‘Did God really say…?’ (Gen 2–3)

Richard Briggs writes: The Bible does not begin with trouble. It actually begins with a gloriously peaceful creation story, stripped of concerns with competing powers, other gods, original chaos, and the politics of ancient Israel battling its way through the nations. Hence Genesis 1: six days of divine creative work, all pretty good, as we have seen.

Adam and Eve

Genesis 2 is also not much interested in trouble. It is the well-known story of Adam, the garden of Eden, the animals, and Eve. ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are names derived from the Hebrew terms ‘adam, meaning ‘man’, and chavvah, defined for us in Genesis 3:20 as ‘the mother of the living’. In fact these names are not used in Genesis 2, which remains on the level of talking about ‘the man’ and – eventually – a woman. There is some significance to the fact that the text talks of ‘the man’, that is, generically, most of the time up to and including Genesis 4:1, whereas from 4:25 onwards it is just ‘Adam’, that is, as a proper name. But there are exceptions to this pattern, and I will make exceptions below and sometimes refer to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2 and 3 just for simplicity. The question of whether this Adam and Eve pair in Eden are a particular named historical couple is thus left somewhat vague by the text of Genesis, or rather, it is not directly addressed at all. I shall follow that lead.

Of rather more significance for the purposes of reading Genesis 3 are chapter 2’s brief comments about trees. That may be surprising: first-time readers of Genesis 2 probably do not anticipate that what seem to be passing details about trees are likely to prove important in the sequel. But wisdom in reading needs openness to just such recognition, in the light of familiarity with how the text plays out in its wider contexts.


Here is what Genesis 2 says about trees. In the first place there is not much vegetation (2:5) – really none at all. In verse 8 the Lord God makes a garden, and in verse 9 God begins the growing of all kinds of trees, defined in particular as trees that are pleasing to look at, and good for food. Verse 9 concludes: ‘and the tree of life in the midst of the garden; and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. The chapter moves on to rivers before we can discover anything more about these two trees, though presumably they also are pleasing to look at and good for food. What kind of food such trees would have is a bit of a mystery. The tradition that apples are part of this story comes later, and derives from a bit of Latin word-play in the middle ages, where it was noticed that the word for ‘apple’ (malus) could also be the Latin adjective ‘evil’, which in the light of Genesis 3 made it irresistible to talk of the picking of an apple. But apple trees as such do not make an appearance in Genesis 2.

Now, while Adam is still solo, and learning his trade as a gardener, the Lord God issues a tree-related command in 2:16-17:

From any tree in the garden you may indeed eat; but the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: you may not eat from it.

In the event of any such eating, concludes God, in fact on the day of such eating (though the phrase here may simply mean ‘when you eat it’), ‘you (singular) will surely die’. Of course the ‘you’ here is singular: there is only one person on the earth at this point in the story. But it is worth noting it anyway, and worth remarking that this verse will come back to mind when just such a prohibited eating takes place in chapter 3, and readers may find themselves looking for the death that is hereby threatened, and wondering what has become of it.

Readers may also be forgiven (rather like Adam perhaps?) for losing sight of this tree-related commandment in the excitement of receiving a brand new life-partner in the verses that follow: bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh! Enter woman, from the side. One imagines the newly created couple, eager – to say the least – to go off and explore the stunning new gift of each other. The narrator is trying to issue a few words of instruction, but are they listening? Then something about reasons why a man leaves his father and mother … yes, yes, they say, barely stopping to reflect on the oddity of this sentence at a point where no one in the story has ever had a father or mother, while later readers recognise that it must be addressed to themselves instead; and something about nakedness and shame … yes, fine, whatever, as the man and woman tick the box to say they have read the terms and conditions, and head off into the garden to play. Is that the narrator calling out after them: ‘And don’t forget the thing about not eating from the tree of … oh, never mind’. It’s all written down. They can check their notes later.

