Doubt, Religion, and Knowledge

In Night, Elie Wiesel’s haunting memoir of the Holocaust, Wiesel reflects on time spent with Moishe the Beadle with whom he discussed the deep things of Jewish spiritual inquiry. In his conversations with Moishe, we are told, “He [Moishe] explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer . . .” (Wiesel 2006: 4–5). Having read this book with my students many times now, I have always found this part of the narrative important for the story that Wiesel tells and for my own search for knowledge and truth. Answers inevitably mean that a given question is no longer compelling to ask. New questions often arise, but the question you started with no longer holds its potency to drive the questioner towards finding the answer. And thus, the power of the question is totally linked to the answer. In Night, one gets the sneaking suspicion that the question—perhaps I should say, The Question—is the answer. Or in other words, that in the most enduring human issues, predicaments, and trials, the questions we ask are an answer in and of themselves because they keep our attention on what is most important. For Wiesel, the question of how God could allow the Holocaust is a key motif in Night. He eschews easy answers and opts for the stance of protest. In one poignant scene, Wiesel recounts how the men he lived with in Auschwitz speculated on the reasons why God was allowing such horrible things to happen. Some said God worked in mysterious ways. Some said God was judging the Jews for their sins. Others saw it as a test of faith. Wiesel had come to a different conclusion: “As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice” (Wiesel 2006: 45). To the question of unjust suffering, Wiesel did not seek to turn to an answer that somehow got God off the hook; rather he doubts God’s justice in allowing such things to happen. Wiesel’s answer to the question, “Why does God allow suffering such as the Holocaust?” is something like, “Why in the world would God allow such suffering to take place?” And perhaps for good effect, it should be repeated several times with an ever-increasing urgency in the voice. The key is the incredulity, the unwillingness of the one who answers the initial question with another question to settle for a simple answer. This impulse seems critically important in religious life and more generally in the search for knowledge. In the face of pressures to find certainty and assurance of the things we hold most dear, it can be unsettling too. And yet, the creative tension, the power of the question as Wiesel puts it, is one of the strongest tools in our intellectual and spiritual toolkits. To embrace it is to accept that our need for certainty is less important than a long quest for understanding driven by unanswered questions.

Idealizing the Past

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this (Ecclesiastes 7:10).

Recently, as I was preparing for a class on the book of Ecclesiastes in my Introduction to the Bible course, I read this verse, which I don’t think has ever really stood out to me. This time, I was struck by it. It addresses something that many, perhaps all people, experience in their lives; they look to the past and they think that the past was somehow better. In some cases, this motivates people to try to change things back to those glory days. The author of Ecclesiastes thinks otherwise. Now I don’t think we are meant to take this as counsel against ever thinking about the past, but—as I see it—it does warn against idealizing the past as better than the present. Why?

Humans love to think about the past, individually and corporately. Sometimes we idealize it and sometimes we demonize it. However we represent it, we are shaping and being shaped by the memories we form and recast. It is common, when people find themselves in a difficult spot, to look back to their childhood, or more remote past, thinking that if they were only in that time, things would be different. On the more radical side of things, those who are afraid of the downfall of white European civilization try to get back to a more “pure” time. In either case, the impulse to idealize the past and try to recreate it is strong in our species, and it is not always a productive impulse. It can lead us down the path to self-deception, dwelling on something that never existed in the way we recreate it in our mind. Here, the author of Ecclesiastes seems to beckon us to enjoy the now, without comparing it to the past.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2 and 3

The story of the first couple in Genesis 2 and 3 is well-known and often referenced in the lives of religious communities and in culture more broadly. The text of this story is very terse and full of “pregnant silent spots,” as one of my mentors used to say. One aspect of this story that people have often thought about is the meaning of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” that God put in the Garden of Eden. There are many questions: Why did God put it there if he didn’t want the humans to eat from it? Is it still somewhere on the planet? What does “the knowledge of good and evil” mean?

On this latter question, people have come up with a number of ways of thinking about it. Some have said that this turn of phrase means “everything.” Others have suggested that eating of the forbidden fruit is a veiled reference to sex. Still others have suggested that “the knowledge of good and evil” is to be understood as a reference to moral discernment or wisdom, an attribute that distinguishes humans from the rest of the created order.

