Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis
> Issue 9
Forbidden Fruit: Part OneGenesis 3.1-7
Winn Griffin, D.Min.
The Key to the Story
version of this story in (Genesis
3.1-24) is to answer questions about how the fall occurred, or to try to
identify the serpent as Satan, or to teach about the first blood sacrifices
(i.e., the provision of skin to replace the fig leaf is believed to have come
from God by sacrificing an animal). There is one thing that seems perfectly
clear for this story and we need to assert it at the beginning of the lesson:
The main thrust of the story is not to identify who's who in the garden, but to
demonstrate the care and concern of the Creator God for his creation, even when
they disobey him.
Moses most probably
tells this story, as the others before it, in Genesis to the Israelites against
the backdrop of
He instructed them as they sat at
Sinai, having left a polytheistic society in
], and journeying toward a polytheistic society in Canaan, that
there is but one God and he is the one who had delivered them from Egypt and
was moving them toward the land he had promised their forefathers. This is
where the tale of the serpent comes into the picture (see below for fuller
discussion). In the ancient world of this time, the serpent was believed to be
divine and was often worshipped because of his ability to bring health,
fertility, immortality, and wisdom. It is likely that the storyteller was
giving Israel yet another reason to worship the one and only God, and not any
I know this is tough territory for Evangelicals who
have somewhat been given a steady diet of Creationism and Satanism from these
early chapters of Genesis. I trust that you stick in here and listen to the
text and the background into which is was originally given and hear what the
text is saying, even if it runs counter to what you have "always been
Overview of Genesis
The stories before in Genesis demonstrate a loving God
and an obedient creation. The story is about to change. This story (Genesis
3.1-24) is about how humankind decided to disobey God and the consequence
of such a decision.
The following is a quick overview of the chapter that
we are studying in this and the following two lessons. The narrative section of
3.6-8 is book ended by two exchanges of dialogue that involve the four
actors in this account (God,
Eve, and the serpent).
The first book end is the serpent and the woman
The second book end is the questioning of the man and
woman by God (Genesis
The next sections of the story are about man's
reaction, the naming of Eve, and the skin garments (Genesis
The present story ends with a divine monologue (God is
talking to himself) that determines the couples' expulsion and the execution of
the decision (Genesis
The former story (Genesis
2.4b-25) is the near background for understanding the snake's challenge of
the first human couple. In the previous story we are told about the life of
this first couple in the garden, which demonstrates to the hearer of the story
what will be lost by the human couple for a poor decision. Without the previous
story we would simply have no way of knowing what was lost by the bite taken
from the fruit.
The next story (Genesis
4.1-26) demonstrates the aftermath of the regrettable deed that is recorded
in our present story. Therein Cain murdered his brother Abel and the
disobedience that spreads from Adam and
to Cain spreads through his descendants.
Some Tidbits from the Story
would be great for the Western reader if the stories of Scripture answered
every question that we could conceive of and bring to the text to be answered.
The text was not built by God to answer all of our questions. This next episode
in the saga of Genesis has raised some interesting questions for which the
storyteller, Moses, and the ultimate storyteller, God, simply do not share the
answers. It often strikes me strange that we want answers where God doesn't
give them. So in our fallen condition, we force answers onto texts that are not
trying to answer the questions that we are asking. But we force the answer and
"the truth of Scripture." How abusive is that? Fallen humankind telling God
that we know better than he does what we need. Sound familiar?
Here is an illustration: there is no detailed account
about who the serpent in this story really is. There is one thing for sure: the
storyteller does not identify him as Satan, as so much of our popular theology
and thought does. If he really is the fallen angel who is God's great
antagonist, the storyteller, Moses, and the ultimate storyteller, God, do not
reveal this to these first listeners/readers (See below on the serpent).
Many readers and interpreters of
3 have supposed that its original purpose was etiological. Etiology is the
study of causes or origins. So we have read this as an attempt to answer the
question: How did evil come into the world, or, why is there enmity between
real snakes and humans?
There is no basis for asking etiological questions of
this text. The storyteller and the resulting text do not explain the origin of
the serpent other that it was a creation of God (Genesis
2.19). This story does not explain the origin of evil. The story only
explains where evil did not come from. It clearly did not come from the Creator
Evil was not in the genes of God's created humankind.