Conversation in the Garden

The curtain rises on the next act: chapter 3 verse 1, with the woman and the serpent, catching up over a cappuccino. No, it does not say that in the Hebrew. It simply has the serpent talking to Eve. Whether that is supposed to be any less surprising than the two of them having a drink together is not so clear. Serpents are not in the habit of talking to humans, even in the worlds of ancient texts. This is a serious story, but it has no qualms about entering into its most serious moments in a highly imaginative way. So let us join them at the Eden cafe, seated outside in the garden area, drinks in hand, reflecting on all that has happened; Eve thinking that the serpent is simply wanting to get the back-story on her latest status updates, but with a strikingly persistent interest in her postings of recipes, on her ‘Motherhood and Apple Pie’ blog, the name of which came to Eve in a flash, although she does not really understand it yet, as indeed (recall) she is not actually called Eve yet.

‘Pomegranate pie’, says the serpent. ‘I liked that’.

‘Thank you’, says Eve.

‘Raisin cakes – all good’.

She grimaces. ‘Was not so keen myself, but I could see them being popular.’

The serpent pauses, and then says, casually – or craftily rather – ‘But there is something I’m a bit less clear about. The God who gave you all these recipes …’. There is a pause. And then he seems to start up again out of nowhere, as if he has already laid the foundation for this next comment when he does not seem to have done so: ‘… and moreover, did God say that you (plural) were not to eat from any tree in the garden?’ The implication hangs: surely that would be a mean-spirited way of letting them enjoy the riches of the land? Why put them in such a tree-lined paradise if fundamentally they are not to partake?

She sets him straight, citing chapter and verse, approximately, or in a round-about sort of way: ‘From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat’ (verse 2); and then she adds the rider: ‘but from the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, you (plural) shall not eat of it; nor shall you (plural) touch it; or you (plural) will die’. (verse 3)

Small Print

The serpent has some options here, blowing on his hot coffee, and wondering how he is going to pick it up without opposable thumbs, but, well, the idea that he could speak Hebrew to human beings has passed the filters of most readers down through the centuries, so we will let the issues of being hands-free pass too. His interlocutor has made some interesting adjustments to the version of the command we had back in chapter 2, which also referred us to one single prohibited tree, but called it ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ (2:17), which – we recall 2:9 – was one of two trees located in the middle of the garden. Eve does not seem to reckon with the tree of life, although she does capture the key point about the middle of the garden housing the excluded tree.

A second adjustment is the addition of the bit about ‘not touching’, which was not in chapter 2. It could be poetic fine tuning. Eve may think that eating involves the plucking and the consuming, and is simply emphasising that this kinds of hands-on involvement with the fruit of the tree is off-limits. Why, after all, would one touch a tree’s fruit if not to take hold of it for the purposes of eating? (Note that the serpent may not be well placed to answer that question.) Or then again, maybe she has in mind touching as an act of coveting, as if fingering the choicest desserts in the supermarket.

A third adjustment, which swims easily along with the context, but which is nevertheless a modification of the dialogue between God and Adam in chapter 2, is the switch from singular to plural. In this Eve is following the lead of the serpent, who asked about them as a couple not eating; and Eve duly replies about what the two of them may or may not do. Is she the loving wife identifying with her husband, or the gullible theologian failing to spot the slide away from the original text?

The serpent takes a sip of coffee and chooses a fourth option: flat out contradiction. ‘You won’t really die’. He sticks with the plural ‘you’, since that shift has been taken on board in the response he has just been given.

Who Really Said What, Then?

I imagine quite a pregnant pause between verses 4 and 5 at this point, except that no one knows yet what the word ‘pregnant’ indicates, which reminds Eve, as she narrows her gaze and appraises anew this strange snake-like conversation partner, that she is feeling a bit queasy. What is this new sensation, tingling away beneath the caffeine rush and the vibrating of the phone on her table – this does not seem like a moment to check her messages; and it must be Adam, who else could it be, after all?, and she will get back to him shortly. A pity he is not here, though, as she tries to turn over this new feeling in her mind. She decides to call it cognitive dissonance. What the serpent is telling her is not what she clearly recalls Adam telling her about what God had told him. For a planet with so few speaking participants, this already seems to be quite a web of ‘he-said-but-she-said’ denials and counter-perspectives. Her unspoken reply is simply, ‘Go on?’

