Cunning Snake – Clever Human

“And the snake was the most cunning-deceptive (ערום – \aRuM) of all the wild beings of the field that haShem, G-d, had made.” In this context, the Hebrew word \aRuM (ערום) means cunning, crafty, deceptive, scheming, clever, skillful, adept and resourceful. As is true of this list of English definitions, the word \aRuM has both positive and negative connotations. Who wouldn’t want to be described as clever, skillful, adept and resourceful? But this word \aRuM evolved from the word RyMaH (רמה) meaning to deceive, which is the piel (or intensive form) of the verb RaMaH meaning “to throw or arch over.” In life, when challenges present themselves, often a skill or adeptness is required to maneuver around it, arch over it and overcome it. Deceptive and scheming, on the other hand, are not designations that many of us would be pleased with. Nevertheless, the frenzy of going back and forth in life, metaphorically represented by the Hebrew word for field (SaDeH – שדה) – a word etymologically related to the word ShaDaD (שדד) meaning to knock back and forth, over power and devastate – can induce and promote such skills, positive and negative.

“And the two of them were naked (ערומים – \aRuMim), the man and his wife, but they were not ashamed.” In this line, occurring just before the one referring to the snake, the Hebrew word \aRuM (ערום) means naked – an etymologically unrelated homonym that evolved from the word \aRaH (ערה), meaning naked. And yet, the juxtaposition of these lines could not have been an unfortunate mistake. Furthermore, the text must be in error. For any insightful person will recognize that it is we humans who are the most clever, skillful, adept and resourceful creatures on this planet. After all, the Hebrew word for human, /aDaM (Adam – אדם), evolved from the word DaMaH (דמה) meaning to think, plan, and make comparisons. Of all creatures on earth, we, the thinkers, are assuredly the most clever and skillful.

Unfortunately, human beings also have a tremendous capacity for deception, cunning and scheming. One would hope that a person of emotional and spiritual maturity would avoid use of this skill, except in the most dire of circumstances. The Hebrew word for mature is BoGaeR (בוגר); a word not found in the five books of Moses. Another word that is never used in all of the Tanakh is the word hitbosh’shu (התבששו), the reflexive form of the root BooSh (בוש), to mean ashamed. This despite the fact that the verb BooSh (בוש) is used dozens of times. The reason why this reflexive form is used here is because it serves as a double entendre. On the pashat, it means ashamed, but allegorically it means mature. Maturation is the (near) completion of one’s process of development – physical, psychological, emotional or other. It is something that occurs to one’s self over time. The biliteral Hebrew root BooSh (בוש) and most of the triliteral roots derived from it, essentially mean what occurs over a delay in time. They are: בוש (BooSh – be ashamed (of delayed response)); בושש (BoShaeSh – to delay); בשל (BaShaL – to ripen, cook); באש (Ba/aSh – to rot, decay); and יבש (YaBhaSh – to dry out, wither). It is, therefore, logical that the reflexive of בושש (BoShaeSh – to delay) could mean “for oneself to change over a delay in time or to mature.” Since בוש (BooSh – be ashamed (of delayed response)) and בושש (BoShaeSh – to delay) are two forms of the same verb, they share this hitpael form. Thus a partial allegorical meaning of this sentence is: “And the two of them, the thinker and his wife were clever-cunning, but they were not mature.”

The Hebrew word for snake is NaChaSh (נחש). It evolved from the verb ChooSh (חוש) which in Hebrew means “to sense, feel, experience, and hasten” and in Arabic, “to grope.” The verb NaChaSh (נחש) in biblical Hebrew means to divine and in modern Hebrew, to guess. With regard to meaning snake, it literally means “one who feels about.” However, a related word N’ChuShaH (נחושה) means lustful or brazen and bold. Therefore, when allegorically understanding the snake as a metaphor for a human quality or archetype, these two juxtaposed sentences set the stage of contention between a person’s thinking (/aDaM – אדם) and a person’s heedlessly feeling about (NaChaSh – נחש). They create a dramatic tension between an emotionally immature thinker with great intellectual potential and his alter ego, his contingency, who in response to a life replete with potentially over powering challenge can survive and thrive by heedlessly feeling about, utilizing cunning and scheming.

