Friday, August 19, 2005

That old serpent (Gen 3:1-6)

Although the meaning of the Bible comes through well enough in the English translations, there definitely is some advantage to reading these things in the original Hebrew. God seems to really like poetry and wordplay, and the Old Testament is full of that sort of thing. The word translated here as "subtil" ("cunning", "clever", "crafty" or "shrewd" in other translations) sounds almost identical to the word used in the previous verse for "naked". Aside from sounding interesting, there is likely to be an intention of drawing your mind to the contrast. In chapter two, everything is innocent and out in the open, while here we have a creature who has some sort of secret.

Who is this creature, "the serpent"? I know some people have suggested that we might be talking about a d r a g o n, (pardon the spaces, this post seems to be attracting spam) as the term is used in the book of Revelation and refers back to this event. This holds some appeal, as mythologically, such beasts are often thought of as very dangerous and very clever, and sometimes even talking beasts. I don't think we can quite ignore the way this chapter works out in the end, however, since the serpent is apparently cursed to go upon his belly, which seems a clear reference to snakes as we know them; I'm inclined towards the common understanding of this being partially a tale of why snakes have no legs, since it seems to make sense to read it that way.

Still, a talking snake? What's up with that? One possibility that I've heard is that before the fall, perhaps all creatures were able to freely converse with one another. That has a certain poetic appeal, I think. Another one is that since it seems this snake is possessed by the spirit of Satan, it was through Satan's power that the snake was given the ability of speech. This also has some appeal. I don't see anything in the chapter that seems at all conclusive as to what's going on here though. It's even entirely possible that the snake was communicating non-verbally, if you think about it. If you were standing by a fruit tree and wanted to offer a piece of fruit to another person standing nearby, I think you could easily do so without speaking a word. That might be a bit of a stretch, though.

(This brings up another point about my personal take on the book of Genesis. Since even those who believe that the book of Genesis was divinely inspired believe it was written hundreds of years after the events within it, and actually thousands after these specific events of creation, I don't tend to assume that any dialogue is a direct quote, so to speak. And even the Gospels show that eyewitnesses sometimes don't remember speeches word for word.)

It's interesting that although the serpent is essentially lying from the beginning, when the woman corrects it, she also gets God's command wrong. God never said not to touch the fruit. I've certainly heard it said that this subtle difference may have been part of the problem. Once she touched the fruit and found no ill effects, she may have become confused as to the truth. In any case, the serpent's lie was almost a sort of half-truth, as indeed, they did come to know good and evil. They already knew good, as it was in everything that God had given them, but once they ate the fruit, they knew evil, and it was specifically the evil they themselves had committed in rebelling against God's command.

Whatever the specifics here, however, something that definitely is very interesting is the manner in which she is tempted. She "saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise". This is an interesting scriptural pattern that is outlined in 1John 2:16

For all that [is] in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

This suggests that from the beginning throughout history, temptation has always been the same. 1) "If it feels good, do it!" 2) "If it looks good, do it!" and 3) "Look out for #1." This is the same sort of temptation that Jesus got in Luke 4 (and Matthew 4 as well), but He resisted.

So, the big question that every skeptic wants to ask, and rightly so, is why they didn't die at this point? Didn't God say "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die"? The answer, which will no doubt not appease most skeptics, is to appeal to figurative speech. The two words here that are key are "day" and "die", and either one or both of them is figurative. I believe both are.

First of all, as I noted before, the term "day" can mean a number of things, not just in the Bible, but in modern usage. Sometimes it means "while the sun is out". Sometimes it means "a 24-hour period". Sometimes it means "an indefinite period of time that has a particular notable characteristic (definitions 6&7 from the above link). It's this latter meaning that is meant here I believe. It was the moment that man rebelled against God and brought sin into the world that the door was also opened for death to enter in. As is said in James 1:15 "sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death." So God was really saying that once the fruit was eaten, a new era in which people die--including Adam in particular, of course--will begin. Of course, it has lasted up until now, and will continue to last until God changes it somehow.

More subtle is the word "die", however, and this may be more of a Christian viewpoint than a Jewish one, but the manner in which the human race "died" upon eating the fruit was not a physical death, but a spiritual one. We, as a race, died to our innocence; we died to our intimate relationship with God; something profound was lost. Sometimes Christian theologians refer to this as the death of our spirit, which causes us as a race to be all condemned to Hell by default. I have heard other people, Christian or not, refer to the concept that we as living beings in this world are dying a little bit every day. Supposedly that was not the case before the fruit was eaten, because there was no such thing as death.

