The One with the Talking Snake

Part 1 of the Series “Bible Stories for Grown-Ups
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
September 27, 2009
Genesis 3:1-24; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Genesis 3:1-24 · Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but 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.'” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Then the LORD God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”– therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

1 Corinthians 15:20-22 • But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

I. INTRODUCTION

So, we all know this story, right? It’s one of the most familiar stories in all of Christian faith. Probably one of the first stories you heard in Sunday school, especially since they like to start at the beginning. Your understanding of the story probably goes something like this:

Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden. They’re both naked but don’t realize it. One day, Eve is off and encounters the devil who has taken the form of a snake. The devil tempts her with the fruit of the forbidden tree. She eats it. Then she tempts her husband Adam and he eats it. God finds out that they have disobeyed and kicks them out of the Garden of Eden forever. This was the Original Sin from which all human sinfulness comes. And the reason we are all, you and me, born sinners. This is an attitude that shaped the understanding of Martin Luther, whose attitudes are found in the hymn we just sang “Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee”.

I think that version of the story is a fascinating one, not just because it is so pervasive in the culture, but because it proves the truth of a statement that I once heard that the Bible is “the book millions live their lives by and hundreds have actually read.”

Because when we begin to look at this story closely, when we examine its context and the language used, we discover a different tale from the one we’re used to finding. This is not a children’s story about why people are bad. This is a narrative that speaks to the human condition with power and compassion.

II. THE HISTORY

Now, any exploration of a narrative this compelling requires looking at how it has been interpreted throughout history. There have been three main interpretations of the Garden of Eden story over the centuries. 

A. Ethical

In Judaism and Christianity, the failing of Adam and Eve was most frequently seen as an ethical or moral failing. They had sinned. In Christian tradition, this became known as “the Fall”–a falling from the pristine state of humanity, when we were innocent and pure and did not know evil. Humanity is in a “fallen” state, from which we are in need of salvation. This fallen state is why human beings die. (J.R.R. Tolkein would describe the elves in his Lord of the Rings universe as, unlike men, not having ever “fallen”–and for this reason they do not die a natural death.) Paul makes this connection between Adam and Eve’s sin and death in his letter to the Corinthians, noting that as death came through a human being (Adam), life also comes through a human being (Jesus).

A long history of Christian interpretation would develop doctrines of “original sin”, the idea that humanity is sinful in its nature because of this incident. Some, like Saint Augustine would argue that we are born not only with the consequences of that sin (death, disease, decay), but also with the guilt for that sin, from which guilt we need to repent and atone. Others, like Wesley, would say we are born with the consequences but not the guilt.

In the Jewish tradition, this story would be evidence not of original sin (there is no such concept in Judaism), but of humanity submitting to the evil inclination. In Jewish thought there is the yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination.

B. Intellectual

There is an intellectual interpretation of this narrative that sees “good and bad” not as descriptors, but as an idiom for “everything”. Thus, the knowledge of “good and bad” that humans sought was a knowledge of everything. It was an overreach. We sought to know more than was our place to know. We committed the sin of hubris.

C. Sexual

And there is a sexual interpretation. Much of this is based on the idea that the man and the woman were naked. It is further added to by the idea that on a couple of occasions in the scriptures, the word “know” means “to have sex with”, which you still hear from time to time when someone says, “to know in the Biblical sense.” And so, it was believed that the sin that Adam and Eve had committed was related to their sexuality. This would also be a part of Augustine’s thinking. Augustine, who himself had something of a libidinous past, viewed his own sexuality as a source of his sinfulness and saw the Eden story as a story of sexual sin as well. Indeed, it would be through sex that this original sin would be passed down from generation to generation.

III. WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW

As a result of this history of interpretation, it is very hard to read the story without some preconceived notions of what is going on in it. As a result, we read the story with certain interpretive lenses on and imagine we know more about this story than we really do.

A. The Apple

We all know, or think we know, that Adam and Eve took an apple from the forbidden tree. We know that, except for the fact that that is nowhere in the scriptures. It simply describes the forbidden fruit as a delight to the eyes. Some have concluded that the fruit was a fig, since it was out of fig leaves that the man and woman made loincloths to cover themselves with.