At this point in the story, Chavah has not been named. Instead, she is referred to as the woman or his wife. Linguists generally agree that the Hebrew word for woman-wife, /eeShaH (אשה) only appears to be related to the word for man-husband, /ySh (איש). The metaphorical meaning for /eeShaH (אשה) presumes that the word is related to its plural NaShim (נשים). Allegorically, the woman acts as the intermediary between Adam and the snake, the stage where the struggle and conflict occur. She carries along the action, representing the person’s conduct.

In the difficult situation of trying to survive the frenzy of experience (the field), the person’s heedlessly feeling about (the snake) encourages his conduct (the woman) to eat the fruit from the tree in the center of the garden. The Hebrew word for garden, GaN (גן), literally means what draws in around or surrounds. It is cognate with the Arabic word jana meaning “to cover, hide, protection, and garden,” but also “to be possessed, jinn-genie, obsession, mania, and soul.” Allegorically, it means “one’s being obsessed with something in the surrounding scene” or “what is enchanting of the surrounding scene.” The word for tree, \aeTs (עץ), is a metaphor for an urge as can be seen in the related verb Ya\aTs (יעץ), meaning to advise, counsel, and urge.

The text refers to the forbidden tree in two ways. In Genesis 2:17, it is the tree of knowledge of good and bad or allegorically “the urge to know (acknowledge) good and bad.” But in Genesis 3:3, it is the tree in the middle of the garden or allegorically, “the urge that is with the forcing of what is enchanting of the surrounding scene.” In this phrase, the operative word is b’tokh (בתוך) meaning in the middle, from the verb that means “to force or push inward.” Therefore, the text is stating that any urge associated with what is enchanting of the surrounding scene is acceptable behavior except for the urge to know good and bad and the urge that is with the forcing of what is enchanting of the surrounding scene. It is not that G-d does not want us to be enchanted with things that are of interest. Rather, G-d wants our behavior to be good, not bad. G-d wants our pursuit of our goals to be modest and not forceful to the point of being oppressive.

However, that aspect of our minds represented by the snake, our heedlessly feeling about, that survives and thrives through cunning and scheming, strives only to succeed against the odds without concern for the moderation achieved in being mindful or thoughtful. Furthermore, its advice rings true: all human experience, good or bad, leads to an opening of the eyes and further knowledge, making us as Elohim, Divine Guides.2

Upon eating from that tree, and allegorically embracing from that urge, “the eyes of the two of them were snapping open.” The word for the two of them, Sh’Naehem (שניהם) comes from the word for two (Sh’Nayim – שנים), which comes from the verb ShaNaH (שנה) meaning to sharpen > repeat > change and teach. The verb evolved by prefixing a shin to the root /aNaH (אנה), meaning to force, assert, impose or apply oneself (one’s agency). So the metaphor for the word two is to repeatedly assert, apply or impose oneself. Therefore, the opening line of this section, “And the two of them were naked, the man and his wife, but they were not ashamed,” becomes “And their way of applying-(imposing) themselves was clever-(cunning), the thinker and his wife, and they were not mature.” This is to be compared to after eating from the tree and embracing the urge, “the eyeings (observations) of their way of imposing-(applying) themselves were snapping open.” Immediately they know that their behavior was wrong, not only because they have defied G-d, but also because their way of applying themselves was imposing and forceful.

Furthermore, the text states that they were acknowledging that they were naked, \ayRuMim (עירמם). However, a keen observer will note that this word for naked is spelled differently than before; there is now a letter yod that was not there before. According to Klein, this is considered a variant spelling for the \aRuM (ערום) meaning naked. However, it is also a standard form for a third (and final) homonym of the verb \aRaM (ערם) that means to heap up in Hebrew. In Arabic, it also means “to be vicious, obstinate, stubborn, head-strong, and inflexible” and in Sabaic, it also means “to violently overthrow.” Whereas the homonym meaning naked was formed by suffixing a mem to \aRaH (ערה), and that meaning deceptive-cunning-clever by prefixing an ayin to RyMaH (רימה), this third homonym was formed by prefixing an ayin to the word RooM (רום), to be high. So the text has now established that they were naked, clever-cunning and now vicious. This, in fact, is the variant used by G-d in criticizing Adam and his behavior from this point forward.

