The text we are studying for Sunday, September 30 is Genesis 3:8-17 & 22-24, the part of the dire chapter 3 that follows the stomach-churning moment when the humans suddenly realize that they have made a really really bad mistake.
I say “stomach-churning” because I have once or twice in my life had the sudden awful realization of having made a really really bad mistake that is going to have monumentally bad consequences – on the order of six figure sunk costs bad consequences, on the order of having to make risky and no-guarantees brain-surgery delicate repairs of relationship with clients bad consequences – and “stomach-churning” is how those moments felt to me.
Here are my aspirationally non-ranting notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The text that is the focus of Sunday’s study is a portion of the longer narrative, that we could say starts with the entrance of the serpent in Genesis 3:1, or with God’s command to the adam not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in 2:17, or with the reveal of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in 2:9, or with the noticeable shift in narrative in 2:4, or even with the beginning of the creation in 1:1.
However we draw the boundaries of “the story,” it’s early days in the created world – at least, as far as the narrative goes. This is an integral part of the next episode. Although, for that matter, if this were a screenplay, Genesis 3:1-7 could have involved a good number of takes all on its own.
And then, everything else in the whole Bible hangs on this. Or even, we could say, everything else, period – what we know of human nature, human history, human experience, and we could keep on adding to this list ad infinitum. There’s some context for us.
Not that the text says this in so many words. It just follows along, telling the ongoing story of the “humankind” that God created back in 1:27. And what other humankind is there?
This means, I think, that it’s hard not to feel concerned, involved, affected, by this story. It sets itself in the position of being the presupposition of everything that follows it. It’s not just “the past,” it’s the human past, so, all of our past. I suspect this might be why, even for people who “don’t believe it,” it evokes the kind of responses people have to something that concerns them – “yes, well, other people believe it, and it affects everything, so we can’t not care.”
I think we’ll have to take a little closer look at vv1-7, too.
CLOSER READING: There is a translation issue in v1 around the word that describes the serpent. That word occurs here, and then again only in the wisdom literature, which is arguably not a coincidence: twice in Job (5:12, 15:5) where it gets a negative spin, and eight times in Proverbs (e.g., 12:23, “One who is clever conceals knowledge” – which, when we come to think of it, is precisely what the serpent does …), where it seems to be a positive quality.
So why is the serpent “crafty” or “shrewd” – that’s not very nice, is it? – when the wise person in Proverbs is “prudent” or “clever” – something most of us might like to be, something we know, from experience, is a good thing? Is it because we are still holding a grudge against that serpent? Because of the bad outcome, from our human perspective, of the serpent’s prudence? Because we don’t like to attribute bad outcomes to the operation of good qualities? Because that muddies up our categories?
I tried, but failed, to track down the article I read several years ago that argued, very convincingly, that the conjunction of the talking serpent, the woman, and the explicit involvement of wisdom in their conversation, is part of the point of this story. Both the serpent and the woman are associated with Ancient Near Eastern wisdom traditions; wisdom is associated with “life,” and being “life-giving” in those traditions, and even in the Hebrew wisdom tradition in lots of places, where wisdom is ultimately equated with God’s instruction. But in this story, which arguably uses the figures of the serpent and the woman and the tree to set wisdom in contrast to the instruction or Torah or Word of God, wisdom is going to turn out to be death-dealing.
And I like to point out that wisdom, here and [most often] in the Biblical tradition, is the fruit of learning from experience. Just to get that off my chest earlier rather than later.
The serpent illustrates his clever and prudent craftiness with a tricky play on words in the question to the woman, “Did God say you can’t eat fruit from any of the trees?” – which could mean, from no trees at all [as in, “Don’t eat any of that fruit!”], or from one or more of the trees [as in, “Are there any trees that we shouldn’t eat fruit from?”].
It might be worth pointing out that the text itself does not describe for us anything about the prior relationship, if there is any, of the serpent and the woman. There have been various ideas about it, up to and including intimate relations that result in the conception of Cain.
For sure, what the text doesn’t record is any explicit alarm or surprise on the woman’s part when the serpent begins having this conversation with her. Does that tell us something?
A lot has been made, over time, about the woman’s version of the forbidden fruit commandment: “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.” It might be worth noticing two things here: she adds that “don’t touch” clause, which has often been pointed out, and she doesn’t use the name of the tree, which we readers know from 2:9 & 2:17, which is mentioned a lot less often. This seems significant to me. Maybe because it seems to me that, if someone tells you “don’t drink from the bottle labeled ‘liquid death’” it has a different effect on your thinking than the instruction “hey, don’t drink from the blue one.” This could just be me. We could perhaps also say that she seems to know simultaneously more and less than the original commandment (2:17) contained.
“The greatest barrier to communication is the illusion that it has occurred.” A wise man once said that. It might have been David Ogilvy, but I’m not sure.
The serpent has a speech in vv4-5 that we could spend some time thinking about precisely how to characterize. Is it exactly a lie? It’s true the humans are not going to die instantly when they eat that fruit, so, technically … ? And it’s true that the humans’ eyes are going to be opened (the text says this is what happens in v7), and it’s true that they will know good and evil, too. And if knowing good and evil is one of God’s properties, then, it’s also true that they will be like God in that particular respect, at least to some extent.
So maybe if the serpent hired a good lawyer, the serpent’s advocate would argue that the serpent never exactly crosses the line into outright lying. The serpent never even exactly comes right out and says “God only issued that command because [fill in your preferred non-good motive here].”
The serpent just leaves that up to the woman’s interpretation.
She knows, and we know (as it was established in v1) that the serpent is adept at saying things that are open to interpretation. And that differences in reading can have significant consequences for behavior. [As significant as the difference between eliminating all fruit from your diet, and staying away from just one kind of fruit.]
We know she knows this, because she has brought this knowledge to bear on her conversation with the serpent once before (vv2-3).
But now she doesn’t do that. Instead there is that creepy beautiful chord progression in v6: she sees … that it is “good” and “desirable” and “most desirable,” we might say, because tov is the same good that God was using all through chapter 1, but the other two words are desire words, that are translated various ways in various contexts, not always negative, but …
But hold on, how does she see that it is good for food, I wonder? Because we readers know that tree isn’t “good” for food, not really. So how could she be seeing that? So, what does it mean, really, that she “sees” that? Or that she “sees” any of the things she “sees”?
Beyond what she thinks she sees? Or what she wants to see?
And it is this seeing, whatever this kind of seeing is, that is the whole justification for the actions of taking and eating and giving that follow.
This may be a case of “once seen, never unseen.”
It’s definitely a case of “once eaten, never uneaten.”
I don’t know whether it is significant that the humans don’t “see” that they are naked in v7, but rather “know” it.
And now comes the cover-up.
Which, as we ourselves may know from experience, can be worse than the original … whatever we want to call it.
This has gotten awfully long! And I am running out of time. So, as there might never be a part two to this part one, here is a link to a nice summary of the rabbinic midrash on this text: