What was the serpent of Gen 3:1?

A critic might first insist on exploring the plausibility of a talking snake, but in fact before confronting the critic we must clarify what exactly is going on here. The real issue here is: considering that this apparent snake could speak and indeed tempt Eve so as to precipitate the disastrous Fall, how was that possible, considering that snakes cannot speak? Was it a real, then-ordinary snake, albeit one with legs or wings, since it was later cursed to go on its belly? Or was it, as a popular theory has it, Satan in the form of a snake? Josephus even suggests (groundlessly) that all animals before the Fall could talk, so that this was a then-ordinary snake. Now, we already know from much else in the Bible that God permits Satan to test us, as he tested Job and Jesus, and surely we would expect none less than Satan to be the cause of our downfall. Moreover, John identifies “that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Rev. 12:9); so we had better say the same, i.e., that the serpent in the Garden was Satan appearing in the body, or perhaps only the apparent form, of a snake.

But Satan was a fallen angel, so how did he come to take the form of a snake in Gen 3:1?

There are two ways to make sense of this theory. One is the common way: Satan is a spiritual being, like angels, which might at least sometime be spatio-temporally located, but which lack a body. Indeed, sometimes, perhaps they lack any spatio-temporal location (more on that further down). In the same way that demons could inhabit the bodies of pigs (see Matt. 8:30-33), presumably Satan could inhabit (or otherwise animate) the body of a snake, and even make it speak, or seem to speak. The other theory begins from the observation that the “seraphim” (a kind of angelic being, but probably not the sort of entity normally called an “angel”) were actually flying serpents, since the Hebrew word, seraphim, meant (at least in one sense) “serpents.” So the serpent might have simply been a seraph,and then maybe the suggestion, according to the theory, is that Satan was originally such a seraph. The three enormous problems with this are (a) when the heavenly seraphim are actually described in Isaiah 6:1-8, they are described as beings with six wings, human appendages, and voices, and certainly not flying snakes; (b) Satan and other deadly and evil things are called “serpents,” and it seems unlikely that the visual appearance of any holy thing in God’s presence would be associated with such a symbol of death; and to really clinch the matter, (c) Ezek 28:14 has a figure called “Lucifer,” often taken as referring to Satan, described not as a seraph but as a cherub, and nobody thinks cherubim were serpentine. So I suggest we stick with the common theory.

But the origin of seraphim, and thus Satan taking the form of the snake in Gen 3:1, might have been with some pagan flying snakes, no?

Serpents, indeed even flying serpents, were a feature of ancient pagan cults, but the mere fact that the word seraphim was used hardly means the angelic beings were took serpentine form. Indeed, as some like to point out, there are other uses of “flying fiery serpent” (שָׂרָ֥ף מְעוֹפֵֽף׃ or saraph me’owpeph; Isa. 14:29). But the origin of Isaiah 6’s concept of a seraph, if you actually believe the Bible, is with the creatures called the seraphim themselves; you look for another origin only if you believe that explanation lacks credibility. Never anywhere in the text of the Bible is there the slightest indication that any of the inhabitants of heaven take a serpentine form, apart from the mere name seraphim; and again, in the one place where those beings are described, they are not described as snaky at all. The point is that the Hebrews who wrote and read the Bible clearly did not conceive of seraphim as snakes, whatever role snakes might have played in their notions of other-worldly realms. Therefore, the correct explanation of the fact that Satan took the form of a snake is probably not that he was previous a (snake-like) seraph.

What exactly is the serpent up to here (Gen 3:1)?

Briefly stated, he is doing at least two things. First, he is falsely and maliciously suggesting that God’s rule is unreasonable. Second, by suggesting that the rule is unreasonable, he is setting Eve up to prefer her own judgment to God’s law.

Is Eve’s reply in Gen 3:2-3 correct? Is there anything to note in it?

Eve repeats back a version of the Lord’s rule, contradicting the snake; but she does not rebuke the snake for making this clearly false and malicious suggestion. But then, being new to the world, and being wholly unacquainted with evil and not having tasted of the tree thereof, she has the trusting nature of a child.

How did Eve learn the rule she repeats in Gen 3:3?

The rule is “God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.” (Gen 3:3) Interestingly, we do not know how she learned it. Eve was not yet made when God gave Adam the rule (2:16-17). So either Adam told her, or God himself told her. God never said “neither shall you touch it,” as Eve says at Gen 3:3, so where did she get that? Again, interestingly, we do not know. She could have been told this by Adam or God. In either case, one of them would perhaps have trusted her even less than Adam to avoid the temptation of the forbidden fruit, and perhaps felt it appropriate to strengthen the rule for her benefit. If so, then it would be ironic that the stronger version of the rule did not help her. It is worth noting that in another holy place of God, the Israelites at Mount Sinai are sternly instructed to “go not up into the mount, or touch the border of it” (Ex 19:12).

