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...