The serpent clarifies, addressing Eve throughout with a steady plural ‘you’: ‘What God knows is this: that on the day you eat of it …’ (Eve begins to shift uneasily, starting to feel that maybe she mis-spoke about what the ‘it’ was, it was surely the tree in the middle of the garden, wasn’t it?, that is what Adam told her, but what was its name? She is wondering now – was it the tree of life? – she could never keep all the trees straight, there were so many. She has the uneasy feeling that there was a different one.) ‘On the day you eat of it … you will become like God; knowing good and evil.’ (That was it! That was the other tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Sorted. Or maybe that means she was wrong about ‘the tree in the middle of the garden’ in the first place, if there were two?)

A great deal seems to be left unsaid in this conversation. Eve does not respond to the serpent, who in turn appears to think that his work is done. Does he generously offer to get the bill? ‘I’ll get this. You might be wanting to head back and take another look at those trees.’

The Heart of the Matter?

As Eve wends her way back to the heart of the garden it seems like the greatest issue raised in this conversation has not been given a proper airing: the bit about becoming like God, which in the serpent’s view is what God is trying to hide from them. That would indeed explain why God made this strange rule in the first place: God was out to protect his territory, keep anyone else from understanding what is going on. It turns out to be all divine rhetoric and politics: a God of self-interest playing along humans who are to be kept in the dark.

Eve takes Adam by the hand, although it will suit a lot of male readers of this text in centuries to come (as well as the RSV) to imagine that she does this next bit by herself or without reference to him, and they stand once more before the fruit of the tree, the tree we must presume is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as identified by the serpent. The fruit is indeed, as God said it was in 2:9, both good for food and nice to look at. But now it is apparent to them, as they circle round it one more time, that it is altogether desirable for gaining wisdom. So surely the serpent was right? Eat this fruit, and all will become clear.

Verse 6 offers an unadorned narrative of what happened next: ‘She took of the fruit and ate; and she gave it also to the man with her, and he ate’.

Eve now realises that when the serpent paid the bill she became indebted in more ways than one to his way of looking at things. And everything that follows, in this story, and arguably in every story, follows from that.

… to be continued …

Revd Dr Richard Briggs is lecturer in Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham and an associate vicar in two parishes just east of Durham.

Previous episodes in this mini-series on reading the opening chapters of Genesis are:

And God say that it was…pretty good (Gen 1)

Why bother resting? (Gen 2)

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33 thoughts on “‘Did God really say…?’ (Gen 2–3)”

  1. I love a good read and retelling this story in this way appeals to me. Thanks.
    When Jesus was tempted what did he see? Stones. Then the tempting voice spoke into the situation. Perhaps Eve, surrounded by trees dwelt upon their symbolic meaning which allowed the serpent to ‘speak’. No independent observer could hear anything it was all in her head. Likewise, when we are tempted, the idea is clear as speach- inside our noggins. Yesterday I was gazing at my olive tree for some time before I suddenly realised I was looking at a dragonfly right in front of me. Perhaps the woman with surprise suddenly exclaimed “look, a snake! It’s been there all this time and I didnt know it. What else it there I’m not seeing?”

  2. Thank you for drawing out the singular/plural thread. We really do suffer in modern English from the lack of distinction between you (‘thee’) and you (‘ye’). Perhaps we should become Texans and use y’all.

