“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” NRSV
“Of all the living things that the Lord God made, the cleverest was the serpent.” NCT
Christian tradition has usually considered the serpent here to be the devil in disguise, but there’s nothing in this passage just reading it to make you think that it’s anything other than a snake. That talks. Heck, maybe all animals talked back then, we weren’t allowed to eat them after all.
It makes sense that the snake would be seen as the devil, since it seems to be intent on putting people at odds with God. But it’s also just a snake in a story where the main characters are named Man and Woman. We’re operating on a pretty archetypal level here.
In fact, in the Japanese the snake doesn’t even seem so bad! The NRSV calls the snake “crafty,” but the Japanese kashikoi is usually a compliment – smart, intelligent, wise. Smarter than us, apparently.
I admit, I didn’t get a whole lot of new insight into this chapter by rereading it for the three-dozenth time, even in Japanese. So let me just give a few points:
- Knowing the difference between good and evil seems to be a bad thing in this passage. I think that idea only works if you’re operating under the same assumptions as, say, the writer of the Tao Te Ching, namely, that unless you teach people there’s such a thing as “bad,” they’ll naturally act good. Genesis seems to agree – everything in nature is marvelous, human beings are good, and then they realize, “Wait, there’s this thing called evil? Like, you can disobey God? And it’s wrong to be naked?” Everything after that has been trying to recover from the initial revelation.
- I first learned about the “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” (v 16) from a friend in second grade. She’d apparently been taught it in church – women only felt pain during childbirth because of Original Sin. I didn’t believe her at the time that something so silly could be in the Bible. Of course women would feel pain, our heads are so big and women’s hips are so narrow! I mean, if you want to drag the story completely out of the understanding of its creators and say that this “knowing good from evil” represents the dawn of sentience, well, there is definitely archeological evidence that evolution traded off easy childbirth for higher cranium capacity. But while that’s interesting, I don’t like it because…
- All of the early chapters of Genesis have a sort of “just-so-story” moment in them as they explain how specific things came to happen. Genesis 3 had a ton: why we’re not immortal, why we’re embarrassed about being naked (at least in Middle Eastern nations), why snakes and humans don’t get along, why childbearing hurts, why men rule women, why it’s hard to farm the land. The problem is when all of these get treated as a good status quo rather than as what they are: a litany of things that are terrible and that shouldn’t have happened.
- If you insist on taking this story literally, forget about the talking snakes or all of us having only two ancestors. In the story, literally, Eden still exists, somewhere around the are of Mesopotamia/Yemen/Ethiopia, with only a sword-wielding cherubim to keep us out (v 24). I guess Google Earth just hasn’t found it yet.
There is one insight I had in this, I suppose. Near the end of the chapter, the Man/Adam names his wife Eve, which as the NCT parenthetically notes means “life.” She doesn’t name herself, he names her, the way he named the animals back in chapter 2, and only after the Fall. I don’t know whether the original creators were considering how this reflects a change in their relationship or not, but it certainly seems to do so to me. Before the Fall, she’s “woman,” “flesh of my flesh” and all that. After, he names her just like he did the donkeys and sheep, based on how she’s going to have all his kids. Fun times.
This chapter was noticeably easier to read in Japanese, though there were still a few words I had to look up. Zen’aku (good and evil) I could determine from the characters used, but shougai (your whole life, until you die) and sosonokasu (to tempt) were knew.