Most of us are familiar with the general details of the story of man’s sin and expulsion from Eden. But few of us really appreciate all that is going on in the story in Genesis 3. After God makes man in the garden (Genesis 2:7), he plants two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). He tells the man that he can eat from any of the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The penalty for doing so is death (2:16). Scary!
Next, in contrast to the repetition of the word “good” throughout Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 we find out that God has done something not so good: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). So he decides to create a helper for the man. He creates animals and brings them to the man so he can name them. But among them there is no suitable helper (2:19-20). So what does God do? He puts the man to sleep, pulls out a rib, and creates a woman.
We come to Genesis 3 and it opens with another animal God had made and that undoubtedly the man had encountered in chapter two: a serpent. He comes to the woman and he asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'” (3:1) This, of course, is no innocent question. The serpent is leading the woman down a path that leads to her expulsion from the garden.
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” (3:2-3) The woman isn’t exactly quoting God correctly. Look back at Genesis 2:16 again. He told the man that he could eat of every tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She also places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “in the midst of the garden” despite the fact that both it and the tree of life are in the middle of the garden (2:9). She has fallen for the serpent’s craftiness. What is more is that she has added a prohibition God did not offer, namely that she is not even permitted to touch the fruit. This was not in the original command to the man.
“You will not surely die,” he tells the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). We may be taken aback by this contradiction of God’s word but the fact of the matter is that the serpent isn’t wrong. Neither Adam nor Eve die when they take the fruit and eat it. Check it out. Adam lives for 930 years before he dies (5:5). Furthermore, they do become like God knowing good and evil. God says later in the story, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22).
What do we make of all this? Well, it becomes clear that the serpent is, for the most part, telling the truth. Though he leads with a question that implies God said something that he didn’t, his outright denial that neither the man nor the woman would die upon eating the fruit and that they would become like God when they did turns out to be completely true! But it is also clear from the text that the serpent knew that what he was doing would lead to the first humans’ downfall.
Genesis 3 is an etiology that seeks to answer questions like, “Why is child-bearing so painful?” and “Why do serpents go on their bellies?” Coming back to the text time and again reveals more and more interesting things. Today its how the serpent gets the woman to eat without telling her to do so and how he tells the truth about what will happen if she does eat.
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