What is the meaning of the serpent’s claim that the woman would not “surely” or “certainly” die (Gen 3:4)?

Literally, the Hebrew says something like “Dying, you will not die,” which is an instance of the Hebrew use of repetition for the sake of emphasis. That being the case, there are two things the serpent might mean: first, that it is certain that they would not die (here the certainty attaches to the whole claim); second, that it is not certain whether or not they would die (here there is simply a denial that the consequence was certain). Naturally, the first is the much stronger claim, and amounts to a positive claim that Eve would remain immortal even after eating; both claims are lies, but the first is a much worse lie. Still, even if the second claim, “Maybe you won’t die after all,” is the one meant, the lie is terrible, because it invites Eve to take a risk for the forbidden fruit.

Eve does not reply after Gen 3:5. Is this significant?

Her silence bespeaks her assent. Although perhaps she did reply and we are not told, still, we are told her thoughts in the next verse, and considering that she says she was “beguiled” (Gen 3:13) by the serpent, she trusted what he said. Hence we have here not just the first lie, but also the first deception.

Why did Eve eat the forbidden fruit (Gen 3:6)?

First, she apparently believed (she was “beguiled” by; Gen 3:13) the serpent, who had told her that she would not die, not making her believe it was not God’s rule, but that God would not enforce the rule. Second, she merely considered that the fruit was food, after all. Third—and this is perhaps the most subtly telling—she found the tree was “pleasant to the eyes.” She was beguiled again, not by the serpent but by her own thought that nothing so pleasant could have evil consequences. Finally, and most significantly of course, she considered what the serpent said: the tree would “make one wise,” a thing much simpler than what the serpent says: “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” In short, she was innocent of the ways of evil and thus easily fooled; she had never experienced deceptive appearances and so reasoned badly that harmless appearance meant actual harmlessness; and she was ambitious or prideful, which was perhaps the very worst part of the sin.

Did Adam know, when he ate it at Gen 3:6, that Eve had given him the forbidden fruit? In any event, what was Adam’s sin?

There is nothing in the Gen 3 text that settles the matter clearly. Adam is not mentioned in Gen 3 until this verse. It is possible that he was listening in while the serpent spoke to Eve; but it seems to me that such an important detail would be mentioned if true. It is also possible that he recognized the distinctive fruit, but perhaps not. And of course it is possible that Eve told him, before he ate the fruit, that it was the forbidden fruit and that she had eaten it. Elsewhere, however, Paul told Timothy, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (1 Tim. 2:14) If Adam was not deceived, very well; but about what was he not deceived? Perhaps Paul means he was not deceived by the serpent. In that case, was it still possible that he could have been misled somehow, even if not deceived, by Eve’s encouragement and example? That seems to be what happened. If so, then he was influenced by her words and sinful example, and therefore indirectly manipulated (but not deceived) by the serpent. If Adam was not deceived at all, then it seems he ate trustingly and carelessly when Eve gave him the fruit. In that case, his error would not have been to willfully disobey, but to fail to ensure with due care that his wife had followed the one rule they had. It is indeed possible even in that case that God punished him as the head of the family and as the hapless, unwitting partaker of the sin. Regardless, it is interesting that Adam soon recognized his own role as sinful and shameful, whether willful or not, whether he knew the fruit he ate was the forbidden one, or not. I do not think the text makes it quite clear enough (or it is not clear to me, anyway), but my best guess for now is that Adam’s sin was carelessness and forgetfulness of God’s law. If that is correct, then when Eve offered the fruit, he simply did not care enough about the law to inquire about where it came from.

What does “the eyes of them both were opened” (Gen 3:7) actually mean?

The short answer is: they immediately became aware that they had violated God’s commandment, and that fact alone made them aware of the evil within themselves and the serpent who had misled Eve. More profoundly, their eyes were opened to the deceptive pleasures and unexpected pains of a fallen world in which they were left to their own devices. Let me explain. We can take some clues, at least, from the context. This knowledge is forbidden by a God who has their welfare at heart, but who also does not want them to become “like gods,” as was the ambition of the men of Babel whom God threw into confusion (Gen 11:1-9). The knowledge immediately lets them know that they are naked; but since God allowed them in his holy presence to go about naked, the knowledge seems at the same time to have made their nakedness shameful. Finally, we can say the knowledge gave them the ability to handle the harsh penalties imposed upon them by God. Given that it is called “the knowledge of good and evil,” one is tempted to say that it is the rational, adult ability to discern moral goodness from evil; after all, the naive, newly-created Eve certainly lacked such discernment in her encounter with the serpent, and ever after, there would be “enmity between [the serpent] and the woman” (Gen 3:15). But I am not sure sure about the latter suggestion; I think more likely is a suggestion I read in one commentary, that “good” and “evil” here are not meant in their moral senses but in the sense of blessing versus curse. To eat of the tree would give them knowledge of the cursedness of the world, and the natural consequence was that the world was cursed; it had to be, for them to have knowledge of the evils of such a world. And after all, previously, it was “very good.”

