The Eternal Triangle

I’ve been writing about relationship triangles in my recent blogs, and I noted that the first triangle that appears in Scripture Adam and Eveis Adam-Eve-God, as in Genesis 2:23.

YHWH, God, built the rib that he had taken from the human into a woman
and brought her to the human. . . .
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife,
And they become one flesh. (The Shocken Bible, translated by Everett Fox).

All relationships tend to be triangular, because the triangle is the most stable geometric form, and the primal marriage of Genesis 2 illustrates the most stable triangular relationship, two individuals and God. As the story continues in Genesis 3, however, it introduces triangulation, the introduction of a third party (or idea or value or object) into a relationship in a way that distorts that relationship. Genesis 2 ends with an idyllic picture of male-female intimacy, into which the snake triangulates itself:

Now the two of them, the human and his wife, were nude, yet they were not ashamed.
Now the snake was more shrewd than all the living things of the field that YHWH, God, had made.
It said to the woman:
Even though God said: You are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden . . . ! (Gen. 2:25-3:1)

Translator Everett Fox (whose translation appears in all the quotes in this blog, except the last) captures a Hebrew word-play when he translates the Hebrew adjective ARUM in rhyming English as “nude” in Gen. 2:25 and “shrewd” in Gen. 3:1. This word-play connects the two verses and suggests that the intimate union of man and woman sets the stage for the snake as a triangulating third party. The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 18:6) says that the snake saw Adam and Eve in their  sexual union, lusted after Eve, and stepped into the situation (remember, he doesn’t start crawling on the ground until God curses him). A more straightforward reading has the snake triangulating not between Eve and Adam, but between Eve and God. He inserts himself into their relationship to disrupt it, challenge the primacy of God, and draw Eve to himself.

Here’s a classic move of triangulation that we need to watch out for today: someone pulls you aside to cast doubt about the motives or truthfulness of a third party who happens to not be there. When this happens, you can be sure that the one who pulls you aside doesn’t care about helping you, but only about advancing his or her own agenda. To de-triangle, you can just go to the party that he’s talking about and check things out for yourself. So, after the snake cast doubts on God’s truthfulness and motives, Eve could have raised the issue with God himself—but somehow we humans never think of that. Instead, Eve, in her freshly created innocence, falls for the snake’s rather obvious ploy and eats from the forbidden tree. Adam follows right along.

When the Lord confronts Adam, we see another form of triangulation as Adam says, “The woman whom you gave to be beside me, she gave me from the tree,/ and so I ate” (Gen. 3:12). It’s not clear whether the man is casting more blame on Eve or on God, but he’s triangulating to get the blame off himself. God wants the man to man up and take responsibility, but Adam pulls in a third party to take the heat off himself. Eve follows suit: “The snake enticed me,/ and so I ate” (Gen. 3:13). The Lord deals with the snake, but he returns to the human and his wife to outline the consequences of their disobedience. In other words, he refuses to be triangulated, but insists on dealing with each one directly.

Note that the name of God throughout this story is YHWH, God, in Fox’s translation, or more commonly the LORD God. YHWH, the LORD, is the unpronounceable name of God. This name, according to the Midrash, emphasizes God as the merciful and compassionate one; “God” in this context translates Elohim, and emphasizes God as judge (Genesis Rabbah 3.15). Back in Genesis 3:1, the snake refered to the deity simply as God, portraying him as a harsh and self-serving deity (3:1-5). But the tale reveals both aspects of our Creator: YHWH Elohim places the human in a garden and fills it with beautiful trees, but he also forbids the human to eat from one of those trees. YHWH Elohim seeks out the humans after they eat of the tree, but he also confronts them for their disobedience. YHWH Elohim ultimately expels them from the beautiful garden, but he also provides coverings for them before sending them out.

God is not distorted by triangulation as are the humans, not pulled in different directions by the dynamics of human relationships. He remains who he is despite the behavior of others. Rabbi Friedman, whom I quote in Triangulation and Addiction, writes about the leader who has the self-knowledge and self-control to likewise avoid being drawn into triangulation. He or she

is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Friedman, accessed 10/24/2015)

One lesson of this story is that we don’t need to react to others’ attempts at triangulation, but can remain true to our own goals and values. But, of course, the greater lesson is that God doesn’t react. We disobey, make excuses, and blame others, but the LORD remains true to his own purposes of both justice and mercy. ““But because I, [the LORD], do not change, you sons of Ya‘akov will not be destroyed” (Mal. 3:6, CJB).

Illustration: “Adam and Eve” by Diana Bryer

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1 thought on “The Eternal Triangle”

  1. Interesting observation about the triangular nature of human relationships, Russ. I like it.

    I’m curious if you’ve ever read Logan & King’s Tribal Leadership. They recommend building such triads as a major component of strong communities.

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