So, let’s visit the Garden of Eden. We’ll peek in on the first humans and the first snake. But, to see them clearly, we’ll have to bracket our familiar interpretations. You may have learned the view of medieval Christian writer Augustine. The snake tempted the humans to disobey God and fall into sin. Or maybe you learned the view of medieval Jewish writer Maimonides. The snake led the humans to activate their intellects and live more deeply into the divine image. Right now, it does not matter which you learned. Set them both aside, and look at the Garden through a different lens.
Imagine that the world is very new. Species don’t yet know themselves. Their bodies and their way of life are mysterious to them. And the younger the species, the less they know. So they experiment. And some of the early experiments are a bit odd. But the first trials and errors don’t doom them creatures, or mark them with a permanent nature. Instead they learn about themselves and others. So, try reading the Garden of Eden story as a quirky comedy about a world finding its way.
Enter the snake. It is the most arum of all the land animals (Gen 3:1). The Hebrew word arum means both “prudent” and “naked.” And here it makes sense to convey both meanings, because snakes are both prudent and naked. Today, there are at least 3,000 species of snakes in the world. No two are exactly alike, but snake life does have some themes.
Arum can describe the snake’s prudent life strategy. Snakes are efficient animals. Many are ambush predators, who rest, camouflaged, waiting for their prey to wander by. Snakes often wait under leaves or dirt, where they have little use for vision. So, their eyesight is not keen. But, they do hear, in a way. They feel vibrations as their prey approaches. And, because they are ectothermic animals who warm themselves in the sun, their heat sensors are strong. So they track their prey by its heat signature. Then, they eat their weekly or monthly meal, converting 80% of it to body mass. As one snake enthusiast said of her pet ball python, “She can’t be a glutton; mercy is built into her eating process. She is beautifully efficient.”
Arum also hints at the way snakes grow—by getting naked. As a snake gets bigger, the top layer of its skin stretches. When the skin reaches its limit, the snake gets ready to shed it. As the outer skin loosens, fluid collects underneath it, and the snake’s eyes turn blue, its body cloudy. The snake will rub its face against a rough object to loosen the skin. And then, it will gradually wriggle out. Snakes shed four to twelve times a year; the process takes a few days. “I’m jealous,” says my snake-loving friend. “Shedding seems refreshing.”
The biblical snake visits the humans, and strikes up a conversation. He seems quite curious about them. Such strange creatures, he must wonder. What life instructions did the Creator give them? Do they, like me, eat small animals and avoid fruit? So the snake asks the woman, “Did God also say [to you], don’t eat from any trees in the garden?” No, answers the woman, “we do feed on the garden trees.” But then, trying to find some kinship with the snake, she explains that God did also tell the humans to avoid some trees. “But about the fruit of the tree in the middle, God said not to eat from it and not to touch it, to avoid the risk of dying” (Gen 3:2–3).
Not to touch it! Of course this seems wrong to the snake. He can’t even grow unless he touches the tree. To start his shed, he rubs against the branch. So, the snake offers a little mentoring—at least, from a snake’s point of view.
Praise for Mouth of the Donkey
“Mouth of the Donkey is a little book that inspires creative biblical reading, expands imagination, and deepens focus.”
“Packs ancient and modern wisdom into a delightful parcel.”
“Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan, with her captivating writing and charming sense of humor, created a book like no other. An informed Jewish reader will find that the author’s reliance of centuries of serious scholarship eases them into looking at the text in ways they never thought of before, this time highlighting the role of the animal world within the richness of the biblical narrative. Animal lovers, on their part, will be mesmerized by Rabbi Duhan-Kaplan’s sensitivity and love for all of God’s creatures, and will be introduced to the beauty and richness of Jewish biblical commentary. Both audiences will be impressed with the author’s commitment to justice, ethics, and a better world.”
“I’ve been studying and teaching the Hebrew Bible for 30 years. I just finished reading Laura Duhan-Kaplan’s new book titled, Mouth of the Donkey: Re-imagining Biblical Animals. It is an amazingly creative little book. I highly recommend it. Laura’s book is scholarly, rabbinic, clever, political, humorous and very readable. It is not an understatement to say that you will forever see animals in the Torah in a whole new way that will excite you.”
About the Author
Laura Duhan-Kaplan is Director of Inter-Religious Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vancouver School of Theology. Laura is also Professor Emerita of Philosophy at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Rabbi Emerita of Or Shalom Synagogue, and a U.S. Professor of the Year. She lives in Vancouver, Canada, on the traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples, with her husband (and musical partner) Charles, their young adult children, and a changing array of companion animals.