Each of these answers has something to say for it. If we think of “good and evil” as a merism—like our own phrase “from A to Z”—then what the first couple sought was knowledge that would make them like the gods. Perhaps this is what the serpent means in 3:5 and what the LORD God seems nervous about in 3:22–23 where we hear this: “‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.” God admits that the couple has become like the divine beings and is nervous about the knowledge they have, so limits their lives.

In favor of the story as a veiled reference to sex is the reality in the change of the couple’s perception. Just before the serpent approaches the woman we hear, “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:24). Immediately after, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves” (3:7). The fact that awareness and shame about their nakedness is the way the author decided to note the change, suggests that we have a story about innocence and discovery of sexuality, or perhaps a story about becoming civilized. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the wild man Humbaba is brought into the civilized world through sex with a harlot. Save that, it seems he would have remained in the wild.

These two interpretations certainly have something meaningful to say, but it is the third one that is most compelling to me. The reasons for this are several. First, is that the phrase “the knowledge of good and evil” is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to speak of moral maturity or the lack thereof. So, children (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15–16) and old people (2 Sam 19:35) don’t have the knowledge of good and evil. On the other hand, when Solomon asks God for wisdom, he says, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (1 Kgs 3:9). While there is one passage that might be understood to favor the interpretation of this phrase as a merism (2 Sam 14:17, 20), and “knowing” is used as a reference to sex (e.g., Gen 4:1), other things in this passage tilt the balances towards the idea of wisdom or discernment.

The first and most direct pointer towards this interpretation is that when the serpent is speaking to the woman, he says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4–5). Here, having open eyes is linked with being like God and knowing good and evil. But what is it to have open eyes? Were the man and woman like baby animals who come forth from their mother’s womb and don’t open their eyes for several days? Or is this a figure of speech?

In 3:6 we hear this: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” But I thought that the serpent said they would gain the knowledge of good and evil. Why did the woman think it would make her wise? And if it is wisdom that is received from eating the fruit, why would God be so unhappy about it? Doesn’t he want humans to wise?

What is meant by wisdom and the knowledge of good and evil is clarified in what happens in 3:7 after the couple has eaten the fruit. We hear that “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Wait, what does nakedness have to do with having open eyes? What does that have to do with the knowledge of good and evil or wisdom? And how in the world does that make the man and woman like God?

In Gen 2:25, just before the temptation story begins we find out that the man and woman were naked and not ashamed. Then, after they ate the fruit, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked and move quickly to cover themselves up. So, there is a set of interlocking concepts in this story: nakedness, shame, knowledge of good and evil, wisdom, open eyes, and being like God. I would argue that we are not likely to understand the meaning of these ideas if we take them individually; they are a set. In this story, where we see so many things about human life explained (marriage, fear of snakes, pain in childbearing, hard work, and strife between male and female), we should expect that this part of the story is explaining something too. Using consciousness of one’s body as the groundwork, the story explains how humans reached a sort of species wide adolescence in which they departed from the company of animals to become more like God in that they now had discernment, insight, and recognition of self. And so, God then limits humans by expelling them from the Garden and blocking the way to the Tree of Life so that they will not be able to live forever (3:22–24). God’s concern with limiting human capacity is also visible in the Tower of Babel story in Gen 11. There, God is concerned that if humans remain in one large group “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). And so God confuses their languages so that they can no longer communicate effectively and they have to split up.

While it is a little hard for some to fathom, that God would be threatened or intimidated by humans, both of these stories suggest that for some reason that was in fact the case. The moves God made to limit human abilities help explain some of the things that humans have dealt with for millennia—the problem of death and the recognition that there are many people not like my group.

If this reading is even remotely on target, it suggests that many of the questions we have about the so-called Fall of Mankind are misguided. It is not a story about how Original Sin came into the world. It is not about the Devil or Satan (who are never mentioned). It is about human mortality and the things that separate us from other creatures. In evolutionary terms, we could say that it speaks to the time when Homo Sapiens gained self-awareness.