by the powerful creative chaos that temporarily reigned. The trickster serpent introduced figurative speech, dialogue, dramatic irony and trope into the garden, and this new richness and energy of language is incorporated into Yahweh’s discourse, even as it reasserts authority. In his lines directed at the serpent we find metaphor (“dust shall you eat,” “seed”), metonymy (“boot” and “heel,” in Alter’s translation), contrast, image – a new richness of language and expression.
What of the curse itself? There appear to be two parts: the serpent will now move on his belly, debased in relation to other creatures and despised by them; and there will be special enmity set between the serpent and the woman. Why does Yahweh specify that the woman will be particularly alienated from the serpent? It was the woman who engaged verbally with the serpent, who was open to dialogue and persuasion, who learned from the serpent desire and possession. So perhaps the curse recognizes and condemns that particular connection between the serpent and the woman.
But perhaps this curse also finalizes and formalizes humanity’s definitive split from the animal world. (What follows owes a lot to Alter’s note on this point.) Until this point, the woman was a sibling of the serpent and all the other beasts, who were after all created in the attempt to make a suitable companion for the man. The woman was just the last, best attempt. I’m reminded again of cave paintings and myths that depict strange human-animal hybrids, as if early hominids could sense evolution occurring as they split off and differentiated from the beasts. Here, in Yahweh’s curse, we see at last a definitive boundary between “civilized” humans — who use technologies, wear clothing, experience self-consciousness and shame – and beasts. I suppose this is the primal moment of “Othering”, the first instance of humanity’s alienation from “nature.”
It should be noted that this text is key in Paul’s formulation of Christianity. (I’m assuming so, anyway – I’m not an expert in this. Help in the comments would be appreciated.) I understand “it [the serpent] shall bruise thy head, and thou [humanity, or the seed of Eve, or Christ] shalt bruise his heel” to have been interpreted as a type of Jesus’s victory over Satan, death and sin. As we’ve talked about before, that interpretation isn’t privileged by the text itself, but it has undeniably been centrally formative to historical Christianity.
Let’s jump into discussion.