Sin was not the consequences of some "divine" trap set by God. Little is said
in the Jewish
(Old Testament) about the source of evil and the Jewish Bible never attributes
evil as coming from the hand of God. God is not responsible for the sin of the
first humans nor can he be blamed for the serpent's deceit.
In the text the Hebrew word for "subtle" is arum. The
word sounds very much like the Hebrew word for "naked" (arumim) in the last
2. While there is no solid theological conclusion that can be drawn from
this fact, it is most like a literary way of connecting the last story (Genesis
2.4b-25) with our present story (Genesis
3:1-7: An Overview
You can see in these verses three parts: the
3.1-5); the transgression (Genesis
2.6); and the change that occurred because of the transgression. In the
first verses (Genesis
3.1-5), there is an introduction, and then a dialogue in which the serpent
speaks first and then the woman speaks. The serpent speaking concludes the
verses. In ancient stories, only two people conduct a conversation. This is
There are five beliefs about who the serpent who
appears in the story of
3 really is:
- The serpent is disguised. It is really Satan who is
the real tempter. It is Satan who is cursed in
3.15. This is the popular understanding of who Satan is and is the
long-standing explanation among Evangelical believers, but has been mostly
abandoned by Evangelical exegesis.
- The serpent is purely symbolical.
- The serpent is a mythological character.
- The serpent is an animal that is particularly
clever. Its ability to speak is a characteristic of the story. (Remember, we
have speaking animals in many stories today.)
- The serpent is seen as an important character given
the evidence from ancient Near Eastern literature and art. Some folks think
that serpents were important because of their poison that was a threat to life
or because of its lidless eyes. In the Gilgamesh story, Gilgamesh is cheated
out of being perpetually young when a serpent consumes a magical plant that
Gilgamesh had retrieved from the bottom of the sea. In other ancient stories
the serpent is cursed to crawl on its stomach.
There are two things that can be noted about the
serpent: first, he was crafty and, second, God made him. We often overlook the
latter consideration. In the text of Scripture, "crafty" is an indecisive term,
but most likely it means something like "astute" or "clever." There is a clear
anti-polytheistic theme that can be noted in the fact that God made the
serpent, the serpent was not a god itself. There is no enmity suggested by the
text between God and the serpent. We must remember that it is not the identity
of the serpent that the storyteller is concerned with. Rather, he is concerned
with what the serpent says. Since
1-2 reported that everything created by God was "good," it seems likely
that the serpent represents a being that has corrupted its own good purpose,
not one that God created as corrupt from the start.
The first tactic of the serpent was to give Eve a
suggestion. He wanted her to believe that God was sinister. In fact, he wanted
her to note that God was abusing her. His second tactic was to deny the
truthfulness of what God had spoken
3.4). He suggested that disobedience will not really bring any
disadvantages but rather, would bring an advantage to the first couple-"you
will be like God" (Genesis
3.5). The serpent does not ask allegiance from Eve. He indirectly suggested
that she shift her commitment from doing what God requested to doing what she
wanted to do.
Adam and Eve were lured by the prospect of instant
pleasure. Let me point out that Israel could have used this insight at Ai.
Throughout Scripture, the essence of sin is to put human judgment above divine
Let us note together that the first conversation
recorded in Scripture is a conversation about God. The serpent's comments were
directed toward Eve. The text suggests that he was most likely talking to both
Adam and Eve. The word "you" in
2-5 is plural. (You shall not eat, you shall not touch, when you eat of it
you shall be
) While Eve was the spokesperson for the couple, the "we"
included both she and Adam. It has often been suggested that the woman was the
weaker partner of the couple and, therefore, the more vulnerable of the two.
Some interpreters have suggested that she is simply more aggressive and
sensible. The text does not make an assertion either way. The text is natural.
The text does not assert that the serpent approached the woman, implying that
the man was off doing something else in the garden. It is important to note
that when a man reads this text, he often sees the first suggestion about
vulnerability as being the meaning of the text. On the other hand, when a woman
reads the text, she may see in it aggressiveness. One thing is perfectly clear:
it is difficult to depatriarchalize our interpretation of Scripture. And that
is to our own detriment.