But if that (Gen 3:7) is the meaning of “knowledge of good and evil,” then why did God forbid it? Why does God not want them to have wisdom?

There seem to be two reasons. First, as a loving father, he knew and greatly feared that they were ill-prepared to face the vicissitudes of such a world. Surely he did not want them to suffer, and he knew they would. Second, he knew that any such efforts to make themselves more “godlike” would end in abject failure, because they were not, in fact, godlike; their attempts at greatness would only bring heightened grief upon all, which is what happens to whomever has like ambitions. The most eloquent commentary on such ambitions is the famous passage in which the Lord says of the “Day Star,” also translated “Lucifer,” “For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” (Isa. 14:13). Yet God rebukes him roundly: “Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.” (Isa. 14:15) Lest you think that God was anti-intellectual and forbidding an attempt to get wisdom, you must bear in mind that this was not theoretical knowledge, but rather direct experience of the dubious benefits and especially the deep, tragic costs they would bear without the blessings of his holy presence and guardianship.

Why should, or might, they have been ashamed of their nakedness (Gen 3:7)?

This is by contrast with Gen 2:25, which states that before eating the fruit, they “were not ashamed.” Here, after eating the forbidden fruit, they cover their nakedness with inadequate fig leaves. The reason nakedness should be shameful is not explained at either place, or later, although we can guess. The text suggests that sinful man is naturally ashamed of his nakedness, but sinless man is not. That man ought to be ashamed of “uncovered nakedness” is a point emphasized throughout the Bible. God makes Adam and Eve the first animal-skin clothes (Gen 3:21), implying that God agrees that, at least as long as they are in a state of sin or rebellion, their nakedness needs covering. A bit later in the narrative, Ham saw Noah naked in his tent, and told his brothers, who managed to cover their father with without gazing upon his shameful nakedness (Gen 9:20-25). For this Ham’s son Canaan is cursed to serve his brothers. Similarly, the priests must not use altars with steps, so that “thy nakedness be not discovered” (Ex 20:26), and they must wear “linen breeches to cover their nakedness” (Ex 28:42). Aholibah, one of two women against whom Ezekiel prophesied, will “play the harlot” with Egyptians, who “shall also strip thee out of thy clothes” (Ezek. 23:26)—a shameful condition indeed. A similar curse is prophesied by Hosea against his harlot wife, who is a symbol of the idolatrous Israel: “Lest I strip her naked, and set her as in the day that she was born” (Hos. 2:3). Finally, Isaiah (Isa. 20:2-4) and Micah (Mic. 1:8) themselves both go about naked to demonstrate the state the Israelites would be in if they did not repent. There are other messages that equate the exposure of nakedness with shame as well.

Surely another explanation of this sense of shame (in Gen 3:7) is that “eating the forbidden fruit” was itself symbolic of another act associated with nakedness, namely, sex?

This suggestion has made its way into the vernacular; and the presence of “carnal knowledge” as a Biblical expression seems to clinch the notion. (That is, “knowledge” of “good and evil” is akin to “knowing” a woman.) The case can be strengthed in two ways. First, sex would result in childbirth, which combined with immortality would eventually result in overpopulation, so that death would have to result. Second, they immediately realized they were naked; doing so might well mean they came to realize, after they had sex, the potent sexual significance of their nakedness. There are three problems with this theory, though. One is that if indeed they had relations at that time—if the text meant to say so—then the text would have said so, because the text do say so in the very next chapter (“And Adam knew Eve his wife”; Gen 4:1). Why would a symbol be used in Gen 3 and more literal description in Gen 4? Besides, “be fruitful and multiply” bears such implications, as did the notion that Adam was married to Eve, whose body delighted him and to whom he clove. Second, this and many other texts throughout the Bible that refer to the forbidden fruit give absolutely no indications that the fruit stood for anything else than the “Knowledge of Good and Evil,” i.e., a loss of general moral innocence. Third, if the fruit were a metaphor for sex, then sex, like the fruit, would thereby have been forbidden, but sex was a perfectly natural thing, being the means of “multiplying,” and surely not forbidden. It was hardly forbidden by God to a man and his wife; quite the contrary, in fact. It was only forbidden outside of marriage.

Once they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the first thing they are said to have “known” is that they were naked (Gen 3:7), and they immediately remedy that situation. Does this imply that their nakedness was evil?

Well, so it seems. Again, it seemed to be shameful and symbolic of their deeper sin, namely, their willingness to rebel against God and put their own judgment before his. God’s protection was like a covering that made every other covering unnecessary. Without it, they were naked indeed, and that is an evil state indeed. But this is not “evil” in the sense of “wicked” but in the sense of “desperately unfortunate and shameful,” which is not really the same thing.

If Adam and Eve “heard the voice of the Lord God” in Gen 3:8, can we say what God was saying, or what sounds he was uttering?

