Melvin: Divine Knowledge was Sexual Knowledge
The Eden Story and the Demythologization of the Rise of Civilization
“I would now like to propose that the conspicuous absence of divine mediation of civilization from Genesis 1–11, in light of its prominence in Mesopotamian literature, may be explained with reference to the tradition of the origin of evil found in Genesis 3.
Here the reception of forbidden knowledge by the first human couple leads not only to their becoming “god-like” but also to their fall into a corrupt, sinful state and expulsion from paradise. Genesis 4–11 then portrays the long-term consequences of the at least partially-successful attempt by Adam and Eve to obtain divinity by procuring this knowledge.
Included among these consequences are not only obvious examples of sin (murder, violence, etc.) but also the rise of civilization. The implication is that civilization too is an outgrowth of the forbidden knowledge obtained by Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.
The dialogue between the woman and the serpent, her eating of the fruit, and her giving of the fruit to her husband turn upon two primary points. First, the fruit of the tree is associated with knowledge of some sort.
Second, the serpent responds to the woman’s statement that Yahweh has forbidden them to eat from the tree in the center of the garden by saying that if she eats of the fruit of this tree, she will become like a god, which the woman presumably desires since she decides to eat the fruit. Thus, there is an implicit connection between knowledge and divinity in Genesis 3.
A number of possible understandings of the “knowledge” השכיל which results from eating the fruit present themselves. Gunkel understands the “knowledge” to be primarily, though not exclusively, sexual awareness.
Thus, before eating the fruit, the primeval couple is not aware of their nakedness, suggesting that they likewise did not engage in sexual intercourse prior to this moment, and may possibly have been unaware of the difference between their sexes.
(Gunkel, Genesis, pp. 14–15. So also Speiser, Genesis, pp. 26–27; Jarich Oosten, “The Origins of Society in the Creation Myths of Genesis: An Anthropological Perspective,” Nederlands theologisch tijdschrift 52 (1998), pp. 116–17.)
The significance of such a motif in the Paradise episode would suggest that humanity’s attainment of this “knowledge” forms a necessary step in their becoming fully human (cf. the “humanizing” of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh).
While the awareness of nudity, making of clothing, and sexual activity which follow the eating of the fruit do support this interpretation, a number of other elements weigh against it.
The objects טוב and רע in Genesis 3:5 make little sense in relation to sexual awareness, even if one understands them (correctly) not as moral terms but as referring to that which is helpful or harmful for humanity.
(While Genesis 1 and 9:1–17 are both P texts, Genesis 2–3 belongs to JE according to the classical Documentary hypothesis, and thus it is possible that they had different views on sexuality and reproduction, the positive view of human fruitfulness in the final form of Genesis 1–11 rules out Gunkel’s interpretation for the present form of the Paradise episode in its literary context.)”
David P. Melvin, “Divine Mediation and the Rise of Civilization in Mesopotamian Literature and in Genesis 1-11,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, 2010, pp. 12-3.