Truth, responsibility & why Jordan Peterson is wrong on Genesis

Dr. Jordan Peterson is to be admired for standing up to the seemingly endless onslaught of stultifying dogma which now pervades our culture. He is the first to show any real success in doing so and, thus, demonstrates that success is indeed possible.

There is so much to like about Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. In an age of entitlement and offence, this book is a breath of fresh air. It has, however, been extensively reviewed elsewhere and I won’t be doing that here. Instead, I’m going to focus on where I think Dr. Peterson goes wrong.

I intend to be somewhat direct.

The word “truth” appears 115 times, no less, in 12 Rules. It is a book in which he advocates for truth and encourages others to be fearless in seeking truth in their personal lives. However, I feel that Dr. Peterson has fallen short himself, and what he presents as “truth” is, at times, no such thing, but a projection of a very personal world view. To illustrate this, I will refer specifically to his treatment of Genesis from the Old Testament.

But first, some context…

His book is billed as a “message about the value of individual responsibility,” and individual responsibility is something I very much agree with. However, when it comes to responsibility, he advocates two very different ideas of what it means. Men have responsibility for all things including a responsibility for women, but women it would seem are to have little responsibility beyond that of raising children.

In Rule 11, he writes:

A woman should look after her children—but that’s not all she should do. And a man should look after a woman and children—although that is not all he should do. But a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child.

I acknowledge that he writes that a woman should look after her children and, “that’s not all she should do.” However, I fail to see where Dr. Peterson explains what else women are actually expected to do other than, perhaps, raise world-redeeming heroes. At most, individual responsibility seems an optional extra for women throughout the book. What’s more, children are explicitly hers and it is only her children that she must look after. But not so for a man.

In a Q&A section entitled “Coda”, Dr. Peterson claims to be in possession of a “pen of light” which he uses to illuminate the Bible and, presumably, the truth. He writes:

What shall I do with my wife? Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world-redeeming hero.

This not only firmly casts women in the role of mothers, but places a requirement on men to treat them as other-worldly beings whose role is sacred. Moreover, with “world-redeeming hero,” it is clear that Dr. Peterson is not including daughters here. He goes on to give very different advice for how to treat sons and daughters. Daughters, he suggests, should be listened to and guarded, and told that it’s OK to be a mother. Sons should be encouraged to do what’s right, even if that means they must sacrifice their safety and their lives.

Now, I do not suggest that any of these notions are invalid in and of themselves. Sometimes it is necessary to risk our personal safety to do what we feel is right. If a man or a women wants to be a parent, they are entitled to want that. Such things are to be admired.

Taking responsibility for ourselves, our own behaviour and our own decisions can, indeed, be very empowering. In order to do this successfully, however, we need to have a clear and healthy understanding of what individual responsibility means and, in particular, what it does not mean. Individual responsibility does not mean taking responsibility for the actions and emotions of others when they have agency themselves, which is essentially what 12 Rules advocates that men should do.

In order to assume responsibility for others in a meaningful way, we must take away their control of themselves. We must, therefore, deny their agency. If we do not do this or cannot do this, then it is not responsibility we assume, but only the consequences of other people’s behaviour. Neither of these outcomes are particularly healthy in my view.

Nowhere is this more striking than in Dr. Peterson’s treatment of Genesis in the Rule 2 chapter. He draws frequently on historical texts to illustrate his points and I’m personally fine with this. It doesn’t matter to me whether Dr. Peterson believes in God or not in this regard as, for the most part, I’m happy to interpret things in a metaphorical sense which is what I believe Dr. Peterson intended.

Genesis describes the world initially created by God, one in which Adam and Eve live a childlike existence, free from hunger and suffering in idyllic surroundings. A snake (the devil), so the story goes, then tempts Eve with a forbidden fruit (a metaphor for knowledge).

Let’s look at Dr. Peterson’s interpretation, in which Adam and Eve are metaphors for men and women. Here is what he writes:

In any case, the serpent tells Eve that if she eats the forbidden fruit, she won’t die. Instead, her eyes will be opened. She will become like God, knowing good from evil. Of course, the serpent doesn’t let her know she will be like God in only that one way. But he is a serpent, after all. Being human, and wanting to know more, Eve decides to eat the fruit. Poof! She wakes up: she is conscious, or perhaps self-conscious, for the first time.

