Theological FAQ:

In the Garden of Eden, isn't God setting up Adam and Eve to fail?

Some interpreters think so. It certainly might look like God plants the tree and introduces the serpent in order to trip up the man and woman. Who wouldn't take the fruit once both God and serpent have drawn such attention to it? Why is the tree right in the middle of the garden? Besides, what is one human will compared to the power of Satan himself? Is this story an exercise in the dreadful predestination of a manipulative, even evil God?

The story is commonly twisted into a morality tale about free will that subtly and conveniently blames God for setting us up to fail. The usual interpretation places God far away from us on one side and a Satanic serpent close to us on the other. Each makes its case, and the woman and man render their judgment in the sovereignty of their consciences. We are free, or were anyway; we chose poorly, but the point was to choose.

I think that's a poor reading of the story.

The narrative itself gives us no compelling reason to focus it on the exercise of free will. That tradition reflects the philosophical and theological priorities of a much later age that worries about relating 'inward' thoughts to 'outward' actions and reconciling human freedom with divine determination. (For helpful reading on how Hellenistic views of human nature and agency have both influenced and distorted the Christian tradition, I highly recommend Fergus Kerr's Theology after Wittgenstein, 2nd ed. [London: SPCK, 1997].) To me, the text seems more concerned with abuses of power than abuses of freedom.

When the story is framed in terms of human freedom, it becomes a “temptation narrative.” Some even infer that God plants the tree and introduces the serpent in order to trip up the man and woman. After all, why is the tree right in the middle of the garden? Why does God allow Satan to be there? What chance does a free human will have against the seducing power of the devil himself? Who wouldn’t take the fruit once both God and serpent have drawn such attention to it? We use the story to debate over whether human free choice is preferable to human security, and whether human freedom compromises divine sovereignty. Since the story supplies no answer, we are left to wonder: Is this story an exercise in the dreadful predestination of a manipulative, even duplicitous and evil God? Is Eden a setup?

Yet the point in Eden was not to choose; the point was to reign. When the story is framed in terms of human power, it remains a 'shame narrative' (Gen. 2:15). In the first creation account God creates adam in his image and blesses them with rule over the earth, sky, and sea (Gen. 1:27-28). The second develops this as the making of a man, then a woman, made from the earth, endowed with the spirit of life, charged to tend the ground (2:5-9, 15). God shows the man every animal — "the LORD God formed out of the earth all the wild beasts [kol chayat hashadeh] and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creatures, that would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of the sky and to all the wild beasts..." (Gen. 2:19-20). The man and woman are powerful, not powerless. God has set the world at their feet (Psalm 8). In both this story's cultural context and its literary context following Gen. 1:24-28, God is inviting the man and woman to share his authority over all the other creatures in the human domain. Human beings are not the world’s critics, but its Master’s deputies.

Why would God have vested human beings with such power? The text answers repeatedly: for purposes of cultivation, not oppression. By ruling with God’s goodness, they image the invisible God. They are the creator’s viceroys, sharing and extending his power for the benefit of all in their charge. They are set up – but to succeed.

Why is the tree of knowledge there? It is not there just to tempt. Perhaps the tree is not there to tempt at all. First, it is beautiful (Gen. 3:6). So it belongs there — for God and humanity to see and appreciate. It is a monument to the unattainable wisdom and knowledge of its Creator. When things get tough, it is a reminder that

This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father's world: I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: he shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear him pass; he speaks to me everywhere.

This is my Father's world. O let me ne'er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father's world: why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring! God reigns; let the earth be glad!

Second, the commandment not to eat of it is good. A rule not to touch the stove doesn't just keep children from burning their fingers. It teaches children to respect parents. It teaches humility, and humility teaches trust — faith. The limit is a gift. It allows humans to have a relationship with God characterized by faith rather than works or something else.

Third, the tree's presence teaches humans that our authority still has limits. We rule the sea and ground and sky, but not the starry host (Gen. 1:26). Our knowledge still admits mystery. Without such a sign, the race will soon be trying to storm the heavens through its own efforts (Gen. 11).

Sure, the tree's presence is a convenient opportunity to transgress the limits. But there are already others. As we shall see, before the woman eats the forbidden fruit, she has already failed to rule the creation as God intended.

