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Genesis: The Forbidden Fruit

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

As we saw last time, the man and his wife were naked and not ashamed. And then at the beginning of Chapter 3 along comes a serpent, and nothing will be the same ever again. The serpent begins, "Though God says you can't eat from any tree." But the woman cuts him off in mid-sentence as if she knows what he's about to say, and comments, "The only tree we can't eat from is the tree in the center of the garden, because if we so much as touch it we'll die." That's a slight exaggeration. God didn't say they couldn't touch it. He said they couldn't eat it.

"Not so," the serpent replies. You won't die. God doesn't want you to eat from it because He knows that if you do, your eyes will be opened and you'll become "as gods" or "like God", knowing the difference between good and evil.

So the woman looks at the fruit of the tree, lusts after it – that's Alter's word – it suggests she is powerfully and sensuously drawn to the fruit – she perhaps takes into account the fact that it will make her wise, eats it, and then gives it to her husband, who eats it as well.

This raises a lot of questions? Number one: who is this serpent? All J, the author of this story, says is that "The serpent was more cunning or shrewd than any other beast of the field which the Lord God had made." So the serpent is one of God's creatures. No question. But given the subsequent action of the serpent, it's pretty clear that the serpent is evil, which seems to suggest that God created evil or at the very least created a world in which evil was possible. Evil thus existed in the Garden of Eden.

Next question: What is the serpent's motivation? Does it act out of a sense of resentment towards the humans? Or out of resentment towards God? Is the serpent merely mischievous? Does he/she have some deep design to thwart God? It's tempting – forgive my choice of word – if one were a Christian to identify the serpent with Satan, but that cannot be justified from a Jewish perspective and this is a Jewish work.

And the Next question: why does the serpent tempt the woman rather than the man? Is it because women are "inherently" the weaker sex? Or is it because they are more attuned, so to speak, to the natural world. And how come that the serpent can speak anyway?

Final and most perplexing question: Did God know that the serpent was going to tempt Eve? It seems not. It seems he's unprepared. So many questions. In the final analysis we can only speculate as to why God created a creature bent on opposing his will.

The consequence of eating of the fruit is that their eyes were opened, they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths out of fig leaves.

If we're to take the serpent's judgement to be correct, namely that the fruit will enable them to distinguish good from evil, this initially consists in the realisation that they were naked. I'll come back to that in a moment. What I want to emphasise first is that through a prohibited act the man and woman learn – potentially – how to be moral beings. In other words, humans now move from being "in the image of God" to being "like God" by acquiring moral awareness.

The big question in my mind is: is that a step backwards or a step forward? On one level, clearly, this is the moment when evil first entered the world and it's downhill all the way from now on. But it's at least worth considering in viewing the episode in another way, which is that it provides an explanation of how humans evolve from infancy to adulthood. As infants, we are unaware of the fact that we are naked, and only when we become aware of our nakedness and are ashamed, do we take the first step towards our psychological as well as moral growth. Without taking that step we would be condemned to remaining infants for the rest of our lives. We'd be stunted. And that's what the man and the woman are too before they eat the fruit – they're infants. It's only when your child says no, I won't do that, that she or he begins to individuate. Each of us needs to rebel against our parents in order to grow. Disobedience is the key to growth. That's a fact of life.

This is certainly not my brilliant interpretation. It's one that many scholars have suggested. We can't assume that J intended us to interpret the narrative in this way, namely as a subversive reflection upon man's relationship with God. But this interpretation does seem to raise the question as to whether it would have been preferable for humans to remain in the garden of Eden for all eternity. What would the human story be like then? There would, of course, be no human story.

Then there's the role of the woman. What are we to make of it? Obviously one interpretation is that this is a sexist story that shifts the responsibility for the expulsion from the garden squarely onto her shoulders. But let's take note of what happens next. The Lord God is walking in the garden in the evening breeze or the breezy time of day – a lovely detail – and the human and his wife have hidden themselves from Him. "And the Lord God calls to the human and says where are you?" The human replies, "I was afraid because I'm naked." Why is he afraid? Because he feels guilty? Or simply because he's naked? "Who told you that you were naked?" the Lord God asks. "Have you eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree?

"The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree and I ate," the man replies. What a wimpish reply. He's taking no responsibility. It's not only the woman's fault but it's also God's fault. God gave the woman to him and the woman gave him the fruit. The man is blameless, that's what he is claiming. I believe that J is making both of them equally at fault. That said, there's no denying the fact that many people have used this passage to hold women responsible for the sin that is in the world and to see them as temptresses.

The story of Adam and Eve yielding to temptation has had immense influence on Christianity. According to Christian belief it's the cause of why we are all born sinful – the doctrine of Original Sin. The doctrine was first advanced by Saint Augustine in the late fourth/early fifth century CE, and became formalised in the 16th century at the Council of Trent. Even a newborn baby is tainted with Original Sin.

In the next lesson we'll discuss what happens as a result of the man and the woman breaking God's law.

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Written by

Robert Garland