Patterns of Corruption in Genesis

Though the fall of Adam and Eve is the most well known story of descent in Genesis, both biblical Genesis and the Old English interpretation are full of backend stories about the biblical forefathers making a couple mistakes and seeming much less likable or heroic than who they were when they were first introduced. Lot turns from a favored nephew to a confused old man manipulated by his daughters, and both Isaac and Jacob go from sons chosen by God to fathers who sow argument and dissent between their sons. Noah also has a confusing second story attributed to him in both Bible and Old English poem. From the start of the story, Noah is portrayed differently in each text, in the Old English translation he is introduced as “good, loved by the Savior, very blessed, righteous and worthy” (93). In the Bible he is given a few qualifiers, he is described as “נח איש צדיק תמים היה בדורותיו” (Genesis 6:9) which translates to “Noah is a righteous man, innocent in his generation”. While Old English Noah is a prince, and seemingly a great man, biblical Noah is good mainly because of the lack of positive attributes given to those around him. After the flood, when Noah becomes a viner, in the bible he “וישת מן היין וישכר ויתגל באהלה” (Genesis 9:21) translated as “he drank from the wine and became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent”, whereas in the poem “the blessed man got drunk on wine in his dwelling and slept weary with feasting, and pushed the covering from his body” (111-112). The biblical text seems almost forcefully neutral, if not a little negative, he uncovers himself as a result of his own actions, and there seems to be some slight judgement implicit in his loss of control. In the poem he is immediately still portrayed as “blessed”, his drinking seems more acceptable, and his nakedness is coincidental, a movement in his sleep that could have happened to anyone. Though the bible remains neutral, the poem still allows Noah his holiness even after his main, and more heroic, story is over. This is almost the opposite of the two portrayals of Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, where in the Bible they are cast from the garden, but in the poem their punishment and shame is elongated by page after page. I’m sort of unclear how to understand the difference, or why it comes about, but it’s almost comforting to have a story of a man retaining his blessedness when much of the poem seems to imply the inevitable fall from grace and lack of favor of humanity. Sarah

Images of fruit, orchards, branches, and leaves dapple Genesis A and B. Initially, fruit appears as a bounty, a symbol of plenty. God instructs Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply […] and enjoy fruitful days and the sea’s bounty and the birds of heaven” (17). The narrator describes God’s creation of the universe as “a fruitful moment […] Then our maker looked on the beauty of his work and the glory of his fruits and new creations” (17). To be fruitful is to please God. The consistent use of “fruitful” both foreshadows Adam and Eve’s fall and draws a direct connection between fruit and faith. The poem splits with the traditional translation of Genesis and describes two trees: a bountiful tree of life and a sinister tree of death. The introduction of two trees creates a direct choice for Adam and Eve: “they stood between two trees that were laden all over with fruit, covered with produce, just as the ruler God, high king go heaven, had planted with his hands, so that the children of men could choose good or evil there, each person, prosperity or woe. The fruit was not alike! One was so joyous, beautiful and bright, gracious and praiseworthy- that was the tree of life; he who bit into that fruit could live ever after, remaining in the world into eternity […] But the other was completely black, dim and dark; that was the tree of death, which bore much that was bitter” (37-39). Rather than plucking fruit from the alluring tree of knowledge, Eve accepts fruit from the corrupted tree of death. In this version of the poem, Eve doesn’t slip into temptation— the serpent tricks Eve. She appears to remain passive, following the serpent’s instructions and believing herself faithful. The presentation of the two trees, however, complicates this notion. Eve has a clear choice. Though she chooses the tree of death, she makes that choice- she expresses agency. From this point on in the poem, trees, fruits, and fruitful possess a dual meaning. Though before used exclusively to refer to ease, plenty, and faith to God, these phrases gain the ability to reference corruption or despair. When Cain murders Abel, the poem describes how “malignant and cruel fruit grew from that shoot— the longer the more vigorous. The branches of that enmity reached distantly throughout the nations of men, harmful offshoots struck the children of men sorely and hard— they still do— and from those fat fruits each and every blight began to sprout” (75-77). Fruit becomes the agent of corruption and blight, spreading discord across the world. The tree of death has transformed fruit from a beacon of God’s favor into an emblem of humanity’s folly and violence. Nevertheless, the tree has not fully transformed into a symbol of death. In the story of Noah’s ark, a dove “[brings] the sailor a single twig on an olive tree, a green shoot” (107). After the regeneration of the world, the tree branch gains a new meaning. Rather than representing unchanging abundance or destructive pride, the tree branch becomes the symbol of hope and new life. Three identities, for three trees- the tree of life, the tree of death, and the tree of knowledge. Nathalie

Symbolically, the imagery of trees and fruit is closely linked to fertility – the creation of new life. Thus, the very image of a “tree of death” is somewhat ironic. This strange and ominous association of fertility with death is echoed in the punishment for original sin – God curses Eve to bring forth children “in weeping and lamentation” (Genesis A 921). The blessing of fruitfulness bestowed upon the original human beings in paradise is turned into a painful, and in a premodern context often fatal, curse. Adam also suffers from this post-lapsarian distortion of fertility, as his punishment is that he must “toil and provide [his] own nourishment on the earth” (Genesis A 934-5). In other words, the earth will no longer bring forth life without human exertion, but will only do so with hard work. The overall effect of man’s punishment is to turn earthly fruitfulness into a curse. Thus, “the tree of death” is a particularly potent symbol of the fall of man through sin. Gwyneth


Anlezark, Daniel, ed. and trans. Old Testament Narratives. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.

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