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’?”
2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3but 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.’”
4 “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.”
The fascinating thing about Genesis 3 is the things it doesn’t say. When it comes to the serpent (or snake) we are told no more than it is one of the wild animals that God had made. This can make us feel a bit uncomfortable, shifting in our seats. What? It doesn’t say the serpent was actually Satan / the devil / evil?
All we are actually told about the serpent is that he was the craftiest, of all those wild animals that Adam had previously names. Out of that whole procession, he was the smartest and the sneakiest. It’s much later when a link to the devil is made – that ancient serpent of Revelation 20, that great deceiver whose destiny is to be eventually thrown down.
There are lots of different ideas about what the serpent /snake symbolises, but I’m not going to go into them all here.
What the serpent does is cast doubt, firstly on what God says: Did God really say? Did God actually say?
Well, actually, Mr Snake, no – he didn’t say they couldn’t eat from any of the trees. Just one in particular.
The serpent puts God in a negative light from the first, making him out to be one big kill joy. What he says isn’t actually true, but it can still plant something, a negative feeling, in the listener.
The woman replies, setting him straight, but she seems to embellish what God said. From ‘do not eat’ she seems to have added ‘do not touch’. Is this an accurate report, intended to qualify God’s instructions within this story? Or is the woman really adding an extra command to God’s original? Is she over-compensating in front of her questioner, trying to fend him off?
The serpent lashes out by grasping at the last part – you will not certainly die, he tells her. In fact, he implies, it’s all a big conspiracy to keep you from knowing what God knows, to stop you being like him.
But, he implies, slyly, if you ate the fruit, you would be like him.
What is the knowledge of good and evil? Is it simply knowing right from wrong? That doesn’t seem to make sense; it has to be more than that, surely. Is it some kind of higher wisdom which belongs to God alone? Does it represent a source of knowledge other than God? Is it the ‘evil’ aspect which is the reason for the prohibition? We’re not told this either. But although the Tree of Life is an idea that crosses culture, this other Genesis tree of the knowledge of good and evil is unique in ancient literature, as far as we can tell.
This tree holds something humanity is not qualified to have. What is the qualification? Oh, don’t we wish the theology could be spelt out properly!! But remember God’s own explanation – if you eat it, you shall die. There seems to be a protective element here, the parental ‘don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself’.
But the serpent says: ‘Pish. He’s just saying it so you won’t eat it and be like him.’ It’s God’s character, his goodness, that is cast into shadow by the serpent. He undermines God’s motives and his concern and makes God out to be the one who is self seeking. The serpent has the audacity to say that he knows what God is thinking.
There are so many tangents that could be taken here; which character to focus on, which attribute to examine? These are just some of my ramblings, but there are many other things that could be discussed…and have been I’m sure, by people much better at it than me (thank goodness!).