Fig tree


When Adam and Eve hear God walk in his garden, they just try to hide from Him and no mention is made of a reason, that comes only later, when Adam is questioned (Gn 3:10): "I heard the sound of Thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself". It is likely that such a sound or voice is the noise of thunder, anticipation of lightning, the punishment that hangs over sinful humanity (Day 2002 [1]: 95-97), but there is not scholarly consensus about the so-called "voice of God" (qôl yahwh) (CG1 152–54; Gese 1973 [2]; Niehaus 1994 [3]; Niehaus 1995 [4]: 155ss; C. L. K.; Stordalen 2000 [5]: 209; Grundke 2001 [6]; Keel 1997 [17]: 202). Robert Alter, in his commentary to Exodus 19.16, provides a superb synthesis of what is at the stake: "It trivializes the grand solemnity and the epic sweep of this narrative moment to ‘explain' it through the purported origins of YHWH as a desert-storm god. In the Syro-Palestinian tradition of mythological poetry upon which the Hebrew writer drew for his imagery, thunder and lightning were the martial accoutrements of the sky god, as they are often in biblical poetry. Literature being an essentially conservative and self-recapitulative medium, a continuity of poetic tropes does not necessarily mean a continuity of theology — the pagan epic apparatus of Milton's Paradise Lost is a central case in point. The Sinai encounter is imagined as the decisive moment in human history when the celestial and terrestrial realms are brought into panoramic engagement, and as God comes down on the mountain, every sort of natural fireworks is let loose, so that trembling seizes not only the people but the mountain itself. The word for ‘thunder,' qolot, is not the usual raʿam but the word that generally means ‘voices' or ‘sounds,' and so it is orchestrated with ‘the sound of the ram's horn' (qol hashofar) that reverberates so strongly against the ground-base of the thunder (Alter 2004 [7]: 425). With that being said, he invites to be cautious when it comes to the "voice of God": "The same multivalent Hebrew word qol has encouraged some interpreters to render this as "in thunder." That translation may sound more impressive, but it is unlikely for two reasons. Qol in the singular, as against qolot in the plural, means ‘voice' or ‘sound,' not ‘thunder.' And the heart of the whole story of the Sinai epiphany is that God addresses Moses with words (devarim), not with son et lumière, which are merely the atmospheric prelude to divine speech" (Alter 2004 [7]: 426). These due distinctions should not obliterate clear attestations of a martial sense of qôl, such as in 2 Sam 5:24: "And as soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the willows, then you must move boldly, for then shall the LORD go out before you to strike down the camp of the Philistines." [Alter]. Moreover, albeit the different verb that follows (ṣʿd, TWAT6 1081-1083, instead of a common hlk), it would be a little insipient to ignore war overtones in this divine march, which inspires fear and the need to hide, anticipated by the first technological advancement for humanity: sewing together fig leaves, certainly useful to cover the first couple's nakedness, but also meant as a defence against the typical weapon for the Biblical God, who for his traits falls in the category of the "Tempest gods". To prove the syllogistic accuracy of this affiliation, he destroyed all that lived on earth with a devastating flood. Maybe enough to consider the girdle of fig leaves a matter of wishful thinking: "A fig-tree is said to have sprung where Gaia sought to ward off the bolts of Zeus from her son Sykeas, and the prophylactic powers of these trees against lightning were well known." (Evans 1901 [8]: 5; Bötticher 1856 [9]: 364 n. 115, 437-440; Brelich 2010 [10]: 263; Bremmer 2008 [11]: 8). Was that girdle sewed as a shield against thunderbolts expected to fall? The real point is that Adam and Eve were to die and they didn't, and in Greece they would be have been named dioblêtoi ("smitten by Zeus"; Cook 1925 [12]: 22-29; Garland 1985 [13]: 99-100; Brelich 2010 [10]: 82, 164, 265-267), but, as those who were struck by lightning, we know of from Greek Literature, died from that and their corpse was believed to be sacred, we have to address elsewhere to find a fitting case. The ideal survivor is a heroic character we have been dealing with in this hypertext, namely Eetion, king of the Cilician Thebe on the slopes of Mt. Ida. It is not explicitly said he was struck by a lightning, the reverence used by Achilles toward his corpse would not be explained though, unless we considered the mass of iron he used to hurl. The hypothesis of a meteoritic origin would account for the "the humane manner in which a pre-mēnis Achilles respected Eetion's corpse, as opposed to the warrior's later vicious treatment of the corpse of Hector and other Trojans" (Signore 2007 [14]: 6; Schein 1984 [15]: 103). Even though nothing about the heavenly origin of this "rudely cast quoit" (Il. 23.826) is hinted at, the "non-defilement of Eetion's corpse" (Signore 2007 [14]: 32) is as source of admiration as the elite burial Achilles provided to him: "he slew Eetion, but he did not strip him of his armor, for he feared this in his mind, but he did indeed burn him with all his finely-crafted armor and he heaped a burial mound upon him as a sign; and all around this nymphs of the mountains, maidens of aegis-bearing Zeus, planted elms" (Il. 6.416-420). Compared with the treatment reserved to Capaneus, smitten by lightning under the walls of the Cadmean Thebe, the honours tributed to Eetion are similar. In Euripides' Suppliants, Theseus is well aware that "Capaneus, struck by Zeus's fire" should be buried apart, "as a sacred corps" (935). Besides, he will deserve "his single memorial" (937), a shrine, and close to this shrine the tomb will be built (938, Karapandzich 2018 [16]). Euripides is following a popular or literary tradition, maybe Homeric too, when he describes the awe-inspiring Capaneus whose dead body must be treated according to the rituals due to dioblêtoi. The verb used in the Iliad to mark the Achilles' respect toward Eetion is sebazomai, from sebas "reverential awe" (LSJ) and this should inspire a re-examination of a few dossiers. Whether the iron lump had come from a meteor, then the Cilician king, fully deserved such funerals by Achilles, because he escaped from death even if he got in touch with a heavenly thing. The prophylactic girdle contrived by Adam and Eve might belong to the same chapter of longstanding beliefs about the protective power of certain trees such as figs and laurels against thunderbolts. Nakedness is mainly a matter of defencelessness, vulnerability in the Semitic frame of mind and it would be an error to overestimate the sexual aspect of the matter. Also Cain's dossier might need to be reconsidered, because the sign imposed on him by God and the shield enforced around him against any attempt of revenge may be symptoms of a dignity acknowledged to special people "struck by lightnings" and to their descent.

Originally Published: May 2, 2021

Last Updated: July 7, 2021

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