Genesis 3: Adam and Eve

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Let's talk about the serpent. In Genesis 2:25 we read, "They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed." The word for "naked" is arum. In the next line, we read, "the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the wild animals that the Lord God had made." The word for "crafty" is arum. Arum occurs quite frequently in Proverbs, where it has the sense of prudence, shrewdness, or cleverness. It is a good quality. On the other hand, in the book of Job, it is a negative trait. So this word can be construed either positively or negatively.

One of the more significant things to notice is that this serpent was described as cunning, which doesn't necessarily mean "wise." Yet this serpent was one of the creatures God had just created. The fact that God created this creature precludes any sense of inherent evilness.

The serpent asked the woman, "Did God really say, you shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" It is introduced with a particular Hebrew idiom that suggests emphasis. God did prohibit them from eating of one tree, but not of all the trees. The woman is required to think.

The woman then replied to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but God did say, 'You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.' " God hadn't said anything about not touching it; they just couldn't eat from it. The words of her response paralleled the words of God's command, but then she, like the serpent, exaggerated the prohibition, saying they couldn't even touch the tree in the middle of the garden. She had determined that obedience was paramount. If they never touched the tree, they couldn't eat the fruit.

The serpent, however, replied with a retort that deliberately contradicted God's words: "You will not certainly die." He continued, "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." The serpent claimed that eating the fruit would have positive, not negative, consequences. To have one's eyes opened generally refers to realizing new qualities of perception. Being like God is the ultimate way to imitate Him, which many strive to do. Yet few scholars see this statement as anything but villainous. The serpent has brought temptation into the garden.

But a careful reading must challenge these assumptions. The serpent asked questions and made statements, but the decisions were left up to the couple. He merely suggested possibilities and then waited to see what happened. A close, unbiased look at the serpent's statements reveals some inherent truths. He said they would not die. They didn't. He said their eyes would be opened. In 3:7, the text says, "And the eyes of them both were opened." The serpent said they would become like gods. That's affirmed in 3:22, as is his claim that they would know good and evil. In these last two instances, it is God who affirmed this change. It seems, then, that the serpent was telling the truth.

Having said his piece, the serpent fell silent, while the woman thought about the tree. The text says, she "saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom." In its simplest form, she affirmed God's creation.

Then, "she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it." Simply stated, they disobeyed God's command. In the light of the Lord God's statement that they would surely die, we might have expected some immediate result.

But what happened? Immediately "the eyes of them were opened, and they knew they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings." The serpent had said their eyes would be opened, suggesting new insights, including the ability to make independent judgments. But what they actually knew is that they were naked! The word is different from the arum in 2:25 that was paired with "not ashamed." There it reflected the innocence of their relationship. That seems to have changed now.

Scholars think the biblical sense of nakedness had to do with being stripped of all defenses or weapons. Isaiah speaks of prisoners going naked into captivity (20:2-4). Devoid of sexual overtones it describes defenseless people, without possessions or power. Perhaps the new insight of the man and the woman had to do with realizing for the first time that they were vulnerable and somewhat defenseless. So they made coverings for themselves. Previously, they had only done what they had been told to do. Now, they acted independently. They have changed from being passive recipients to active participants.

Let's talk for a moment about the fact that they didn't die. God said they would die; the serpent said they wouldn't. The serpent was right. Additionally, the serpent said two good things would happen. It appears that he was right again. What does this say about God and about the serpent? Perhaps we need to think more creatively about the word "die." Perhaps it doesn't mean the end of physical existence, because if we continue reading in Genesis, we will discover that Adam lived until the ripe old age of 930 (Gen. 5:5). Life and death, however, can also be understood in a metaphorical sense. It could refer to the quality of life. Later on, for example, life and death were set before Israel (Deut. 30:15, 19). Israel had to choose between them. Blessings were associated with life and curses with death. While their physical existence could have depended on the outcome, the real issue was the quality of their life, the way they would spend their time in the land. And, in fact, we will soon discover a change in the quality of their lives. The story continues.

The Lord God, who had been silent and absent since creating the woman, was out for an evening stroll. The man and woman hid from him. Scholars speculate on their motives, but let's recall that God had said they would die if they ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, they hadn't died—at least not yet.

Then, God called out to them, "Where are you?" It is a fairly innocuous way of starting a conversation. This 'you' is singular. The man did not answer the question but replied, "I heard your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." The man said nothing about eating the fruit, only that he was naked and fearful. The word "fear" really goes with nakedness. Yet, being afraid is not necessarily a bad thing. Imagine making a new discovery, with all the excitement, the tension, and the fear that accompanies it. If the man and woman were truly afraid to be with God, surely they could have hidden themselves far away from where he was walking.

God, however, asked who told him he was naked and queried, "Did you eat from the forbidden tree?" The man answered, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it." His lengthy response sounds defensive and impugns God. "You gave me this woman"—it's your fault because you gave her to me. "This woman gave me the fruit"—it's her fault for giving me the fruit. Only after trying to attribute guilt to both God and the woman does the man admit that he ate the fruit as well.

Without commenting, God turned his attention to the woman, asking, "What is this that you have done?" The woman realized that eating from the forbidden tree was a grievous mistake. She did not impugn the serpent or God. Nor did she blame the man for not trying to talk her out of it. Instead, she stated, "The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat." The word is really "tricked." To say she was 'tricked" suggests that she acted in good faith. The serpent had advanced several arguments that she had not considered previously. They seemed right at the time, and she had acted accordingly. Now, however, after thinking things over, and maybe after listening to the exchange between God and the man, she realized that it had been a mistake. So she felt tricked. But she did not try to wriggle out of her responsibility.

Next month we will discuss the consequences for their actions.