A LITTLE RED FORKED TONGUE

Midrash on Genesis 3:1-5

by Rachel Smith Cobleigh


God saw that the man and his wife felt no shame in their nakedness, and upon reflection, He decided to consult with the Torah on the matter.

"They are like children, not seeing good from evil, not discerning the fullness of the Almighty, seeing only pleasures in the garden," He said.

Her response was this: "O Lord, demonstrate to them Your mercy and Your severity, that they may see You."

And God considered this and saw that it was good. Thereupon He commanded the Host of Heaven and the Inhabitants of the Deep to hearken unto His word and prepare themselves for His service.

All the celestial beings arrayed themselves to the east of Eden and awaited the divine call of the Almighty, each hoping to be a part of the decision that He made. A certain chief of the angels, one Shemhazai, waited in his place, consorting with others of their number in his anticipation of the Most Holy Word. However, this chief had fallen into bad company and had begun to listen to the seditious words and whisperings of another of his rank, a chief of a company whose name was Satan. This company wondered at the possibilities to be exploited in the broad commands of God.

The Almighty looked out from His place on the Divine Throne and saw those who whispered their thoughts of His Holiness. Seeing the perfect being by which He might facilitate the beginning of His Divine Plan, He sent word to the Host arrayed over Eden, and summoned the chief of a company, Shemhazai.

"My Lord," said Shemhazai, who bowed low, the tips of his gold-edged wings sweeping through the air in a grand motion. "May Your Might be praised and May Your Kingdom prosper for all eternity."

"Of course, of course," God said, waving His Mighty Hand dismissively. "I have a mission for you to accomplish."

"I am honored to be chosen for such a humble distinction, Majesty," replied Shemhazai, bowing low again and straightening out his pinfeathers. He smiled within himself at the possibilities that might soon be his.

"Yes, well, you exhibited exactly the qualities that I was looking for," God said. A very uncharacteristic sniggering sound came from the Book upon His lap, and He put His Divine Hand down upon the pages of fire to silence it. "I want the man, Adam, to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil." He was going to add, "...to get past this monstrous case of writer's block," but He did not, because He thought that it might make Him appear Undignified.

The angel Shemhazai was momentarily discouraged, and because of this, he voiced his concerns to the Almighty.

"O Lord Most High, You have commanded the man and his wife not to eat of the tree. How then shall I convince them otherwise?" He asked, his pinfeathers drooping slightly.

"That is your mission, and I dispatch you to it immediately," God replied. "I would like weekly progress reports. That is all."

"Yes, my Lord. Thank you, my Lord," Shemhazai backed out of the Divine Throne-room, bowing, as is proper, at every seventh step. He then immediately flew back to his company of angels, where they all beset him and demanded to know what was going on. He did not know what to say to them, and seeing his discomfiture, Satan cleverly extracted him from the company and the two flew down to a quiet arbor near the middle of the garden called Eden. Nervous and feeling a good deal of stress, Shemhazai confessed all of his fears and questions to Satan, and Satan calmed him quickly.

"This is the perfect opportunity!" He exulted, making a nimble dance around the overwhelmed Shemhazai. "We can achieve His Divine Will, and our own, altogether!" At this, Shemhazai was greatly encouraged, and looked up from his perch on the branches of a pear tree.

"How is that possible?"

"Well, let us observe the man and his wife," Satan replied, and rose up over the treetops to look down on the pair, who were playing together in the soft grasses across the garden. Shemhazai flew up beside his counterpart and watched them for some time. It was then that he began to feel the spark of jealousy towards the man for the love of his beautiful wife. This is why he would later lead two hundred angels to the summit of Mount Hermon in the days of Enosh; by then, his lust for the daughters of men had overtaken him completely.

After some time, the man Adam fell asleep in the grass, and his wife Eve found herself quite alone and a little insulted that his interest in her had flagged so suddenly. Wondering at her feelings towards him, she watched him sleep for a time, and wove a blade of grass around her finger. To amuse herself, and to see if she could wake him, she held the blade between her fingers and blew seven sacred notes, for this was in the time before instruments of musick had been formed, and the grasses of the earth had their own song. When he did not stir, she became discouraged, and threw the grass away, cursing it. Such is the reason why a blade of grass will produce only one note, and why someone later invented a kazoo instead.

The woman Eve walked to the middle of the garden and found a few beasts to talk to. A serpent alit upon her shoulder, and she stroked the scaled tail that curled contentedly around the back of her slender neck. He was a favourite of hers, and they often talked for hours about the beauties of the garden and the celestial beings that went to and fro across the earth. After some time of pleasant conversation, the serpent looked up into the sky and sighted the two angels who were floating above the garden. Interested in why they were there, he excused himself from the cluster of animals and plants around Eve, and flew up to them to inquire as to their presence.

