Sethites

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The book of Genesis leans towards an anthropological interpretation of the best known myth of Western literature, because it speaks of zeraʿ, literally "seed", "offspring" (Hamilton 1990 [1]: 199), both for the woman and for the snake, allowing the upgrade of the latter's descendants to the dignity of real people. As a matter of fact, this intrusion of a "wild beast" in a deal that is going to decide the destiny of whole humanity is unbelievable and disturbing, because this strange animal speaks, and its utterance is unexpected. A voice that makes so much difference though, at least as much as Abel's one, and none of them, we would say, are in the script. But what is the real script? They have something in common that should not go overlooked: they both come from invisible depths, because the snake lives underground and Abel's voice utters the trodden rights of his blood that has drenched the ground. This common feature may hint at something unheeded yet. As in the case of the so-called "sons of god", Genesis gets hold of a well-known myth and makes something else out of it. These children are adopted, and Eve is the agent of transformation. Should we guess another metamorphosis behind the speaking serpent? The same literary strategy seems at work: one motif is taken from a foreign tradition and is merged into a new framework. The snake seems to come from nowhere with its challenging voice and we are at a loss when the dead Abel cries. Should we suppose a continuity, a common source? Something evil is missing yet, because the serpent leads a conspiration and will pay for that, but we wonder why in the end we find it licking dust in good company with Abel's blood. Is there anything wrong with the latter too? He is certainly the first usurper, because he succeeds in gaining God's favor instead of his elder brother. Besides, he is a shepherd, while Adam and Eve were bound to till the barren ground as farmers, and it is the last straw! he is the first killer, against the will of God, who had prescribed cereals as food for men. In fact, only the Noachic covenant will allow animal bloodshed. At this point, someone would even dare to say: "There is something rotten in Abel!" In a way, as a provisional conclusion of my argument, I would suggest that the snake represents a historical people that Genesis cannot name explicitly, so that a myth is needed, and an umbrella term too, to define "the daughters of men" who are going to stir the appetite of the "sons of God". Eve is "the mother of all living" and so the "seed of the serpent" should be a metaphor to another breed of men coming from her but not elevated to Cain's dignity. Actually, we are left with a paradox between monogenism and polygenism, that apparently can be solved sticking to what is written: "[Adam] begat sons and daughters." (Gn 5:4) Cain's wife is a sister or a "daughter of men", a woman belonging to another group not chosen to live in the garden. Provisionally, but consistently, Eve must be on the side of the Cainites, while Abel and then Seth, after the fall get closer to the "seed of the serpent", even if they descend from her. Why would the rest of the Sethites but Noah's family be wiped off in the deluge, if they represented the innocent part of humanity? This becomes evident when manhunt takes off after Abel's assassination and God provides a shield for Cain. The task of countering "the seed of the woman" is entrusted to Abel, who unexpectedly is burdened with a grimy and mysterious identikit. On one hand, the "sons of God" and the "seed of the woman" must go together because God cannot have a descent. On the other hand, the "seed of the serpent" must be the same as the "daughters of men" because the former needs to speak as a "totemic" representative of a people that is well-known for such a mythical origin. The difference between the two groups is basically the adoption: the Cainites have managed to be adopted with the help of Eve, while the Sethites have not, they are left in a "human" condition. The former considers themselves kaina-, "in-law", for a moment they have cherished some sort of a royal privilege, they felt like eagles soaring closer to God. The serpent can well be proxy for those who were not "taken", and it is not a coincidence that Genesis underlines twice this topic: "till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken (luqqāḥətā); for you are dust and to dust you shall return" (Gn 3:19); and again: "the ground from which he was taken (luqqaḥ)." (Gn 3:23; CG1 105) As Adam and Eve were taken from dust to live in the garden, their dignity was superior to that of commoners. The use of the verb lqḥ to mean their elevation to a special dignity and the occurrence of the same root to define woman's creation out of Adam's rib, reinforces the hypothesis developed in this project, that Eve represents a special people, somehow connected to Lukka. What about the Sethites? Cassuto correctly pointed out that "the Torah stressed at the very outset that the serpent belonged to the category of the beasts of the field that the Lord God had made", but he seems to be off track when he maintains that "the duologue between the serpent and the woman is actually, in a manner of speaking, a duologue that took place in the woman's mind, between her wiliness and her innocence, clothed in the garb of a parable." (142). "In reality it is not he that thinks and speaks but the woman does so in her heart." (143) This is a contradictio in adjecto, because the snake cannot be at the same time a real animal stuck to the ground and a witty subconscious whispering rebellion. Maybe he is right to suggest that the narrative should be viewed as a parable, but there is a detail that should not go unheeded. The snake undergoes some sort of metamorphosis because he is damned to crawl in the dust. As the Cainites feel like eagles, the Sethites are "cunning" as a snake (3:1), but they will end up miserably. Does this mean that in both cases we have to do with a self-conceit that is bound to be abased? As "sons of god" is belittled to a formula for a putative divine adoption, the speaking snakes may represent an astral mythology that goes well together with the frustrated ambitions of Eve. This explanation is not ad hoc, because this notion of "serpents" inhabiting the horizon is well-documented in the Egyptian literature and in Genesis might have coalesced with the widespread symbol of autochthony. Therefore the "cunning snake" must be an animal, not as Eve's split consciousness though, but as self-representation of a people that is to be lowered straightaway: he is a "beast of the field", made by God, nonetheless he dares to speak as a false prophet. To conclude I would like to quote a Neapolitan proverb that may help to unravel this puzzle: "Pure 'e pullece teneno 'a tosse", "Even fleas cough".

Originally Published: April 26, 2021

Last Updated: April 26, 2021


1.  Hamilton, V.P., The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. 1990, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.