Genesis 3:1-7

Following the progression of explanation in Genesis, ch. 1 communicated God’s formation of order in the cosmos by separation and designation of functions and functionaries. Ch. 2 explained the means needed to “address the nonfunctionality of the blessing: food acquisition (the garden) and reproduction (Eve).”[1] As one turns to ch. 3, ‘the fall’ explains man’s impediment in executing those means to functionalize the blessing. More generally, Genesis 3 explains how “man’s disobedience is the cause of the human predicament.”[2]

Original Meaning

The basic movement of the account in this passage is as follows: the serpent questions Eve (3:1), Eve responds to the serpent (3:2-3), the serpent responds to Eve’s answer (3:4-5), Adam and Eve both eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (3:6), and they experienced the consequences (3:7). The account is extremely quick; and in the space of seven verses, the world is turned upside-down.

Before exegeting the passage, two clarifications better set the scene. Firstly, it is important to note the position of Adam. The text implicates that Adam was with Eve while the serpent addressed her. The exclusive use of plural verbs in this section is a clear grammatical indication that Adam was present.[3] Secondly, there must be something said of the two trees in the garden. There is the ‘tree of life’ and the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The former was a well-known motif in the ancient Near East (ANE), but the latter is unique to the Bible. It is this subtle shift of emphasis that provides an important implication for the original audience – i.e. the obsessive ANE pursuit for immorality is not the source of restoration; the human predicament is one concerned with morality and decision-making, not mortality. Sarna commented, “Its problem is not the mythical pursuit of eternity, but the actual relationships between man and God.”[4]

The Serpent – Working from the wordplay concerning “crafty” (ʿārûm) and naked (ʿărummîm), the serpent is suddenly introduced into the narrative. In contrast to much of the ANE understanding, the serpent in Genesis 3 is not magical.[5] Rather than being a formidable proponent of chaos in equal opposition to God, this serpent is a creature made by God that is utterly subservient to God.[6] However, the serpent can talk. On the one hand, the serpent is grouped as another mere creature of God; but on the other hand, it is given characteristics of a personal being – it is “crafty” (ʿārûm), it can talk, and it is later treated as a personal being by God in his commanded consequences (cf. 3:14-15). Nonetheless, it is most apparent that the serpent is the variable that brings about the disruption in the garden. In this sense, it is mildly consonant for the reader with an ANE background.

The Temptation and Disobedience – The serpent indirectly questions Eve regarding God’s prohibitive decree, questioning God’s motivation with the subtle addition ‘really say.’[7] Walton accurately noted, “The serpent intentionally misconstrues the command of God by formulating a question designed to get the woman to express the command in her own words.”[8] As a result, Eve (1) subtracts from the context of God’s command, (2) adds to the extent of God’s command, and (3) provides her own version of God’s command. Firstly, Matthews observed, “[Eve] omits those elements in the command, ‘any’ and ‘freely,’ which placed the prohibition in a context of liberality.”[9] Secondly, Eve adds that the fruit of the tree was merely not to be eaten, but also that the tree was not to be touched.[10] Thirdly, Eve does not recite the emphatic syntax of God’s command (an absolute infinitive coupled with a finite verb of the same root), rendering ‘you will die’ instead of ‘you will be doomed to death.’[11] The nuanced modification represents a diminished urgency in Eve’s rendition of God’s command. The serpent responds to Eve’s version, and further subtracts from the inevitability of the consequences for disobedience.[12] Additionally, the serpent provided three counterclaims: ‘you surely will not die’ (3:4); ‘your eyes will be opened’ (3:5a); and ‘you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (3:5b).

Seemingly convinced, Eve saw that the tree was (1) good for food, (2) a delight to the eyes, and (3) desirable to make one wise. Firstly, Eve’s realization that the tree was ‘good for food’ was not necessarily wrong. There appears to be nothing intrinsically wrong with the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and the divine prohibition is not rooted in God’s jealousy concerning man’s potential quality and power. Therefore, as Walton concluded, it appears best to assume that “it is more in keeping with [God’s] character to understand that the tree would have use in the future.”[13] The temptation concerned a challenge to God’s authority and timing, where Adam and Eve were tempted to forgo God’s timing. The problem resides in Eve’s limitation of the tree’s purpose as food, which negated God’s temporal purpose for the tree. Secondly, Eve dwelled on the appearance of the tree, which represents another step forward from knowing to seeing. Thirdly, Matthews noted, “Desirable” (ḥāmad) is the same word used in the prohibition against covetousness (Exod 20:17).[14] In fact, in the Jewish tradition, covetousness was known as the root of all sin and comparable to idolatry.[15] All of these deliberations intimate the internal resolution of Eve, which then led to the external action of eating the fruit and giving it to Adam. Schaeffer summarized, “The flow is from the internal to the external; the sin began in the thought-world and flowed outward.”[16]

The Results (3:7) – The text noted that (1) Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and (2) they knew they were naked. The results closely parallel Eve’s deliberated conclusions in 3:6: “What they ‘saw’ is that they are ‘naked,’ what is ‘pleasing to the eye’ causes displeasure with their own nakedness and the need to cover it with ‘fig leaves,’ and the ‘wisdom’ gained only enables the making of ‘coverings.’”[17] Nonetheless, the results of Adam and Eve’s disobedience are best seen in the one before and after comparison regarding their nakedness and shame. Before they disobeyed, they were naked and unashamed; after their disobedience, they knew they were naked and were ashamed. Applying the standard rules of deduction, the results conclude that Adam and Eve’s shame resulted from their newfound knowledge of their nakedness.

