Tales and Their Tellers 9: Adam and Eve Don’t Belong to You

One man’s quest for knowledge through the lens of children’s picture books.


9: Adam and Eve Don’t Belong to You

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

I was trolling a conversation online recently – a bad, dirty habit I have.  I’m embarrassed to be even telling you about it.  Fundamentalist Christians were debating over whether or not a television commercial for Doritos was offensive, because it depicted Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden in a satirical manner.

View it here.

You wouldn’t have believed the torrent of comments – more than 150 of them – mostly castigating the Lays corporation, talking of how offensive it all was.  Secular culture is the enemy, but God will punish those who make a mockery of them!  Less esoterically, many seemed especially offended by Eve’s scantily-clad and sultry body.

Interestingly, however, sprinkled throughout the thread, were comments like these:

“I wonder if it would be as funny if any other religion was depicted ???”

This got 10 “likes.”

“In today’s society let’s depict 2 Muslims being tempted by pork the same way and see the outcry,” came another reasoned opinion.

“Maybe next year the will make a commercial of a Muslim man beating his wife, but she’ll be cool with it cuz she has some cool ranch Doritos?!!?”

Hahahaha!!!  Or should I say, LOL?!  LOL!

But listen, seriously, I’ve got some bad news for you, Mister Fundamentalist.  You might want to sit down.  Now, I’m not one to tell you when you can or can’t get offended, that’s up to you, but the truth of the matter is, you don’t actually own Adam and Eve.

You only have them on loan from the Jews, who only share joint custody with the Muslims.  You can find the story of Adam and Eve as easily in the Qur’an as you can in the Torah.  You can find their smiling faces in a Muslim Storybook for Children as easily as you can in the latest Veggie Tales offering.

See, there’s no Us versus Them in this regard!  You’re on the same page, origin-of-the-universe-wise!  This is a good thing.  Perhaps you could even join with your Muslim brothers and sisters in solidarity against this evil Dorritos commercial!

In the realm of children’s picture books, there have been several interpretations of this classic tale of the Fall of the Human Race.  Warwick Hutton is an English writer/illustrator who specializes in myths and folklore, and I think his version of the story is a good example of the way the tale is traditionally told.

Adam and Eve (1987) is a very straightforward adaption, using the language of the King James Version of Genesis.  The first image is that of a dark stage, the blue of the waters subtly shaded in, a sliver of light just barely visible.  I’ve been reading Hutton for a while now, and had never found him to do such abstract images before.  I can’t help but wonder if this represented a challenge for him, to draw space and time before there was space and time?

As the earth takes shape and comes into form, so does the artistic rendering of same.  The next page, the sun and the moon are in the same sky, plumes of what appear to be smoke, but are perhaps meant to be billowing shadow which will eventually become night.  Or, as God puts it, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the water.”

As an aside, have you ever wondered what exactly “firmament” means in this context?  I found that its biblical use has been a whole source of scholarly contention, in which Augustine, St. Aquinas and John Calvin all joined in, because for it truly to have been a firmament, the world would have to be flat, which would be inconceivable because God, in his All-Knowingness, would surely know whether or not His Creation were flat or not and informed Moses of this before he started writing.  Well, the Copernican Revolution in the 16th Century had a few choice words to say about this subject, so no need to fret!

Anyway, thank goodness Warwick Hutton and the rest of us storytellers need not concern ourselves with such trite things.  Trust the story, not the storyteller!  I like the idea of the firmament, and I like its artistic rendering.

He has likewise taken priviledge with rendering God: an erie white outline of a person, whose face is never seen.  This God brings the first human to life in a circle of mystic light.  The animals also come out of a similar orb of light, and Adam and God watch as they emerge, lions and horses scattering off into the jungle, birds immediately taking off toward the sky.  Then, the final creation – Adam laying face down in the earth, unconscious, while Eve floats above him, as though a spirit who has just been exorcised.

One thing I really admire about Hutton’s view of Eden is that where the text declares, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed,” then indeed, it is so.  Hutton is not ashamed either.  Adam has a penis.  Eve has breasts.  They both possess bare bottoms where their backs are turned.  This is something seldom seen in children’s picture books – the only thing I can think of that comes close is Mickey’s young genetalia in Sendak’s The Midnight Kitchen. But the nudity is not for naught.  After the serpent has done its beguiling, we next see the first humans hidden in the woods, using leaves to cover themselves, Eve with a hand across her breasts.  It is a resonant image.

Down the garden path strolls that glowing white outline of a person, and all the animals hide in fear.

So He drove out the man and the woman from the garden of Eden and He placed at the east of the garden cherubims and a flaming sword to guard the tree of life.

Such a stark tale.  Is there a moral to this?  Or just a portrait of the human condition?

