Genesis: the snake had a point

Genesis: the snake had a point.  There is more than one way to read Genesis.  One is to read it as an account by God dictated to Moses.  That seems unlikely, but it’s a view widely held among the very religious.  Certain problems, like the earth being created in 7 days, are dealt with by transforming days in eons.  Some small amount of metaphor allowed. 

Another way is to focus on the structure of Genesis, the way in which it combines different sources and traditions, edited, sometimes clumsily, to tell an epic myth of origins.  A myth that’s at its heart is true, not to history, but to human nature.  I agree with the second way, but I think one learns much by the first approach for what it says about man and God.  I am going to take seriously an author who employs it.  “Take seriously” means worthy of criticism.

Garden of Eden.  The snake had a point.

The story of the Garden of Eden is familiar.  God creates Adam and Eve, telling them they can eat the fruit from any tree, but not from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  But the sneaky snake comes along, tells them that if they eat from this tree they can become like God, knowing good and evil.  So, Eve takes a bite, and offers the fruit to Adam.  He takes a bite, and an angry God kicks them out of Eden, telling them that they and their descendants will have to work hard for a living, and women will bear their children in pain and travail (Genesis 2-3).*

Recently I reread Genesis, and it seems to me that the snake had a point.  Adam and Eve became fully human only by defying God and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Good and evil, says Bruce Waltke, are intended to encompass all moral knowledge,

the capacity to create a system of ethics and make moral judgments.  The knowledge of good and evil represents wisdom and discernment to decide and effect “good” (i.e., what advances life), and “evil” (i.e. what hinders it). (p 86)

That God  thinks that making moral judgments is sinful is disturbing.  In this view God does not want to give humans the capacity to discern good and evil, and build a decent society on that basis.  Instead, God insists that “human beings, by contrast, must depend upon a revelation from the only one who truly knows good and evil.” (p 86)  About moral questions, humans must not think for themselves.  To do so it sinful.

Sin consists of an illicit reach of unbelief, an assertion of human autonomy to know morality apart from God. (Waltke, p 87)

“Knights of faith” is the term Søren Kierkegaard  employs to characterize men and women who abandon moral autonomy for obedience to God. It is the highest religious state.  Abraham’s willingness to kill his beloved son Isaac because God said so is the great example.

Death is the price of moral autonomy

According to Genesis, the price of knowledge is death.

God desires to save humans from their inclination for ethical autonomy. Because Adam and Eve have attained this sinful state, they must not eat of the tree of life and are consigned forever to the forbidden state of being inclined to choose their own code of ethics (Gen. 3:22). (Waltke, p 92)

Let’s think about this.  According to Genesis, if we choose to assert our ethical autonomy, the capacity to make moral choices and live by them, the consequence is death, or rather mortality.  We may live long lives (many of the early Biblical patriarchs lived hundreds of years), but we shall eventually return to the dust from which we were made.  Or, we can abandon the ability to think for ourselves and live forever.  Which would you choose?  I’d choose mortality, and with it freedom. Death frightens me, and so it would not be any easy decision, but if asked right now, in my seventy-second year, I’d choose freedom and mortality.

I am not alone in this opinion.  According to Robert Kawashima,

Contrary to later misreadings, then, Eve’s defiant act, bravely risked under the threat of death (Genesis 2a7), makes humanity fully human . . . . In other words, the etiological intent of the story is not to mourn what was and therefore never meant to be but rather to describe what now irrevocably is, namely, the human condition . . . To be human is to be no mere passive recipient of divine revelation but rather an active, creative participant in history – that is, “like God.” (loc 760-762)

Similarly, one can read the Garden of Eden as an account of growing up.  In the beginning of life, one is (ideally) sheltered from the larger world, protected by comforting stories, and generally told what to do.  As we mature, we must leave the garden of childhood for the world of adult autonomy. 

A false distinction

It’s troubling that the first book of the Bible chooses to frame the issue as it does, for it need not be.  What needs to be pointed out are the dangers of ethical autonomy, not its sinfulness.  The Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11) says it best.

