Jay Williams on The Serpent of Genesis 3 and the Tree of Life

Over at the website The Bible and Interpretation there is a piece by religious scholar Jay Williams on “Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Wisdom of the Serpent.” It is at once both a very interesting and very bizarre piece.

Williams points out not long after the piece begins that the serpent isn’t Satan as Christians would like to suggest.

Let me begin by asking an obvious question: “Who is this serpent who addresses the woman?” John Milton, of course, knew the answer implicitly. The serpent for Milton and most other Christian theologians of the past is obviously the Devil. Indeed, the whole Christian story has been seen as a struggle between God and Satan for the soul of humanity. The problem is that the concept of Satan does not emerge in the recorded thought of Israel until long after this part of Genesis was written. Indeed, when Satan first appears as a character in the book of Job he is hardly a full-blown Devil at all. Rather he is God’s emissary and tester, not his enemy. The same seems true for the other references to Satan in the Hebrew Scriptures. To think of the serpent as Satan is, therefore, highly anachronistic. It is to impose upon Hebrew Scripture a later, Christian understanding.

This is important because when we read biblical texts we should do so on its own terms and not import ideas from generations that follow. Sure, it’s interesting how later authors interpreted the text but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how the text should be interpreted. And, as Williams points out, serpents in ANE literature tend to be sources of great wisdom and are at times revered.

How did ancient peoples understand serpents? Certainly not as some deceitful embodiment of evil. On the contrary, the serpent was, and in some cultures still is, regarded as the source of great wisdom, for the serpent can shed its skin and go on living. Like the butterfly that bursts out of its own chyrsalis to new life, the serpent was often regarded as a symbol of immortality. And more, perhaps because of this intimation of new life, the serpent was frequently regarded in the ancient world as the messenger from the great Goddess and the guardian of her sacred precincts.

“The great Goddess”? What is Williams talking about?

Throughout the rest of the article Williams goes on about Asherah worship in ancient Israel and how often Yahweh and Asherah were worshipped together. But the viewpoint of the biblical authors is that Yahweh alone is worthy of worship and so Williams sees this as a struggle between Yahweh, the god of the heavenly realm, and Asherah, the goddess of the earth.

The essential conflict in the Hebrew Scriptures is not between God and Satan but between Yahweh and the Goddess.

This may be overstating things a bit but his point is still salient. The God of the Hebrew scriptures seeks to establish patriarchy for Israel. Men are front and center in the black-and-white ink of scripture while women are often barely on the margins, often relegated to a mere footnote.

Williams’ piece is a provocative look at the Hebrew scriptures and I recommend you read it in its entirety if for no other reason than it may make you a bit uncomfortable. Of course, being uncomfortable is how we learn new things.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

2 thoughts on “Jay Williams on The Serpent of Genesis 3 and the Tree of Life

Add yours

  1. Hm. Was Asherah depicted as a serpent?

    The connections between the Leviathan of the deep, the serpent in the Garden, and the bronze Nehushtan serpent worshiped by the Israelites (2 Kings 18:4) intrigues me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As to whether snake was intended to be evil I agree that is dubious. I listened to a great podcast series that talks about what we know about early representations of satan here:

    http://www.philipharland.com/Blog/religions-of-the-ancient-mediterannean-podcast-collection-page/

    I found it quite fascinating.

    As for Dr Williams I found the article interesting but I think it is piling quite a bit of speculation beyond the text that really requires some straining.

    Setting aside the question of translation as to whether it should be read as God is saying they will die in 24 hours I think there are some other issues.

    “It is perhaps significant that God himself has to admit that the couple has become “as one of us, knowing good and evil.”[5] In other words, God finally confesses that the serpent was correct, or is He only speaking ironically? A good argument could be made that the serpent, far from ruining humanity, saved Adam from perpetual, blind subservience in a very restrictive garden.”

    I think this is a bit much to have God confessing this. Where did God say people would not be like him in that we would know good and evil? So there is no reason to say God “finally confesses” this. There is no reason to think God did not know of good and evil and so obviously by tasting this fruit we became more like him in that sense.

    The snake was quite tricky in his wording and so arguably never contradicted God. If you carefully look at what God says and then what Eve says and then what the Serpent says you start to see differences that have been long recognized in the church.

    Here are some NIV interpretations:
    God:
    “And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.'”

    The snake:
    “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

    Notice the “really” and what in english seems ambiguous about “any tree.” Of course a question is not a statement so it can not be false but the question makes a statement nonetheless.

    Eve:

    “The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 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.’””

    She adds that they must not touch it and she doesn’t differentiate the tree of life from the tree of knowledge of good and evil which were both in the middle. But she does seem to be aware that only one tree is forbiden. Maybe she is not even going close to the tree of life because of her fear of the other tree.

    And then the serpent:

    “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

    So he says you will not “certainly” die. And it is true that the only reason they die is because God cut them off from the tree of life. To the extent that is up to God it is arguably not certain. But from God’s perspective it is certain.

    “And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. 24 After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side[e] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.”

    So I agree we could read the text as properly saying the snake wasn’t saying falsehoods.

    “The Goddess is not even mentioned by name, though she is there, as the tree of life, for that is how she was so often depicted among the ancient Canaanites. Indeed, because she was represented in tree form,[8] it is not surprising that Yahweh declared that the tree and its fruit were taboo.”

    I think it contradicts the text to say that God said they couldn’t eat of the tree of life. The text is clear that they can eat from any tree except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God only cuts off the tree of life after they did this but never declares it taboo.

    But maybe the most obvious flaw is that if the snake is the worker for the Goddess and the Goddess is the tree of life why doesn’t the snake just say “hey try the fruit from the tree of life?” After all God did not prevent it. Give them the fruit of the Goddess and then knowledge of Good and evil. Nothing seems to suggest that the tree of life is taboo. Its only when we are tasting the fruit of knowledge of evil (and good) that God does not want us in that state forever.

    And from there he just seems to start in on all sorts of speculation completely disconnected from the text. I certainly think this story has many meanings and don’t deny that some sort of rejection of paganism could have been incorporated.

    One way I think this story can be read in a much more straightforward way as an attempt to address the problem of evil. What is the fruit of knowledge of good and evil? It seems to me the author would expect people to think about this. Yet we seem never to do that. We just brush over it and many times even wrongly say it is the tree of knowledge generally that was forbiden. I did a blog on this hereL

    https://trueandreasonable.co/2019/05/01/problem-of-evil-answered-with-logic-and-scripture/

    Liked by 1 person

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