Tempter or teacher — or both?
told by Deborah
Now the snake was more cunning than any of the other wild creatures that God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God say, ‘You mustn’t eat from any tree in the garden’?”
“We can eat the fruit of any of the trees in the garden,” she told him, “but God said, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden — don’t even touch it — or you will die.’”
“Oh, piffle!” the snake said, “You won’t die! It’s just that God knows that when you eat from it you’ll see how things really are — and you will be like God: knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was delicious as well as decorative, she picked some and ate it, and gave some to her husband (who was there with her), and he ate it, too.
Then they had knowledge, and cunning, and they covered their bodies, concealing themselves from God and from each other.
They heard the sound of God walking in the garden in the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves among the trees.
And God called to the man, “Yoo-hoo! Where are you?”
He answered, "I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid."
“Who told you that you were naked?” God demanded, “Have you eaten fruit from the tree that I told you to leave alone?”
The man said, “It was that woman; the one You gave to be with me — she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
Then God said to the woman, “What have you done?”
The woman said, “It was the snake. The snake beguiled me, and I ate.”
God said to the snake, “That was a low-down dirty thing you did! From now on all creatures will despise you; you’ll slither on the ground with your face in the dirt all the days of your life, and your tongue will never utter another word. You and the woman will fear and hate each other forever; and your descendants and hers will perpetually try to destroy one another.”
Oh dear, the snake. I’m never quite sure how I feel about that critter. Sometimes I suspect he’s the hero of the story, other times I’m certain he’s the villain. The tale itself slides between an amusing Just-So story (“How the snake lost his legs”) and a terrible tragedy, as humanity is cast from the garden of perfect delight forever — our re-entry blocked by a sword-wielding angel.
How, exactly, does it all come about?
Apparently Snake and the human couple are already acquainted; the conversation between them begins with no introductions, just a seemingly casual inquiry: “What’s up with you and that tree?” Is Snake a friend who stopped by for a cup of tea and a bagel, just making small talk, or thinking about trying the fruit himself and curious to see what might happen? Was he bored with nothing else to do that day, an innocent bystander, or an Enemy who sought to bring them harm?
We are not told of anyone’s intentions; the events simply unfold before our eyes.
It’s possible that the outcome for us was inevitable. After all, Snake tells the woman that humans will be like God “when you eat from the tree,” as if it is a done deal; as if there is something in our nature — something designed in — that pushes us to test the boundaries, to challenge limits, and even to try to supplant our Creator: to “become like God.”
Did Snake hand us the key to our freedom? Was that first “disobedience” actually a revelation: demonstrating that we could choose how to act, whether to act, what to say, and who to trust? Was he a Tempter or a Teacher — or both? In discovering our abilities, we also learned of the accompanying responsibilities; in the New World of free will, there are consequences to the choices we make.
Sometimes downright unpleasant ones.
No wonder that every culture has a myth of a Perfect long ago, and that all people share a dream of an Ideal future (though the specifics vary). We yearn for a time of bliss and leisure, peace and plenty — when all the ugly end-results of our choosings and our doings are utterly cast out.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things will have passed away.”
~ Revelation 21:4
The Genesis story also reminds us of the comforting lie that persists: our human proclivity to blame God for the choices that we make, and for failing to intervene when things go amiss. In it do we not hear the oft-repeated insistence that the divine Presence ought to protect us from ourselves? “It’s Your fault: You gave the woman to me.” Why did You plant that tree there in the first place? Why didn’t You stop me? Why did You make ice cream taste so good? Why did You put that where I could reach it?
Perhaps we’d already learned a little something at our wily teacher’s knee: what other explanation for the man’s instant, glib reply when challenged by God? How cunning he was to redirect the blame, assigning guilt to the woman — and thus degrading and denouncing the holy gift that he had been given. Not “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,” but “Nothing to do with me;” willing to partake, but not to accept responsibility.
In our very denials we implicate ourselves: we know that our choices influence and affect events and situations throughout creation. We want to take charge, to claim authority, to arrange the world according to our taste; we want to decide and determine: to “be as God.” But, when things go wrong, how readily we pass on the blame to someone else! Anyone else.
The curious part is the apparent friendship with Snake. Does it signify that we humans have always been entranced by the ability to beguile and deceive, never dreaming that those same wiles can be turned against us? Perhaps it speaks to the death of innocence, our discovery that so-called friends can lie, mislead, and use us for their own ends.
But the story doesn’t stop there. It shows that all of us are capable of behaving less than honorably, stooping so low as to turn against our friends in order to save our own skins. The man did so at once, attempting to use his wife as a human shield against Divine wrath, and the woman was the same, passing the blame on to their former friend and colleague. As a matter of fact, Snake is the only party who didn’t deny responsibility for what had been done.
We see, too, how lies destroy relationships. The woman and Snake are no longer friends, but lasting enemies, each sworn to destroy the other — a vendetta which will be carried on by their descendants, down through the ages. And I wonder if the situation was not the same between the man and the woman, for, in the aftermath, God commands that she “desire” her husband — was it not spontaneous, before? It would seem that, when our relationships are out of true, laws and rules become the cause of “right conduct” rather than the desires of our hearts.
Was Snake telling the truth: in our knowledge of good and evil, has humanity become “like God”? Or are we simply “beguiled” — that marvelously descriptive term! — by the notion?
There can be no question that we have accumulated vast amounts of information; we have gained the ability to do wondrous deeds — near-miracles by any valuation: curing diseases, prolonging life, repairing genomes, splitting the atom…. but we have not attained the wisdom to use them well. We possess the power to destroy our planet a thousand-times over, yet we continue to build weapons of death. We have intelligence in abundance, but very little understanding. We successfully transplant organs, giving recipients “a new heart,” while others live in heartbreak and sorrow (and others are mean-spirited and hard hearted).
Like God, humanity knows what is good and what is evil, but we aren’t grace-full enough to decide as we ought; often choosing what appeals to our ego, rather than what is healing and kind. We easily, unwittingly, succumb to the temptation to consider ourselves as gods; important, essential, authoritative; our word is the law, our judgments are swift, our decisions are final, irreversible, exact, and true. That’s how it is to be “like God,” right?
As the ancient prophets insisted and the Lord Christ showed forth in His ministry, God is less concerned with vengeance than with mercy; anxious to save, to help, and sustain; patient and hopeful, the Eternal is a Being of infinite love and compassion who desires our greatest good. Therefore, to be “like God” would mean to be graciously self-giving, abundantly generous, and immensely caring.
Those characteristics are very different from what we ordinarily imagine “godlike” to be.
So was Snake an enemy who beguiled us with promises of omniscience and infallibility, resulting in confusion, suffering, and pain? Or are we the authors of our own delusions? Perhaps we become so entranced by grandiose fantasies and cultural imperatives that we fail to recognize that it is the plain and simple things that truly matter.
It was not for nothing that our Lord came to us as a humble servant.
Jesus Christ, in His infinite love, has become what we are, in order that He may make us entirely what He is.
~ St. Irenaeus of Lyons
It would seem that we are most “like God” when we are fully human. May we choose to act accordingly.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
The glory of God is a human being fully alive."
~ St. Irenaeus of Lyons