In Jewish tradition, the fruit was supposed to have been either figs or wheat, interestingly (due largely to wordplay). In the Latin translation, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was the tree of the knowledge of bonum et malum and malum in Latin also means “apple”. In effect, the tree of the knowledge of good and apples. And thus a tradition is born.

B. Woman as Temptress

We also know, or think we know, how the story goes down. Eve is tempted by the serpent, and she in turn tempts Adam. Thus we know that all women are temptresses against whom men have to protect themselves. The early church theologian Tertullian would address women in one of his writings, saying:

You are the Devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine Law. You are she who persuaded him whom the Devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image of man. On account of your desert, that is death, even the Son of God had to die.” 

Way to go, ladies. (Do you get the impression, by the way, that Tertullian might have had other issues with women?)

What’s interesting about this interpretation is that it flies in the face of the clear meaning of scripture: “…she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

Her husband, who was with her. This conversation with the serpent is happening while Adam is standing right there. This is not something that Eve tricks Adam into. Adam is there the whole time. And says nothing.

C. The Snake as the Devil

We all know, or think we do, that the snake is really the devil in the form of a snake. Why it said so in the children’s bible excerpt that we read earlier. But the text of Genesis simply describes the snake as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” The serpent is another of God’s creatures. It can talk–which Adam and Eve do not find surprising–but then again, there are other creatures in the scriptures that can talk.

Later interpretation in the late Second Temple period and early Christian period identified the serpent with Satan, perhaps because of the role of tempter. Perhaps also for Christians because of the description of the dragon in Revelation as “that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan.” But the text makes it clear–this is a serpent. If it were the devil in serpentine form, it would hardly make sense for God to punish all snakes for something the devil had done.

One modern commentator notes that the serpent is a metaphor, representing anything in God’s creation that gives us choices–choices that can seduce us away from God. 

D. A Biological Record

Much is made, especially in light of recent debates over evolution, about this account of human origins. It is one of the front-lines in the perceived conflict between science and religion. Because science tells us that we do have a common matrilineal ancestor–there is one woman from whom the entire living human race today descended. She lived between 150,000 to 250,000 years ago in East Africa. She was not the only human around. She was simply the only human whose offspring are still around. That’s us.

Genesis is not meant to provide us with a geological or biological or cosmological account of our origins. It is meant to provide us with a theological account of our origins. And that it does exceedingly well. As a former pastor of mine used to say, “There are facts in the Bible and there is truth in the Bible and the two things ought not be confused.” This is a story of profound truth. For it describes our condition well: trapped by the bonds of our own sinfulness, living in a world of brokenness and pain.

IV. THE WORLD WE FIND

And that truth we find in the descriptions of the consequences for their disobedience. After the man, woman, and snake have all been exposed for their wrongdoing, God pronounces sentences upon them.

To the snake, God says:

“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

The snake, apparently, loses its legs and will have to slither upon its belly, eating dust. Women will be afraid of snakes from now on and humans and snakes will be enemies, with snakes biting human feet and humans stepping on snakes’ heads.

Some have pointed out that this may be one of the more folkloric elements in the scriptures attempting to explain, among other things, why snakes have no legs.

To the woman, God says:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

Women will suffer pain in childbirth and will be dominated by men, subordinate.

And to the man God says:

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Men will have to work the ground, which will no longer yield its fruit without the sweat of their faces–that is, without toil and hard labor.

Now, we might look around at our world and ask, “How exactly is that different from the way the world is?” It seems a pretty fair description. Snakes crawl on their bellies. People don’t like snakes. Women have pain in childbirth and are often dominated by men. Men have to work hard to get the earth to yield its fruit.

But there is an important subtext to this, one that is often lost in the English version of this story.

A. Humanity and the Earth

It’s important to note that in reality, throughout this story, neither character has a name. They are simply referred to as “the man” and “the woman”. Now sometimes, the terms that are used are synonymous with “husband” and “wife”. But when we first meet the human male he is referred to as אדם adam. Adam is the Hebrew world for ‘human being’, sometimes translated as ‘man’ or ‘mankind’. At the beginning of the narrative, he is referred to as ha-adam,the human”. Later, Adam has become a name.

But when the human is made, God is said to form the man from the dust of the earth; in Hebrew; the adam from the adamah. The human from the humus. The earthling from the earth.