We do not know, and this is not explicitly stated. With the charming scene of God strolling through paradise in the cool of the day, one might imagine God to be humming or singing. But there is some small reason to think otherwise, because Adam and Eve hid—implying that they thought God was looking for them—and in the next verse, the voice of God is reported as saying “Where art thou?”

Why did they hide in Gen 3:8? Surely they knew they could not hide from God.

Perhaps they thought they could. Again, we have many indications that they had been quite childlike. “Knowledge of good and evil” did not mean they understood all, of course. This was just the first of many fruitless attempts to hide from the face of God. It was also the first of many reiterations that no one can, in fact, hide from the face of God, who knows all of our sins.

If God was walking in Gen 3:8, this implies he had a body, which seems to contradict the notion of his spirituality, or at least supports the idea that he had a body. Correct?

It’s complicated; this suggestion is somewhat misleading. We have many other examples of God’s appearing in some sort of visible form—called a theophany—but that does not mean that is in some sense the form of God himself, as if God were limited by having a body. Moreover, God said, “there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex 33:20). Yet the human-appearance face of God, in theophanies, was shown to people, most famously that of Jesus, but also to Abraham in Gen 18, and here to Adam and Eve—and the people did not die. So we must conclude that there was some other more literal “face” of God that it was indeed deadly to see; it would be an encounter with God, directly before the presence of God, as he is in himself. Isaiah seems to have had such an encounter at the beginning of his prophetic career, and when he saw the Lord, he said, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” As if to underscore the truth of this, a seraph gives him special permission to stand in the Lord’s presence: “having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken…from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo…thy sin is purged.” (Isa 6:5-6) And, particularly because Adam and Eve were then in their sin, the walking, apparently bodily God had to have been a theophany that failed to reveal God’s true nature—or else Adam and Eve would have been destroyed. That is, they would have been destroyed unless, being sinless, they were able to look upon his face; but then, after they sinned, God confronted them in the Garden, and they were not instantly destroyed. So it is likely that it was, again, a theophany that they saw, one that did not reveal God’s true nature.

“Where art thou?” God asks (Gen 3:9). Did he not know?

He knew. He was entering into conversation with Adam, and not discovering the location of Adam, but rather discovering himself to Adam, and thereby forcing Adam to face his own sin before his judge. This has been called an arraignment—a formal accusation. In the next chapter, he will follow a very similar procedure with Cain (Gen 4:9); like father, like son.

The hiding described at (Gen 3:8, 10) is not the only instance of fleeing from the very sound of God, is it?

Indeed, the people kept well away from Mount Zion as they heard God uttering the Ten Commandments (see Ex 20:18), as they were told to do. Similarly, after so many had died directly at the hand of God, when he was revealing himself during the exodus and the wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites have come to associate hearing the mere “voice of the living God speaking from the midst of the fire” with the risk of death (Deut 5:26). In the same way we are enjoined to fear the Lord; if you actually hear his voice, tremble.

Why does God ask, “Has thou eaten of the tree?” (Gen 3:11)

Not because God does not know of Adam’s sin or because he needs evidence for a case against him. It is because, as with us, God expects both an instant admission of guilt as well as sincere repentance. From them, he receives neither—an offense perhaps worse, but certainly on a par with, the original sin itself. Adam and Eve might now be “wise” about the coming evils of life, but they are certainly not yet wise about the importance of redemption. Job does better, when he says he has not “covered my transgressions like Adam, by hiding my iniquity in my bosom” (Job 31:33).

Adam blames Eve at Gen 3:12. If he had admitted his guilt and repented, might God have forgiven him?

So it seems. Many other places in the Bible say God is greatly forgiving; also, however, in many places in both OT and NT, this requires admission of guilt and repentance. So Adam’s sin is greatly compounded by his lack of repentance. Even if he were not culpable for knowingly eating of the tree (see above), he is culpable for this grievous sin. This is even worse because his role is to care for and protect Eve, and to act as head of the family. Instead, he puts her in peril.

Does Adam really go so far as to try, in Gen 3:12, to put some blame on God, for giving him Eve?

Perhaps not explicitly, but he comes close; why else should it be relevant to point out that God gave him Eve, if doing so does not further removes blame from Adam himself? Notice that Adam is actually not incorrect when he implies that Eve did not perform her function, as his help meet, properly. Indeed, she did betray Adam. But she was the one responsible for her own failure, through the exercise of her free will, just as Adam was; God could not be saddled with their failures. To blame God for Adam’s own sin is something that one can imagine the serpent whispering to Adam.

If Adam is so wrong to blame Eve and God, why does God not say so immediately?

He will do so shortly, at sentencing: “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of they wife” (Gen 3:17). In short, Indeed; instead, he responds by asking Eve to speak on her own behalf, at Gen 3:12. He will do so shortly, at sentencing: “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of they wife” (Gen 3:17). In short, the blame rests squarely on Adam because he listened to Eve, which he should not have done. But the arraignment is ongoing and God sticks to that.

