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Jewish World Review
Nov. 5, 2004
/ 21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765
Serpents of desire: Good and evil in the Garden of Eden The dark side of paradise
Rabbi David Fohrman
The fourth installment of a weekly series examining themes in the Book of Genesis, with the goal of revealing progressively deeper layers of meaning in what too many dismiss as myth. Links to the previous lessons can be found at the end of the article.
The Bible is laden with conflicts between characters who exemplify good and evil. And while our sympathies may lie with the character who aligns himself with the "good", he or she is not always the center of the story. Consider, as an example, the narrative of Cain and Abel. The story really isn't about Abel. We know virtually nothing about him; he is killed and he disappears. Like it or not, the story is really about Cain. What brought him to murder; what did his inner world look like? What did G-d mean to tell him just before he killed his brother? And did he really ever achieve forgiveness?
Who are the main characters in the story of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden? Our first impulse is to point to Adam and Eve. But maybe the story is about someone else, too: The snake. He's not a very popular being he's certainly not a hero but perhaps the story is about him almost as much as it is about us. Let's spend some time trying to understand how he fits into the story.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SNAKE?
In email responses to these columns, a number of readers have speculated about the identity of the snake. Some have pegged him as "the Devil" a sort of fallen angel, a powerful "enemy of G-d" who seeks to thwart the Divine plan at every turn. As a Jew, I have to confess that I have difficulty with the notion of an independent source of evil in the universe that serves as a counterweight to G-d. Jewish thought tends to see Satan in different terms not as one who opposes the Divine plan, but as a sort of "Heavenly prosecutor" who is part and parcel of the Divine plan. Just as no earthly court is complete without a prosecutor, so too, the Heavenly Court is incomplete without its "prosecutor", too a being who advocates forcefully for the application of Divine justice in all its rigor.
Was the snake, then, a manifestation of an angelic Satan whoever this Satan is? Maybe. But I'm a simple guy, and when I read the text, I see an animal here. One could argue that the angel is disguised in the form of an animal but let's at least give it a whirl and see if we can make the text understandable at its simplest level. Let's say the snake is an animal. What does he want? How are we to understand him?
Let's begin by gathering some information. From the text of the Torah, what do we know about this snake?
What we know about him is puzzling indeed.
For starters, he talks and this doesn't seem very snake-like at all. To make matters worse, we're not even supposed to be surprised that he talks. When, for example, the Torah relates the story of Bilaam and his talking Donkey, we are clearly meant to be surprised by the animal's speech. But here in Genesis, the snake's capacity for language just seems to be a given. The Torah tells us that one day a snake approached Eve and happened to strike up a conversation. Don't be surprised. That's just the way it is.
And it gets even more puzzling. The snake doesn't only talk. He walks, too. How do you know? Because at the end of the story, the snake is cursed by G-d and the curse states that from this point forward, the snake must crawl on his belly and eat dust. The implication is clear: Before that point, the snake was not a creature that crawled. He walked.
Let's go still further. What did this walking, talking creature eat, before he was cursed? We don't know, but evidently, it wasn't "dust" that only became his diet afterwards. As the snake was originally created, it seems he was meant to dine on something more appealing.
And what about the intelligence level of this creature? The Torah is fairly explicit about that. The snake, according to the text, was pretty bright:
"And the snake was more cunning than any beast of the field..." (Genesis, 3:1).
So let's add it all up. The snake walks. The snake talks. He likes good food. He is intelligent.
What does he remind you of?
I don't know about you, but he reminds me of a human being.
Indeed, the snake so closely resembles a man that he forces us to ask: What, in the end, makes him a snake and not a man? This question hits close to home, because its really a question about us and the nature of our humanity. Bottom line what makes us human and not a snake? If you walk, talk and are smart, are you then a person? Or can you still be a snake?
The snake, perhaps, forces us to ask: What is the essential dividing line between man and animal?
A CURIOUS TEMPTATION
But the mystery of the serpent does not end here. What else is strange about how the Torah portrays him in the story?
Well, let's talk about what this talking snake actually says. Remember, the Torah describes the snake as a smart operator, as being very "cunning". So pretend, for a moment, that you were the snake and you were very smart, and you wanted to con Eve into eating some fruit that she shouldn't be eating. How would you go about it?
|THE RABBI RESPONDS|
Well, folks, you've outdone yourselves! We received a flood of extremely perceptive and downright profound letters on last week's class. The rabbi has answered a number of them via Real Audio. Click HERE to listen.|
Again, this series was designed to be interactive, we encourage you to challenge the rabbi. Don't feel shy about doing so! Use the link in the bio at the bottom of this article to e-mail him.
