Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
GENESIS 2:4b-14. THE CONTEXT
Scholars generally agree that there are two accounts of the creation. The later account (but first in the biblical sequence) is 1:1—2:4a, and the earlier account is 2:4b-14, which forms the foundation for our text this week.
Verses 2:4b-14 tell of the creation (v. 4b)—a creation where there was no plant or herb or rain—and “no man to till the ground” (v. 5). However, it describes a kind of paradise where “a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground” (v. 6). “Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (v. 7)—unlike the later account where God created man by God’s word (1:26-27).
Then “Yahweh God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (v. 8). God then “made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (v. 9).
Four rivers watered the garden—the Pishon and Gihon, the locations of which we do not know—and the Tigris and the Euphrates, which flow through modern Iraq (vv. 10-14). In that part of the world, water is always scarce, so these verses describe a desirable place where God has provided abundant water.
GENESIS 2:15-17. THE GARDEN OF EDEN
15Yahweh God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. 16Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.”
“Yahweh God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.” (v. 15). In 1:28, God commanded the man to subdue the earth and to have dominion over it. The idea there was not that God authorized man to despoil the earth, but rather that he intended the man to make use or earthly resources for food, clothing, and shelter. Verse 15 uses different verbs—”dress it up and keep” instead of “subdue” and “have dominion”—but the idea is the same. The man is to use earthly resources to meet human needs.
Eden is a paradise in the sense that it has a plentiful water supply, but God does not intend for the man to enjoy the kind of Eden that we often picture—a place where the man can eat fruit with no expenditure of effort. Even in God’s original design—before the Fall—God assigns man work to do. Man is to till the garden and to keep it—agricultural duties.
Unlike some of the Near Eastern myths with which Israelites would be familiar, the purpose of man’s toil is not to provide for selfish gods. God is the provider here. God, who created the man and knows his frame, knows that the man needs to engage in purposeful activity for his physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Tilling and keeping a garden can be delightful work. They become unpleasant only when the requirements exceed one’s time or energy—or when insects or weather ruin one’s work. Work will become unpleasant only after sin enters the picture.
“Yahweh God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat;“(v. 16). When we think of this story, the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil tends to dominate our thinking, but we must not forget that God first established a very wide range of permissible activity. The man is permitted to eat of all the trees except one. There is no need for him to be bored with the same old food day after day, and there is certainly no necessity for him to be hungry. God has provided both substance and variety. The man lacks nothing.
“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (v. 17). In v. 16, God provided freedom. In v. 17, he provides boundaries. “No freedom exists without limits…. Freedom must include genuine choice, choice that matters” (Roop, 41).
God denies the man the fruit of only one tree. There is no prohibition against eating the fruit of the other special tree—the tree of life (2:9). Nor is there any mention of the apple portrayed in popular culture—God prohibits the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The idea of an apple probably comes from the similarity of two Latin words, malus (evil) and malum (apple).
God doesn’t give the man a reason for the prohibition, but sounds like a loving father warning his child about potential danger. This warning gives the man an opportunity to demonstrate faith in God. The tree becomes “Adam’s church, altar, and pulpit. Here he was to yield to God the obedience he owed, give recognition to the Word and will of God, give thanks to God, and call upon God for aid against temptation” (Luther, quoted in Mathews, 210).
We have practically no information about the tree itself. “The story has no interest in the character of the tree. What counts is the fact of the prohibition, the authority of the one who speaks and the unqualified expectation of obedience” (Brueggemann, 46).
GENESIS 2:18-25. IT IS NOT GOOD
These verses are not included in this lectionary reading, but are the reading for Proper 22B (Revised Common Lectionary). That exegesis is posted separately. Verses 18-25 tell of God creating every living creature and giving the man naming rights over the creatures (vv. 18-20). They then tell of the creation of the woman from the man’s rib or side (vv. 21-23)—and God’s intention that “a man leaves his father and his mother and will join to his wife, and they will be one flesh” (v. 24). It also observes, “They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed” (v. 25).