Is Eve not correct, at Gen 3:13, that the serpent beguiled her?

She certainly is. She was taken in by the serpent’s charming words, in her naivete. But this does not excuse her. She is the one who decided to set aside God’s law and to eat the forbidden fruit. She also placed her husband in danger, her husband whom she was supposed to help, not deal treacherously with.

What does the Garden story—particularly when Eve realizes the serpent has “beguiled” her (Gen 3:13)—say about how the serpent operates?

Not by force, but by deception; not by threats, but insincerity; not by commands, but by manipulation; not by leading into action, but by changing minds. The result is that, though he shares in the blame for his deception, we still bear our own guilt entirely. Not for nothing is he called the “Tempter” and “Adversary.” Similarly, as we will see later, his undermining machinations, that cause us to stumble, make it possible for him to accuse us for being corrupt—and he is right, because even if he plays a key hand in our corruption, we bear our own guilt.

In Gen 3:14, is God cursing a serpent or Satan—or what?

In understanding God’s curse of the serpent, it is a good place to focus the question on this: is the text literally about a serpent or figuratively about some powerful evil power, or perhaps both? The literal meaning of the text is that the snake slithers without feet because of the curse, but it seems both theologically nonsensical and pointless to leave it at that—although Josephus does leave it at that. But, again, John’s text is clear enough, even if it is prophesy: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.” (Rev. 12:9) Besides, who but the chief of demons (about which more below) would be expected to play the role of the deceiver of the whole world, precipitating the great Fall? In any event, the figurative meaning of the events, applied to Satan, would make sense: he is cast down upon the earth; eating dust, in defeat; and he is man’s chief adversary, though his head will be crushed in time by the seed of the woman.

How is the serpent’s punishment, explained at Gen 3:14-15, appropriate?

We have just explained why the punishment is appropriate, figuratively. Taken literally, it also certainly makes sense. Though the serpent was just one among the beasts of the field, for causing this most consequential sin, he is “cursed above [them] all.” Going about on one’s belly and eating dust is the utmost state of defeat. And it was the woman who was was caused to sin; so she and her offspring would thereafter forever be at odds with the serpent and its offspring, because “by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Roman 5:12). But there is a second possible kind of metaphor: the serpent might be taken to represent not specifically Satan but instead the sort of pagan god, a flying snake god such as Egypt’s Nehebkau. Such a god, if a Satanic sort of demonic tempter, might well be taken down a notch by losing his legs and wings. Besides, it is hardly as if the pagan gods are not often portrayed as actually existent, but demonic in nature. See, for example, Ps. 82:6-7, where the Lord threatens them with death; Ps. 106:34, where it is said that the people served “idols” such as the idols of snake gods, and “even sacricied their sons and their daughters to the demons”; Deut 32:16, where the people made the Lord jealous with “strange gods,” by sacrificing to “devils, not to God; to gods whom they knew not”.

Why is Gen 3:15 called the protevangelium?

It is thought to contain the first mention of the gospel, of the promise of the final victory of Jesus over sin and Satan. Assuming that “bruise thy head” and “bruise his heel” are not just talking about poor snake-human relations (contra Josephus), the language is figurative; so what does it stand for? Since this serpent is responsible for bringing sin and disaster into the world, it represents the source of sin; and we must look for a descendant of Eve who is thought to defeat the very source of sin. That, of course, would be Jesus (traced precisely at Luke 3:38). And this is what at least one later Biblical writer, Paul, believed: he says in the last chapter of Romans, “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly” (Rom. 16:20), and to the Corinthians, “O death, where is thy sting? … The sting of death is sin… But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:55-57)

Does the use of the singular form of the Hebrew word for “seed” (Gen 3:15) indicate that only a single man is meant?

Perhaps: “seed” is singular at Gen 3:15 (זַרְעָ֑הּ, zarah), and (for reasons given above) does refer to one particular man. But the grammatically singular form of the word does not clinch the question, because there are other cases later on where it is used in prophecy in the singular and where it definitely serves as a collective noun (like “one herd” or “one people”). So e.g. at Gen 12:7 we have “Unto thy seed will I give this land.” The word in this place is nearly identical, singular ( לְזַ֨רְעֲךָ֔, zaraka), but here is widely understood to mean “Unto thy descendants (pl.),” i.e., the children of Israel. And this promise was fulfilled: Abram’s seed (descendants, the children of Israel) did come to dwell in the land. But this same later promise to Abram will also be fulfilled by Christ in the Millennium. That means the ambiguity of grammar (between a singular noun used in a singular sense and in a collective sense), both in Hebrew and in English (“seed” also serves as both a singular and a collective noun), permits a doubly-fulfilled prophecy. All that said, perhaps it is best to regard the protevangelium, too, as to be doubly-fulfilled, by God’s people indeed but most outstandingly by Jesus of Nazareth. The saints will crush the serpent’s head; but first and foremost Jesus crushed it in his resurrection and will finally crush it at the end of days.