Now, no clear seeing, conscious woman is going to tolerate an unawakened man. So, Eve immediately shares the fruit with Adam. That makes him self-conscious. Little had changed. Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time. They do this primarily by rejecting them—but they also do it by shaming them, if men do not take responsibility. Since women bear the primary burden of reproduction, it’s no wonder. It is very hard to see how it could be otherwise. But the capacity of women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force in nature.

He then goes off on a tangent with a discussion about snakes, Virgin Mary and “naked apes”, but comes back on a circle to continue the story:

That evening, when Eden cools down, God goes out for His evening stroll. But Adam is absent. This puzzles God, who is accustomed to walking with him. “Adam,” calls God, apparently forgetting that He can see through bushes, “Where are you?” Adam immediately reveals himself, but badly: first as a neurotic; then as a ratfink. The creator of all the universe calls, and Adam replies: “I heard you, God. But I was naked, and hid.” What does this mean? It means that people unsettled by their vulnerability, eternally fear to tell the truth, to mediate between chaos and order, and to manifest their destiny. In other words, they are afraid to walk with God. That’s not particularly admirable, perhaps, but it’s certainly understandable. God’s a judgemental father. His standards are high. He’s hard to please.

God says, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat something you weren’t supposed to?” And Adam, in his wretchedness, points right at Eve, his love, his partner, his soul-mate, and snitches on her. And then he blames God. He says, “The woman, whom you gave to me, she gave it to me (and then I ate it).” How pathetic—and how accurate. The first woman made the first man self-conscious and resentful. Then the first man blamed God. This is how every spurned male feels, to this day. First, he feels small, in front of the potential object of his love, after she denigrates his reproductive suitability. Then he curses God for making her so bitchy, himself so useless (if he has any sense) and Being itself so deeply flawed. Then he turns to thoughts of revenge. How thoroughly contemptible (and how utterly understandable). At least the women had the serpent to blame, and it later turns out that snake is Satan himself, unlikely as it seems. This, we can understand and sympathize with Eve’s error. She was deceived by the best. But Adam! No one forced his words from his mouth.

In this account, Eve bears no responsibility whatsoever. She was simply “deceived by the best” and we must sympathise with her. Adam, however, was a “neurotic”—a pathetic and contemptible “ratfink” whose thoughts were of revenge. None of this is in Genesis.

Where has it come?

I read Adam’s response to God as a truthful explanation of what had happened, rather than the words of a neurotic ratfink obsessed with revenge. I accept that Adam implicated God and Eve and I accept that his words may well have been barbed. I’ll explain why, however, far from being pathetic and contemptible, Adam’s response to God was not only truthful, it was very human response and, in a sense, even healthy. In fact, his words are astoundingly eloquent when you unpick them.

But just what exactly were Adam’s words to God?

Nowhere in any of his account does Dr. Peterson acknowledge that Adam even admitted to God that he ate the apple. In fact, he obfuscates what Adam actually said. He writes that when God asked Adam whether he had eaten the forbidden fruit, his reply was this:

The woman, whom you gave to me, she gave it to me (and then I ate it).

You could be forgiven if you didn’t originally spot what Dr. Peterson has done here. It certainly gives the appearance of accuracy. But let me ask, just how should we interpret the parentheses here?

Would you unthinkingly assume, as I did, that what Adam said was this: “The woman, whom you gave to me, she gave it to me,” with the fact that he ate it being left only to implication?

Indeed, parentheses in quoted speech (usually square ones) are typically used for clarification of or addition to what is being said. Their contents are not vocalised. I did a little a research and believe they can also be used as an outdated device to add emphasis [1]. But this would be bizarre. If we were to assume they were inserted for emphasis, then we may ask why Dr. Peterson felt it necessary to use modern language to articulate Adam’s words, but an archaic and unused device to emphasise them?

I’m not particularly well read when it comes to the Bible, but I was aware that there are many translations. The King James Bible, for example, gives Adam’s words as: “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” The New International Version gives this: “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” And The Young’s Literal Translation: “The woman whom Thou didst place with me—she hath given to me of the tree—and I do eat.” [2]

This is the very crux of Genesis. In every commonly available translation, the language style may vary, but Adam’s words are clear and semantically equivalent. In Dr. Peterson’s interpretation, however, they are not and it could naturally be assumed that Adam excluded himself from responsibility entirely.

What Adam actually did was to separate out responsibility as follows:

  • God
  • Eve
  • Himself

If this is so “utterly understandable,” as Dr. Peterson writes, then why must we refuse so utterly to understand it? And just why must we view with such contempt that which is so true?