What is the snake? The story does not tell us it is some fallen angel out to visit the fall upon God's new humanity that has already come upon the angelic realm. Those details are insertions from other extrabiblical narratives that have become so popular that most of us automatically read them into the story. Try hard to keep Milton out of your head while you read Genesis 2-3, and a different interpretation re-emerges. "Now the serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts [kol chayat hashadeh] that the LORD God had made" (Gen. 3:1). This is no fearsome angelic power the woman is up against. It is not Satan. (If it were, the 'prophecy' of 3:15 that her seed would strike the head of its seed would imply the defeat of Satan's ... great-grandchild?!?) It is one of God's creatures, one of the beasts the people have already named. It is not sui generis. Other beasts are shrewd too, though less so. Perhaps the people had triumphed over earlier, easier challenges: growing plants, keeping birds away, herding cattle, domesticating cats. Had things not gone so wrong, perhaps other tests would have followed. No one said imaging God in this world would be easy. Eden is a vocation, not a vacation.

Of course the story doesn't say all this, because biblical narrative is tantalizingly sparse. These are stories to tell around the campfire. They invite us to imagine details they refuse to supply. They leave us hanging. They beg for midrash. People looking for encyclopedic answers to theological questions will be disappointed, but people who want to be engaged and tranformed will find them a delight.

The serpent's statements are slippery and demand to be carefully parsed, but they are not outright falsehoods from "the Father of Lies." The serpent's wily question is a test of human authority.

The serpent resembles two things I know from experience. First, it is like a “strong-willed child,” to use today’s euphemism. The Hebrew ‘shrewd’ or ‘subtle’ ('arum) echoes the Hebrew ‘naked’ ('eyrom). Intimidated first-time parents will surely identify with that! This being has an agenda of its own, and if not handled properly its actions will get everyone into trouble, but its resistance to authority does not necessarily rise to the level of sin. The woman and man are up to the task. Both the story and later theological tradition are clear: Sin begins in human actions, not serpentine ones. Second, it is like a demon. Contemporary charismatic demonological literature attests to common behaviors of demons in situations of confrontation and exorcism. They are clever, though not brilliant. They are wily, exploiting whatever rhetorical opportunities their victims and their exorcists leave open to them. Their power lies in suggestion rather than outright authority – unless people have authorized them to act. They are mainly bluster; when isolated and commanded by a true authority, they resist but will not prevail forever.

The serpent outwits the humans. Or perhaps the humans use the serpent as leverage to break God’s command. For there are signs that things are amiss before the fateful resolution to eat the fruit.

The serpent's questions are ambiguous, apparently intentionally. Their Hebrew is too nuanced for perfect English translation. This allows the woman leverage to interpret them self-servingly. "Did God really say, 'You shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'" might also be, "'You shall not eat of every tree?'"

As they say in grade school, be careful with claims containing "always", "never", "none", or "every".

Joel Rosenberg says that "the serpent thus could be suggesting, incorrectly, that God has prohibited all trees of the garden, or he could be conveying a sense of the seeming unfairness that God should prohibit any one tree. The two-in-one challenge is important to our understanding of the woman's answer, for she feels compelled to say 'we may surely eat.'" ("Biblical Narrative" in Barry Holtz, ed., Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984], 53-54).

The woman corrects the serpent by removing the offensive kol from the serpent's inquiry (and God's original command in Gen. 2:16): "We may surely eat of the trees of the garden." (Among my Jewish sources, both Rosenberg and the JPS text spin the translation in unhelpful ways; the NRSV stays closer to the Hebrew.) Then she adds, "It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, 'You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.'"

That was a mistake. And the serpent is not to blame.

First of all, God did not say not to touch the fruit. That is a rule she has imposed; or perhaps her condescending husband added it when explaining the ground rules to his new mate. Perhaps it is a well intended 'fence around the Law' meant to make it harder to break the real commandment. But straining out gnats makes it easier to swallow camels (Matt. 23:24). Once she breaks the little commandment, taking of its fruit (Gen. 3:6), and finds no consequences, it is a lot easier to break the big one. It is not for nothing that Jesus went around tearing down fences like these. The man and woman are setting themselves up to fail.

Second, God forbade eating from the tree of knowledge, not from the tree in the middle of the garden (Gen. 2:17). It is the tree of life that stands in the middle of God's landscape (Gen. 2:9). The designer focuses his creation on life. It is the woman, not God or even the serpent, who puts forbidden knowledge at the center of her world. This is not just an unprepared parent. This is someone looking for an excuse.