As a counterpoint, I was very happy to discover a copy of Iblis (1994), retold by Shulamith Levey Oppenheim and illustrated by the great Ed Young.  This is also the story of Adam and Eve and the Expulsion from Paradise, but based not on the first book of Moses, however, but on the Islamic version which was written by Jarir-at-Tabari in Baghdad in the 9th century.  Iblis is the name of the Devil.

For five hundred years Adam and Eve had lived in Paradise. And for five hundred years Iblis, the great Satan, had been trying to get in.

It is the angel Ridwan who stands guard outside the garden, and the first image of the book is of his clenched fist and flaming sword.

That’s an immediate difference.  500 years versus just a few days.

Trying to figure out a way to sneak in, Iblis tricks the serpent, promising to tell her the three magic words which will save all who hear them from illness, old age and death. The serpent – both beautiful and vain – allows Iblis to shrink to the size of a speck of dust and sit himself “between her teeth, making them poisonous for eternity.”

From this perch, Iblis can then speak as the serpent, and is thus able to address Eve incognito.

“Dearest serpent, in this garden of God, have we not all that can be desired?”

“It would seem so. But are you not troubled that the noblest fruit of the garden is denied you by God?”

He goes on to tell her that the fruit gives eternal youth and health. Eve is indeed curious.

“How do you know this?”

“An angel told me as I lay under the forbidden tree.”

“I must see this angel!”

Iblis is a master shapeshifter. In a moment, he has flown out from the serpent’s mouth and transformed into “a perfect young man with wings like clouds.”

“I am a man made into an angel,” Iblis told her. “I become an angel by eating the fruit that God has denied us. I was near death, ill and infirm. I ate and lo, you see me a thousand years later.”

Eve needs no more convincing. She takes and she eats. She gives to Adam and he eats.

It is not clear why the fruit is forbidden. There is no mention of “the Knowledge Between Good and Evil,” which I always found to be one of the most compelling aspects of the Biblical story.

At that moment, the tree comes to terrifying life. Young spreads it out over two pages, the terrible, twisting branches of that hideously overgrown tree, like a hundred dark snakes, the form of the humans writhing from within, trying to escape. This is the manifestation of God, and He is not pleased.

“Depart from Paradise, thou Adam, thy wife, Eve, and the animals that led ye into disobeying my command.”

It is now, at God’s command, that leaves are given to Eve and Adam, and they are expelled. It seems a slight distinction, but I’m certain in the biblical version they fashion the fig leaves before God comes to find them.

Adam is banished to the island of Serendib, which is now – Oppenheim tells us – present-day Sri Lanka. Eve finds herself exiled in Jeddah. I’m trying to figure out how they went on to produce the human race between them if God sent them to opposite ends of the bus like this, but I’m willing to accept this in the same way I gladly accept the existence of the firmament.

And Iblis – the star of the book – is flung into the River Eila, which flows into Hell. We see him, screaming, now transformed into his true form, falling into the roaring flame of eternal hellfire.

Saniyasnain Khan reading to children at the Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur

These two versions are not the only parallel stories in the dueling religious traditions.  In fact, they share the entirety of the Torah.  There’s a wonderful series of books called “Quran Stories for Little Hearts” published by Goodword Books which retells several stories which would be familiar to a youngster raised on Bible Stories.  Jonah, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Ark… they all have parallels in the Muslim faith.

Saniyasnain Khan is the author of these books, and he has written over 100 children’s books, translated into more than one dozen languages.  I found that he is also a trustee of  the Centre for Peace and Spirituality — a non-profit organization whose website states, “Our mission is to re-engineer individual minds towards positive thinking in order to build a peaceful world.”

This got me wondering, how would the world be different if the children’s sections of bookstores and libraries did not have designated “Christian” and “Muslim” sections – the former bulging with hundreds of picture books filled with white people, and the latter minuscule and dark-skinned by comparison.  For example, for this column I had to go rooting around different shelves in my local library to find both Iblis and Adam and Eve.

Suppose, instead, the books were combined and indexed by story.  Jewish, Christian and Islamic… these precious stories which you see as being absolutely fundamental to your religion and your world-view and your understanding of the universe, but are actually shared amongst other religions as well.  What would the effect be on our children?  What would the effect be on the way they see the world?  Stories can kill with hatred and Stories can heal.  Stories belong to no one.

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2 responses to “Tales and Their Tellers 9: Adam and Eve Don’t Belong to You

  1. Awesome, Jon. I like how the ideas here extend far beyond books for children into the notion of groups trying to claim stories as their own to the exclusion of others. Very interesting.

    Like

  2. for a good book on the treatment of the same people across christian and islamic traditions, check out noah’s other son. i proofread it! don’t hold any typos against me.

    Like

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