Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 5: The Serpent (Genesis 3) Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; Originally aired on October 16, 2005
Yom Kippur: In our last lesson we looked at Genesis 2, the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. I forgot to mention that our timing of these discussions is very appropriate. Two weeks ago, while we were discussing creation and the garden of Eden, our Jewish friends were observing the start of new year—Rosh Hashanah. That celebration focuses on the start of creation itself. It is a yearly reminder for Jews that the earth is a gift from God that humans are allowed to enjoy so long as we live righteously and justly. We saw that theme in Genesis, which mentions that there were two trees in the middle of the garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Ten days after Rosh Hashanah is the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. According to rabbinic tradition this is the day when God closes out the account of the previous year. The wrongs that you have done become part of your permanent record to be read on the Day of Judgment. In the days before Yom Kippur, you are urged to made amends with any person you have harmed in the previous year so they may forgive you. And on the day of Yom Kippur you fast and present yourself before God, asking for mercy.
Uniqueness of Genesis 3: With that in mind, it is appropriate that today we turn our attention to Genesis 3, the first story in the Bible about sin and atonement. There is no story quite like this in the entire Bible. Unlike much ancient literature, the Bible is really quite down to earth. There may be some symbolic dreams and prophecies, but for the most part Bible stories have people talking and acting like people. This is the only story where a talking animal is a major character. The only other animal I know of that talks in the Bible is Balaam’s donkey, and he doesn’t really carry on a conversation. But here in Genesis 3 we have a serpent which is intelligent and eloquent. That should give you a clue about how to read this passage. It is unlikely that this story was ever intended to be read as literal history.
This is one story that may have been over interpreted through the centuries. This story has been central to much Christian theology and preaching, and it has been a rich subject for Christian art and literature. Judaism doesn’t place as much weight on this story as Christianity does. For the rabbis, it was an illustration of the persistent human dilemma of whether to follow the teachings of God, the Torah, or to follow one’s own desires. The rabbis taught that all humans, including Adam and Eve, have two wills which compete for dominance: the will to obedience and will to rebel. We see this struggle in Genesis 3. It is our struggle every day.
The Fall? The early Christian theologian Tertullian read this story in a different way. Drawing upon the teaching of Paul in the New Testament, Tertullian argued that this was the story of the corruption of the human race. Humans had been perfect until Eve ate from the tree. Tertullian blamed Eve for making humans sinful, and he claimed that this sin of Eve was communicated to her descendents through sex.
This event was called the Fall, and it is the reason that humans are mortal. Human beings are conceived in sin and are sinners from birth because of Eve. All humans die, but worse, they are also dammed by a just God even before they are born because of original sin. But the merciful God sent his son to rescue humans from their corruption. Christ, who was conceived without sin, became the perfect sacrifice for sin. He made atonement for the original sin of Eve and the sins of all her children. For Christians then, the Day of Atonement is Good Friday.
Other theologians built on Tertullian’s teaching and created an entire theology based on the idea of Fall and Redemption. The Fall became an important way of understanding our world. One of my favorite New Yorker covers had Adam and Eve being forced by an angel to rake mountains of leaves. It was titled “the Fall.”
Debates: The big debate among Christian theologians until recent years was over the details of the story. Just what was Eve’s sin? Was it eating the fruit? Was it listening to the tempter? Was it her desire for the fruit even before she picked it? Was it disbelief since she doubted God’s judgment? Was it giving the fruit to Adam? Was it questioning God? Was it pride and the desire to be like God?
They even debated the significance of the fact that Adam and Eve were naked before Eve ate the fruit but were ashamed afterwards. Many early theologians decided that somehow or another sex was the focal point of the story. Many theologians argued that before the Fall Adam and Eve were chaste; with sin came sex.
Augustine was not convinced of this, but he agreed that this story was really about lust. From early times then, the idea of the Fall or Original Sin became linked with sexuality and Christianity has never recovered. Many Christian sects, like the Shakers, adopted celibacy because they wanted to return to the original purity of Eden. Catholic priests take vows of celibacy in order to be pure enough to serve at the altar. Based on his own experience as a priest and monk, Martin Luther argued that enforced celibacy merely causes people to become obsessed with sex and often leads to abuse. Unfortunately, this is part of our daily news today as more evidence of abuse by priests is made public.
Biological Corruption? Although Protestants encouraged marriage rather than celibacy, they also focused their theology on this idea of the Fall. Adam and Eve’s actions corrupted the race and only the death of Christ could bring salvation. This is the primary reason conservative Christians in the 20th century rejected the theology of evolution. Adam and Eve had to be real, living people or the story of the Fall of humankind and the redemption of Christ would be undermined.
If Adam and Eve are metaphorical, conservative Catholics and Protestants believed, then the redemption of Christ might be seen as metaphor rather than fact. In the modern period, great weight was placed on the historicity of this story because of centuries of Christian theology that defined sin as a biological thing. Thanks to Tertullian, Augustine and others, sin had become a sexually transmitted disease, a contagious inheritance of the original parents.
