New Perspective on Genesis
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic that has influenced the Christian perception of God, Satan, sin, and the origin of mankind for centuries. His poetic account of the creation story, though, clearly expands on several aspects within the most fundamental Christian version of creation, the Genesis story. Milton’s development of Genesis particularly addresses the questionable equality between Adam and Eve and the concept of free will versus that of predestination and their role in the ultimate fall from Eden. There is an unprecedented focus placed on the nature of Adam and Eve and on their inherent qualities in Paradise Lost and it is through this focus that Milton expands the Genesis account. As a result, he presents readers with an interpretation of the creation story that both reflects the gender attitudes of his time. In addition, his emphasis on free will enables Milton to justify God’s casting of Adam and Eve from Paradise, while also moving readers to recognize the presence of the choice between good and evil in their lives. The epic is not simply a longer and more elaborate version of the origin of humankind, but a revision of Genesis that has ramifications involving the Christian doctrine of free will as well as the foundation of gender roles.
The question of equality between Adam and Eve in the creation story has always been debated, largely because it reflects the gender roles set forth by God to mankind. In Genesis, there are numerous references of equality between the sexes: “So God created man in his owne image…male and female he created them” (1:27). Both man and woman were created in God’s image, indicating equality in the eyes of God. In addition, there is a sign of equality in Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib. She was not taken from his head, as if she was above him, nor was she taken from his feet, as if she was below him. Finally, God grants both Adam and Eve dominion over the earth: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them…replenish the earth, and subdue it, and have dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (1:28). In the face of this Biblical evidence regarding the equality of the sexes, Milton explicitly writes Paradise Lost with Adam and Eve as the unequal caretakers of Eden. First, he structurally hints at the inequality between the two. In Adam and Eve’s back-and-forth discussion of whether or not they should separate, Adam receives forty more lines of dialogue than Eve, though the number of replies they make toward one another is equal. Second, while Genesis calls attention to both Adam and Eve’s equal creation in God’s image, Milton gives particular emphasis to the difference in nature of the two. “Though both / Not equal, as thir sex not equal seem’d; / For contemplation he and valor form’d, / For softness she and sweet attractive Grace, / He for God only, she for God in him” (IV.295-299). Here, we see that God gave Adam a contemplative nature and a superior intellect relative to Eve, who is “inferior, in the mind / And inward faculties” (VIII.541). In fact, Adam is placed so far above Eve in intellectual nature that Eve is incapable of hearing or understanding the dialogue between Adam and the divine Raphael: “not capable her ear / Of what is high” (VIII. 49-50). God intended for Adam to be more contemplative than Eve; He intended for Eve to be less concerned with knowledge, and to acquire it not on her own power, but through Adam.
Such emphasis on the inequality of intellect and the general superiority of Adam over Eve is absent in Genesis. The implications of this are far-reaching, suggesting that Milton expands Genesis in order to present readers with what he perceives as God-given, and consequently inflexible, gender roles that were certainly prevalent in patriarchal England at the time. These roles also contribute to potentially placing the fault of man’s fall on the shoulders of Eve. She implores Adam to separate from one another, in order to perform more work, eliminate distractions, and be more productive. This suggests that Eve is contemplating on her own, analyzing cause and effect, free from the direction of Adam though he warns her of the dangers of separation. Eve’s contemplation leads sure enough to her encounter with Satan and the eating of the forbidden fruit. Milton therefore implies that although her intentions were good, Eve stepped outside of her role on earth and will inevitably bear the consequences of such actions. Among other things, this will contribute to portraying Eve as a tragic heroine.
One of the most essential and controversial issues regarding the creation story entails the concepts of free will and predestination and which of the two manifests itself in the fall of Adam and Eve. During his life, Milton had been a proponent of free will and it is evident in that the notion permeates Paradise Lost in a way that Genesis never comes close to doing. While the Genesis account makes no mention of the idea of free will, Milton refers to it directly: “Within himself / The danger lies, yet lies within his power: / Against his will he can receive no harm, / But God left free the Will” (IX.348-351). Within all individuals lies the ability to choose and with this power comes the ability to choose evil over good, but Milton makes it clear that no man can harm himself unless he chooses to. Five lines earlier, Adam claims that “best are all things as the will / Of God ordain’d them” (344-345). When mentioning human free will, Milton capitilizes the word “Will” yet ceases to do so when mentioning the will of God. This indicates that in this context and in this story, Milton perceives man’s free will as even more important and significant than the will of God, and that whatever harm may come upon man will be the result of his will, not God’s. While in Genesis the serpent merely guides and tempts Eve to taste the fruit from the forbidden tree—“Ye shall not surely die…ye shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil” (3:4-5), Milton makes sure to acknowledge the presence of choice in the temptation: “Goddess humane, reach then, and freely taste” (IX.732). As Milton was a proponent of free will during his time, he was also a supporter of free press, and the way in which it combated people’s ignorance of what was good and what was evil. Through a strong emphasis on the presence of free will, he not only justifies God’s punishment of Adam and Eve, but more importantly, he showed his readers that the choice between good and evil is there for them and that they need only to open their eyes in the face of temptation.
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