What Should Eve Have Said to the Serpent?

August 13, 2010

[This is an excerpt from The God Who is There by D.A. Carson, Chapter 2, “The God Who Does Not Wipe Out Rebels.” – Coty]

According to the last book of the Bible, Satan himself stands behind this serpent in some sense (see Rev. 12). . . . Here we are also told that he was made by God: “the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made” (Gen. 3:1). In other words, the Bible does not set Satan or the serpent up as a kind of anti-God who stands over against God as his equal but polar opposite. . . . [Instead,] the picture painted by the first sentence of this chapter is that even Satan himself is a dependent being, a created being. . . .

We are told . . .  that he was the most crafty of the wild animals that God had made. In many sectors of the English speaking world, the word crafty suggests surreptitiousness, sneakiness. . . . But the word that is used here in Hebrew can be either positive or negative, depending on the context. In many places it is rendered something like “prudence.” . . . I suspect that what is being said is that the serpent, Satan, was crowned with more prudence than all the other creatures but in his rebelling the prudence became craftiness; the very same virtue that was such a strength became twisted into a vice. . . .

The serpent approaches the woman (what the modes of communication were, I have no idea) and avoids offering her a straight denial or a direct temptation. He begins instead with a question: “Did God really say that? Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Notice what he is doing. He expresses just the right amount of skepticism, a slightly incredulous “Can you really believe that God would say that?” – like an employee asking, “Can you believe what the boss has done this time?” The difference is that the person whose word is being questioned is the maker, the designer, God the sovereign. In some ways the question is both disturbing and flattering. It smuggles in the assumption that we have the ability, even the right, to stand in judgment of what God has said.

Then the devil offers exaggeration. God did forbid one fruit, but the way the serpent frames his question –“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”- casts God as the cosmic party pooper: “God basically exists to spoil my fun. . . . ”

The woman replies with a certain amount of insight, wisdom, and grace – at least initially. She corrects him on his facts, on his exaggeration: “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” she insists (3:2). Then she adds, still correctly, “But God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden’” (3:3, referring back to 2:17). His exaggeration is neatly set aside. But then she adds her own exaggeration. She adds, “and you must not touch it, or you will die” (3:3, emphasis added). God had not said anything about not touching it. It is almost as if the prohibition to eat has got under her skin, making her sufficiently riled up that she has to establish the meanness of the prohibition. The first sin is a sin against the goodness of God.

We gain a little insight into the terrible slippage going on in the woman’s mind if we conjure up what she should have said. Perhaps something like this: “Are you out of your skull? Look around! This is Eden; this is paradise! God knows exactly what he is doing. He made everything; he even made me. My husband loves me and I love him – and we are both intoxicated with the joy and holiness of our beloved Maker. My very being resonates with the desire to reflect something of his spectacular glory back to him. How could I possibly question his wisdom and love? He knows, in a way I never can, exactly what is best – and I trust him absolutely. And you want me to doubt him or question the purity of his motives and character? How idiotic is that? Besides, what possible good can come of a creature defying his Creator and Sovereign? Are you out of your skull?”

Instead, the woman flirts with the possibility that God is . . . bent on limiting the pleasure of his creatures.

Then comes the first overt contradiction of God. The serpent declares, “You will not certainly die” (3:4). The first doctrine to be denied, according to the Bible, is the doctrine of judgment. In many disputes about God and religion this pattern often repeats itself, because if you can get rid of that one teaching, then rebellion has no adverse consequences, and so you are free to do anything.

Far from recognizing the threat of judgment, the serpent holds out that rebellion offers special insight, even divine insight: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). Here is the big ploy, the total temptation. The heart of the vicious deceitfulness central to what the serpent promises is that what he says is partly true and totally false. It is true, after all: her eyes will be opened, and in some sense she will see the difference between good and evil. She will determine it for herself. . . . (3:22).

And yet this is an entirely subversive promise. God knows good and evil with the knowledge of omniscience; he knows all that has been, all that is, all that will be, all that might be under different circumstances – he knows it all, including what evil is. But the woman is going to learn about evil by personal experience; she is going to learn about it by becoming evil. . . .

Indeed, the expression in Hebrew, “the knowledge of good and evil,” is often used in places where to have the knowledge of good and evil is to have the ability to pronounce what is good and pronounce what is evil. That’s what God had done. . . . (1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). Now this woman wants this God-like function. . . .

To be like God, to achieve this by defying him, perhaps even outwitting him – this is an intoxicating program. This means that God himself must from now on be regarded, consciously or not, as at least a rival and maybe an enemy: “I pronounce my own good, thank you very much, and I do not need you to tell me what I may or may not do.” . . .

We should not think that the serpent’s temptation is nothing more than an invitation to break a rule, arbitrary or otherwise. That is what a lot of people think that “sin” is: just breaking a rule. What is at stake here is something deeper, bigger, sadder, uglier, more heinous. It is a revolution. It makes me god and thus de-gods God.

From D.A. Carson, The God Who is There: Finding Your Place in God’s Story (Baker, 2010), p. 30-33.