Saturday, September 26, 2009

Random Thoughts on Genesis 3

Did the serpent really "deceive" Eve? She accuses him of such behavior in Gen 3:13, but in Gen 3:4-5, the serpent tells her that 1) she won't die when she eats the fruit and 2) she'll become wise like God, knowing good from evil. When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they 1) don't die and 2) they become wise like God, knowing good from evil. God himself attests to the latter in Gen 3:22: "well, we better kick them out of the garden now since they've become like us, knowing both good and evil" (my paraphrase).

It doesn't seem like the serpent technically deceived her. He just didn't give full disclosure of the consequences: "You know, what God said about that tree isn't entirely true but you'd better keep the rule just because God said so. He gets really cranky if you break his rules."

And where does the equation of the serpent with Satan come from? Yes, Revelation calls Satan the ancient serpent (Rev 12:9, Rev 20:2), but is that it? I suppose we could make the "animals are not really able to talk so it must have been a supernatural being" argument. But if animals couldn't talk, then was Eve really so naive as to chat away with a serpent who struck up a conversation about the only rule God had given them? She should've run away screaming: "What the . . .? Serpents don't talk. AAAADaaaammmmm!"

Curious. I think maybe the animals could talk. Otherwise, Gen 3:1 using a comparative construction doesn't make much sense: "The serpent was more cunning than any animal of the field" (my translation). This suggests that the other animals must have possessed some degree of cunning. It doesn't say - "now the serpent was the only clever, articulate and sentient one out of all the dumb beasts that God had made."

And so, my random thoughts on Genesis 3 are ended. Any random comments from those of you who have been thinking through issues related to Genesis interpretation lately? Chris? James? Anybody? (Anonymous comments may or may not be posted, however, depending on my whim and the relevance of their content.)


  1. I discovered somewhere were the source of the Snake/Satan equation came from, but I can't find the source right now. It was definitely extra-biblical, however. But it also makes no sense for God to curse all snakes, if the snake was Satan, does it?

  2. Doug:

    A few brief things:

    1) An article worth checking out may be Mieke Bal's "Tricky Thematics," Semeia from 1988. This piece looks at the scene as one of trickery. That said . . .

    2) I think one can and should speak of the serpent as a trickster/deceiver. What you cite as a hesitancy for ascribing that label (only withholds some information) is indeed the definition for trickery/deception employed by most scholars working on the topic. Withholding of vital information is indeed a part of the definition in my work on deception.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Damian and John.

    I forgot you were working on the trickster issue in Genesis, John. My random thoughts here are from just me and the text. I've never researched Gen 3 in depth and didn't bother to pull any commentaries off the shelf for this post.

    I agree that how we define words is important and that we should see this as deception based on how you've defined it.

    I was actually reading the text and trying to simplify the story to teach preschoolers in Sunday School today, and I was caught by the realization that on the face of it (from the perspective of a 3 year old), the serpent said A & B would happen, then A & B happened. But the curriculum focused on how the serpent was a deceiver. Things that make you go hmmmm.

  4. It would not suggest that the other animals are cunning if this is a partitive use of מן. "Out of all the beasts of the field, the serpent was cunning." The pairing of היה with מכל being used partitively can be seen in Joshua 8:35. As to the merits of this over a comparative reading, I do not know.

    I have been ruminating over this text as well as of late.

  5. Well, since this blog is dedicated to the Hebrew Bible: Yom Tov!

  6. Joseph,

    I hadn't thought about the possible partitive use. That would make sense, too. I noticed most English translations use some sort of superlative or comparative. "The serpent was the shrewdest of all the animals" etc.

  7. One of the more bizarre features of the story is that the commandment not to eat comes before either the serpent or the woman were made. Is this a mistake by the narrator, or should we assume a sequence where the man passes on God's info to those who are made after him?

  8. Good point, Doug. I guess I assumed that Adam spread the word. Obviously Eve had an answer for the serpent, though it's interesting how Eve's version of the rule is a little stronger, adding the no touching provision. What's more telling is the fact that Adam was the one who heard the rule straight from the mouth of God, but said nothing when Eve and the serpent are having their little chat.

  9. Doug, I like translating with "shrewd" because it then allows you to make an attempt at rendering the Hebrew pun by using "nude" instead of naked.

