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Step Away from the Tree, Eve

TFC is thrilled to feature recent participant, Abbey Booher's reflections on Naomi Alderman's novel, The Power.


The voice is saying things. It’s saying: Don’t do it. It’s saying: Turn away. It’s saying: Step away from the tree, Eve, with your hands up. (Alderman 365).


In Genesis, God said to Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2: 16-17, NIV). For many practices of the Christian faith, this is the set up for the turning point of all human history: When Eve, persuaded by the serpent goes to eat from this tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is recorded as such:


Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the

garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but

God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden,

and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when

you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and

evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the

eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave

some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them

were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and

made coverings for themselves (Genesis 3: 1-7, NIV).


In this moment, the first woman recorded in the Hebrew Bible, spurred on by the serpent in the garden, condemned all humans because she wanted to taste the knowledge of good and evil. Once she and Adam ate the fruit, they both recognized their nakedness and hid.


For me, being raised in the Christian story, the fruit bearing the knowledge of good and evil was always vaguely explained away. Why was such knowledge forbidden? Wouldn’t a person want to know what was good and what was evil? Some scholars say that the knowledge of “good and evil” is a merism, meaning that it is a literary device that posits two opposite concepts to create a more general meaning. As such, the knowledge of “good” and of “evil” may just mean the knowledge of everything.[1][2][3] Scholars have long since debated what exactly this “knowledge of good and evil” business really means, and my own Sunday school teachers throughout childhood similarly had various opinions. From omniscience, to sexual knowledge, moral discrimination and other ideas, there does not seem to be consensus on what, exactly, was wrong with this fruit. In his dissertation, Nathan French extensively reviews the multitude of thoughts obtained by scholars, and therein posits this view: that the knowledge of good and evil is “the knowledge for administering reward and punishment” meaning the fruit forbidden by God is the wisdom for wielding ultimate power.[4]


In Naomi Alderman’s book, The Power, she begins by writing, “The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree. Root to tip, central trunk branching and re-branching, spreading wider in ever-thinner, searching fingers.”[5] Throughout the novel, power is shaped as a tree, an organic, growing, and communicative tree. It is the shape of power that never changes and even in this novel, where world order completely shifts and the reader is led to believe that everything may be different now, the shape of power remains. And the shape of power is explored through the most basic form of power- the power to hurt other people.


The book explores power through the lives of a politician, a journalist, a religious leader and a member of a family heavily involved in organized crime. Each character continually ascends and descends the scale of power, seemingly experiencing different types of power: the power of exposure, the power of wealth, the power of influence, the power of fear. Though perhaps the characters are not dealing with different types of power, but rather the same: the power in the shape of a tree. As the book progresses, we see these characters each confront the shape of power in their own lives. However, Mother Eve, formerly Allison Montogomery-Taylor is perhaps our most direct line to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the dangers of having the kind of power that “can administer reward or punishment.”


Allie begins the novel as a sixteen-year-old girl in Alabama who lives with her foster parents, Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor. She is repeatedly abused and raped by her foster dad until she develops the power. With The Power, she kills him and runs away to a convent, early in the time of girls discovering their gift of the power. Spurred by The Voice, she begins her own religion where she teaches God is a woman and that the time has come for women to gain dominion over the earth. She grows in power, gathering a global following and using her power to manipulate the situation to gain continued wealth, notoriety and political power. Her own character shows the manipulation of faith under the pressure of power- she herself does not fully believe the driving force behind the voice, behind her power, even as she is acting in such a way that will lead to complete destruction of the current world order so that women may start again as being the ones with complete dominion. Her arc continues with her gaining seemingly absolute power in this new world order: gathering followers, gaining powerful female friends, obtaining new titles. It crescendos when she has killed a prominent female leader, gathering an army in addition to her religious influence. She is, finally, ready to do what The Voice has been preparing for: destroy the world as it is, and begin anew. At this exact moment, however, Roxanne who at one point was the most powerful fighter in the novel until losing her skein, tells Allison that this is not creating and shaping power, this is being created and shaped by power. She implores Allison to look up her previous foster mother and then decide how the world should continue.


