Genesis III: In Defense of the Serpent

Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion From Paradise, a fresco from the Sistine Chapel (1510)

In the garden of Eden, we encounter two trees: the tree of knowledge (good and evil) and the tree of life. Both trees presumably represent differing pathways for humanity. In Genesis Chapter III, we start to discover humans in the garden (assuming we accept either the seven day creation narrative of Genesis I, or the ‘soil and rib’ narrative of Genesis II). The humans freely roam in the garden, eating of the vegetation as they please. We have no textual evidence that they are carnivorous at the outset. It is safe to assume that humans in the garden live a simple life like animals. They are given the unique privilege of naming all the animals, and thus humans are distinct among living creatures.

Now, of all the beasts in the field, the serpent is described as the most “cunning” (the original Hebrew employs a clever pun connecting the two words “cunning” and “nakedness”). While the humans are naked, exposed, and vulnerable; the serpent remains concealed, masking his inner intentions like Odysseus. He, thus, has greater power over the humans. Latter theological interpretations of the serpent’s power will find evil, but removing any sense of revisionism, we find the serpent to be a curious character. He demonstrates to us the capacity for persuasion.

Up until Genesis III, we are given no textual evidence that the humans have had greater ambition other than to obey the will of God who commands them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil. The humans up until this point are docile and obedient. It should be noted that God’s commandment carried with it a warning of punishment if the law is disobeyed. If the forbidden fruit is eaten, the humans shall surely be doomed to die. The law is supported by a threat, the potential for punishment. This is the birth of law in Genesis. But how well to humans obey laws?

The crafty serpent successfully persuades the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit, but rather that she will possess new knowledge of good and evil and she will become “like a god.” What do we make of the serpent in this speech? Surely his motives are at odds with God’s, but could it be in the best interest of the humans to become like a god? The prideful Greeks, after all, were honored at the thought of becoming like a god. The woman rebuts the serpent, yet she cannot resist the lustful temptation of forbidden fruit. Humans respond to incentives rather than punishments. It can be said that the woman, rather than wishing to be like a god, eats of the fruit solely of her own wish. The fruit is so desirous simply for its own sake -but the law has made it even more compelling. She desires to break the law because she forgets about God’s threat of death in order to focus on becoming like a god. She is allured by the promise of the serpent. As St. Augustine later notes in his Confessions, the sin of eating an apple arises merely from the apple being an object of terrible beauty, stemming from its own sinful desire (see also Paul’s discussion of the law in his Epistle to the Romans). The woman’s actions in Genesis, and all human actions for that matter, render perfect obedience to law an impossibility, leaving an Edenic Kallipoli (a la Plato’s Republic) to be nothing more than a city in speech. Perhaps this is why God notably omits labeling his human creation as “good” at the close of the sixth day. Presumably, law and goodness are at least connected. At any rate, the woman’s desire to become “like a god” overpowers her.

The Fall of Man by Venetian artist, Titian (1550)

Upon eating the fruit the woman gives it to the man and, contrary to God’s bluff, the humans do not die. Indeed God does not make good on his vow that the humans shall surely perish. Rather, their eyes are opened, as promised by the serpent, and they see good and evil. The serpent was true to his word unlike God. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, the humans rush to conceal themselves, thereby protecting their vulnerabilities. With new moral knowledge, the humans gain a unique sense of separation from the beasts who are not bound by law. In learning about the existence of evil, it is fitting for the humans to seek ways to protect and preserve their substance. They immediately cling to what we might call personal property -leaves and branches- used to cloak themselves.

Do the humans “become like gods?” Though they are banished from the garden, they produce offspring and become political. The man and woman live for an extended period of time, but they do eventually die seeing their many offspring populate the earth. They die, while gods surely do not die. Because we are not given any textual evidence that the man and woman would have died had they remained in the garden, latter more sophisticated theology suggests this is because the humans were meant to be eternal, thus overturning the serpent’s promise of godlike knowledge.

In closing, is it possible to entertain the notion that the serpent has actually aided the humans by beguiling them with new godlike knowledge, good and evil? Without falling prey to more recent and sophisticated theological interpretations involving comparisons between the serpent and ha-satan, or the “adversary,” let us instead reassess the serpent in Genesis III as a creature of good will, bringing truth, moral knowledge, and also politics to the humans. God, envious and threatened by the humans’ new knowledge, quickly banishes them from the garden before they can eat of the tree of life and become immortal, too. Theology, as confirmed by God’s character in the Torah, remains skeptical of the human quest for knowledge. The desire, or lust, to learn is evil in the eyes of God and can be dangerous to humans. Perhaps there is some truth to these claims, however much we may find them problematic. Jerusalem, in contrast to Athens, is the theological city. One might also call it the tension between God’s law and human law. God desires obedience, absolute invigilation, though latter Christian theology finds hope in life through forgiveness from an entirely different glimpse of the divine than we find in early Canaanite mythology found in Genesis. Theology rejects human greatness in favor of human safety, whereas the cunning serpent encourages the humans to become like gods, in pursuit of knowledge because it is both good and also rewarding, though he notably makes no mention of the dangers in the pursuit of knowledge.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.

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