The serpent not only gave Eve the fruit, which she knew to be forbidden, but told her what it would bring. Eve had a choice but, to be fair, she was still a “child” at that point. But then in an awakened state, a conscious Eve gave the fruit to Adam who was still a child himself. Did she give him the same choice? Presumably not, given how the ability of women to bully and shame men is a “primal force of nature”. In any case, “no clear seeing, conscious woman,” we are told, “is going to tolerate an unawakened man”.

But that did not give her the right.

Dr. Peterson, in his own account, omits the fact that Eve also hid her nakedness from God and, significantly, that God questioned her too about what she had done. When God comes along, she simply vanishes in his version of events. Perhaps he did not feel Eve was worth a mention here, given that even clear seeing conscious women seemingly need not account for their actions.

What Eve actually did was to point to the snake, as Adam had pointed to her, but she acknowledged that she too ate the fruit. And good for her!

I certainly would have eaten the damn thing.

And what about God? Just what was his role in all of this?

If we continue with the story for a moment, were not Adam and Eve both children who did not know the difference between good and evil? Why must we heap contempt on either of them?

Did God not always intend for humankind to go out into the world and face reality? Or are we really to believe that God’s original plan was to keep Adam and Eve as pets—a pair of human chihuahuas—for his garden, but he was thwarted by their disobedience?

Was not the apple always a trap? Was the snake not God’s creation too?

Adam (a metaphor for men) curses and blames God, we are told, simply because he was so useless and pathetic. We should see Eve’s behaviour as a primal force of nature, but with Adam, we need not understand further. He was contemptible, and that’s all there is to know.

If Adam was, indeed, angry in this story then could it not be because he was hurt by God’s trap? Was he not, in a sense, betrayed by God? Was not the whole thing a setup from the start?

Why, in this case, must we deny Adam his anger by heaping shame upon his head? I would suggest that Adam’s hurt would be a natural and necessary consequence of his awakening. Why, then, must his anger be suppressed and his humanity denied when anger is, itself, a God-given human emotion which must, therefore, serve some purpose?

I suspect that God didn’t really feel bitter and vengeful over this, or at least would have got over things rather quickly. Rather, I would suggest that it is Dr. Peterson, and not God, who would be more likely to deny Adam his emotions and Eve her part in this drama. After all, it really was all part of God’s plan, was it not? Or did God seriously not know what he was doing?

I had an insightful online exchange about this recently on a Jordan Peterson themed discussion group with a guy who claimed to be a Christian and a believer in the Bible. He was very polite (much more than I) but nevertheless accused me of “decrying God”, “saying that life’s not fair” and of “advocating weakness”.

He quoted Adam’s words from the Bible at me which, rather interestingly, he wrote as: “The woman who thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and she did eat.” (This, by the way, is how I came to spot what Dr. Peterson had, himself, written.)

Adam should simply have taken the blame “like a man”, he added.

I found myself a little annoyed by what I regarded as a false sense of virtue on this. In response, I pushed the guy hard on what Adam should have done or could have done differently.

It is interesting to see just where his line of thinking eventually went.

Adam was damned whatever he did, I argued. And if so, how could he be responsible for things over which he had no control? If he ate the apple, which God had put there, he would be disobeying God. If he refused, then Eve would have simply bullied, shamed and rejected him which, according Dr. Peterson she was entitled to do, until he eventually relented. After all, he was a child who had no other place to be.

His eventual reply, when it came, was this: “Adam should’ve stood up to Eve and more or less put Ever [sic] in her place.”

And there we have it.

Just how exactly was Adam meant to have put Eve in her place? And what precisely was meant by “more or less”? A stern look (less)? Or was Adam meant to have given Eve a slap and taken his belt to her (more)? I suspect the latter of the two, if the former failed to do the trick, but my online acquaintance was too afraid to say so in a straightforward manner. But, in short, in order to take responsibility, Adam should have taken control over Eve—by force if necessary—was what was being suggested.

Just how would that play out in a modern context, I wondered?

Dr. Peterson is a highly intelligent, educated and articulate man. However, what he presents us with is not an honest analysis of the Bible, but some twisted version of it and a character assassination of Adam—of men.

I write of Adam’s hurt and anger. I wish to acknowledge my own here—I am actually angry with Dr. Peterson and, yes, this is personal. Certain parts of 12 Rules touched on rather painful aspects of my soul, into which he dumps what I regard as his personal projection of how every male feels—something he could not possibly know—in a chapter giving advice on how to Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible for Helping. I’m not sure how a model for self-contempt is meant to help!