What does Eve’s punishment—“your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16)—mean?

If not for this curse, or punishment, would Eve not desire her husband? Surely that cannot be the point. Eve’s subjection to Adam had not yet been made a matter of law. While this was implied, since Eve had been made from Adam’s rib and with Adam had named “woman,” still, it had not yet been settled clearly and definitively that Adam would be Eve’s “master” or “ruler.” That seems to be the point here. Thus Eve’s abuse of her initial prerogative serves as an origin story of the subjection of women.

Why is Eve’s punishment at Gen 3:16 appropriate?

As she abused her prerogatives as Adam’s “help meet,” she is punished in relation to her function in the family: her roles as wife and mother of children. Since she was treacherous to Adam, he would thereafter be her master, and not just a partner. The New Covenant, especially in several comments on marriage by Paul, has us restore a better state of affairs, of mutual service.

But of course, a critic might well say in response to Gen 3:16, is this not simply absurd in the 21st century? Why should women continue to suffer for Eve’s sin? Is this not simple chauvinism?

The answer would have to be that Eve’s sin is emblematic of the way free will is misused by women in general. They are easily deceived, the Bible suggests, placing their judgment ahead of the man’s, who would ask more questions and be less trusting; they would let their judgment even more easily lead them to rebel against God; therefore men should be at the head of the household. This would of course be regarded as simple bigoted chauvinism by many today, even beyond ideological feminists, because indeed many men today are easily deceived, too trusting, and ready to rebel against God. I will not get into this too deeply, but suffice it to say the Bible is ready to rest strictures about the sexes on generalizations that are often but certainly not universally true. Defending such generalizations against feminist sorts of criticism requires that we get into weeds I am not going prepared to wade through here.

Was Eve’s sentence at Gen 3:16 not unjust, if her main failing was naivete?

There are two things to say here. One is that Eve’s main failing was rebellion against God and rejection of his law, not naivete. The other is that naivete, as it turns out, is pointed out occasionally in the Bible as a significant failing, not just in the case of Eve. Jesus urges his disciplines to be “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” (Matt. 10:16) Proverbs is full of sayings about the dangers of being “simple,” and Paul warns sternly against falling prey to false teachers.

But if naivete was any part of the failing for which Eve was punished in Gen 3:16, did God himself not fail in making her less naive?

This goes straight to the root of the matter, because the tree they ate from was that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the above exegesis, that knowledge was precisely familiarity with the blessings and curses of a life lived outside of the care of God. God could not have given Adam and Eve such sophistication without putting them into an adult frame of mind, giving them just that sort of knowledge conveyed by the tree of that name. God did not want to give them that knowledge, but made it possible, through the presence of the tree and by permitting a serpent to tempt them to take it. By taking it, they got precisely the sort of knowledge that might have made it possible to avoid that particular temptation.

But (further to Gen 3:16) if they were created with this Knowledge of Good and Evil, would they not be inclined to sin? More to the point, was the Original Sin inevitable?

Precisely—even more than children are. Children are led to sin through temptation, deception, and curiosity. Adults are led to sin through many more varied and sophisticated means that trade on their experience with the “good and evil” that the world offers. So adults are capable of far greater moral evil than innocent children. Now, whether this means the Original Sin was inevitable is a deep question for philosophy and theology—butit seems to me to be so. It is not even paradoxical to say God created man knowing he would sin, expected it, and prepared for it. Free will plus imperfection equals sin, I would argue. God gave man the opportunity to try to live without sinning, with the very simplest of rules; and he also prepared for redemption and a second creation with those who, despite their sin, could live in him as Adam and Eve once did.

Why, of all the rules one might make—the violation of which might result in the fall from grace and expulsion from the Garden—did God make his one forbidden thing the willful seeking of this Knowledge of Good and Evil?

After the sentencing of Gen 3:16-19, one might well be left with this question. The short answer is that, if man is to live in God’s presence, he must be holy; and, in a childlike state, he can remain holy only by following God’s will and thus utterly rejecting all acquaintance with the blessings and curses of a life that is independent of God. As soon as Adam sought such knowledge, God had to exclude him. But what that means, in other words, is that a minimal prerequisite of any sinning, in Adam’s original sinless state, is to reject God’s will; if he was never did that, then he could never sin. So, really, it did not matter what particular activity was forbidden; it could have been playing ping-pong, or working on the sabbath, or speaking too loudly. Adam’s mere daring to do the forbidden thing meant he was no longer willing to follow God’s will, and hence be utterly dependent on God. And that activity, whatever it might be, would thus be deemed “of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” because such knowledge would be the consequence of partaking in the forbidden thing (game, work, or speech).