Exploiting the benefits of a new technology, bricks and mortar instead of stone, Noah’s sons tried to build a tower reaching to the heavens.  The idea behind this was apparently that upon reaching the heavens, humans might become like gods, what the serpent had originally promised.  As it turns out, humans had no idea how high heaven truly was, and so there was something ludicrous about the attempt from the beginning.   Becoming angry at their arrogance, and alarmed at their hubris, God inflicted linguistic confusion among them so that none could understand each other.  Some versions of this story use it to account for the variety of languages spoken throughout the world, but that is not stated in Genesis.

The point is the tendency of humans, left on their own, to use new technology, in this case the baked brick, to become like gods.  We usually don’t put it that way when we accomplish technological feats, such as landing on the moon, but the tendency is always there, and the critics of the snake (most religious people?) have a point, for the snake tempted Eve not just with knowledge, but with the idea that those who ate from the tree of good and evil might become like gods (Genesis 3:5).  For humans even to imagine such a thing is the beginning of the perversion of moral autonomy. 

I expect that those who hold that Eve sinned believe this temptation is built into human nature.  In any case, Genesis is hardly a screed against modern technology.  Noah’s ark was a marvel of technology, directed by the hand of God in a morally corrupt world (Genesis 6:13-22).  It is the sons of Noah who would build the Tower of Babel, a name that seems to refer to Babylon, a corrupt and sinful city. 

So what’s a human to do? 

Consider the possibility that humans naturally know that it’s good to preserve life, and bad to destroy it.  This is what Thomas Aquinas, a founder of the natural law, believed.  Sure, lots of people don’t follow what they know; the temptations of God-like power are too real.  So too is the pleasure in destruction, seldom talked about.   Nevertheless, unless corrupted by a perverse disposition or a corrupt culture (all too common), humans know that the promotion of life is good, and its destruction bad.  A long tradition of natural law, beginning with Cicero (106-43 BCE), holds that

God himself is its author . . . and he who does not obey it flies from himself and does violence to the very nature of man. (Cicero III, 22)

Cicero himself did not believe in any god; it is his way of talking about what best suits humanity—that is, how we can become most fully human.

The temptation of the Tower of Babel remains

The temptation of the Tower of Babel threatens us all.  The tendency to worship what humans have made, rather than what God has made of us, is strong, and not easily overcome.  This is the reason the Book of Genesis remains so important.  Even as it devalues human freedom, its authors understand that we are a vulnerable species, needing constant reminders of our tendency to worship ourselves. 

The story of creation, not just of humanity, but the cosmos itself, reminds us that we remain the created ones, made in God’s image so that we may understand his moral intention for humanity.  But if we are made in God’s image, then moral reasoning must play a role.  We were not made to be moral automatons, but as creatures who are capable of knowing what enhances life, and what hinders it.


* Genesis contains two versions of creation.  In the first, God speaks and the universe comes into being.  Humans are created last (Genesis 1).  In the second (Genesis 2), God creates man from the dust of the earth.  That is, God has to work at it.  Men and women come first.  More on the implications of these two accounts in another post.    


Cicero, Republic.

Robert S. Kawashima, “Sources and Redaction.”  In Reading Genesis: Ten Methods, ed. Ronald Hendel.  Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary.  Zondervan, 2001.

2 thoughts on “Genesis: the snake had a point”

  1. I would not have thought to read Genesis again,myself.But I am glad you have done.You explain very well the problems of being human and the painful effort we sometimes need.It is nearly long enough for two posts when you include the Tower of Babel story so perhaps I shall comment again after I have some more time for reflection.
    You write about complex questions but you describe and answer clearly in ordinary language.That is good.

  2. I didn’t know about the bricks and mortar.It makes me feel closer to them knowing they too suffered from their new technology.
    I know it was an error but probably better than some of the things we do now like watching porn on smartphones.Not so smart to waste time like that and ignoring the natural world

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