Lent I--February 10, 2008
Bill Long 1/28/08
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (I); Serpentine Hermeneutics
Here is the familiar story from the "Garden," in the NRSV:
"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die...." 3:1, "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’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 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.’“ 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 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. 7 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."
This passage is so familiar to us that its meaning, though profound in the history of Christian thought, becomes trivialized. We think we know what the passage says because we have read it so often and considered it so thoroughly. It is about the "Fall," that catch-all term to describe the origin of human sin and alienation from God. And, because the story is written so well, with such narrative power and simplicity, the story almost "carries itself."
I, too, thought I had a good "angle" on this passage. I wasn't going to talk about the "Fall," which is the most predictable thing you could say about it, but I was going to probe another angle, captured in the title of these two essays, regarding how the serpent interpreted the Word of God. "Serpentine Hermeneutics" was supposed to be a catchy way of looking at how the wily serpent twists and obscures the clear truth of God--to our destruction.
Then, I did what all Biblical readers should do--I re-read the text, in the straightforward and unadorned Hebrew, and I came up with a different way of looking at this passage. Let me warn you at the outset, as I re-read the story I began to be much more sympathetic to Eve and the serpent, and less so to God. Let's go through the text slowly, pausing as we go, to hear the story which forms the basis of some of Paul's account in Romans 5, which I also exposited this week.
II. God's Quote and Quoting God
In Gen. 2 God places the man in the garden with the following command:
"You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you shall die," 2:16-17.
In the Hebrew these words are in two separate sentences, each of which ends with an intensive (doubled) verb: "you shall surely not eat," and "you shall surely die." Woman (Eve) has not yet been created. She is created after the receipt of the command, so any command from God to Adam to her has to come through Adam. As we know, an oral tradition allows for development, and we never really know how Adam communicates this command to Eve. We know that he does so because she knows it, or a variation of it, when she is engaged by the serpent (3:2). We don't know, however, what he actually communicated to her.
We see, in the next scene, the serpent engaging the woman in conversation. The only word that describes the serpent is arum--which means crafty, subtle or cunning. It isn't always used negatively in the Bible; it can also be translated "prudent" or "wise." Notice his words:
"Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?" (3:1).
Actually, if you look at the Hebrew words, the serpent is quoting God almost verbatim. He only changes two things. The first thing he leaves out is the double verb--"You shall surely not eat." The serpent slices off the intensive and simply puts the words before the woman. Then, he puts the question in a negative form. You may argue that the second change makes all the difference, but in fact the second change allows the woman to demonstrate her understanding of the command. The serpent is the great educator, using a method of negativing the words in order to focus on what the person really understands. It is a method I have used more than once in teaching students.
III. Eve's Answer and The Serpent's Reply
The serpent's question doesn't confuse Eve. In fact, she is a very good student, for she responds to the serpent in a crisp, direct and useful manner. Just as the serpent changed God's words in two ways, so she changes the divine words in two ways, too. First, she says that she is forbidden to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden (no location of the tree is mentioned by God in 2:16-17); second, she tells the serpent that they cannot even touch, must less eat, the fruit. Let's look at each of her changes. The first one shows us something not only about Eve but about the human tendency when questioned in an accusatory way--we often reveal more information than is requested. It would have sufficed had she just identified the tree; instead she said that it was in the middle of the garden.
This really isn't a major mistake, in my judgment. In fact, it is a sort of geographical short-cut. Instead of identifying the tree by its long name, she just, as it were, points to it. Instead of giving the "Linnaean classification" name, she just says, "Oak." Her second clarification actually shows that she is overly scrupulous in her duties. Whereas God only told Adam not to eat of the tree, she now says that she can't even touch the tree. In later Jewish terms, she is creating a "fence around the Torah." That is, the command says, "don't eat." You definitely won't eat if you don't even touch. An added layer of protection is added by intoning the words, "nor touch it..." Thus, even though she is "overreading" the divine command, she is doing so in a way that honors God's intention. Eve, at this stage, is the star of our show.
But God has left a loophole in the command, a loophole which the serpent skillfully then exploits. What is the loophole? When God gave the command in 2:16-17, God gave no reason for the command. It was just, "You may freely eat X; don't eat Y." Some might say, "Well, God is God, and doesn't need to give a reason for commands." Maybe so. Since this is God's world, God can do whatever God wants. It is the sort of argument that Paul uses in Rom. 9-11. How can the clay say to the potter, 'Why have you made me thus?' But this isn't an argument that has very much convincing power with me. You can give commands, and people might obey them for a while, based on fear, based on love, based on respect, based on a commitment to your greater knowledge, but this can't last forever. Why? Because ultimately humans have to ask 'Why?' We are made to ask, and we will ask.
Thus, when God gives a command without reason in 2:16-17, the command leaves a smidgen of doubt, maybe no more than a cloud the size of a man's hand, in the hearers. The doubt is often unexpressed, just as children (or adults) often don't express doubts regarding commands of authoritative persons, even though they feel a slight doubt. The serpent, who is the most crafty creature in the garden, knew the mind's tendency to have to have an explanation for things, and he will play on that need. Rather than asking, however, on what basis God gave the command, the serpent launched a direct assault on the result of the command:
"You shall not die!"
Then, before the woman could fill in the empty conversational space with an explanation that she would concoct out of her own imagination, the serpent fills the gap:
"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).
Where will this all lead? One more essay assesses the result and the blame.