The line at Gen 3:17, “Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife,” makes it sound as if Adam is being punished for listening to his wife. Is that really correct?

Yes, but not, or not only, because he should have exercised some authority over her. His first and most important sin was that he should not have trusted anyone else, but instead used his own judgment, when it came time to decide whether to eat some fruit. Whether she persuaded him to sin, or simply negligently accepted fruit he should have inquired critically about, he placed both himself and Eve in danger of sin by simply accepting her judgment. After all, if his individual judgment had turned out different, he would have had an opportunity to overrule Eve. In addition, probably the text does imply that he had the right and responsibility, of the elder and stronger, to rule over the younger and weaker; but (see above) this was not made explicit until Eve’s punishment.

Why is Adam’s punishment, explained at Gen 3:17-18, particularly appropriate for him?

First, recall that his name is Adam, taken directly from the Hebrew אֲדָמָה, adamah, or ground. He is introduced as the “generation” of the earth, or dust; and he is destined to be a tiller of the ground. If the text at Gen 2:15, even before the Fall his job was “to dress [the Garden] and to keep it.” And yet, he rebelled, asserting his independence of God, and worse, failed to take responsibility for his own sin, failing to seek forgiveness. Hence it was only natural that God would respect his decision, causing him to fall back on his own natural resources. Adam, it seems to me, probably did not understand the nature of the evil Tree, that it would give him knowledge in the sense of first-hand experience of the blessings and curses of life without God, a knowledge God did not wish on him. But he chose the tree that gave such knowledge. Since he is of the earth, his punishment is to wear himself out by tilling the earth, an earth that gives up its fruits only with toil and sweat, quite unlike the Garden.

How is God’s sentence for breaking his law—death—fulfilled by Gen 3:19 and 3:22-24?

This is not quite as obvious as it might seem at first. But, after all, God did not simply destroy Adam on the spot, as he might have; he does say, “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Gen 2:17), and “the day” might very well mean the very day on which the sin was committed. But that is not what happens; we will explore why a bit farther down. Still, Adam will eventually grow old and die, and the assurance of death comes mainly from deprivation of the Tree of Life, which God achieves by expelling him from the Garden. Moreover, the manner of death—returning to the elements of which Adam was made, after which he was named—fits perfectly, “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Why is there, seemingly, an interruption in the narrative at Gen 3:20 to say that Adam named Eve?

One clue can be found in the explanation of the name: she is “the mother of all living,” i.e., חַוָּה or Chavvah, which is very close to the verb חֲיָא or chaya, “to live.” Now, apart from “be fruitful and multiply,” there is no mention of reproduction or motherhood in the story of Eve making or before Gen:15-16. At was at that point that the notion that she would give birth at all—in pain or otherwise—was introduced. Once this is introduced, a name that befits her role is given. As with Adam, the Gen 2-3 narrative serves as an origin story explaining the role of women in the world. But this almost makes it sound as if the punishment is having children at all; one need not think so, because the pain of childbirth and the difficulty of raising children that adequate curses for motherhood. Similarly, tilling the earth was something it was implied Adam might have done if he had not fallen, but his particular curse was to do so in sweat and toil.

Why does God make garments of skin at Gen 3:21? Moreover, why is this said to be the first sacrifice?

The garments serve to cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, which symbolizes their sin. But why a “sacrifice”? First of all, it seems unlikely that God would have made “coats of skins” without having slaughtered some animals for those skins. Moreover, the garments were made for Adam and Eve, both for their benefit and to cover what it would (when more people are on earth) it would be a shame to be seen. Finally, as a commentator puts it, God is covering their sin, and saving them from immediate death, whether from exposure or through execution—and doing so by taking another life, so that there is a life for a life. This is not unlike the sacrifice of Jesus as a covering for our sins. The latter comparison seems even more apt when one considers that Adam and Eve had attempted to cover their “sins” with the fig leaves, and yet that covering, made through their own efforts, was deemed totally inadequate by God. Of course, there is no reason to think that there was anything like a sacrifice in the sense of ritual ceremony that was done in the making of the garments. But that does not undermine the suggestion that they did serve as sacrifices. The basic notion, found in Lev 17:11, arguably applies here: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul.”

Is it not true from Gen 3:7 and especially Gen 3:22 that the fruit did, in fact, make them “wise,” and “as gods, knowing good and evil”? If so, what, exactly, did they learn, so that they were indeed “as gods” even in God’s own opinion?

It certainly seems to be true, since God says, “the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” According to our earlier analysis, the “Knowledge of Good and Evil” conferred by eating the fruit is no less than acquaintance with the dubious blessings and many curses that stem from an attempt to flourish without the protection of God. In other words, it is simply the knowledge of the good and bad of normal, brutal, adult human life. In this way they had become as “one of us,” that is, beings acquainted with what a world of free and imperfect beings is like.

What exactly is God concerned to guard against in Gen 3:22?

