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.”