“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” – Indiana Jones
Really though, why a snake in Genesis 3? It’s the first in a long list of questions I have about that chapter.
I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. Unanswered questions make me uncomfortable. Fortunately (unfortunately) it’s precisely sitting with that sort of discomfort that is essential for growth.
So, I don’t know why there was a talking snake (whether historically or literarily) chatting up Eve in the garden. No background there (it is the beginning after all). What I can still do though, is look forward if I can’t look back. In fact, I look forward all the way to the end.
“He seized the dragon – the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan” (Revelation 20:2)
I don’t know when in Israel’s history all these figures got put together, but in the Spirit, John does so at the very end of the last book of the Bible.
The snake=the dragon=the devil=the Satan
I do know each of these designations represents some distinct aspect of evil: snake is related to fear, dragon to the systemic powers and rulers of the world, devil is from diabolos in Greek meaning ‘slanderer,’ and Satan is from Ha Shatan in Hebrew meaning ‘the Accuser.’
So what role did this lying, terrifying, accusing character have to play in a world that is so whole and interconnected and luminous as the creation we’ve seen in the first two chapters? Everything so far has had a divine purpose and cohesive role in the beauty of it all. Why the snake, and why a tree that ruins everything?
To this point, Yahweh designated humans as his representatives, the idol in the temple of creation. Yahweh made it clear he intended togetherness and connection among the humans, between humans and the rest of creation, and the most intimate sharing of life between Yahweh and humans. Yahweh withheld no good thing and gave more responsibility to humans than anything else. With all that in mind, read this:
“[The serpent] said to the woman, ‘Is it really true that God said, “You must not eat from any tree of the orchard”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, “You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.”’ The serpent said to the woman, ‘Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:1b-6).
First of all, remember the liar description of the serpent. Nearly all of what he said is false. Eve was drawn in, apparently out of attempting to honor God by defending the truth. No, of course God didn’t deny us food. Just this one thing. She was already drawn in, meeting the serpent on its own terms. That’s nothing new. I’ve heard that taught before.
What is a new thought for me is the rest of it. Of course the “you will not surely die” was a lie, but what about the part about knowing good and evil? I’ve always heard teaching on this as if that part were true. They try to explain it as the intimate knowing of experience or something like that. But while that honors the Hebrew use of yada (‘know’) it doesn’t make sense in the context of literally anything else.
The problem with the serpent’s promise isn’t that it was true but bad. It was that it was entirely false but tempting to believe because it offered security in a world that was already entirely secure with God as creator, sustainer, provider, and helper. Besides, Adam and Eve were explicitly already like God! That’s the whole meaning and purpose of being made in God’s image. Nothing the serpent said was true. It did not—as is sometimes taught—wrap a lie in a skin of truth. It wrapped a lie in a skin of safety and security.
But why need to feel safe in Eden? What was the threat? Only the snake itself. It provided the motivation for fear and then promised a remedy for safety. This tactic sounds only too familiar in our day with politicians, news sources, and even advertisers doing exactly the same thing.
So, motivated by the fear of death, Eve (ironically named ‘Life’) and Adam attempted to secure their lives in a way that only led them to reject their vocation to reflect the creator and sustainer and source of all life. It is that rejection of purpose that results in death (not selfishness or pride or any other number of traditional vices I’ve heard as the root of all other sins). It was not evil hearts but fear of death and insecurity that led to the first sinful act.
“Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).
It’s not ‘whoever gets killed will preserve their lives.’ That’s just absurd, not a spiritual mystery.
Think of it in context with this:
“Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
– even death on a cross!
As a result God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
– in heaven and on earth and under the earth –
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.”
It is the willingness to choose the vocation given by God and act on it regardless of self-preservation. That’s what preserving one’s life by losing it is. Not by throwing it away but by valuing others and living into God’s call. The only way to be willing to do that? Trust.
Trust that God is, in fact, the source and sustainer of life and that “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). That active trust and choice to live attuned to that truth, giving allegiance to God and fulfilling our vocation above all else, that is what faith is. That was the only thing that could have saved Eve and Adam from their fear and prevented them from reaping the fruit of that fateful tree.
And there I have to stop for today. I managed to get through a whole chapter of Genesis in each of my last two posts, but in this one I somehow squeezed in a whole six verses. I think it’s important to recognize what’s really happening in this chapter though. Genesis 1 through 3 set the stage for the entire rest of the Bible, and understanding them well makes the rest make sense. Of course, it’s knowing the rest of it well that illuminates these three chapters. The whole of biblical interpretation works cyclically like that.
Next time, I want to explore the nature of what “the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” really means, what it meant to choose to eat of it, what the curses were all about, and what the whole God finding them naked in the garden thing was about. Once again, looking at the gender dynamics will be its own post soon.
Now tell me, how does any of the ideas I’ve proposed sync with what you’ve seen for yourself or been taught before? What makes sense? What seems like nonsense? What does any of it mean for how we choose to live?