DID THE SERPENT LIE?
by Roger Wyatt | 22nd October 2021 | more posts on 'Beginnings'
Photograph: Magda Ehlers from Pexels
An analysis of Genesis 3:1-5
‘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’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but 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.’”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “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 famous encounter between Eve and the serpent is a foundational moment in the story of God’s creation. The question, ‘did the serpent lie?’, seems to demand a quick and obvious answer, “yes”. But the craftiness of the serpent ensures that Eve was not tricked into disobedience by an obvious untruth, and the words of God’s adversary are laced with half-truths that would prove to be a permanent characteristic of the one Jesus referred to as ‘the father of lies’ (John 8:44).
The opening question to Eve is delivered by the serpent in order to lure the first woman into a false sense of security: ‘“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”’ (Genesis 3:1). Although Eve seems firm in her understanding of God’s commands, she curiously adds to the first prohibition by introducing the idea that the forbidden fruit could not even be touched: ‘you must not touch it, or you will die’ (Genesis 3:3). It is the first example of religious ring-fencing which revealed that Eve’s view of her creator had already suffered distortion. Perhaps it was this that the serpent sought to take advantage of, and in verse four the lie is unashamedly uttered, ‘“You will not certainly die”’ (Genesis 3:4). It was a direct contradiction of the words of God, followed by a complex qualification so typical of the modus operandi of the devil.
The statement found in verse five, contains an initial truth concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: ‘For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened’. Of course, this is the very thing that verse seven of the same chapter records as happening: ‘Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked’. However, the argument of the serpent that follows proceeds to imply that God was holding something important back from Eve; no doubt an attempt to plant a seed of doubt in Eve’s mind concerning God’s goodness. Moreover, the suggestion that ‘you will be like God’, was in itself a cunning distortion of the truth, for it had already been recorded in Genesis 1:27 that Adam and Eve were made in the image, בְּצֶלֶם (beṣeelem lit. in the likeness) of God. Indeed, if it had not been announced to the first humans that they were like God, they would have realised as much as they continually met with the God who frequented the garden (Genesis 3:8). In that regard, the serpent was offering Eve something she already possessed. However, the true venom of the infernal qualification comes in the serpent’s suggestion that they would ‘be like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). It is a statement that has been the source of much reflection in the history of its interpretation and represents a unique insight into the moral character of the first humans.
It is important to remind anyone reading the verse that there is a categorical difference between the Hebrew concept of ‘knowing’ and ‘knowing about’. In the next chapter it is recorded that Adam ‘knew’ Eve, the word used is יָדַע (yada), and aside from the sexual connotations the word carries the meaning of “being united with”, or “being one with”. A cognate of the term is used by the serpent, יֹדְעֵי (yodee – lit. knowing), but in the context of knowing good and evil. Of course, Adam and Eve already and only knew good as part of a created order, declared by God to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31).
And so, the great lie of verse five unfolds as follows:
- You will not die if you disobey God.
- God was not good, he was keeping something from the first humans (implied).
- Adam and Eve would be like God if they ate the fruit (in fact they were already made in the likeness of God).
- They would know good (they already and only knew good).
- They would, by disobeying God’s command, know evil, like God.
It was in the last statement that the trap closed around Eve. The devil implied that God knew evil, and that it was therefore desirable. Of course, in the true sense of the word ‘knowing’, God did not know evil; he had never been one with evil or united with evil (nor will he ever be). However, after the trap had been sprung, sin made its entrance into the human heart, a moment that would have disastrous consequences for all humanity. As such, the opening of the eyes of Adam and Eve represented the moment in which they became suddenly aware of their fallen state, brought about by their decision to break God’s first covenant and ally themselves with the serpent’s evil suggestion to disobey. To know evil then, was not to know about evil, but to shake hands with evil, albeit a contract instigated by the deception of the serpent. Indeed, the fact that the first sin was the result of deception did not blunt its terrible impact on the new world God had created, or excuse the first humans from their disobedience. And so, the infernal lie of the serpent, found in verse five, is veiled by the offer of either things that Adam and Eve already possessed, or by subtle attempts to defame the character of God. Even more treacherously, in relation to the suggestion that Adam and Eve would become ‘like God’, the reverse was true. In fact, human beings would become like the serpent (soon demonstrated by the murder of Abel).
It is a sobering thought to realise that the tactics of the serpent have not changed; his number one objective is to defame the nature of God, undermine God’s moral requirements, and lure all into a union that opposes God and propagates sin. It is in the work of Christ however, that the destructive choice of Adam and Eve is reversed, we are reunited with true goodness and our eyes our opened to our new nature in Christ, in which righteousness is propagated, and in which there is no shame.