Our story opens by the sudden appearance of the serpent.
The storyteller told his listeners that the snake was a "crafty" character.
This word would alert the hearer that they should be very suspicious of the
words of the serpent and examine them very carefully. The term "more subtle"
(KJV) or "crafty" (NIV) is used in the Hebrew Bible both positively and
negatively (see below under The Serpent). The term introduces a certain amount
of ambiguity into the story.
We are told that God is the creator of the serpent.
"God had made" the serpent among the beasts of the field (Genesis
2.19). This should dispel any belief about a competing dualism (the concept
that the world is ruled by the antagonistic forces of good and evil) in this
story, since God created the serpent. Even though God is identified as creator
of the serpent, there is no attempt by the storyteller to give an explanation
of the origin of evil. Looking for an explanation of the origin of evil is a
preoccupation with the Western mindset. It's almost as if we believe that if we
could figure its origin out, then we could do better at controlling it.
There is no explanation in the text about how the
serpent was able to speak. This would help the listener to be more focused on
what the serpent said rather than trying to find out who the serpent is.
Remember, the serpent was among the "good" animals that God had created and
there was no reason why the woman should suspect the animal's deceit, other
than by listening to what the serpent spoke.
- First, the serpent used the tactic of causing doubt
in the mind of the woman. He did this through asking questions and spouting
misrepresentations. The serpent did not gainsay what god had said in a direct
fashion. Rather, he questioned the motivation of God with his wry "did God
really say?" He was not asking Eve a question, but rather distorting a fact.
Next, the serpent used the name God rather than the covenant name Lord that is
so characteristic of the previous story. Lastly, the serpent reworked the
command of God by:
- Adding the negative "not" to the word "any" which
made expression appear to be an absolute prohibition.
- The serpent omitted the word "freely."
- The serpent placed "from any tree" at the end of
the sentence rather than at the beginning (see
2.16). This would be understood as robbing God's command of the nuance of
In the mouth of the serpent the words of divine
command by God were refashioned. The serpent did this for his own purpose,
which incidentally, is not stated. One might ask why the serpent directed his
remarks toward the woman. The text is clear: the serpent talked to the woman
and the man at the same time. As we stated briefly above, the "you" in "you
shall not eat," you shall not touch lest you die," "you will not die," "when
you eat of it you shall be," are all plural. The woman does act as the
spokesperson for this first dynamic duo when she says, "we may eat." In the
course of interpretation it is often the woman who is castigated as being the
weaker more vulnerable sex. However, it is just as proper to understand this
text as the woman being aggressive, intelligent, and sensitive.
The question of the serpent is an attempt to create an
impression in the mind of the couple that God is a spiteful, mean, obsessively
jealous, and self-protective God. The woman now on the defensive begins to
defend God and clarify his position. (As if that is ever our job to do). The
serpent's picture of God is that of a caring provider to a cruel oppressor.
A Small Digression: The
Let's take a small digression from the text and take a look
at the concept of the serpent. The word "satan" is used in a number of ways in
the Hebrew Bible. The term refers:
The word "satan" appears eighteen times in the Hebrew
Bible. Out of the eighteen, fourteen times it appears in Job chapters one and
two. We should note with interest that all but one of these eighteen times that
"satan" appears (the exception is
Chronicles 21.1) the article is attached to the word and it reads "the
satan." This form indicates that it is a title not a personal name. The term
"satan" does not describe "who" but "what." The term is not a proper name. We
must carefully understand that in the ancient world not to have a name was to
be reduced to nonexistence.
3 reveals that the serpent was one of the creatures that the Creator God
created. The serpent was not eternal or divine. The storyteller reveals that
this creature was "more subtle" than any other animal. This is not a
disparaging term. As a matter of fact, the word which is translated "subtle"
for us is used in Proverbs several times (12.16,
and is translated "the prudent [one, person, man]. This prudent one is
contrasted with the "fool." While elsewhere the word is translated as "crafty"
which is something that God dislikes (Job
In this story the storyteller only speaks of the serpent's destiny (Genesis
Explanations abound about who the serpent was. Some
believe that it was a mythological character that had magical powers. Others
think that the serpent was a symbol of human curiosity. Still others believe
that the serpent was a symbol of some ancient fertility cult. Some see the
serpent as symbolic of chaos or evil. Some believe that the voice of the
serpent is only the voice of "inner person." Among Christian and Jewish
interpreters, the serpent is often identified as Satan's instrument. Luther, as
an example, believed that "the devil was permitted to enter the beast, as he
here entered the serpent. For there is no doubt that it was a real serpent in
which Satan was and in which he conversed with Eve" (LW 1.151).
