008 - Shiny Things That Bite
Season 1, Episode 8
Series: Journey Through the Old Testament
Act one of the Bible’s big story was all about creation. And we took a look in the previous episodes as to what that creation meant and what God’s design and plan for his kingdom look like. In Act 2, we talk about the loss or the fall of that kingdom, in which its inhabitants, Adam and Eve and its people, rebel against God as king. And so we will be looking at Genesis chapters 3 to 11 in these next couple of episodes.
So, Act 1 concluded with a focus on the one rule that God put into place: that Adam and Eve were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They had incredible expansive freedom because of how God had designed the world and the garden and all that was in it and given them dominion over that. And they were to work it together. But there was a boundary. They had to honor and acknowledge that boundary through the act of worship and the recognition that God alone was the king. God alone was the authority. God alone was the one who decided what reality was like and what right and wrong would be.
And so, Genesis chapter 3 — Act 2 — opens with this conversation between EVE and the serpent, in which the serpent is challenging Eve about God’s instructions. And of course, Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree, and God’s Kingdom is designed for creation is shattered at that point.
In this first part of Genesis 3 and the conversation that takes place around the tree, there are three questions that I want to just tackle, at least briefly here in this episode. The first is who or what is this serpent? The second concerns the words that are used to describe both Adam and Eve and the serpent. The one word for Adam and Eve — it’s used a couple of different times — is “naked”. And the serpent is referred to as “crafty”. There’s something really interesting going on here in the original language of that. And I just want to give you a little bit of a taste of what I think is happening in there. And then the third question, what is sin ultimately here?
OK, so let’s go back to the first question here about who or what is the serpent. Now it seems to me very clear from the big picture in Scripture when you pull back and you look at this across the whole sweep of the Bible, that in some shape or form. This is some kind of another supernatural or heavenly being, whether that’s Satan or the devil who was talking with Eve. Now the text doesn’t specifically say that, but that is of course the most common understanding, and I think that’s probably right.
But then the question is what what’s the relationship between this heavenly being who is doing the speaking and the word “serpent”? What we’re focused on, really, is how are we to understand or interpret the word ”serpent”? There are three possibilities that I see are most often presented in biblical research and scholarship.
The first is that the serpent is actually a snake, an animal, one of the beasts of the field, and that somehow the supernatural being has spoken through the entity of the animal or the snake itself. And so, you have an animal that is capable of actual articulated human speech under the control of the devil.
The second option is that the devil or Satan, this heavenly being, has taken on the form of a serpent taking on the form of a snake, and is appearing to even Adam in that guise.
The third possibility involves a different interpretation for the word serpent than the previous two. The first two possibilities, it’s a snake. That’s what we would understand it to be. The third possibility, a number of people argue this, is that the underlying Hebrew word, which is nacash, it can be translated to mean a snake, the slithering creature that we all think of. But the same word can also be used isn’t in its adjective form to describe something that is shiny, like with a metallic reflective metal surface. So here nacash or serpent is not referring to a biological snake, but rather to this radiant, shining, in some way, a very attractive looking supernatural being that captures Eve’s attention at the tree.
Now I don’t have time in this episode to really get into and unpack all that may be going on with this, so we’ve posted some additional links if you’re interested in exploring more about this, we’ve posted some of those additional links on the episode page on the website at rspodcast.org. You can go there and check it out for this episode.
I think the most plausible explanation is this third one. That serpent here refers not to a biological snake, but to another kind of a heavenly being, who is the one behind the conversations here. The fact is, whether it’s a snake or some other kind of a creature — that’s not really the main focus here in the early part of Genesis 3.
And while I think that’s a really interesting conversation and worth exploring, certainly the answer to that doesn’t significantly change the understanding of what is happening in this chapter. Because the focus is not on what kind of biological entity the creature here is but rather on the creature’s character and way of thinking and the view of reality that is being set in front of Adam and Eve and the challenge to how they’re going to respond and what they think.
So, in Genesis 3, the first six verses here, we see this conversation that takes place in which Adam and Eve commit this first sin against God. At the heart of that conversation between the serpent and Eve is the matter of doubt. And when the serpent says to Eve, “Did God really say, did God really say you don’t, you can’t do this?”
