I just completed drafting a translation of Genesis 3 for my Totally Free Bible Version project, which is simply where I make my personal translation work available free on the web for anyone who wants to use it within a very limited set of rules. I want to comment some on this story and its meaning in the Christian tradition.
If you haven’t read my materials on Genesis 1 & 2, you might want to follow the link now just to get some background. In addition you will find some useful information in my series on the historical critical method on my Threads from Henry’s Web blog. The first article is Biblical Criticism Overview – I, and the category is Biblical Criticism.
A fundamental question in dealing with Genesis especially is just what type of literature each passage is. A great deal of the way we interpret a passage depends on the type of literature we perceive it to be. Both young and old earth creationists, for example perceive the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be narrative history in some fashion. The debate between their two positions has to do with precisely how one understands certain terms in the narrative. Old earth creationists, for example, will tend to see more distance betweent he symbols and the reality.
I like the illustration used by Derek Kidner in his commentary on Genesis in the Tyndale Old Testament commentary series (see the end of this entry for links). On page 66 he discusses the differences in terms of history between the historical description of David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11, and the prophetic restatement of that in 2 Samuel 12:1-6. I think that distinction is a good one to keep in mind, but one should also be aware that Nathan’s parable that narrated David’s sin is intended in some way to convey historical facts, though concealing somewhat their real referent (even David doesn’t realize who he is condemning), and clarifying the moral issues involved.
I would like to add a third category here–not intended as historical narrative at all. Gerhard von Rad, in his OTL commentary, tries to present these early chapters of Genesis as heavily demythologized, and indeed compared to their ancient near eastern parallels they are. But at the same time there are many mythological elements remaining, and I believe those elements, along with the function and message of the story, give us ample justification to read these passages as myth, and to accept them as performing the function of myth within early Israelite culture.
What indicators show me that this should not be read as narrative history? Those who have read my earlier discussions of Genesis 1 & 2 will notice that some of the same reasons apply, but chapter 3 is even easier. In fact, I have some difficulty seeing how so many people can read this chapter and actually expect it to convey narrative history. Kidner’s comment that the New Testament writers take it as history (op cit, 66) misses the point, I think, simply because as a myth it is well suited to provide the foundation for precisely the type of doctrines Paul especially was presenting. We are separated from God and need to be reconciled. We are separated from eternal life, and must be redeemed by Jesus.
Indeed, one of the most common passages used to read Satan into Genesis 3, and also involved in trying to make it history, is Revelation 12, which itself is pulled out of the narrative sequence. In my study guide to Revelation, I title that section the timeless conflict, because the rebellion of humanity, or in general creaturely rebellion and separation from God and God’s saving activity is not limited to a single historical instant.
In this chapter, however, we open with a talking snake. As we will note there is no indication that the snake is anything but a snake, except that he talks. Then we have magic fruit. Notice that the effect comes automatically. At the end of the chapter God has to block the way to the tree of life because if human beings gets back there they will obtain eternal life magically. There is mythology removed here, but this is not entirely demythologized!
So in my view the chapter expresses a state, an ontological reality, without providing us a narrative of the process. One could understand this as indicating an instant in which humanity was offered close communion with God and preferred instead to live independently. It could, as Tillich might express it, simply state the separation of the finite being from the infinite ground of all being. In either case the end-state is the reality with which we live, and the reality from which we look to be redeemed. At the same time, I think there is a clear sense of something gained as well. Humanity accepted cognition, choice, and moral responsibility. As a result, redeemed humanity will be, I think, greater than a humanity that never went through that experience and never experienced the choice to do right or wrong. (Pardon a little extemporaneous theologizing!)
This passage has a single source, the J source, and ties closely with Genesis 2:4-25. If you were reading the priestly source alone you would go from Genesis 1:1-2:3, and then go straight to chapter 5, following which you would read about the flood as the first sign that things went bad. In this case, we have the story of the fall, then Cain and Abel, then the crash represented by chapter 6.
But this chapter is a unity. If there are any borrowing or other sources, they are at the phrase level.
Translation and Notes
Note: Regard this translation as draft. It’s as fresh as this morning. 🙂 Scripture text is in blue.
1Now the snake was more crafty than any of the wild creatures that YHWH God had made, and he said to the woman, “Has God said that you may not eat from every tree in the garden?”
Note several things about the snake. He is not a special creation. He’s one of the creatures of the field. Other than being more crafty and able to talk, we get no introduction. I would simply suggest here that when you have talking snakes, you’re probably dealing with something other than narrative history.
2And the woman answered the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. 3But regarding the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘Don’t eat from it or touch it, lest you die.'”
It’s interesting that the woman immediately moves to put an extra buffer around God’s command. If you don’t touch it, you can’t eat it. Let’s be safe. But moral choices will often require us to operate at the limits of moral decision making. For example, as one makes a decision about the morality of stem cell research, how does one operate with a hedge. You have sanctity of life issues on both sides of the equation. You have to make a decision, and you don’t get to hedge it very much. Will you eliminate research that could save lives, or will you protect embryos?
Eve wanted a hedge. She distanced herself from the problem.
4And the snake said to the woman, “You will certainly not die. 5Indeed, God knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will become like divine beings, understanding both good and evil.”
The odd thing here is that the snake turns out to be right, as the story goes on to show. We often try to ignore this, or interpret around it in Christian understandings of this chapter. “Well, they started to die,” we say. I would suggest that there is no way out of this dilemna within Christian theology except an understanding of grace. God intended them to die, but preserved their life instead. God can repent (Genesis 6:6). I think we have the first instance of it here, and I think we’re supposed to notice.
