The other evening, my fifteen-month-old niece Elanor gave utterance to her first distinct, undeniable series of English words. They were animal sounds.
I had already gone down to my own house, worn out from a day of visiting, so what follows is based on my parents’ account. Elanor loves books – all books, even the ones without pictures – and as the adults talked, it seemed nothing out of the ordinary for her to sit on the couch with one of her favorite books on her lap, slowly turning the pages. It was a picture book for small children called Animal Sounds, which has foldout, cardboard pages, and for novelty’s sake, apparently, she was looking at it upside-down. Her grandpa was the first to notice that Elanor was imitating his pronunciations of the onomatopoeia in a low voice. “Ribbet! Ribbet!” she said as she looked at the upside-down frog. Then she turned the page to the lion cub. “GrrrrrrOWL!”
Dad signaled Mom and Steve to shut up and watch. It was no fluke. “Squawk! Squawk!” said the parrot. Another turn and unfolding of the complicated pages, and the baby elephant was clearly saying “Baroooo!”
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of each kind, cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of each kind.” And so it was. And God made wild beasts of each kind and cattle of each kind and all crawling things on the ground of each kind, and God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness, to hold sway over the fish of the sea and the fowl of the heavens and the cattle and the wild beasts and all the crawling things that crawl upon the earth.”
And God created the human in his image,
in the image of God he created him,
male and female he created them.
(Robert Alter, trans.)
This is the notorious passage in Genesis leading up to God’s first commands: be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, hold sway (radah). About this last verb, Alter notes that it is “not the normal Hebrew word for ‘rule’ […] and in most of the contexts in which it occurs it seems to suggest an absolute or even fierce exercise of mastery.”
Could we ask for a more explicit expression of the kind of anthropocentrism that has fueled our current environmental malaise? And yet the passage is not without redeeming qualities. Notice, for example, that wild animals and creepy-crawlies are given equal standing with livestock. This is consistent with other parts of the Bible, such as the 104th Psalm and the last chapters of Job, which explicitly recognize the claims of untrammeled nature. One can also see some irony in the account of humanity’s separate creation. While all other earthly inhabitants were brought into being through the utterance of spells – or prayers, if you like – the human is fashioned by reference to an image, as idols are made. This is brought home by the parallel Creation myth that begins a few verses later, in which God literally fashions the man out of clay, and simultaneously gives birth to the world’s first bad pun (“‘adam, ‘human,’ from the soil, ‘adamah,” as Alter puts it).
These thoughts were sparked by an entry in a new (to me) blog called everydayandeverynight.com, by Rabbi Shai Gluskin. According to Rabbi Gluskin’s post Shade Under Sun, the word tzelim, “image” or “idol,” derives from the word for shade or shadow, tzel.
We are idols made of flesh and bone, mere shadows of God. Certainly we shouldn’t be worshiped. Though not the real thing, we do share some of God’s qualities.
Taking refuge in the shade, safe from God’s blinding light we can look up and see the canopy illuminated. This illumination is akin to our inspiration.
We can, however, forget to look up. We may, like Adam, delude ourselves into thinking we can hide from God. The shadow then is no longer a protector from God’s blinding light, but a vice to run away [into].
I like the way Rabbi Gluskin grounds his interpretation in the arboreal imagery of spring. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, trees are explicitly recognized as a potential focus of idolatry, reflecting the historical competition of the Yahwist cult with the cult of the Asherim. In fact, in the second chapter of Genesis, the humans’ first openly idolatrous behavior is toward a tree.
Let’s step back a few verses, though. In the first Creation account, as I mentioned, non-human animals are not shaped, but merely spoken into being. Given the primacy accorded to mindful prayer in Jewish tradition, wouldn’t this actually threaten to raise their ontological status above that of humans? Perhaps the original compilers of the Bible thought so, too, because in the second story, we see the order of (male) human and animal creation reversed – and this time, God fashions all creatures from the soil, and subcontracts out to Adam the job of giving them names.