The word "serpent" is the general term for snake. The
reptile played a significant role in the ancient world. It was an object of
reverence and worship. Serpents are found in ancient myths and represent life,
recurring youth, death, chaos, and wisdom. Scripture also possesses the same
association for the serpent (the rejuvenating effects of the bronze serpent in
21.9 is an example).
In the ancient world's Epic of Gilgamesh, the serpent
was perceived as the opponent of humankind. Gilgamesh searched for the famed
survivor of the flood, the immortal Utnapishtim, so that he could learn how he
might obtain eternal life. Utnapishtim revealed to Gilgamesh a secret known
only to him and the gods. There was a plant in the deepest part of the sea that
could rejuvenate one's life. Gilgamesh obtained the plant and named it "Man
Becomes Young in Old Age." However, the plant was stolen by a serpent, who
carried it off and sheds its own skin (a process of rejuvenation).
In the community that God was creating in the
wilderness, the snake was classified as an unclean animal because of its
movement on the ground
11.41-45). Serpents were associated with the judgment of God for Israel's
complaints against God in the wilderness (venomous snakes,
21.6) as well as being the source of rejuvenation (see above).
Here are six things that went wrong with Eve.
- Eve's first mistake may have been to respond to the
question of the serpent. All questions do not deserve answers. Misrepresenting
what God had actually said compounded her mistake. Eve was drawn into another
possible interpretation of what God had commanded. There are five observations
of her response:
- Eve omitted "any" and "freely" which would place
the prohibition in the context of being liberal. At this point in the story she
was thinking collectively with her husband by responding "we may eat."
- Eve identified the tree according to its location
rather than to its significance.
- Eve referred to God with the same language as the
serpent used. Neither called him Lord.
- Eve added the phrase "you must not touch it," which
may make the prohibition even more stringent than God intended it to be.
- Finally, Eve failed to capture the urgency of the
death threat given by God.
Even though these alterations of God's command are
slight, they may suggest that Eve was moving slightly away from God toward the
thinking of the serpent. The generosity of God was not being given its full
value. God was being painted as somewhat harsh with a suggestion that even "a
touch" could be lethal.
We can understand why the snake is called "crafty" by his
reply. He questioned the motivation of God. In the Wisdom Literature tradition,
the adversary often argues the same case, i.e., a concern about God's
The argument is somewhat like the following: God is not gracious or good. He is
deceptive and selfish and he wants to prevent his creation from achieving all
that they could become. God holds his creation back. The temptation of the
serpent was to place before the couple the possibility of being more that they
were and more than God intended them to be. Sounds vaguely familiar, huh? Some
things really never change.
The storyteller may be using the "uncertainty about
God" idea to propose for a decision maker that he or she cannot trust God. (Eve
in her story. Job in his story and you or me in our story). The question: What
do we do when presented with the "fruit of temptation?"
The serpent made three counterclaims:
- Surely if they ate they would not die.
- Instead of death, their eyes would be opened.
("Eyes opened" is often a metaphor that suggests one has gained a newfound
awareness that was not previously possessed).
- Finally, the first couple would gain what belonged
to God. They would know "good and evil."
In the larger context of the present story, the
serpent's words are true and false. The words will prove true in that the
couple would not die physically immediately. Adam lived to the ripe old age of
930 years. It was also true that their eyes were opened. However, the
half-truths of the serpent concealed a falsehood and led the couple to expect
something different than what they received. The words of the serpent came
true, but in a very different way than the way the first couple expected it to
In this text, there are two possible meanings for the
phrase "you shall die." They are:
Physical or Natural Death
worship of the Hebrews, true life was experienced when one went into the
sanctuary (where they believed that God lived) to worship him. To be expelled
from the encampment, as lepers were, was to enter the realm of death. In the
same way, the couple did on the day they ate the fruit of the tree. They no
longer were able to have a daily conversation with God in the comfort of the
garden, nor enjoy the bounteous provision of the garden, nor eat of the tree of
life. Instead, the first couple were driven out of the garden to toil for their
food, suffer, and eventually return to the dust from which they were taken.