GENESIS 3:1-5: HAS GOD SAID, “YOU SHALL NOT EAT”
1Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which Yahweh God had made. He said to the woman, “Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?’ 2The woman said to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, 3but of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” 4The serpent said to the woman, “You won’t surely die, 5for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which Yahweh God had made.” (v. 1a). The serpent was one of the creatures that God created and allowed the man to name (2:19-20). Brueggemann sees the serpent merely as an actor onstage—”not a phallic symbol or satan or a principle of evil or death” (Brueggemann, 47). If so, this certainly is a carefully chosen actor—sinister—frightful. The Old Testament speaks of poisonous serpents…(they) bit the people; and many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:6)—and “the poison of serpents, the cruel venom of asps” (Deuteronomy 32:33)—and a “swift serpent” (Job 26:13)—and “a fiery flying serpent” (Isaiah 14:29). “Whatever goes on its belly” is considered unclean by Jewish law (Leviticus 11:41-45). We expect this woman to recoil from this serpent, but she has not yet learned to fear serpents.
If the serpent is not Satan, it speaks with a Satan-like voice and gives Satan-like counsel. Or, as Luther said, “The devil was permitted to enter beasts, as he here entered the serpent” (quoted in Mathews, 233). In any event, the serpent represents that which is opposed to God—the Tempter—the bringer of evil.
The serpent was —“more subtle(‘arum) than any animal of the field which Yahweh God had made.”(3:1). The narrator carefully chooses this word, ‘arum (“crafty”), to mirror ‘arumim (“naked”) from the previous verse (2:25). “Naked”—”serpent”—”crafty”—if this were a Hollywood film, we would hear menacing music in the background. The narrator has no orchestra, but uses words skillfully to alert us to something amiss.
“Has God really said, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” (v. 1b). Until now, the text has referred to the deity as “the Lord God,” but the serpent shortens that to “God.” The effect is to de-emphasize the Lordship of God.
“Has God really said, You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?” (v. 1b). The serpent sets the stage for deception by deliberate misrepresentation. God did not say, “You SHALL NOT EAT from any tree in the garden,” but rather, “of the garden you MAY FREELY EAT of every tree” (2:16).
God then placed one limit on this freedom—“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it” (2:17). The permission (2:16) far exceeded the restriction (2:17)—but the serpent represents God as having permitted nothing and restricted everything. The purpose of this misrepresentation is to confuse the woman—to throw her off balance—to plant a seed of doubt in her mind.
“The woman said to the serpent, “Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat, but of the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” (vv. 2-3). At first glance, it appears that the woman has restated the Godly permission and restriction correctly. However, as we are prone to do when not sufficiently on guard, her restatement fails to capture the permission and restriction exactly, and exactness counts when engaged in courtroom battle with Satan. Inexactness weakens the woman’s case and strengthens Satan’s hand.
• First, she says, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden,” rather than “We may FREELY eat of EVERY tree of the garden” (2:16). While her words capture something of God’s liberality, they fail to capture the full measure of that liberality.
• Second, she quotes God as saying, “You shall not eat of it; the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die”—rather than ” but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” (2:17). She fails to name the tree (the name has significance), but instead designates it by its location. She adds “nor shall you touch it”—thus embellishing God’s prohibition.
But the woman’s greatest mistake is to talk to the serpent at all (Mathews, 234). The serpent has clearly misrepresented God’s instructions, and the woman is tempted to correct the misrepresentation. “Tempted” is the right word. The serpent tempted the woman to correct him. Once she engages in dialogue with the serpent, she finds herself on a slippery slope where the serpent is in control. Two quotations come to mind that the preacher might find helpful here:
• “The Devil does not shock a saint into alertness by suggesting whopping crimes. He starts off with little, almost inoffensive things to which even the heart of a saint would make only mild protests” (Walter Farrell,Companion to the Summa).
• In The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, the older, wiser devil advises the younger devil how to achieve success with temptation: “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” That is what the serpent has done here—edged the woman onto the gentle slope—the gentle but slippery slope.
“The serpent said to the woman, “You won’t surely die” (v. 4). Earlier, the serpent told the first Big Lie—that God prohibited eating from any tree in the garden (3:1). Now the serpent tells another Big Lie—”You will not die.” In both cases, the serpent expresses the exact opposite of what God said. Sometimes we are susceptible to subtle lies, but at other times will allow ourselves to believe a whopper. Satan is capable of tailoring the lie to fit the listener—whatever works.