Despite our capacity for both cunning and scheming, and now for viciousness as well, there most be room for repentance. The solution was for them to use a leaf (\aLaeH – עלה) as a means of ascending (עלה) above and covering over their sin. Most appropriately, they made a way for them to hem themselves in (ChaGoRot – חגרות) utilizing a leaf of a fig tree. The fig tree (T’/aeNaH – תאנה) is so named because it has a tendency to grow by imposing its agency (ת + אנה) by wrapping around and strangulating other trees.3 The Hebrew word that describes when human beings behave egoistically, by imposing one’s agency on another, likewise comes from this verb /aNaH (אנה), in the form /aNi (אני) meaning I.

It is, of course, the role of our thinking (אדם) to moderate our conduct so as to ensure that we do not heedlessly feel about (נחש), imposing ourselves upon others. When we absent and hide away our ability to think, we run the risk of not only behaving selfishly, but of also hiding away from haShem and the guidance that G-d provides for us in experience. Very often, we feel as if our habits and mode of conduct are on autopilot and out of our control. Like Adam in our story, we blame our conduct for our uncontrolled urges which in turn blames our tendency to heedlessly feel about. But who are we if we allow ourselves to heedlessly feel about (נחש), thrusting forward in life (גיח) as if upon our bellies (גחון) – with there being endless enmity between our conduct and the heedlessly feeling about that leads it astray? And what of our conduct, that struggles to conceive of and bring forth (appropriate) behaviors (בנים) – striving and writhing and grieving in toil, endlessly hoping for our thinking (persistence) to bring it under control?4 If our thinking allows us to embrace urges forbidden to us, all of our lives will be filled with aversions and retractions (thorn – קוץ) and an endless circle of going around and around (דרדר) as a tumbleweed in the wind. As with the sweat of one’s brow (זעת אפיך), we will only embrace embattled engagements (לחם = מלחמה) with the trembling and agitation (זועה) of our character (איפה).

1 – hapax legomenon = a word used only once in a text such as the TaNaKh
2 – Although most derive Eloah (אלוה) / Elohim (אלהים) from אל. I believe that the word evolved from LaWaH (לוה) meaning to escort and guide. Hence, initially the word Elohim (אלהים) referred to the pantheon of gods, whose purported purpose was to guide and escort humanity. With the advent of monotheism, the word was used with a singular verb to represent G-d, but continued to be used to represent the pantheons of others, a council of judges and people of similar purpose.
3 –
4 – In Genesis 3:16 the text says, ואל אישך תשוקתך והוא ימשל בך “And toward your husband, shall be your desire and he shall take control upon you.” Metaphorically, the word איש husband, literally meaning “one who persists” represents “mental persistence.”

Ernest Klein (1987) A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company

Hans Wehr. Ed by J Milton Cowan (1979) Hans Wehr A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic. Ithaca, NY: Published in the United States by Spoken Languages Services, Inc with permission of Otto Harrassowitz

Jeremy Black, Andrew George, Nicholas Postgate, eds., A Concise Dictionary ofAkkadian, 2nd corrected printing (Santag Arbeiten und Untersuchungen Zur Keilschriftkunde, 5; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2000)

Marcus Jastrow (1996) A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushlami, and the Midrashic Literature.New York: The Judaica Press

J. Payne Smith’s (1999) A Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Published by Wipf and Stock

David Kantrowitz (1991 – 2009) Judaic Classics version 3.4. Institute for Computers in Jewish Life, Davka Corp., and/or Judaica Press, Inc.

About the Author
David Kolinsky is a retired physician born and raised in Monsey, New York. While living in Monterey California, David initially lived as a secular, agnostic Jew. However, in his spare time, he delved into twenty years of daily study of Hebrew etymology and Torah study culminating in the writing of an etymological dictionary of Biblical Hebrew and a metaphorical translation of Torah. Abandoning his agnostic views, David was simultaneously a spiritual leader of the world's smallest conservative synagogue, a teacher in his local reform synagogue, and a gabbai at Chabad. He is currently sheltering in place with his family in his new home in Plano, Texas.
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