When autonomy displaces submission and obedience in a
person, that finite individual attempts to rise above the limitations imposed
on him by his creator. The end results will be separation from God.
As this brief story reaches its climax, the fatal steps
are described in a series of consecutive clauses that suggest the rapidity of
- "she saw"
- "she took"
- "she gave"
- "good to eat"
- "pleasing to the eyes"
- "giving insight"
- "eyes opened"
- "knowing they were nude,"
- "hiding in the trees."
The forbidden tree has three commendable virtues:
- It was physically appealing because it was good for
- It was aesthetically pleasing because it was
pleasing to the eyes
- It was sapientially transforming because it was
desirable for acquiring wisdom
The text literally reads: When the woman saw that the
was desirable in order to become wise. Here is the essence of
covetousness: an attitude that says I need something I do not now have in order
to be happy. This text reveals a shadow of the tenth commandment.
The apple has often been labeled as the forbidden
fruit. However, the text does not reveal such information. It may be that the
fruit received its name from the Latin malus "evil," and malum "apple," a close
It should be noted that the story does not tell us
that the woman tried to tempt the man. She simply gave him some of the fruit
and he chose to eat it. Adam did not challenge or raise a question, he simply
Breaking God's commandment "not to eat" carried with
it a consequence. Nothing has changed in God's economy. The same "rapid-fire"
set of words suggested the severity of making the choice to "eat." What
- Their eyes opened
- They realized they were naked
- They sewed fig leaves
- They made a covering
The plural "they" demonstrates that this first dynamic
duo experienced the result of eating the forbidden fruit simultaneously. But,
instead of knowing good and evil, the first couple knew that they were naked.
This was hardly the "special knowledge" that they had hoped for. What had been
a healthy relationship between the male and female in the garden had now turned
into something unpleasant and filled with shame.
They immediately knew the consequences of committing
sin. Their first response: cover it up. Gardengate precedes Watergate (and all
other "gates"), but the same response is apparent.
The cover up was accomplished by sewing a few fig
leaves together. The storyteller is unclear why the man and woman chose fig
leaves. Some have suggested that it was because of their size. The aprons
(loincloths) may suggest the skimpiness of their own act to cover themselves. A
curious question could be asked: Was the couple hiding themselves from each
other or from God?
- It is always important to apply what you have
learned. Pause at this point and ask for the help of the Holy Spirit to
meditate on and put into practice some or all of the following.
- Why do you think that it is so important to try to
figure out who the characters in the garden really are? What lies behind this
- What part of the "serpent" information makes your
"popular folk theology" a little shaky?
- How does the plural "you" give you a different
understanding of the text?
- How does understanding the use of "serpent" in the
story help the Hebrews understand their need to serve "one and only one
- How do the explanations of this story help you
understand how you may be tempted?
- How does being tempted to believe that you just
can't be certain about God's intentions, cause you to do things your own
- How often do you try to cover up your sin? And are
you covering it up from others or are you really hoping that you are covering
it up from God?
Read the following Dictionary Articles from
Easton's Bible Dictionary, or the International Standard Bible
Encyclopedia. Easton's is about a century old, therefore, some of
the information is not current with newer Bible Dictionaries. ISBE is
about seventy-five years old. You might read the articles off-line in a number
of different Bible Dictionaries. If you do not own a Bible Dictionary, I would
Bible Dictionary 3rd Edition. If you like lots of color pictures, try
The Revell Bible Dictionary now out of print but still
can be ordered from amazon.com. One of these should suit your personal
Copyright © 2002, Winn Griffin.
All rights reserved. BibleJourney: An Almost Weekly Bible Study is a service of
SBL Ministries. Unless otherwise stated, scripture quotations are from the
International Standard Version (ISV) of the Bible®. Copyright
© 2001 by The ISV Foundation, 2200 N. Grand Ave., Santa Ana, CA
92705-7016. Used by permission of
Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.