The predicament of humanity, according to Book 11 of Milton’s Paradise Lost, is having lost, in the name of “Rational Libertie” (XII: 82), the “true Libertie” of knowing God, feeling his Presence, and rejoicing in the unconditional merging of human and Divine cognition.
Adam, thou know’st Heav’n his, and all the Earth. [ 335]
Not this Rock onely; his Omnipresence fills
Land, Sea, and Aire, and every kinde that lives,
Fomented by his virtual power and warmd:
All th’ Earth he gave thee to possess and rule,
No despicable gift; surmise not then [ 340 ]
His presence to these narrow bounds confin’d
Of Paradise or Eden: this had been
Perhaps thy Capital Seate, from whence had spred
All generations, and had hither come
From all the ends of th’ Earth, to celebrate [ 345 ]
And reverence thee thir great Progenitor.
But this præeminence thou hast lost, brought down
To dwell on eeven ground now with thy Sons:
Yet doubt not but in Vallie and in Plaine
God is as here, and will be found alike 
Present, and of his presence many a signe
Still following thee, still compassing thee round
With goodness and paternal Love, his Face
Express, and of his steps the track Divine.
While conversing with the Archangel Michael, Adam laments the fact that he will no longer be allowed to enjoy the presence of God, “hid” and “deprivd” of “His blessed count’nance,” and that he will never again be able to worship him “place by place” while enjoying his “Presence Divine” (XI:316-319). His angelic interlocutor responds to this by reassuring him that God is actually present everywhere. The only difference between pre-lapsarian cognition and post-lapsarian “Rational Libertie” is that the same presence is made evident by “signe[s],” tokens of “paternal Love” which men are called to gather and, when empowered to do so, interpret.
Having lost the preeminence of one who could see, know and feel the Divine in every corner of existence, Adam is thus the progenitor of generations of searchers, gatherers of signs, tokens of Divine love, the careful listeners of a Creator knocking at our door. The fall is, in other words, the lapse into a whirlpool of hermeneutic uncertainty, constellated by myriads of tokens, in which the individual is obliged to recreate the fullness of pre-lapsarian understanding by recomposing fragmentation and absence into the fullness of Presence.
When ordered by Abraham to leave Canaan in order to search for a wife for his son Isaac, Eliezer faces a difficult task, an ordeal which he tackles with faith and prayer. Upon reaching Aram Naharaiim, he prays: (Gen. 24:10-14)
10 And the servant took ten camels, of the camels of his master, and departed; having all goodly things of his master’s in his hand; and he arose, and went to Aram-naharaim, unto the city of Nahor. 11 And he made the camels to kneel down without the city by the well of water at the time of evening, the time that women go out to draw water. 12 And he said: ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, send me, I pray Thee, good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham. 13 Behold, I stand by the fountain of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water. 14 So let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say: Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say: Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant, even for Isaac; and thereby shall I know that Thou hast shown kindness unto my master.’
What Eliezer does here is establish a sign, define a token of intention, and presents it to God in the form of a prayer – if you truly wish to show my master your love, then this is what will have to happen… De Saussure, the French linguist from the first half of the 20th century, would have said in this case that Eliezer unilaterally defines a signifier for a signified which is Divinely ordained. When both signifier and signified are revealed, the individual experiences presence, the fullness of meaning. Eliezer prays, but God does not answer his prayer directly – and Eliezer paces cautiously in the darkness of uncertainty, waiting to see if his definition of a token of God’s love for Abraham will actually work out.
15 And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that, behold, Rebekah came out, who was born to Bethuel the son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her pitcher upon her shoulder. 16 And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her; and she went down to the fountain, and filled her pitcher, and came up. 17 And the servant ran to meet her, and said: ‘Give me to drink, I pray thee, a little water of thy pitcher.’ 18 And she said: ‘Drink, my lord’; and she hastened, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. 19 And when she had done giving him drink, she said: ‘I will draw for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.’ 20 And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw, and drew for all his camels. 21 And the man looked stedfastly on her; holding his peace, to know whether the LORD had made his journey prosperous or not. 22 And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold; 23 and said: ‘Whose daughter art thou? tell me, I pray thee. Is there room in thy father’s house for us to lodge in?’ 24 And she said unto him: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore unto Nahor.’ 25 She said moreover unto him: ‘We have both straw and provender enough, and room to lodge in.’ 26 And the man bowed his head, and prostrated himself before the LORD.
The blindness imposed upon Adam and his sons is one which obliges the individual to search, interpret, understand and instill with meaning the complex and apparent (or evident) lack of Divine Presence in reality. What Eliezer experiences in this passage is a moment of complete understanding, upon seeing his prayer come true, and his sign filled with meaning – Rebecca is not merely a passive player in the general scheme of things designed by Eliezer and actualized by God, but rather becomes herself an icon of presence, representing for him the guiding hand of the Divine and bringing him to bow his head and prostrate himself to the reality he sees and understands. Tokens of Divine love are not simply objects, but situations, feelings, thoughts, voices, and glances – the predicament of Adam is our predicament, and the silence of Absence is what we are forced to deal with on a day to day basis. And yet, upon feeling the immediacy of Presence, all we can do is prostrate the apparent “Rational libertie” of our minds to a cognition which is unmediated, and brings together the signifier and the signified in a moment of fullness. As Jacques Lacan suggested, rather compellingly, individuals are signifiers and come into being with an inherent inadequacy.
“This inadequacy has everything to do with the way the signifier comes into “being” as creatio ex nihilo (Lacan, Book VII 115-27). Because of this “creation out of nothing,” the inadequacy that marks the signifier–what, in a sense, is excluded in it or “beyond” the signifier–does not precede its loss. The signifier comes into being only insofar as it marks the subject with a certain lack; something of an originary or primal plenitude is lost. This, according to psychoanalysis, is always imagined as the symbiotic relationship between the child and the mother. The traumatic loss of this primal experience of satisfaction, this original homeostasis, is the price the subject must pay for entry into the symbolic and the differential relations of desire. […] And this failure, this cut on the body, marks the birth of knowledge and its counterpart, desire. It marks the birth of the human as desiring subject.” (http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/text-only/issue.101/11.2belau.txt)
Tokens, when experienced in their semantic fullness, convey to the individual a moment of communion, a fragment of that Presence which he or she experienced in an Edenic symbiosis with the Divine. And it is in that moment that Eliezer, or anyone for that matter, must bow and prostrate. The problem is, alas, that that sense of Presence is close to impossible… and all we are left with are signs, tokens, traces of supposed Divine steps…
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.