The only thing the text is quite clear about is that God wants to prevent man from living forever. Such a notion doubtless seems offensive for the simple reason that man had become sinful, and an immortal man would make sin immortal as well. That would offend deeply against God’s holiness. Still, some look at the text of Gen 3:22-24 and think that God is concerned to keep man lowly, not too wise, not such as to pose a challenge to his authority. Such a notion, however, is utterly ridiculous. God had recently finished created everything; to a being so powerful and wise, there is no possible threat from a created being. There is a similar supposed puzzle about the Tower of Babel, as if God were actually threatened by uppity man, as if he wanted to keep man humble because man might be a threat. That is not the point, as we will see, although it is certainly true that God did not want man thinking that he was a god; again, see Ezek. 28 where he describes the “prince of Tyrus” as a Satanic would-be god. Even there, the reason God loathes the idea of such an overproud man is that such men become brutal sinners, when true righteousness simply humility before God. So keeping some sort of occult, or advanced, knowledge out of man’s hands makes up absolutely no part of what God is guarding against in 3:22. No, God simply wants to prevent fallen man from entering such a holy place. The right to the Tree of Life returns again at the very end of the Bible: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.” (Rev. 22:14)

When God speaks of “one of us” in Gen 3:22, is he addressing himself, or other spiritual beings?

This is something of a mystery, and we already discussed this in relation to elohim in Gen 1:1, but there is another aspect that is worth exploring further: the phrase here, “one of us” (כְּאַחַ֣ד מִמֶּ֔נּוּ, ka’echad mimmenu), does explicitly suggest one individual among a number. The expression is harder to explain as an emphatic plural—but still, perhaps, possible, because perhaps in the context of the emphatic plural elohim, the Hebrew for “as me,” instead of “as one of us,” would sound awkward. Another possibility is that God is addressing what is called the divine council, including the angels, seraphim, and cherubim; the fact that the cherubim make an appearance in the very next sentence makes this plausible. What is absolutely not likely is that God is addressing other actual divinities, because the same author of this text strongly inveighs against the notion of any other spirits being called “gods” at all. And of course, it is entirely possible that, before the author was familiar with the three persons of the Trinity, he was nevertheless inspired by the Holy Spirit to use the plural, communicating primarily with those who would come after.

How does Adam’s expulsion from the garden in Gen 3:23 specifically “to cultivate the ground” satisfy the details of Gen 2-3?

Notice that God does not merely expel Adam; he expels him to till the ground, i.e., not merely from the Garden, but to begin a life of farming. This small detail neatly ties up Adam’s story in line with the introduction, of Gen 2:4-7. Those verses, as you might recall, spoke of the “generations,” or family history, of “the heavens and the earth” and in particular of the rain (of the heavens) and the ground (of the earth). Adam is created of the earth, as his name suggests, and as he is reminded by God at 3:19 and 23. Moreover, in explaining why rain had not yet fallen (at a certain point in prehistory), it was because “there was not a man to till the ground” (2:5) and make proper use of the rain. Even in the Garden, God specifies that Adam’s role is “to dress it and to keep it.” So the expulsion “to cultivate the ground” serves to conclude this origin story of Adam’s work as a tiller of the ground.

Why are the cherubim placed “east” of the Garden in Gen 3:24?

This is not clear. If the cherubim are placed eastward, it would follow that they were blocking Adam’s way, meaning that he had been expelled in that direction. Throughout the Bible, the east, or things “eastward,” are often associated with corruption and curse: this is where Assyria and Babylon were, and where the Israelites were exiled. Cain, too, was exiled east of Eden in “the land of Nod,” after killing Abel (Gen 4:15). This might serve to explain why some of the earliest, most ancient people came from the southeast of Mesopotamia.

What are cherubim, first introduced in Gen 3:24?

Not chubby flying babies. The are described in some detail in Ezek. 1 and 10, where they are described as having four faces, representing different creatures, with the legs and hands of men, but also wings and with the soles of their feet like hooves. There are other details, but I will save a fuller description for later.

Why cherubim guards (Gen 3:24)? Why the flaming sword?

Such details can only be worked out by making guesses based on the context where the creatures appear. They appear, first, guarding the Garden. Next, they appear atop the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant. And then in Ezekiel, they seem to be something like attendants, guards, or even perhaps a kind of beast of burden for God’s throne in the sky. In all three instances, they stand as a kind of guardian of the holiness of God. Yet this is also the role of the seraphim in Isaiah 6. Moreover, the flaming sword also serves a guardian role. Both flame and sword are frequent symbols God’s wrath: “For by fire and by his sword will the Lord plead with all flesh: and the slain of the Lord shall be many.” (Isa. 66:16) Similarly, as Nahum’s prophesy against Nineveh has it, “There shall the fire devour thee; the sword shall cut thee off” (Nah. 3:15). Flame and sword are, of course, two of the most destructive killers in wartime. Thus God declares war on any sinful creature that would approach the Garden.