  3. Concerning the reality of the accuser.
    When I was an art student we were taught to draw the negative shapes. That is, the gaps between things. Instead of concentrating on the chair and the table we were taught to see the shapes made between the two. For a long time I’ve wondered if negative shapes are a fact of Gods created order on a higher level. Is the satan a fact of creation like negative shapes exist between things? When AdamnEve turned their back on God did the negative space they created fill in between them? When finally we are in Him and He in us the negative space will cease to exist.

  4. Steve,
    Does this not air-brush out, or erase a real, personalised Adversary, of God and of his image bearers, that is Satan, that Jesus encountered, that in the book of Job had access to God?

  5. I don’t think I remembered that the apple originated from ‘malus’.

    Reminds me of Turn of the Screw:
    ‘Malo: I would rather be
    Malo: in an apple tree
    Malo: than a naughty boy
    Malo: in adversity.’

  6. I did not intend to make it seem as if Satan is just a figment of our imagination and inconsequential. I’m trying to explore the possibility that he/it exists in the same way a negative shape does. In the heavenly realm, where archetypes exist, a negative shape is more than just a void, it defines and separates one thing from another. It/he has true personality in that context. Perhaps he could not bear there not being a space to occupy between AdamnEve and God. I think it/he is not creative, it only exists in the same way a mocker exists, by mocking what is true. Evil and lies originated in him but before that he only existed to define what is True, Beautiful, etc. I have in mind an image of Adam and Eve standing back to back. The negative shape between them looks snake like. Perhaps Satan only found a niche when a space was created for him by Adam and Eve’s creative, albeit evil, deed.
    And I love God’s description of him in Job. A crocodile under the lotus flowers. A hippo lurking beneath our dugout. In my little story I liken the ‘messengers’ in Job to doves going to and from heaven and the accuser as a bird of prey circling Job.

  7. Satan – the ultimate deconstructionist, father of lies, a crafty insidious promulgator of the woke “there is no truth”, “only opinion” in all its full – spectrum manifestations.

    • Hi Geoff,

      Reformed theology has airbrushed Satan out of their system. I have suggested to Ian (via email) that we have a blog on it.

      • Has “it” Colin? Who ? When?
        From memory, I’m not at home, I don’t think Grudem has removed the topic from his Systematic Theology, (I think I read recently that an update book is due out) and it is a few years since I looked at the book. Perhaps I’m just assuming the subject is in it, as I’ve just used the book as an occasional, source of reference, rather than systematically study.
        Is it removed from Genesis, and/or the whole of scripture?
        Removed from Anglicanism?
        What a relief – such superstitious, embarrasment in the anti – supernatural West!

        • Indeed Penelope. The narrator makes very clear the snake was a creature. This means the focus of action and responsibility in the story is kept firmly on Adam and Eve.

          • Phil

            I don’t see the relevance of the Genesis and Romans texts. Revelation is much more likely alluding to the dragon/serpent of agonistic creation myths – the Rahab/Leviathan of Psalms, Job, Isaiah – than the serpent in the garden.

        • Penelope

          In Revelation 12:9 “the old serpent is called Devil and the Satan and deceives the whole world”. Note Genesis 3:13 “The serpent deceived me and I ate” and 2 Corinthians 11:3 “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ”.

          Romans 16:20 “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” is a reference to the last part of Genesis 3:15
          “And I will put enmity
          between you and the woman,
          and between your offspring and hers;
          he will crush your head,
          and you will strike his heel.”

          Phil Almond

          • Phil

            There is no necessary link between Romans and Genesis apart from a reference to crushing a serpent. The serpent is, as I said, much more likely to be the serpent/dragon of much older creation myths, cf Isaiah 27.1.

          • Ian

            But you’re assuming there is a link because of the word ‘serpent’.
            The serpent in the Garden is a serpent, a creature, not the dragon/monster of agonistic creation myths.