This is when The Voice says to Allison, “The voice is saying things. It’s saying: Don’t do it. It’s saying: Turn away. It’s saying: Step away from the tree, Eve, with your hands up.”[6] Here it is, the tree so tempting to Eve in the garden. The tree bearing fruit forbidden by God. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of the knowledge to administer reward and punishment. Allison Montgomery-Taylor, or Mother Eve, calls Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor and learns the truth. Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor did not simply stand by idly while Allie was raped by her step father; instead, she told her husband to abuse and rape Allie. Not only that, Allie now learns that under the guise of power she has built for herself as Mother Eve, her former foster mother has a home filled to the brim with young girls just like Allison. Young girls at the mercy of the power of Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor. In that moment, Allie glimpses the truth- the shape of power is the same. It cannot be changed. So as it looks in the hands of men, so it looks in the hands of women.


Upon tasting the fruit, Allison does not learn the knowledge of good and evil. She learns that there is no good and there is no evil, there is only power. However, in that moment, when she finally knows, she does change course. She does not have the strength or imagination or wisdom to wield reward and punishment in any way that does not look like pain. The tree’s roots are too deep, and in her course for gaining power, she has become completely entrenched in it. “If she roots this out, she roots out herself. Her own roots are rotten already.”[7] She is shaped by power, even in her desperation to shape it. She continues the course.


As the reader, perhaps the second-hand fruit tasting is the point. All along, we feel we are the heroes, the ones unwilling to hurt, the ones who would retain their empathetic humanity even when given such power. We romanticize that when faced with the knowledge of good and evil, we are the empathetic characters: we are Roxanne who, when faced with great loss, turns to walk down the path of forgiveness. We are Tunde who, when betrayed, seeks to trust again. We are Bernie Monke who, after endless wrong choices, receives grace. However we are– all of us–the characters lost to the shape of power; the characters who hurt and do not give an inch to love at the end. We are Margot who, after forgetting who she is, continues to harden her heart rather than face her pain. We are Tatiana who, after being sidelined and ignored, becomes cruel and vengeful when given the chance. We are Allison who, when she recognizes the truth about herself and about Mrs. Montgomery-Taylor, forges ahead with the path laid, knowing her guilt but unwilling to imagine an alternative. We are the countless women who, upon gaining power, hurt other people. Just as Eve in the garden, just as Mother Eve in her room, when we taste of the fruit, we see the good and the evil in ourselves and we finally see our own nakedness and feel the shame of it.


Yet, there, in a quiet house in East Tennessee, a dozen or so women sit to read and speak and perhaps even dare to imagine what else power can do.Through poetry and prose, discussion and silence, we wrestled with the fact that we might not even have developed the imaginative power to think about a different shape of power. Building and yearning and creating, we even asked if there can be a different shape to power. However, we reminded each other that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -That perches in the soul -And sings the tune without the words -And never stops - at all -”[8] It is there, in quiet voices and tea and laughter, that you start to hope and wonder and dream of a truer, kinder, more compassionate world. And as Alderman says, “Our dreams are more true than our waking.”[9]


***Abbey Booher is book-loving wife, daughter, and sister who lives in East Tennessee. She teachers special education at a local middle school, which means she has a blast everyday and constantly has to Google new phrases kids use. She also lives with three dogs and a cat, which is the most crazy and the most fun. ****

[1] Gordon, Cyrus H.; Rendsburg, Gary A. (1997). The Bible and the ancient Near East (4th ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Co. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-393-31689-6. Merism. [2] Harry Orlinsky's notes to the NJPS Torah. [3] Wyatt, Nicolas (2001). Space and Time in the Religious Life of the Near East. A&C Black. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-567-04942-1.

[4] French, Nathan S. (2021). A Theocentric Interpretation of הדעת טוב ורע: The Knowledge of Good and Evil as the Knowledge forAdministering Reward and Punishment. FRLANT 283. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (1. ed.). Göttingen. ISBN 978-3-525-56499-8. OCLC1226310726 [5] Alderman, N. (2020), p.3

[6] Alderman, N. (2020), p.365

[7] Alderman, N. (2020), p. 373 [8] Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the thing with feathers” [9] Aldernman, N (2020), p. 359


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