"My lords," he said. "Is there any way I may be of service to you?" You see, he was the shrewdest of the wild beasts that the Lord God had made, and so he was skilled in extracting information from others without their being aware of his deception.

Shemhazai was eager to enlist the help of anyone willing, but Satan was more cunning, and he held out one hand to silence Shemhazai's excitement.

"Why yes, little one," Satan replied, smiling at the serpent fluttering before him. At his words, the serpent bristled, for he was a small creature, and the fact was a constant source of annoyance to him. He had always wanted to be large, like the leviathan of the sea. Such is the reason for God's punishment when He reduced him to crawling in the dust--he had been unsatisfied with his original form, and so to humble him in his vanity, the Lord God lowered him further, and required that he shed his outer skin with every new growth, to remind him of his low estate.

Satan told the serpent the mission that the Almighty had appointed to Shemhazai, and the little serpent assured them that he could help them with Eve, since all three were sure that they could not convince Adam in a direct confrontation. Satisfied with this conniving method, the little serpent flew back down to the Tree that cast its shade over Eve, and thought for while upon the problem of how he would broach the topic.

He cast about for a suitable way to start the conversation, and hit upon asking the woman exactly what she knew. Perhaps in the small gaps of her knowledge and wisdom, he could exploit some heretofore unexplored ideas. Satisfied with this roundabout approach, and sure that the two celestials would be pleased with his handiwork, he slithered down the branch and curled his tail around a tender shoot. He examined the fruit hanging by his head, and finding it to be a particularly ripe- and firm-looking specimen, he arranged himself strategically behind it.

"Chavah, dearest, I was wondering something..."

"What was that, little one?"

Repressing a cringe at that address, the serpent replied: "Did God really say: 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden'?"

"No, silly," Eve laughed, stroking the back of the ring-tailed lemur sunning itself on her lap. "Just this tree. We can eat of all the others in the garden."

"Why not this one?" The serpent asked, even though he knew the answer already.

"Because if we eat of it, if we even touch it, we'll die."

"Die? Are you sure that's what He said?"

"Positive."

"That's a little harsh, don't you think? Just for eating some fruit? Are you sure you didn't just hear Him wrong?"

"I-I don't think so," Eve replied, furrowing her perfect brow in consternation. The lemur purred and she stroked its back absent-mindedly.

"That couldn't have been what He said. He's not that mean-spirited."

"Gosh, no! Of course not! He's wonderful!"

"I can't believe you!" The serpent said in a teasing voice. "Imagine implying that the Almighty was mean-spirited!" This last he said a little huffily, as if he were insulted by such a thought.

"No, He's not. Of course He's not," Eve echoed, nodding to herself. "He's good."

"Well then why would He tell you not to eat from this tree? It looks perfectly fine to me," the serpent said, in a kind of innocently-curious voice, earnest sincerity in his every syllable. He really was quite good at this, he thought, and he took a moment to inspect his dainty foreclaws.

"Well, because He doesn't want us to eat from it. Perhaps it will hurt us."

"But why would He create something and put it in the middle of this beautiful garden if it weren't good for you? If He's good, then everything He makes must be good, right?" "I-I guess," Eve said, scratching behind the lemur's ears.

"You know what I think?"

"What?"

"I've been considering this for a while-a while longer than you, I might add."

"Yes, you've been here longer, I know."

"I came to this conclusion a long time ago, and because of it, I tried a bite of this fruit."

At the serpent's statement, Eve gasped: "No!"

"I did," the serpent confirmed, nodding. "I bit out a piece, and chewed it, and swallowed it, and nothing bad happened."

"But how--"

"I did it before the Almighty gave His decree to Adam. It was in my first days here, when I was just newly formed."

"Then if you ate of this tree and you were fine, why haven't I seen you eating from it since then?"

"Well," the serpent said, with the right tone of reverence, "If the Almighty told you both not to eat of it, I decided that out of respect, I shouldn't eat of it either."

"But He didn't punish you?"

"No, no, of course not," the serpent waved his foreclaw knowingly. Then, as if struck by a brilliant thought, he suddenly sat up and fixed Eve in an electrifying stare. He bent towards her, around the fruit, and said in a near-whisper, "Do you want to know what really happened after I took that bite?"

Looking as if she half-dreaded his answer, she stared up at him with wide eyes and said, "What?"

The serpent leaned down a millimeter closer. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"Yes!"

"Well, I don't know, I could get in trouble for this..."

"Tell me!"

"Ahh, okay," the serpent let out a heavy sigh, flicked out his red forked tongue, looked from side to side, and then leaned down to her.

"Have you ever wondered why I am the shrewdest of all the wild beasts, how I know so many things?"

"Yes," Eve leaned up towards him in anticipation.

"Here is why: if you eat of the fruit, you are not going to die...but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad!"

...to be continued... in the original.


Copyright 1999 Rachel Smith Cobleigh

Published in Short Cuts 2000: A journal of short fiction by UMass undergraduates.