Of course, the implications of eating the fruit don't stop there. More tomorrow...

9 comments:

Brian said...

If I understand you correctly, you seem to be saying that the god's statement about man dying after eating the fruit applied to his "soul", or his "spiritual self". i.e. man was immortal before he ate the fruit.

If man was immortal and there was no such thing as death, how did he know what death was?

Why weren't animals immortal? If animals didn't rebel against god, why were they cursed like Adam & Eve?

If God created the entire universe from scratch, why did he need "dust from the ground" for the creation of Adam? Why the rib for Eve?

If you read the bible critically, the snake wasn't lying, God was. The entire story reeks of mythology.

Anyway, to continue...
If Adam & Eve hadn't eaten of the tree of good & evil, they did not understand that going against god was evil. Think about it! We have people today who don't understand the difference of good/evil. They are called Sociopaths!

If god wished to punish Adam & Eve, why didn't he just punish them like we would a child? Take away his "loving presence" for a little while? Instead, punishes Adam, Eve, and all their descendents! Why punish the son for the acts of the father?

The bible even tells us that the god fears man knowing the difference between good & evil and becoming immortal. We aren't kept out of eden as punishment, we 're kept out because the god is afraid!!!!!

I realize you believe in christianity. You wish your beliefs made sense. Think! Why would a loving god require that his information be interpreted? Why not make it clear cut?

Look... think..., just for a second, that maybe, just maybe, you haven't found the TRUE religion yet.

Read about other religions. Read Greek and Norse mythology. Read about Mormonism, about other cults/religions. Read about religious history, about how beliefs have changed over the centuries. About how Greek & Persian beliefs were incorporated into Judiasm and Christianity.

Then, ask yourself... if all those other religions are not valid... why is yours?

The most rational/logical way to determine your beliefs is by what you can prove.

Science is the only way to learn about the world/universe that relies on logic and rational thought. You can take a scientific theory and test it yourself to see if it resembles reality. You don't have to take a person's or a book's statement as to how things work or why things are the way they are.

People go to war over differences in religion. Scientists do not go to war over a difference in scientific theory.

Brucker said...

"If I understand you correctly..."

Sounds like you are.

"If man was immortal and there was no such thing as death, how did he know what death was?"

Most likely God explained it to him in some way. Note that the man is able to carry on intelligent conversations with God to an extent. He must have been given some innate knowledge of a number of things, and death may have been one of them, whether physical or spiritual.

"Why weren't animals immortal? If animals didn't rebel against god, why were they cursed like Adam & Eve?"

Animals probably were immortal before the fall. As to why they were cursed as well, hopefully I'll address it when I get to the end of this chapter, it's not a very simple matter unfortunately.

"If God created the entire universe from scratch, why did he need "dust from the ground" for the creation of Adam? Why the rib for Eve?"

Poetry. I think God often lets or causes things to happen for the purpose of making a statement. I think I talked about this a bit in the post before this one, didn't I?

"If Adam & Eve hadn't eaten of the tree of good & evil, they did not understand that going against god was evil."

Did they? What exactly does the name of the tree mean? So many people assume that it means that they didn't know the difference, but the tree helped them understand the difference. I suspect that it was the act of eating the tree that helped them *know* good and evil. The word "know" is used, as is well known, also as a metaphor for sexual intercourse. This isn't a modern construct, it's that way in the Hebrew. I think in eating the fruit, they gained intimate knowlege of evil, having committed it themselves.

"The bible even tells us that the god fears man knowing the difference between good & evil and becoming immortal."

Yes, there's a good reason for this, and I'll cover it in tomorrow's post as well. I'm going to leave a lot of this hanging, as it's going to be covered. Now, what isn't:

"Why would a loving god require that his information be interpreted? Why not make it clear cut?"

Because we're human beings, and everything we understand is understood through interpretation of language. It's just our condition, being finite in our mental capacities.

"Read about other religions."

I've read a lot. As I often tell people, the only large world religions I'm not fairly familiar with are Islam and Baha'i. I chose Christianity, as it's what made the most sense to me. It's certainly possible that I'm wrong, but my personal experience tells me I'm where I should be.

"You can take a scientific theory and test it yourself to see if it resembles reality. You don't have to take a person's or a book's statement as to how things work or why things are the way they are."