But were these creatures, too, fashioned after pre-existing prototypes – are they “made in the image of God”? If God works the way a sculptor does, shouldn’t we expect him to project some element of his own identity into his work, like any artist?
Of course, it would be absurd to accuse God Himself of idolatry. But he does seem to be actively encouraging Adam’s own tendencies in that direction, fashioning the animals one by one not only “to see what he would call it,” but also to see if any of them would appeal to him as a “sustainer.” When none seem to fit the bill, the female human is created while the male sleeps, almost like a sexual fantasy given flesh. The stage is set for idolatry, loss of innocence, fear and exile. Alter says,
The Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo (King James Version “help meet”) is notoriously difficult to translate. The second term means “alongside him,” “a counterpart to him.” “Help” is too weak because it suggests a merely auxiliary function, whereas ‘ezer elsewhere connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts, as often in Psalms.
But the Psalms are directed toward God, are they not? Did the authors of this myth mean to suggest that in his yearning for a flesh-and-bone sustainer, Adam was already drawing away from God? His first recorded utterance is no psalm, but an impassioned poem to the woman – a naming-poem, a spell.
The language used for Eve’s creation, says Alter, is architectural rather than sculptural: the verb means “to build” rather than “to shape,” and “the Hebrew for ‘rib,’ tsela’, is also used elsewhere to designate an architectural element.” (This imagery helps set the stage for the Tower of Babel story, perhaps. Or at least suggests that we should see the Tower as anthropomorphic, if not theomorphic.) The idolatrous impulse here is quickly realized with the entrance of the first non-human animal a few verses later. No sooner have we been told that the man and woman “become one flesh” and that “the two of them were naked … and they were not ashamed,” then the serpent appears to set them against each other. And the main descriptor used for the serpent, ‘arum, “cunning,” is a play on ‘arumim, “naked.”
Thus, guided by the active intervention of one of the animals Adam named, Eve “saw that the tree was good for eating and that it was lust to the eyes and the tree was lovely to look at, and she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave to her man, and he ate.” The word translated as “lust” will appear often in the exhortations of the prophets, for whom lust and idolatry seem to have been closely linked.
Eve’s first act is to look for her own ‘ezer kenegdo, it seems. Forget for a moment the millennia of moralistic and sexist interpretations based on the premise that the rightful place for righteous humans is back in some otherworldly version of that paradise. Forget the quintessentially priestly assumption that ignorance – unthinking obedience – is bliss. What the Genesis Creation stories really suggest is that rebellion is somehow intrinsic to created beings. A thing is no sooner named, fashioned, or dreamed up – a child is no sooner birthed – than it acquires its own personality, as every artist or parent knows. Self becomes Other, and Other then returns to open the eyes of the Self. The pivotal importance of the serpent in the Genesis story (the devil is nowhere in sight) almost bridges the gap between this and other tribal Creation myths, where animal tricksters also play central roles. By the time we get to Abraham and Sarah – let alone Jacob, Job and the Prophets – we find human beings capable of telling God a thing or two.
What could we possibly know that an omniscient God does not? Humility: the dawning recognition that we are not, in fact, the center of the universe. A sense of wonder. Without some measure of selflessness, is true empathy possible? The infant, godlike in her egotism, can hardly begin to imagine herself as another being; her squawks and chirps and cries are solely her own. Only with the growth of other-consciousness can she become capable of the imagination necessary for anthropomorphizing empathy. If – as eco-philosopher Paul Shepard asserted – it is the animals that made us human, could we not also say without any impiety that it is humans who taught a violent and amoral god how to be Good?
UPDATE: Steve tells me that Elanor had actually been saying “Woof, woof!” now and then for a month or so, and that the evening before her “reading” of the animal sounds book, she had added a second element to her vocabulary: “Tickle, tickle!” Make of that what you will.
Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).