Adam and Eve’s Scaly Clothes

Adam and Eve’s Scaly Clothes

According to the Bible, when God expelled Adam and Eve, wrapped in fig leaves, from the Garden of Eden he made them clothes from animal skin. The midrashic collection known as Genesis Rabbah, probably compiled in the 5th or 6th century, says that in Rabbi Meir’s Torah it did not say they were clothes of skin, but clothes of light. The Hebrew words for clothes and light differ by only one letter, and are pronounced almost identically.

Leaving aside the question of the authenticity of the biblical text (and this is not the only occasion when the 2nd century Rabbi Meir seems to have had a different version of the Torah), the suggestion that Adam and Eve may have had ethereal clothes made of light, rather than ordinary animal skins, connects this Midrash to a legend, now mostly lost, which casts Adam and Eve in a very different light.

After Rabbi Meir’s suggestion that the clothes were made of light , the passage in the Midrash continues with a series of other suggestions, each proposing a different material from which the garments were made. One said they were made of linen, another said goat skin, others said the skin of lambs, hares and so on. But Rabbi Yitzchak the elder said the clothes were as smooth as fingernails, he likened the material to pearl. A later interpretation takes this idea further and says that the clothes were made of the same scaly material as fingernails.

Scaly skin puts us in mind of the serpent, who had just been punished for giving Eve an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. His legs had been removed so that he crawled on the ground. And he could no longer talk- though formerly he had been able to speak to Eve. Another midrash from the same collection suggests that had the serpent not been punished he would have been a servant to humanity, doing our errands for us.

Putting these ideas together we can see that the walking, talking serpent has been transformed into the slithering silent creature that we know snakes to be. And as we all know, many species of snake shed their skin. A later midrash states that Adam and Eve were dressed in clothes made from very skin that the snake had shed. They have swapped their covering with the serpent.

Is it possible that Adam and Eve did more than just swap clothing with the snake? Had they too  been through a transformation, similar to that of the serpent, but the other way round? Have they swapped places?

In the early centuries of the current era, various non-Jewish groups adapted the Adam and Eve story to support their own beliefs. One group of Gnostics had a legend that the snake was actually the fallen angel Samael, a lesser deity than God but a deity nevertheless. They believed that he had been the one to create Adam and Eve but he’d been unable to bring them fully to life. They lay prone on the ground, slithering but silent. Just like snakes.

It seems that there may have been a belief among certain groups that Adam and Eve swapped places with Samael the serpent. God punished Samael by taking away his powers of speech and mobility, and gave them to Adam instead. Of course, all that remains today are hints of a legend of this sort, contained in various different sources. If we could reconstruct the legend, it might turn out to be very different from that speculated here. But it is fascinating to think that the biblical stories we have are just the tip of an iceberg, beneath which lie many different and intriguing legends and interpretations.


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books