Genesis 3 is one of the cornerstone passages of the Bible. Bill Arnold in his commentary on Genesis reflects that Gen 3 starts a new subject and introduces a new character, the serpent or snake. The significance and identity of the snake has been a subject of much reflection through the years. The picture to the right is a carving on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris depicting the temptation. In this rendition the serpent is portrayed as a woman. In Christian and late (ca. 1st century) Jewish literature, especially apocalyptic literature, the serpent is identified as Satan. In the New Testament this reference is oblique in one verse each in John and Romans and somewhat more clearly made in Revelation (if anything in Revelation can said to be clear). It also may be implicit in the temptation of Jesus.
But what about the text of Genesis itself? How are we to read and interpret Genesis 3?
Genesis 3 tells the story of the temptation of the man and woman to disobedience, the consequence of the disobedience, and sets the stage for the stories to follow – and ultimately for the Gospel and the work of God through Jesus. But what of the text itself? Again mytho-historical appears the best approach. This is not literal history and was never intended to be.
First: The snake. Arnold is slightly more circumspect than I might be – but it seems clear that the portrayal of the tempter as a snake is an appropriation of the common knowledge of the day, elements of local culture, to convey a theological truth.
The power of snake-imagery in the ancient world cannot be denied. Serpents were noted for their wisdom, protection, healing, and knowledge of death. … One possibility is that the mythological figure behind the serpent is Canaanite Baal, appearing in the form most tempting to ancient Israel, that of a serpent. In this theory, the Garden of Eden reflects an old Canaanite myth of a sacred grove, with a tree of life, living waters, guardians at the entrance, and especially a serpent. Thus it is possible an ancient story has been demythologized … God has created everything, including even the insidious serpent, which some unenlightened Israelites are tempted to follow. The transformation is profound because the serpent has no special power beyond his ability to lie, trick, and confuse. But even these powers are only available to him when standing (or slithering) before humans. Before God himself his answer will be one of resolute silence (3:14-15).(p. 62-63)
Second: The trees. Another common symbol of the ANE – “Trees were a nearly universal symbol of life in the Ancient Near East, and “trees-of-life” particularly represented the divine power responsible for fertility in plant life” (p. 58) In the Garden we have two symbols – two trees, the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – which imparts moral culpability.
Third: The temptation. With half-truths and twisted phrase Eve is tempted – they will not die, they will gain knowledge. When the man and woman eat they lose their innocence and acquire moral culpability – an irreversible process.
Fourth: The consequence. Arnold considers the consequences of sin as descriptive rather than prescriptive.
The judgments of 3:15-19 are announcements of the consequences of their actions and those consequences are perfectly commensurate with their crimes. The ancient Israelites were unconcerned about secondary causes, and therefore all of these consequences are related directly to Yahweh God: … But in so announcing the judgments, God is describing the new circumstances of life on earth for the serpent, the woman, and the man, rather than decreeing his first and best will for them.(p. 70)
According to Arnold Genesis 2-3 does not teach original sin, but is consistent with this much later doctrine. Genesis 3 lays the foundation for the rest of the human story when it “situates humankind’s position vis-a-vis God as one of opposition and estrangement, and gives explanation only for the common experience of all humans in alienation, guilt, and death. (73)” Humans are alienated – and yet still have the potential for life with God. Genesis 2-3 also does not teach the subordination of woman to man (Arnold has quite a lot to say about this).
So is the story true? The story is true in what it intends to teach. We have broken the relationship with God, innocence is irretrievable and the guilt and the consequences of guilt afflict all of humankind. The consequences (not curses) include broken relationships with each other, and with the earth. But there is little doubt that the story incorporates ANE mythic elements. Genesis is mytho-historical. To take it first and foremost as literal-historical fact is to ignore the cultural situation, ignore the obvious literary elements, and to distort the message.
I’ve had my say – what do you think?