At the same time note that God had never denied what the snake promised. He simply said, “Don’t eat.” The possibility is left open that they would become like divine beings, and yet die as a result.
I use the translation “divine beings” rather than “gods” because I think that fits better with the trend of the Torah as we have it now. It was not that they would become gods in the sense of being worthy of worship, but rather than they would share in an aspect of divinity, namely the ability to bring forth either good or evil.
6When the woman saw that the tree’s fruit was good to eat, and pleasing to look at, and desireable so as to gain wisdom, she took from its fruit and ate it, and she also gave it to her husband with her, and he ate. 7And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they stitched together fig leaves and made themselves loin cloths.
The woman “saw” that the fruit was good. We have an abbreviated narrative. Somehow the snake makes the woman see the fruit in the way he wants her to see it. This passage makes me wonder if we don’t have more of a narrative of internal struggle, the sort of struggle that takes place in any child who is contemplating something forbidden. It might be the cookie jar. Indeed, the cookies will taste good, and the child will experience pleasure from eating them, but there is a reason not to. An internal conversation convinces the woman that this is a pleasure worth having.
Conversely, the text doesn’t tell us that the woman decided that God was wrong, even though that is what the snake had told her. She convinces herself that the fruit is good, and God’s statements about it recede conveniently into the background.
8Then they heard the sound of YHWH God walking in the garden in the cool time of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from YHWH God among the trees of the garden.
The immediate result of stepping out on their own is that the human couple are afraid. Notice that God is merely going for a walk, presumably looking to talk with the people he made and placed in the garden. He’s not blustering, throwing thunderbolts, threatening, stomping, or anything similar. He’s just taking a walk. Humanity has stepped out indepedently, but is afraid of the results.
10And the man said, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid.”
11And God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The human couple had been naked since they were created, but suddenly it becomes important. With self awareness comes shame, shyness, uncertainty of how to present oneself. It’s something they will have to deal with on this new path they have embarked on.
13So YHWH God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?”
But the woman said, “The snake led me astray, and I ate.”
Who says the Bible isn’t relevant? This scene takes place in myriads of households, myriads of schools, and myriads of workplaces every day! We’re confronted by something that has gone wrong, and everybody looks for the person who is to blame. Everyone points at someone else. It can’t possibly be our own fault.
Notice that God doesn’t ask the snake anything. Is it possible that the snake is simply a symbol for an internal struggle, that God doesn’t deal with the snake because it’s being used by the woman as a “devil made me do it” kind of excuse? I don’t know, but I suspect there’s a reason why the snake doesn’t get to defend himself.
14So YHWH God said to the snake, “Because you have done this, you are more cursed than any of the wild creatures. You will crawl on your belly and eat dust as long as you live. 15And I will place hostility between you and the woman, and between your descendants and hers. Her descendants will bruise your head, but yours will bruise her descendants’ heel.”
I have no problem in Christian theology reading back into this passage some reference to redemption, but that is not the point in its original context. The passage here simply explains why snakes are considered dangerous, looked down on, and crawl on their bellies. They did a bad thing here and they are paying for it! Women have a feud with them. This is hardly the serpent of Revelation 12, cast down from heaven, or the great Leviathan, conquered by God.
16To the woman he said, “I will make childbearing much more difficult for you. You will bear children in pain, yet you will desire your husband, and he will rule over you.”
Again, a description of real life in the real world of that time at least. It doesn’t mention good pain medications or women’s liberation, but the equality of male and female is something promised in Jesus, after all, and not that much a reality in the history of the world thus far.
My wife tells me that if men had to experience the pain of childbirth there would be no humanity, and I pretty much agree with her. Somehow women keep undergoing the torture and propagating the species.
17To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice, and you ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat from it,’ the ground will be cursed on account of you. You will eat from it only by hardship as long as you live, 18and it will bring forth thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat vegetables from the field. 19You will get bread to eat by laboring until you sweat until you return to the ground, because you were taken from it. Dust you are, and you will return to dust.”
The man gets to work hard to produce food. But I think there is a spiritual dimension to this in that having given up total dependence on God he becomes dependent on himself. From now on he must make his own moral decisions as well as producing his own food, building his own shelter, and clothing himself and his family. Independence comes at a price.
20So the man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all people who were alive.
21Then YHWH God made coats of skins for the man and his wife, and he dressed them.
It’s interesting that Adam just now notices that Eve is the mother of all living. Perhaps it was of less importance before they were aware of their situation. In any case, to cover their nakedness, and prevent shame now that they were aware of it, they are clothed.
23So YHWH God sent him out of the Garden of Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken. 24And he dispossessed the man and made him live to the east of the Garden of Eden, and he placed Cherubim with flaming swords turning this way and that to guard the way to the tree of life.
This is another “magic fruit” instance. There is a tree which God must prevent the human couple from reaching, otherwise they may become immortal contrary to God’s will. Surely this is not intended as narrative history! Symbolically, this says that God does not provide eternal life to those who are operating in complete independence from him, but the fact that the couple do not die, even though God had said they would, shows that he graciously extends life.
Let me recommend three excellent commentaries on Genesis:
- Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary by Derek Kidner in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series.
- Genesis: A Commentary by Gerhard von Rad in the Old Testament Library series
- Genesis by E. A. Speiser in the Anchor Bible series.