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Home > Bible Studies > BibleJourney > Genesis > Issue 9

BibleJourney: Genesis

Issue 9

ISSN 1535-5187

Forbidden Fruit: Part One—Genesis 3.1-7
by Winn Griffin, D.Min.


Observing the Stuff

The Key to the Story
The popular 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.

Time Travel
Moses most probably tells this story, as the others before it, in Genesis to the Israelites against the backdrop of Polytheism. He instructed them as they sat at Mt. Sinai, having left a polytheistic society in Egypt [ Map ], 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 other god.

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 taught."

Overview of Genesis Genesis 3.1-24
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 Genesis 3.6-8 is book ended by two exchanges of dialogue that involve the four actors in this account (God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent).

The first book end is the serpent and the woman interchange (Genesis 3.1-5)

The second book end is the questioning of the man and woman by God (Genesis 3.9-13)

The next sections of the story are about man's reaction, the naming of Eve, and the skin garments (Genesis 3.20-21)

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 3.22-24).

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 Eve to Cain spreads through his descendants.

Interpreting the Stuff

Some Tidbits from the Story
It 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 Genesis 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 God.

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 Bible (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 verse of Genesis 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 3.1-24)

Genesis 3:1-7: An Overview
You can see in these verses three parts: the temptation (Genesis 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 always true.

There are five beliefs about who the serpent who appears in the story of Genesis 3 really is:

  • The serpent is disguised. It is really Satan who is the real tempter. It is Satan who is cursed in Genesis 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 Genesis 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 (Genesis 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 command.

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 verses 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.

Genesis 3.1
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 liberality.

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 Serpent
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 1 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.

Genesis 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, 23; 13.16, 14.8, 15; 18; 22.3) 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 5.12, 15.5). In this story the storyteller only speaks of the serpent's destiny (Genesis 3.14-15).

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 the wilderness, Numbers 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 (Lev. 11.41-45). Serpents were associated with the judgment of God for Israel's complaints against God in the wilderness (venomous snakes, Numbers 21.6) as well as being the source of rejuvenation (see above).

Genesis 3.2-3
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.

Genesis 3.4-5
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 motivation (see Job 1.2-11; 2.4-5). 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:

  1. Surely if they ate they would not die.
  2. 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).
  3. 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 be true.

In this text, there are two possible meanings for the phrase "you shall die." They are:

Physical or Natural Death
In the 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.

Genesis 3.6-7
As this brief story reaches its climax, the fatal steps are described in a series of consecutive clauses that suggest the rapidity of the action;

  • "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 food
  • 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 tree…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 sound alike.

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 eats.

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 happened?

  1. Their eyes opened
  2. They realized they were naked
  3. They sewed fig leaves
  4. 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?

Doin' the Stuff!
  • 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 drive?
  • 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 God?"
  • 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 way?
  • 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?
BibleHandbook: Resourse Stuff!

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 recommend New 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 One of these should suit your personal needs.



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Copyright © 2002-2019, 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 Davidson Press, Inc. All rights reserved internationally.

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