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)
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 …
Previous episodes in this mini-series on reading the opening chapters of Genesis are:
Why bother resting? (Gen 2)