His book has been out for a year or so now, and I’ve been meaning to articulate my thoughts on this aspect of it for sometime. This is first time I’ve been able to do so.

Not so long ago, my mother died of liver failure. It was a lingering and agonising death. She was an alcoholic.

My father was a loving, caring and decent man—rather unlike the contemptible image portrayed of men in Dr. Peterson’s Genesis. My father was, however, totally invested in the idea of perfect motherhood—much like the one promoted by Dr. Peterson—the idea that motherhood is “sacred” in some way.

The week he finally retired from a physically demanding job at the age of 67 was the same week in which my mother’s health failed catastrophically. My dad had been in full time employment since he was 14, and my mother had been drinking almost as far back as I can remember. The last two years of his life were spent as her full time carer—spoon feeding and taking her to the toilet.

“All I’ve done in life,” he used to say proudly, “is keep your mother happy no matter what.”

He collapsed and died shortly after her funeral.

In marriage, conflict between my parents almost never arose. On the occasions he pushed back against her emotions, she would simply transform into a baby-like state and begin sobbing—at which point he would put his arm around her and say, “It’s alright love. Don’t worry.”

Her drinking was completely invisible to him, as it was to me. Drinking was not something done by mothers because they were “perfect” and, therefore, such a thing simply could not be possible. Her alcoholism was culturally invisible in other words.

I’ve pondered much recently on how my mother was, in fact, drunk throughout much of my life and I never even knew it. She would have a glass in her hand from mid-afternoon onward, and I only ever saw it as normal.

My mother never had to face the consequences of her behaviour. There was never any need for her to have a sense of responsibility in an emotional context.

When, only a few years back, I began for the first time to talk about my mother’s drinking, I was met with no end of angry responses: “It’s no use blaming your mother,” “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself,” and “How dare you talk like that about your mother!”

I’ve had to fight through traditionalist and religious dogma to get at the truth—to get at sanity. I had, I realise now, been in a double-bind—one in which was shameful and one in which even to pose the necessary questions was, in itself, shameful. I can relate rather poignantly, therefore, to where Dr. Peterson writes:

Advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just up and go away.

We, as adults, are responsible for our decisions in life based on the knowledge and understanding available to us. If our understanding is lacking, we should be fearless in seeking a better one. Dr. Peterson, himself, writes:

It is our responsibility to see what is before our eyes, courageously, and to learn from it, even if it seems horrible—even if the horror of seeing it damages our consciousness, and half-blinds us.

There were many wonderful things about my childhood. In so many ways, I was blessed. It is not that my childhood was particularly unique or bad—it wasn’t. Rather, I refer to it because it has lead me to have a certain insight—as a boy I agonised over my mother’s emotions because I felt “responsible” for them when, in fact, I could never have been. Children cannot be responsible because they do not posses the level of mental development to be so.

The idea of individual responsibility has become important to me, but it hinges on what I regard as a healthy demarcation between our own responsibilities and those of others. Today, I have a lot of love and compassion for my mother. Understanding of reality, not suppression of reality, has made this possible.

Traditionalist ideas of the family have much to be said for them, and the breakdown of the family in recent years represents a tragedy for children. My father saw marriage as an equitable partnership, and I see this as admirable. Society, today, faces many pressing problems and I would not expect Dr. Peterson to have all the solutions. What I would expect, however, is an honest shot at the truth—or at least not a lie.

A model of Holy Mothers and Hero Sons is just a too simplistic framework for reality in the modern context. Women and mothers are not deity. They are fully fledged human beings and should be seen as such. They are entitled to make decisions, face consequences and grow as a result, just as we are. To deny women responsibility is deny their agency and, therefore, it is to deny their full humanity. Likewise, to deny us our emotions is to deny our full humanity also.

Despite my critical words, I admire Dr. Peterson’s work and I admire him as a human being. It is clear to me that he cares deeply about people, whether they be male or female. He refers much to chaos and order—the need to straddle its boundary to derive a meaningful life. I suspect that his understanding of things in this regard is much more profound than any literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Universe is, indeed, not a fair or safe place. It is not just an arena for human cruelty, but gives rise to all manner of predators and parasites.

And things could never have been any other way.

If it were free of unfairness and cruelty, it would be a sterile place in which human beings, along with everything else in the Cosmos, could never have come into existence.

When God discovered that both Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit, he forced us both out into the world in order that we may evolve and grow.

It would seem that God does not expect either of us to be pets.

[1] https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/91239/parenthetical-statements-in-direct-speech

[2] https://biblehub.com/genesis/3-12.htm

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