And Eve of course, comes back and affirms that “yes, God said that.”
The Serpent’s reply is “that’s not true. You’re not going to die. But instead, God knows that. When you eat of that fruit. You’re going to have even greater wisdom. You’re going to see things for how they really are. And then you’re going to be like God.”
You see, but here’s the challenge that the serpent is putting in front of Adam and Eve: God is holding out on you. God is holding something back. You know God told you that he had given you everything you need for satisfaction in joy and purpose in life.
That’s what he told you, the serpent argues, but it’s not true. There’s something even greater. You’re missing out. And as long as you’re missing out Eve Adam. You’re not going to be fully satisfied. You can’t trust God. He’s not telling you the truth. And the only way you’re going to find full satisfaction is if you take it for yourself.
And this really is the heart of the matter here with the act of sin in Genesis Chapter 3. Can God be trusted? Did God tell us the truth? Is it indeed, is it fact the case that the freedom and the boundaries that God had given in Genesis 2 are all that we need for full human flourishing? Or is God holding something else out? Are we missing out on the very, very best and that’s the seat of doubt that the serpent plants into the mind of Adam and Eve. God cannot be fully trusted. And if God cannot be fully trusted, who is going to meet my needs?
There’s only one option that’s left in this scenario. Either God will. Or I will. At its very heart, the temptation of sin is this: If you are going to have all you need for the very best life you, have to take it for yourself. You have to define for yourself what is good, what is true and what is right. And in doing that, sin is the attempt to put oneself in the place of God.
And it’s a reason we see as we move through the rest of the Old Testament story here, that it’s idolatry that is the gravest concern that God has about the behavior of his people. It’s why it’s the number one violation of all that God is about and all that he is doing. Something else takes the place of God.
And what’s so fascinating to me about this encounter here in Genesis 3, and especially when you connect it to the rest of the big picture in the Old Testament, really, what is in view is less about what Adam and Eve did and more about how it calls into question the character of God. And so, when we look ahead at the rest of the Old Testament story and God’s redemptive work and the covenants and the laws, what we find is it’s less about God just trying to get humanity to behave the right way, and it’s more about persuading humanity that God himself has a faithful, righteous character and that he wants them to share in that character with him. That they obey because God is good. That they obey because God can be trusted.
And so, as we start off into the second act on the Fall, what is sin, ultimately, here at this point we typically talk about this as disobeying a known law of God. Well, there’s certainly truth to that. Disobedience is a part of the act of sinning, but there’s something behind that. And what’s behind it is the doubt and the distrust of God. That he won’t be enough, that he won’t satisfy, that he won’t provide that he’s not good.
And one reason I would make this argument that sent ultimately is not just about disobeying a law of God, because here in Genesis there’s only one simple comprehensive rule. It’s not as if there’s a long, detailed list with many parameters and expectations that were to govern how God and man related. And I argued in an earlier episode how I am convinced that this tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the fruit that is forbidden, being a real tree and real fruit, is, nonetheless, a physical object lesson to Adam and Eve. That the underlying rule is a relational rule, not simply saying that kind of produce is off limits. But it’s a relational rule, and the relational rule is this: trust me, look to me depend upon me worship me, and if you get that one rule right — it’s not just about eating the produce — but if you get that one rule right that relational rule, no other rules are needed.
And it’s the reason we see as the story of redemption that unfolds in the rest of the Old Testament. That in order to close the gap, in order to put the world back together, in order to reclaim his Kingdom, a whole host of other rules become necessary along the way. When the one simple rule about relational trust in the goodness and the authority of the king is lost, to kind of paraphrase GK Chesterton, a hundred other rules have to rush in to fill the void. But there was one: God can be trusted because he’s a good king. Because he alone has defined reality and it’s enough. But sin calls us to say that’s not true. It’s up to you to do it your way.