(The phrase, “The Big Lie,” was popularized by Hitler and Goebbels. Hitler first used the phrase in his book, Mein Kampf, where he accused Jews of using big lies to undermine the German military effort during World War I, thus insuring Germany’s defeat. Goebbels accused England of using the Big Lie technique in their propaganda, but cynically adopted the method himself. One example was the sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” [“Work makes one free”] posted at the entrance to concentration camps where the only freedom was death.)
“for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (v. 5). The serpent’s earlier question (v. 1) was a feint—a deceptive movement to throw the woman off guard. This statement (v. 5) is the left hook to the jaw—the one designed to drop her to the canvas. The serpent earlier emphasized the restriction imposed by God rather than God’s generosity (v. 1). Now the serpent impugns God’s motives for the restriction, suggesting that God issued the restriction, not for the welfare of the man and woman, but to prevent them from becoming Godlike—knowledgeable and powerful—potential competitors—perhaps even usurpers.
“It is very neat, that the snake never directly demands that they should eat—he understands the art of seduction” (Gunkel, quoted in Wenham, 74). “With tiny shifts of accent, with half-truth and double meaning, (the serpent brings the woman) to the point when she joins in and acts of her own volition, which is precisely what (the serpent) intended” (Steck, quoted in Von Rad, 90).
As we will see shortly, the man and woman do not die immediately upon eating the forbidden fruit. In fact, Adam will sire his first son at age 130 and die at age 930 (5:3-4). There are various possibilities to resolve this apparent discrepancy. One is that the man and woman were created immortal but become mortal upon eating the fruit. Another is that they die spiritually rather than physically. Still another is related to the fact that God will punish them by forcing them out of the garden. Many centuries later, lepers will be forced out of Jewish communities into a kind of living death. “If to be expelled from the camp of Israel was to ‘die,’ expulsion from the garden was an even more drastic kind of death” (Wenham, 74).
GENESIS 3:6-7. THEIR EYES WERE OPENED
6When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit, and ate; and she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate. 7The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked. They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit, and ate “ (v. 6a). Forbidden fruit always has a wondrous luster. Anticipation makes the mouth water. But the decisive issue here is “desired to make one wise,” which in this case means “desired to make the man and woman knowledgeable of good and evil”—”desired to make them like God.” Suspicious that God has, indeed, withheld that which is good rather than fencing off that which is evil, the woman eats the forbidden fruit and invites her husband to join her in her disobedience, which he does.
“and she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate “ (v. 6b). The fallen woman becomes a temptress—a common response. The loneliness of solitary guilt is unbearable. Whenever we knowingly do something wrong, one of our first impulses is to involve someone else in our culpability. We need a partner in crime for a host of reasons. A partner is someone to talk to—someone to help us plan an alibi or an escape—someone to share our guilt. There is also the vague hope that, if everyone is involved, they can’t punish all of us.
The question, then, isn’t why the woman involved the man, but why the man succumbed. Paul tells us, “Adam wasn’t deceived” (1 Timothy 2:14). For whatever reason, the woman has the starring role in this act of the play, and the man has only a bit part. There is no indication here that the woman persuades the man to eat. She simply gives the fruit to him, and he eats. The text says that he “with her” (v. 6), so perhaps he overheard the dialogue between the serpent and the woman. Perhaps the serpent’s words seduced him just as they seduced the woman.
At best the man is a weak character here. “His presence is passive and bland. The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve but weakness” (Phyllis Trible, quoted in Towner, 45). The characterization is of “two human protagonists, the woman and the wimp!” (Towner, 45).
“The eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked (Hebrew: ‘arumim)” (v. 7a). Earlier, they were naked and unashamed (2:25), but now their eyes are opened to see their nakedness in a different light. While they thought that eating the fruit would make them crafty (‘arum), it only made them naked (‘arumim).
“They sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” (v. 7b). “As is typical of Hebrew narratives, we learn little about what the woman and the man were feeling. Instead we find actions or speech: thoughts and feelings are left to the imagination of the readers” (Roop, 45).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2006, 2018, Richard Niell Donovan