    I also appreciated the other commenter's point about snakes in general being punished for this - or was there only one snake at this stage? If there was another (presumably talking) snake around, it presumably should have delivered the line "This is another fine mess you've gotten us into".

    In the context of the Hebrew Bible as it now stands, the story parallels the story of Israel, being given a paradisical land, commandments that need to be obeyed, disobeying and being exiled. But if we read the story as a mythical exploration of the universal human experience of loss of innocence, coming of age, and all that accompanies it, then perhaps what we find in Eve's eating the fruit first is simply an awareness of the fact that girls tend to mature slightly earlier than boys.

  10. A couple of quick comments (thanks for drawing me in!). I will be getting to Gen. 3 in due course, but I am just now finishing Gen. 1 and that was not terribly thorough.

    I have often pointed out to my students that the serpent does not "lie" and in fact, I think the tension is, God appears to be the one to lie: They do NOT die "on the day that they ate of [the fruit]." (And yes, we all know the apologetics for this, they become mortal, etc.) "Trickster" does describe what we have but often ignores this contrast that is present between the serpent and God (I will elaborate on that in a post at some point).

    Doug - regarding when the commandment is presented note also that God tells the man not "to eat of it" BUT when the serpent confronts the woman she ADDS to the prohibition. "God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, *nor shall you touch it,* or you shall die.’” Is this an oblique commentary upon the perils of transmitting law (orally?)? Is this "building a fence around the Torah"?

    Finally, I blogged about Gen. 3:6 two and half years ago addressing the question of whether or not Adam was with Eve when the serpent confronted here. "Oh yeah. He was there." I think it is still worth a read, with some good links and a summary of a handful of modern commentaries.

  11. Odd indeed that I was considering this story today. I too am preparing to teach creation to Sunday School this week. Not planning on doing Gen 3 though, just Gen 1-2:4. About the story - if one imagines as some suggest that the creation stories are given to or redacted for Israel about the time of the exile, If the human indeed is placed as image of God in the temple of creation, then what is this story doing - it is saying in animal talk to the humans - this is how you are, overly careful, suspicious, stubborn, not anticipating consequences till you've known them first hand, and then blaming others. In short, you need something more than yourself to get out of this pickle you find yourself in.

  12. strongs says serpent, by its hissing sound. (The bible has no trouble writing satan anywhere else) Extremely vague. I wouldve thought that if satan was in the garden the precise word of god would have said satan. Therefore i assume with the vagueness of the definition of nachash that hissing might mean, presence known. Since i cannot find a hebrew or aramic word for he in the old testament I assume this is a translation factor, therefore i assume that he does not mean satan. I conclude that what made its presence known is the wantoness of eves own fleshly desires (gen 3:6)
    and this concourse is a discussion she has with herself, including adams muteness because he couldnt hear it, adam said nothing.
    I include for your perusal that eating of the fruit implies, partaking of sin not eating a veritable fruit. Why would god call out "adam where are you?" if adam had not been separating himself from walking with god. And why was god late in arriving at the scene of the crime?
    Adam loved the woman more than god
    Eve had no problem being smug with god "the serpent.. and i did eat". you can almost hear the "so what". or hows this: My flesh did tempt me and i did eat. little more reasonable.
    Eve gets very little reprimand from god, one small verse.(3:16)
    so i will surmise that god speaking to the serpent is really god talking to eve, perhaps cursing the flesh he had made.
    Gods smiting of the legs and eating dust of the serpent is a ciloquialism meaning a much humbled status and powerlessness.
    god specifically says to adam. Because thou didst hearken unto the voice of the woman. As if to say, You were strong enough in yourself but you listened to eve instead of me. A much higher transgression.
    Its difficult to grasp but the fallen angel and rebellion of angels is The Book of enoch teaching, that both the book of peter and jude concern themselves with. God promises us a peaceful life in heaven. How can he say that if rebellion is a possibility? Angels dont rebel they are created. Furthermore look to numbers 21:4-9. The brazen serpent lifted up by moses. Some say this is a type of christ, but i say how can a serpent be christ. and to look upon the serpent if the serpent is supposed to be satan and be saved. If the eden story as i purport it, then moses lifted up fleshly desires, crucified, and all who looked upon that would be saved makes more sense and now i can see it typifying christ.
    I would appreciate input if this thread still is in operation.
    thankyou for your time.