The bond between human beings and the earth is broken. We, who had come from the soil, now have to work the soil. We have been rent from our roots, and the consequences of that separation are felt our whole lives long.

B. Knowing Good and Evil

There is also something to note about the trees in the center of the Garden. There are two trees: the Tree of Life, and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is generally assumed that this tree gives awareness of right and wrong. That is, before the humans ate from it, they were morally innocent: the didn’t know right from wrong, they couldn’t be held responsible because they were unaware of right from wrong. There is some element of that understanding, to be sure. But in Hebrew, the word yada which means ‘to know’ means ‘to know by experience.’ It is not an intellectual knowledge, but an experiential knowledge. Eating from the fruit of this tree means that we will know, truly know good and evil by experiencing it.

Perhaps this is what God truly meant to shelter us from. Perhaps this is what lies behind the prohibition of eating from the fruit of this tree. Not a God jealous to preserve wisdom and understanding from his creation. Not a God who arbitrarily sets limits on what foods humans can eat. But a God who would spare his children from having to experience good and the evil that comes with it. Not out of caprice, but out of the parental concern of a mother that would see her children spared from the sufferings of a complex world.

But God made the man and woman free to choose and they chose to experience that Good and Evil. And the consequences of that decision mean that they will no longer be able to remain in Eden. Paradise is lost for those who would be free to make their own choices.

In those choices, they will know human freedom. They will know the joys of their own labors and accomplishments. They will know evil in the brokenness of the world.

V. THE BROKENNESS OF THE WORLD

Indeed the brokenness of the world, of the intended order, happens very quickly. Adam and Eve become ashamed of their nakedness, ashamed of their created being. They hide from God out of shame. They break relationship. Adam, in a deft move of double blame shifting, when asked if he’s eaten the fruit he wasn’t supposed to says to God, “It was the woman you gave me.” Nice move, Adam. Way to make us all proud.

Indeed, the relationship between man and woman has become torn. When woman was created, she was created to be עזר כנגדו Ezer k’negdo, a “helper and counterpart” to the man. The man said she was “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones”. And now man and woman are estranged. There had been mutuality and equality in the garden. Man and woman were equal. This relationship is now replaced by control and distortion.  And so we understand that this lack of equality among the sexes, this domination of women by men is not the intended order. It is not how we were created to be. It is a result of the brokenness that we create in our choices.

There is brokenness in our severing of the ties to the earth. We continue to suffer because we have not always perceived our relatedness to the soil. Viewing ourselves not as tiller of God’s garden, but as masters of the earth, free to do with it as we please.

VI. THE GRACE OF GOD

And yet, in spite of all this brokenness, there is hope. In an oft overlooked portion of this amazing story, after the consequences of the humans’ disobedience has been pronounced, two interesting things happen.

The first is that the man gives a name to his wife. He names her Eve, which in Hebrew is Hava, perhaps related to the word Chai,meaning “life”–and she is described as the “mother of all living”. It is a reminder that even though there is brokenness–life goes on. 

And then, we read that God makes clothes for Adam and Eve. The very same humans who had suddenly felt ashamed at their nakedness. God makes clothing for them, that they might be able to face a tough world more easily.

And that is one of the most important things to take from this story: the God who would rather his creations not know suffering and pain, prepares his creatures for the difficult road they will have to face.

This is a remarkable story. One which we have only really scratched the surface of. But it is a story that speaks some profound truths to us. It speaks to us of the consequences of our choices. It speaks to us of the brokenness of our world–the separation of humanity from the soil, the domination of women by men, the alienation between humanity and animals–and of how this is different from God’s intention.

And it is a story of a God who is present and involved with the Creation. A God who walks in the garden “at the time of the evening breeze”. And a God who prepares us on our way. A God who continues to walk with us, not only in the garden, but along with us as we walk the difficult roads, experiencing the good and the evil of a broken world. A God who never forsakes us. A God who continues to love us our whole lives long.

Notes

W.G. Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 39 ff.
Jack Rogers, Jesus, The Bible, and Homosexuality: Exploding the Myths, Heal the Church, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2006.
Burce Birch, Walter Brueggemann, et al., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 55.
Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, p. 51.
Birch, supra, p. 57.

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