Bridging Contexts

The serpent in the garden is known to be Satan by the New Testament (NT) authors (cf. Rom. 16:20; 2 Cor. 11:3; Rev. 12:9), but this is most likely the product of progressive revelation. After an in-depth lexical analysis, Walton concluded, “Israel had little knowledge of a being named Satan or of a chief of demons, the devil.”[18] Longman likewise concluded that the original readers of Genesis 3 “probably didn’t have a deep understanding of the serpent.”[19] This exegetical conclusion, however, in no way detracts from the validity of the NT’s interpretation of the serpent as Satan. Perhaps the employment of Schaeffer’s distinction between ‘true truth’ and ‘exhaustive truth’ grants some hermeneutical clarification for God’s progressive revelation: “Wherever [the Bible] touches upon anything, it does so with true truth, but not exhaustive truth.”[20] Although the original author and original audience would not have understood the serpent as a tool of Satan, the retrospective identification is fully true given the NT’s inspired affirmation.

Furthermore, Genesis 3 works to communicate the origin of human sin and guilt – not the origin of evil. The serpent is certainly identified as the contingent variable bringing about the temptation and resulting disobedience; but given the abrupt and unexplained appearance of the serpent, the origin of evil itself is not the concern of the author of Genesis. The account functions to explain evil, not give a description of where it originated. Such a focus is warranted given the original audience’s well-known experience with evil; and given that anthropological concern, evil is explained in reference to human decision-making and morality. This leads to the important determination regarding the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ and the change that occurred as a result of Adam and Eve’s eating its fruit in disobedience to God’s command.

As previously noted, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the tree and its fruit. Schaeffer correctly noted, “The test Adam faces does not involve a choice between an evil tree that God has made and a good tree that God has made.”[21] However, the intrinsic goodness of the tree ought not lead one to assume that the specific tree had no unique association with God’s command – e.g. as Schaeffer concluded, “[God] could just as well have said, ‘Don’t cross this stream; don’t climb this mountain.’”[22] Yes, God’s commandment is essentially a commandment for Adam and Eve’s obedience; but there is an important implication provided in the commandment’s association with the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The author of Genesis is communicating an explanatory truth regarding man’s disobedience – a further explanation than merely noting the action, but a description of the prelapsarian and postlapsarian condition. For one, the mention of that specific tree conveys that prelapsarian man had no need for ‘the knowledge of good and evil’ at that time; but in Eve’s deliberation before taking of the fruit, she made an autonomous conclusion that she wanted to have her ‘eyes opened’ and ‘become like God.’ She shifted her perspective from seeing God’s wisdom in determining the needs of His creatures to seeing her own desires above and against God’s command. In other words, she believed that her full potential would come to fruition apart from her obedience and trust in God, her creator. Human ‘autonomy’ is the culprit here – a break from one’s rightful relationship to God. But what is she seeking autonomy from as noted in the specific mention of the tree? In a lexical study of ‘the knowledge of good and evil,’ one finds that it intimates “the ability to discern and be discriminative.”[23] Therefore, Adam and Eve’s disobedience brought about their ability to discern and discriminate apart from their relationship to God. Walton marks their prelapsarian condition as comparable to a ‘childlike adolescence.’[24] Nonetheless, the apparent shift communicated by the mentioned tree associated with the command reveals that the paradigmatic cause of the fall concerns man’s autonomous pursuits apart from a dependent relationship with God.

Contemporary Significance

It is only by God’s immeasurable grace that he continually grants us the opportunity to know and love him. Therefore, as we seek to glorify him and honor him in the imago dei, we must continually seek to do so through his revealed means in Scripture. God’s word is a sanctified communication, and it is our resource for clarifying who God is and what he has commanded. Temptation, however, primarily consists in distorting our theology and thus God’s authority and character in the issuing of his commands. When such nuanced and subtle variations are proposed concerning the character of God and his commands, we must be Christians who turn to God’s revelation of himself. Now, this does not prescribe a mere rigor of biblical scholasticism and doctrinal clarification; it pushes and pleads for us to be united with the pinnacle of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The perfect image of God will be our fulfilling sustenance in our disrupted pursuit of our imago dei. The ‘last man’ will be triumphant against the bondage we were enslaved to by the ‘first man.’ We can be confidence of this because Jesus Christ has already fulfilled and triumphed; and by faith, we are graciously privileged to have Christ live in us. So as temptation assails us, we must go to who God says he is, and we have the new covenant privilege to access that truth in Christ by the Spirit who has written his law on our hearts. For Christ has accomplished all that autonomous man could not accomplish; and as such, by faith, which unites us to him, we can live in Christ victorious. It is this foundation that ought to mobilize our defense against temptation.