Third, her speech softens the commandment. The problem is not that one might die from eating the fruit, but that one shall die from it (Gen. 2:17). Maybe we would get away with it. Maybe we are more than authorities; maybe we are sovereigns. Humanity is treating rebellion as a risk, not a death sentence.

Augustine was right to say that the fall happened in human hearts before it manifested itself in human actions. Are people really innocent here?

The serpent responds with a sentence that can go one of two ways. It is either a lie — "you are not going to die" — or a correction — "no, 'you will die'".

The prediction follows, just as ambiguously. "Rather God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5). This translation would reinforce the impression that the serpent is lying. Yet it may not be an incentive after all. The sentence can just as well say, "Indeed [ki], God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God [elohim], knowing good and evil." This would reinforce the impression that the serpent is speaking truth, correcting the woman with irony: No, 'you will die.' In fact, you will die seeing and knowing the good and evil that God sees and knows. You will die with eyes wide open to what you have done.

The woman reads both halves of the response in a self-justifying way, and it is downhill from there. They are not ill-prepared parents or victims of demonic manipulation, but officers looking for an excuse to mutiny.

It is we, not God or even the serpent, who put forbidden knowledge rather than life at the center of our world. It is we, not it, who invent prohibitions where God has not, and it is we, not it, who soften God’s warning of mortal consequences (3:3b, cf. 2:17). With the world at our feet, with life at the center of God’s promises, the world’s earthly governors turn two of our own subjects, a clever animal and a beautiful tree, into excuses to spurn their creator’s incredible grace and usurp his divinity. Humanity exchanges a glorious way to image God for a tragic and self-defeating one. Being already in God’s likeness, we nevertheless seek to be like God in the only way forbidden. Freedom suffers in the exchange: the garden is now off-limits and the way to life closed (Gen. 3:23-24). We are fools, not moral heroes.

The man’s and woman’s job is as tough as it is glorious, but they can count on vast blessings to help them: unique relationship with God, lifetime employment, power and authority, perfect companionship, the promise of eternal life. Framing the story in terms of human power makes it not a temptation narrative but a shame narrative (Gen. 2:15), a rebellion narrative, a sin narrative, a death narrative. Yet after all this, God offers the further grace of protection for the new way of life they have chosen (Gen. 3:21). (I have a feeling they wear snakeskin.)

So is the serpent a liar and the man and woman entrapped victims? Or is the serpent a divine agent for realizing human freedom? Or is the serpent just a challenge and the man and woman plotting rebels? Besides what I have already said, I believe other hints lie in the text.

First, in the story's denouement, God seems to take the serpent's side in the exchange: "humanity has become like one of us, knowing good and evil," he says to no one in particular (Gen. 3:22). This finally lets the audience in on the secret ("Rosebud!!"). The serpent was right after all. Humanity has exchanged a glorious way to image God for a tragic and self-defeating one.

Second, the story ends in loss, not gain, of human freedom. The garden is off limits and the way to life closed (Gen. 3:23-24). Augustine rightly contrasts the reduction in human capacity that follows the Fall, from "being able not to sin" (posse non peccare) to "not being able not to sin" (non posse non peccare). Adam and Eve are chumps, not heroes.

Third, the serpent receives a surprisingly light curse. Rather than a direct condemnation from God, the servant shall merely be more cursed than other animals (Gen. 3:14). Others get the blame: specifically the man (Gen. 3:17). The snake arguably is not even sentenced to divinely imposed suffering, but is merely oppressed by sinful humans who now rule the world unjustly (Gen. 3:15, 17-19). Unruly children of frustrated parents will identify.

If the garden is a setup, it seems just as much a setup for success as a setup for failure. The man and woman have a job as tough as it is glorious, but they are already beneficiaries of vast blessings to help them: unique relationship with God, lifetime employment, power and authority, perfect companionship, the promise of eternal life. And when they scorn it all in the pursuit of death, they receive more grace — even a new way through God's own blood (Acts 20:28) to return and be healed by the leaves of the tree at the garden's real center (Rev. 22). And still we whine.

Is this story the manipulation of a cruel deity, or a crash course in human maturity? I don't think so.

Grace and peace, Telford