Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.
He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
The thing about familiar stories is that you eventually stop reading them. You know them too well. And even when you do read them, you don’t really take the words in because you already know what they’re going to say.
For example, I don’t know how many times I have read the opening verses of Genesis 3 (which is surely one of the 101 passages that every Christian should know and understand). And yet for a very long time I assumed that the crafty serpent in verse 1 is just a thinly disguised Satan, God’s ancient enemy who wants to wreck the good creation that God has made.
Now the serpent may have some connection to Satan. At the other end of the Bible in Revelation, we read of “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9), which sounds like it could be a reference to the Great Deception of Genesis 3.
But by too quickly reading ‘Satan’ where I saw ‘serpent’, I missed one of the most important points of this foundational passage.
It goes back to the creation of the animals and of Adam and Eve in chapter 2. After putting Adam into the garden of Eden to “work it and keep it” (2:15), God decides to make a “helper fit for him” (2:18). At first, he makes “every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens”, and brings them to Adam for him to name (2:19). But no suitable or “fit” helper is found in the animal kingdom, and so God makes Eve out of Adam’s rib. Adam is delighted with this solution, and all seems right with the world.
Notice at this point in the narrative (at the end of chapter 2) that there is a certain order in the creation. There is God the good and generous creator, who rules over all. He has created and breathed life into Adam and made him a very suitable helper in Eve. And then there are the beasts of the field and the birds of the air whom Adam names, and over whom he and Eve have dominion as God’s image in the world.
Genesis 3:1 then very specifically says that it is the craftiest of these beasts of the field (“that the Lord God had made”) that comes to speak to the woman. In other words, the point is not that someone from ‘outside’ (such as Satan) came and spoiled everything, but that the creation itself rose up against its creator. It starts with a created beast who tempts and deceives the woman. And then the woman ‘helps’ her husband by persuading him to follow her into rebellion against God. (As verse 17 tells us, Adam’s failure was to “listen to the voice of your wife”.)
Rather than God being the undisputed Lord, with Adam listening to and obeying him, with his wife by his side and ruling over the animals, it’s all turned upside down. The animal speaks, the woman is persuaded, and Adam dumbly goes along with it. It’s a grassroots, bottom-up rebellion of the creation against its creator.
Why do they rebel? We aren’t told anything about the serpent’s motives, but the woman is deeply attracted to the idea of becoming like God, knowing good and evil. This is a great irony, of course, because Adam and Eve are already like God, as Genesis 1:27-28 has told us. God made them in his image and likeness, and yet that is not enough for the woman. She believes the serpent’s slander that God’s command about the tree is insincere, that God only wants to stop them eating from it because he doesn’t want them to become more like him. In other words, God doesn’t have their best interests at heart. His commands are arbitrary and self-serving.
This has been the essence of sin ever since. We doubt that God’s commands are truly good. We perversely seek to overthrow the good order God has created in an effort to become more like God ourselves. And we foolishly disbelieve in God’s power and determination to fulfil his word and bring judgement.