The psychodrama of the Fall of man is played out in subtle shifts of language. In his essay “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden,” Professor and rabbi Reuven Kimelman writes:
Originally, Scripture says, "And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying, `Of every tree of the garden you (singular throughout) may eat, yea freely eat, but as for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat of it, for on the day that you eat from it, you will die, yea surely die'" (Gen. 2:16-17). Correcting the serpent by emphasizing that God had not prohibited all of the trees of the garden, the woman says, "From the fruit of the other trees in the garden we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, God has said: You (plural throughout) are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it lest you die" (3:2-3).
Eve’s report of God’s command features several differences that Kimelman finds remarkable for their concerted shift toward a disobedient mindset. He notes that Eve refuses to name the tree as the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and that she downplays the double emphasis on death presented by God. These modifications, Kimelman argues, aren’t the scattered mistakes one might make in reporting a long speech, but rather an intentional misrepresentation of a command:
The differences add up to a diminishment of divine authority, a shift from generosity in the direction of arbitrariness, a reduction of the import of the tree to a location, a tinkering with the extent of the prohibition, through addition or subtraction,and a belittling of its gravity. Such changes and omissions are too consequential and systematic to be accidental. They point to a tendentious reformulation. Through them, the narrative signals Eve's suggestibility if not susceptibility to the snake's argumentation by showing the movement she has already made in that direction.
In other words, Eve’s reformulation of God’s commands occur predictably, along calculated lines. She has an interest, for example, in the tree not being the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but in merely being one tree in the middle of the garden: it makes God’s commandment seem capricious, merely locational, and lessens the gravity of the sin she intends to commit. Similarly she has an interest in reducing the penalty associated with the sin, and in softening what was ‘commanded’ to what was merely ‘said.’
Whether or not you suppose that Kimelman’s exegesis reveals the shadow of sin already fallen over Eve as she hesitates in the shade of the tree, its premise is incisively sound: the way we manipulate language reflects more than our shifting interpretations of the world. Indeed, how we choose to formulate descriptions provides insight into the ethical premises we intend to impute into our behavior. Nowhere is this phenomenon clearer than in the rise of several ‘non-monogamies’ recently profiled in publications like The Atlantic and Salon.
Philandering has always existed. And, identical to the style of so many ‘polyamory’ think pieces, it has frequently reproduced itself in art and culture with a distinctively maudlin sentimentality, the kind of effusive navel-gazery that is literature’s own cheap grace. Yet advocates of sundry ‘non-monogamous’ marital lifestyles have a vested interest in making their project seem brand new: If they are pioneering something rather than recapitulating a very old error, then they have the privilege of creating the language by which their behavior will be known.
This is precisely why we see, concomitant with the rise of essays and meditations triumphantly shucking aside the old shackle of monogamy, dictionary and encyclopedia-esque articles laying out new language. Psychology Today recently featured the work of a psychologist who seeks to define “seven forms of non-monogamy,” from “polyamory” to “swinging” to “open relationships” and merely being “monogamish.” It is tempting even for those intent upon adhering to Christian sexual ethics to learn the lexicon in order to navigate the disintegrating landscape of pop-cultural sexual ethics. But the impulse should be resisted for the same reason Eve should have plainly reproduced God’s words rather than inventing her own version. That is, to assign ‘new’ language to an established phenomenon is often to consent to a shift in ethics, and the shift in this case mirrors the shift that Kimelman detects in Eden.
After all, if we accept that monogamy and non-monogamy exist as neutral alternatives, then God’s commandment to observe sexuality strictly on monogamous, marital terms seems an arbitrary choice among equal alternatives. We might still say, quite weakly, that we like or prefer monogamy, but we must acknowledge by consenting to the use of non-monogamy as an equal and opposite descriptive alternative that the demands of Christian marriage are merely some among many. The same is true of the many terms now proliferating to describe forms of sexuality that are contrary to the Christian sexual ethic: each of them brings bundled in its use the implicit claim of equally legitimate alternatives.
But these words replace a term Christian tradition has already assigned to them as a total category: adultery. Adultery is descriptively accurate, in the Christian frame, of what each of these terms represent, and it also collapses them into a single category, effectively destroying the delusion of a variety of neutral, equal alternatives. Adultery rightly names the error that would prefer to be called ‘non-monogamy’ or any other euphemism; it places such behaviors where they really exist: not as equally upright alternatives to monogamous marriage, but as disordered behaviors on the wrong side of both the Decalogue and Jesus’ teaching on marriage in Matthew 19. For these reasons, Christians should not adopt the language that is being sold to repackage as new errors that are old, and should not replace the language that scripture and tradition provide as lamps of truth with words that obscure and mislead.
None of this is to say that Christians should maltreat adulterers; it was an adulteress whom Christ himself rescued from harm, and the fact that women more often bear the brunt of sexual censure than their equally guilty male counterparts should also serve as a stern warning against gung-ho shaming.
The point is not to build up a habit of abusing those who commit the sin of adultery, but rather to ensure that within Christian discussions of a changing sexual culture, we do not allow our ethics to be subtly manipulated by strategic alterations made to language, as Kimelman imagines Eve to have been in Eden. It may have been uncomfortable for Eve to recite God’s precise command in the dark shade of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but then again her discomfort would have been absolutely appropriate, and potentially helpful. Likewise, we might wince at the prospect of hurting feelings when we call adultery by its name—and we should surely never set out with the intention of rubbing anyone’s nose in their error, lest we be subjected to the same—but it is still the case that the discomfort which the word arouses is the voice of God, calling us away from sin.