    • I have commended John Robinson’s work “Truth is two eyed” before, I think. It remains an impressive read. Here is a reflection on it:

      Bishop John Robinson gave the 1978 Teape lectures in Delhi, later expanded as a book “Truth is Two-Eyed”, which I’ve just been reading for the first time. It is a fascinating study which is based not only on Robinson’s wide reading on the subject but also from a visit to India where he could study and immerse himself in Indian culture. Robinson is not arguing for a syncretic merging of different faiths but rather that from wherever our own tradition comes from, we also learn from the strengths of the other which enables us to have a more balanced and less distorted picture. Why is this important? Religious traditions and our participation or nonparticipation in them (in the West) do shape our ethical values, how we feel about treating other people, of social justice. So although Robinson is arguing for a deeper picture of reality, what he says can result in practical outcomes. And sometimes, a religious tradition also can be blind to the evils within itself, as with Christianity supporting slavery, and Hinduism endorsement of the caste system. Looking with two-eyes, we are more likely to see those evils.

      The ultimate question is still “what did those who heard God saying (whatever he was saying) believe about God that made them express themselves in the way that they did?”

      • In the beginning…God.
        Pre-existing God of revelation, to Adam and woman, later named Eve, mother of all living, who had no preconceptions about the person and character of God, other than spoken, revealed by God and insinuated by the serpent.
        Where does your idea, opinion, of evil come from; it seems to be based on an ultimate western (universal?) truth claim. It is also a truth claim by Robinson.

  8. Colin,
    There is a chapter of 24 pages, “Satan and demons” in Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, GB
    As it happens I was unaware of satan, until I became a Christian as were a number of adult converts I came to know.

    • Hi Geoff –

      I think Colin was bemoaning the fact the demonic is no longer taken as a personality nor all that seriously in many church quarters in Protestantism which moves quicker to liberalism than other older church traditions (Catholic/Orthodox).

      I don’t think the respected Wayne Grudem holds much gravitas in most circles outside conservative evangelicalism. Personally I think he’s a legend – though wrong on Women’s ministry 😉

      I agree with your insight that the closer we come to the light the more we perceive the darkness.

      I think those who reject a personal satanic personality are left all at sea in understanding the whole salvation history drama.

      • Simon,
        Am I right in thinking that the Anglican church had in the near past, within living memory, or still has, someone appointed with a diocesan demonic deliverance ministry? Was it at a level of Bishop?

        • Yes – there were ‘official’ Diocesan Exorcists – and now there are specialised teams including medics, psychiatrists & ministers from across the traditions. The Anglican monk Dom PetitPierre published a booklet on it for the CofE in the early 1970’s – it was during a time when there was a steep rise in occult interest, OUIJA and horror movies. The pendulum in some quarters swung to seeing demons everywhere, but I think has swing the opposite way now.

          Lewis was right on this, as so often: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”

        • Hi Penelope

          Ah, I think ur right – a vague recollection of it

          I have always appreciated Grudem as a scholarly Reformed Charismatic theologian – (there are very few) – he was very helpful and involved with the Vineyard in the Wimber days writing a number of position documents for Vineyard – but I was uncomfortable with his n Piper’s ‘Recovering Biblical Manhood & womanhood’.

          I guess his holding to Jesus’ eternal subordination is used to bolster an ontological distinction & subordination in female to male ministry? I reject both

          I’m on holiday so wont follow-up reading him now 🙂

          • Simon

            Have a great holiday. I think I read some subordinationist stuff which I found rather unorthodox. And I really don’t like the RBMAW.
            But that’s all I’ve read.

  9. When I took my son for a PPE interview, one of the lecturers posed an interesting question, in a mock lecture, to the parents whilst waiting:
    “If Adam and Eve didn’t know good from evil before they ate of the tree, then how did they know it was wrong (evil) to disobey God?”
    “In which case was not the Fall inevitable?”

  10. And they knew God, God’s voice, his expansive generosity in comparison and contrast to the serpent’s pandering to human individualistic pride and in a subtle character assassination of the goodness of God and in contradiction of God.
    Can’t you just see the heart leaping delight and wonder in Adam’s, exclamation, “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” a depth of intimacy and oneness, unity.


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