Maybe you'd tell Eve how delicious the fruit looks. Maybe you'd craft a seductive lie about its mysterious powers. Maybe, like the Evil Queen in Snow White, you'd just show up at her doorstep with a shiny apple.
But let's see what the snake actually does. He approaches Eve, and, in the original Hebrew, says the following words: "af ki amar elokim lo tochlu mikol etz hagan". Most translations render these words:
'Did G-d really say that you may not eat from any of the trees of the garden?' (Genesis, 3:1).
But that's not the most precise translation of the Hebrew. A better, more literal translation would read:
"Even if G-d said do not eat from any of the trees of the garden..."
Well, its no wonder that most translations take liberties with the Hebrew for the basic, literal translation of these words is quite strange, to say the least. First of all, the sentence has no ending. It just trails off into nothingness, as if the snake was interrupted before he could get to the punch-line. But even if we help the snake finish his thought, his words are hardly more understandable. For what he seems to be telling Eve is: ...even if G-d said don't eat from any trees of the garden, so what? Do it anyway!
One second. The best possible argument the snake could come up with was: even if G-d said don't do it, so what? That doesn't seem very cunning, does it? Of all things, why choose to remind Eve that she's not supposed to eat the fruit? Why flippantly suggest that she disregard her Creator's command? Remember: To Eve, G-d is not just some abstract concept. G-d is real; G-d quite literally created her. What kind of argument is: "Even if G-d said no, so what?"
TO BE AS G-D
Read on a few more verses, and the snake's argument takes another interesting twist. Let's listen in as the snake suggests to Eve that he knows the real reason that G-d forbade she and Adam to eat the fruit:
"Really, G-d knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like G-d, knowing good and evil" (Genesis, 3:5).
Ponder this for a moment. Ask yourself: Is the snake lying, or telling the truth?
I don't know about you, but at first blush, it sure seemed to me that he was lying. What kind of preposterous nonsense is it to suggest that G-d is jealously guarding the Tree of Knowledge because it holds the key to being Godly? Is G-d really territorial worried that lowly humans, by virtue of eating some fruit, would magically become just like Him and encroach upon His heavenly realm? Please. He must be lying.
But there's no reason to philosophize about it. The text itself reveals to us whether the snake was lying or telling the truth. The verse I'm thinking of appears after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit. Reflecting on their failure, G-d declares to Himself that mankind must now be banished entirely from the Garden. And here's the reason why:
G-d said, 'Man has now become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now he must be prevented from putting forth his hand and also taking from the Tree of Life. He [can] eat it and live forever!' (3:22).
As impossible as it seems, the snake was telling the truth after all. Its black on white. G-d clearly states that the fruit has somehow elevated Adam and Eve to become "like" Him, as they are now "knowers of Good and Evil". But how could it be? If the Tree of Knowledge really does make one "Godly", wouldn't the Almighty want us to have it? It seems pretty blasphemous to suggest that G-d was afraid of competition from the creatures he created.
Finally, if this statement of G-d were already not perplexing enough, there's one last thing that's odd about it: Listen to how G-d defines what it means to be a Divine being:
Man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil...
Ask ten people on the street for a one-sentence definition of G-d. You'll probably hear that G-d is all-powerful. That he is all-knowing. The He is One. Or that He is the Creator.
Would anyone tell you that being G-d means "knowing Good and Evil"?
But that's precisely what the Almighty Himself says.
The snake this walking, talking representative of the animal world is right. G-d himself confirms his words. Being G-dly means knowing good and evil. Now its up to us to find out what they both meant.
You've got a week to think about it.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes inspirational articles. Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Rabbi David Fohrman directs the Hoffberger Foundation for Torah Studies, and is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Biblical Themes. He has also authored several volumes of the ArtScroll Talmud.
No need to be shy! To comment or ask a question, please
Want to cheat and hear the whole series? The "Serpents of Desire" columns are based on a series of audio tapes by Rabbi Fohrman. Get your set now at http://www.jewishexplorations.com, or by calling 410-764-7488.
A Tale of Two Trees
Adam, Eve, and the Elephant in the Room
Serpents of desire: Good and evil in the Garden of Eden
© 2004, Rabbi David Fohrman