This aspect of Catholic teaching actually grew more extreme in Protestantism. Calvinists adopted the idea that the Fall had completely destroyed the image of God in humans. They spoke of utter human depravity. All people are sinners incapable of any good action on their own. Every virtue is merely a mask for selfishness, pride, lust, and other sins. Modern philosophers and economists who insist that individuals only act out of self-interest are drawing on Calvinist theology of the Fall of humankind in Eden, even though they would never admit to that publicly. Not all theologians, preachers, and believers bought into this interpretation of Genesis, but it continues to dominate Christian doctrine.
Culture: The Puritan poet John Milton turned these verses in Genesis into one of the great epic poems of the English language in his “Paradise Lost.” In composing his poem, he drew upon more than a thousand years of speculation about creation and the Fall. Much of the poem takes place in heaven with the rebellion of Lucifer. Many critics have pointed out that Lucifer is really the central character of Milton’s poem, which is odd since Satan is a very minor character in the New Testament and only makes one appearance in the Old. But over time Christian theologians increasingly used Satan as a way to explain sin and suffering in the world. All was perfect in Eden until Eve yielded to temptation.
The story of Adam and Eve even lends itself to Country and Western music. As the song “Fox on the Run” says: “Now everybody knows the reason for the fall; Woman tempted man down in paradise hall. This woman tempted me, and she took me for a ride. Now like the lonely fox I need a place to hide.” Younger listeners might be interested to know that this song was also recorded by the rock group Barenaked Ladies, which is oddly appropriate since it involves Eve. So with all of this tradition from Milton to Bluegrass to influence us, it can be a little hard to read the story as it is rather than as it appears in art, literature, catechisms, and sermons. So, let’s try to hear the story afresh.
We will continue with Genesis 3 next week because it is such a rich story, and it is one that some of you have been discussing since you were in Vacation Bible School. Let’s start today by looking at the characters as they actually appear without all the background that Augustine and Milton offer.
The Serpent: We have four speaking roles in this story, don’t we? There is Adam, Eve, the Serpent, and the LORD. We’ve met three of them before, although Eve did not say much in Genesis 2. It is the serpent who is new to the story. I hope you noticed in reading that the serpent is nowhere identified as Satan, Lucifer, the devil, a demon, Beelzebub, or any other member of the infernal regions. There is no prelude to this story about an archangel named Lucifer who leads a revolution against God and who is defeated by Christ. All of that is part of the contribution of Gnosticism to Christianity.
What we have in the biblical text is a story of a talking snake. In fact, it is a snake with legs, which we don’t see these days. (And I, for one, am glad of that!) We aren’t told if the other animals in the garden could talk. Some have proposed that this is implied in the story since animals were made to be companions of Adam originally. This idea of talking animals in Eden is one reason that C. S. Lewis made the animals talk in Narnia. That is all beside the point, though. We’re dealing with a metaphorical story here that uses the tools of all such stories, including talking animals.
In order to understand the story, we need to enter into the world of the story – to suspend our disbelief and focus on the text. All we know from the text is that the snake was the most intelligent animal in Eden and it could talk. It is not clear how to translate the Hebrew for “intelligent” here since the various English words we can use have different connotations. There was a time, for instance, when clever was considered a complement; now it is a bit insulting. Likewise the words crafty or cunning indicate a type of intelligence that is immoral and destructive.
It makes a difference if a newspaper says, for instance, that Karl Rove is “the smartest man in politics” or “the most cunning political operative in history.” And it makes a difference if the snake is called wise, smart, crafty or cunning. Since we interpret Genesis 3 as the story of the Fall of humans into sin and suffering, translators usually describe the serpent as cunning or crafty rather than wise or clever. The Hebrew is less clear in its judgment on the snake, but I think most would agree that the snake tempts the woman. It is a tempter who inflames a desire in the woman she didn’t have before, much like any good salesman.
The snake begins with a simple question about God’s commandments. He appeals to Eve’s intelligence first, and she replies that God gave them the freedom to eat of every tree but one. “On the day that you eat of it, you will die,” Eve quotes to the snake, who refutes her. It says that she will not die if she eats. The serpent tells Eve that she will be as wise as God if she eats from the tree. And that is the last we hear from the snake.
Temptation: A question and a statement. Not quite the stuff of the Exorcist, Omen, or dozens of other horror movies that portray the Evil One. Not even the stuff of classic Christian art and architecture. No whiff of sulfur accompanies the serpent’s appearance to Eve; just a question and a statement. This is very much the way real life works, isn’t it? Much of the harm that humans do in this world begins with nothing more than a question and statement—a conversation in one’s own head. We don’t have to imagine a time in history when snakes walked around tempting innocent women in order to appreciate the powerful insight of this little story.
How often in your own life have you had a conversation with the clever little snake in your own mind? How many times have you said, “Would it really be wrong to this? Would I get in trouble?” How many times have you seen a commercial that says: “Las Vegas, what you do here stays here” and convinced yourself it is true? How many people in government have listened to the voice of ambition and power rather obeying their responsibilities, convincing themselves that a little corruption, a little theft, a little lying, a little evasion wouldn’t matter? And then came Hurricane Katrina.
How many people in business listened to the crafty voice of ambition and greed and status rather than obeying their duties to stockholders, customers, employees, and the public? And then came Enron, Haliburton, Tycho, and others. We don’t need the Westminster Confession and all the trappings of Milton to make sense of Genesis 3. All we need is a newspaper and a mirror. In our next lesson we’ll continue with Genesis 3, looking at the character of Eve.