Science is an excellent tool, one of the best we have for understanding the physical world around us. What about spiritual things, though? What about metaphysics? Show me how science can objectively answer questions about the afterlife and the existence of God. These are issues that many people want to understand, and if science can answer them in an unbiased fashion, I'm sure they would love to hear what science has to say.

"People go to war over differences in religion. Scientists do not go to war over a difference in scientific theory."

Clearly that's something we could all stand to learn from science.

bookdragon said...

There is a midrash that Eve didn't get God's command wrong. When Adam told her the rules, he added 'or even touch it'(didn't trust her to just avoid eating, so he had to add to the command as though she were a child being warned away from a stove or an electrical outlet). It was because she thought God had said that that the serpent could confuse/deceive her.

The usual interpretation of this is that one ought to be careful in building fences for the commandments to be clear on what is a fence vs. what God actually said. Otherwise you may lead someone into sin.

(my additional interpretation is that should trust wife and not treat her like a child - it always leads to trouble.*vbeg*)

Errancy said...

"What exactly does the name of the tree mean? ... I think in eating the fruit, they gained intimate knowlege of evil, having committed it themselves."

Interesting suggestion. Is it a problem that the tree is called the tree of the knowledge of (both) good and evil, but that it only helped them to gain intimate knowledge of evil (and not of good too)?

Brucker said...

Not really, because in a very real sense, good and evil are like two sides of the same coin, as they say.

It's something that I've noticed most Christians don't like to talk about, because of some negative implications, but those who know evil are better at knowing good in contrast in some ways.

Emmanuel2.0 said...

Christianity has nothing to do with snakes, serpents, trees of knowledge and other poetic stuff, CHRISTIANITY IS LOVE !

Na said...

An interesting point here is that you say Adam and Eve knew only good beforehand, and I think I'm right in saying that this implies that they were not capable of bad/evil before eating the apple. If that is the case then this is essentially the moment that mankind gains free will. And if that is true then the Bible is saying that free will is not something given as a gift from God, but a prize (or maybe in it's narrative a curse) from having rebelled against God.

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I think the best take on this is Dr. Bullingers comment about this being a somewhat mistranslated passage. The Snake being "Nacash" or a bright shining one or seraph. This would make more sense. Yes I know that "Literal" interetation can be both "Idiomatic" or "Grammatical" but after 40 years of Bible study my conclusion is that things turned out just as God planned it. Mankind was supposed to go down this path and was set up. This is not meant to be a negative view but rather that mankind moved from innocent nebulism to functioning a functioning concience. "Knowing good from Evil" is really a figure of speech meaning knowing all things. I do not see how the concept of Evil is introduced so early in the story when God saig all was well. Did God create this evil? Man certainly created nothing and where would he/her have drawn the concept in the first place? I do not see that man was responsible for anything at all; he was created by a mighty all knowing and powerful God. Time to go back to the drawing board on all this. For man to venture into the unknown required victory and failure. Christ the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world was made availiable to deal with the resulting damage that mankind would incur simply trying to make his way in the world. No insults intended, but this the only way this makes sense for me.

Brucker said...

Ugh, I'm so behind on responding to comments, but I do like the dialogue...

@Na:
I think I addressed that a bit in an earlier comment, if you scroll up. My contention is not that they didn't understand that evil existed, but they had never personally experienced it. Whether that has anything to do with what you're saying about free will, I don't know; but I'd say that they had free will, and they exercised it to do what they were not supposed to do.

@Anon:
NChSh is a funny Hebrew word, as it seems it can refer (depending on vowel points) to snakes, divination, or brass. I've long thought Numbers 21:9 is an interesting bit of wordplay. So sure, it's not completely out of the realm of interpretation to say that rather than a snake, the tempter in the story was a shiny angel or maybe some sort of sorcerer as bizarre as that might sound. My only thought is that the snake interpretation makes best sense of the curse he receives at the end of the story. "...thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:" just sounds like we're talking about a snake.

That being said, there is of course always the possibility of multiple levels of interpretation. The common Christian interpretation is that this is a snake that is possessed by Satan, and Satan is supposed to be an angel anyway. So... why don't we have both?

Much of the rest of your comment is delving into even deeper theological waters that I'm not sure I'm interested in exploring here. I mean, isn't it always said that God is the creator of everything? Yet it is also said that God is good (as well as God Himself having said the world He created was good, as you point out) and yet right here, evil is found in the world, first in concept, then shortly after in fact. That's a tough one to sort out, and while I'm not completely against discussing it, I've never been eager to go into stuff that deep on this blog. Yet perhaps the topic of this post warrants it; I don't know.