We see this, by the way in our children, don’t we? We have five children and I was a child once, so my parents tell me. And we see this when children demand an explanation from their parents when a command is given, when we tell our kids to do something and they say, “Why? Give me a reason why!” It’s this same instinct rearing its head, right? It’s kind of birthed into our children. It’s birthed into us now as a result of what happens here in Genesis 3. We don’t trust the authority figure to really know and do what’s best for us. When I demand an explanation, that means in my mind I must be the one to hear the reason and judge for myself whether it’s true. If I agree that your reason, Mom or Dad, is sufficient, then I will obey! That’s the underlying impulse of human sin.
Which means that the whole matter of sin itself in this encounter with Adam and Eve and the serpent all rests upon a lie. A counterfeit explanation for how things work. And here’s where this very interesting word play in the Hebrew around the adjectives for Adam and Eve and the serpent come into play, and I think I find this very, very fascinating.
At the end of Genesis 2 and then again here a little bit later in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are described as being “naked”. Genesis 2 ends Adam and Eve were naked and they knew no shame. In the first verse of Genesis Chapter 3, the text says that the serpent was more crafty than any creature of the field.
Now this is fascinating to me why the text found it necessary to point out these two descriptions. And in fact, in Hebrew these two words come from the same root, the Hebrew arum. And what we have here is a theological and a literary pun or play on words. Two related words from a common origin that can be translated in two different ways with two different meanings. But the fact is, arum can mean both in its original context.
The core idea is something that is smooth, without guile, appears open and transparent. But the same, the same concept can be used to talk about something or somebody being shrewd. Or being very cunning in this sense, that a cunning person, a shrewd person, appears to be very innocent and beguiling; that you can take them at face value, when in fact something else is going on behind the scenes. But a cunning person, a person who could be described as arum, can look to be one thing. But they’re so skillful at concealing what’s really behind the scenes.
And that’s the idea that this pun seems to be introducing into the conversation here around the question of whether you can really trust God. Prior to the conversation at the tree, Adam and Eve are rightly described as arum, meaning innocent without guile, that what you see on the outside is what you see on the inside. There’s no pretense.
And in a similar way, but with a twist, this creature, the serpent — whatever it is — is also arum. But crafty and shrewd because it presents itself as one thing but, in a turnabout, it conceals something that is sinister and deadly. And when you connect this to the idea that serpent could be used to mean something that is shiny and beautiful and attractive, here’s the very heart of the temptation of sin. That it presents to us a claim about truth that looks good, that is attractive to us, that holds out such rich promise, but is in fact just the opposite.
Look at Genesis 3:6. After the serpent has said to Eve, “Eve, you’re not going to die if you eat it. God’s holding out on you. The best for you is if you would take this and eat it.” Then the text says when Eve saw, she looked at the front of the tree, she saw that it was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom.
Here’s what’s going on. That the one who was already good and the one who was already fully genuinely transparent before her companion, before God, hears the temptation to see something else that presents itself as good and pleasing and desirable, and the promise that that fruit held out if she would only take that step. It’s attractive. It calls to us. It beckons us. It’s shiny in the sense that it gets our attention and it taps into our passion. But unlike the legitimate innocence and goodness and beautiful quality of Adam and Eve the way God made them, when they eat of the fruit, the counterfeit thing has been taken, The counterfeit truth has been absorbed and ingested. And what was on the surface looking beautiful and attractive and good for us and full of so much promise turned out to be death itself.
This reminds me a little bit of the fairy tale of Snow White. Who takes the shiny red apple from her wicked stepmother who is in disguise and eats the apple, only to discover that it’s laced with poison that puts her to sleep. I believe that is exactly what is happening here in the conversation around this tree.
That the arum ones of Adam and Eve, who were already perfectly good, and all that they needed, bought the counterfeit lie of the serpent. And rather than believing and living in absolute trust of the good king that had made this good world and their purpose and their place in it, rebelled against their king and creator. And this is the great tragedy of sin in the Garden: that we don’t trust God, that we believe we are the only option for the well-being in our life, that we have to be the one who brings about our own satisfaction, who meets our needs. And when we do that, when we live that way with our lives and our family and our money and our careers, like Adam and Eve, we exchange what’s genuinely good for the thing that appears to be good, and, in fact, is the bite of death to us.