Nevertheless, the Genesis account provides us with noticeable tactics to be aware of and combat. The temptation account provides a profound illustration for the popular idiom, ‘the devil is in the details.’ The serpent, revealed by the New Testament to be an instrument of Satan, indirectly questions concerning God’s command. This method of questioning prompts us to guard against our revision of God’s commandment, leading us to stay grounded in the essence of his desires. Moreover, in the account we notice, “The serpent spoke only about what she would gain and avoided mentioning what she would lose in the process.”[25] Our motivations need to be rightly aligned in our desire to know and obey God. It is our motivation that ultimately governs our desire to revise God’s commands, and if we fixate our motive on the glory of God, we will not fall into the trap of revision.

As previously mentioned in regards to Eve’s seeing the tree as ‘good for food,’ she was correct. The tree was ‘good,’ a creation of God; but as ‘goodness’ is understood teleologically, Eve’s measurement of ‘good’ had the wrong end in mind – i.e. the tree was good in regards to its means as a food source, but this denied the end that God had in mind. She limited God’s telos for the tree and thus limited her measurement of ‘good.’ Particular perspective often renders a wrong measurement of goodness. Is this not evident in the gospel? The murder of the perfect Son of God appears to be the gravest injustice to ever occur when particularly considered; but in regards to its universal connections, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ appears as the most glorious act of all history. As such, we ought to settle our obedience in God’s transcendent wisdom and not our own finite perspective.

[1] John H. Walton, Genesis, New International Version Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 202.

[2] Nahum M. Sarna, The Heritage of Biblical Israel, Schocken paperback ed. vol. 1, Understanding Genesis (New York: Schocken Books, 1970), 28.

[3] Walton explained, “From verse 1 where the serpent addresses the woman but uses the plural ‘you,’ to the woman’s use of inclusionary ‘we’ and the serpent’s description of the results formulated to both, there is every grammatical indication that both are there” (Genesis, 206).

[4] Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 27.

[5] Sarna commented, “In the Near East the serpent was a symbol of deity and fertility, and the images of serpent-goddesses have been found in the ruins of many Canaanite towns and temples” (Ibid., 26).

[6] For example, notice the serpent’s complete silence as God commands the consequences for his temptations (3:14-15).

[7] K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 235. Matthews also mentioned, “The serpent uses the name ‘God’ rather than the covenant name ‘Lord’ that has characterized the narrative of 2:4–25, where ‘Lord God’ appears.” This tactic, however, seems devoid of original awareness since Adam and Eve were most likely ignorant of the different names of God and their implications. Nonetheless, it is a peculiar exclusion given the use of ‘Lord’ throughout 2:4-25; and it may hold weight given Eve’s adoption of ‘God’ rather than ‘Lord’ in 3:3.

[8] Walton, Genesis, 204. Matthews provided a suitable summation of the serpent’s question: “The serpent reworks the wording of God’s command slightly by (1) adding the negative ‘not’ at the head of the clause, which with ‘any’ expresses an absolute prohibition; (2) omitting the emphatic ‘freely’; (3) using the plural ‘you’ (hence bypassing the man) rather than the singular as in 2:16; and (4) placing the clause ‘from any tree’ at the end of the sentence rather than at the head as in 2:16, thereby robbing God’s command of its nuance of liberality” (Genesis 1-11:26, 235).

[9] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 235.

[10] Also, it may be of some interest that Eve refers to the tree “according to its location rather than its significance” (Ibid., 235).

[11] Walton provided the literal translation and observed the syntactical details (Genesis, 204).

[12] This is apparent in the serpent’s response by the negative particle (לֹא) preceding both forms of the verb.

[13] Walton, Genesis, 205.

[14] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 238.

[15] T. R. Schreiner cites support for this claim: see Philo, Spec. Laws 4.15 §§84-94; Decal. 28 §§142, 150; 32 §173; Apoc. Mos. 19.3; Apoc. Abr. 24.9; Tg. Neof. 1 on Exod. 20:17; Romans, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998), 369.

[16] Francis A. Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time: The Flow of Biblical History, G/l Curriculum Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1972), 85.

[17] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 239.

[18] Walton, Genesis, 208. See Walton’s lexical analysis ‘satan’ in the OT and the exegetical history of the serpent as Satan, pp. 207-211.

[19] Tremper Longman, How to Read Genesis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 110.

[20] Schaeffer, Genesis in Space and Time, 76.

[21] Ibid., 71.

[22] Ibid., 72.

[23] Walton, Genesis, 214. Although Walton discredits an exclusive moral implication regarding the tree, it is nonetheless appropriate to see that autonomous decision-making is the basis of an autonomous morality.

[24] Ibid., 213-217.

[25] Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, 237.


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