I hate snakes.
I have always attributed my dislike for snakes to an ancient grudge, given voice in the book of Genesis – where God himself addresses the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers.”
We think we know this story – A man and a woman make an ill-fated gastronomic selection on the advice of a shifty serpent: and hasty make-do sartorial arrangements, a decidedly un-friendly game of hide-and-seek, and eventual eviction ensue. It’s all downhill from there.
In Genesis 1-2, we learn that being created in the image of God places humankind in a network of relationships. We have a relationship with God, who invites us to participate with his work in the created world. The image belongs to man and woman together, and together they are to be fruitful, multiply, fill, and subdue the earth. We have a relationship with the earth and its inhabitants, then, and a responsibility to tend them faithfully on God’s behalf, to demonstrate his care for them.
These relationships are damaged as a result of our disobedience. In Genesis 3, we see that our relationship with animal kind and with the ground becomes disordered, and that we have become alienated from God and from one another. The disorder apparent in these relationships prevents us from representing our Creator in the fullness we were intended to, nevertheless, we are still in his image and we still carry responsibilities in the context of these relationships.
I myself have been known to blame our first parents for everything from Manitoba-sized mosquitoes to financial stresses, but in truth, this story is my story.
Genesis 3 reads us our own history, both primordial and communal, individual and contemporary. It tells us how everything became so very messed up. It provides us with the background we need to comprehend how God can be good, and creation can be good, but life can be so “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes), how nature can be so “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson). It answers us as we ask, how in the world did we get here: What can Genesis 3 tell us that will bring into sharper focus how and why the world is the way it is, and what our place is in it?
Let’s read together Genesis 3; I’ll be reading from the NRSV.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
And to the man he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.
Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.”
ADVICE FROM A SERPENT
The serpent is described as crafty or shrewd, which is contrasted with the characterization of the first couple as naked and unashamed in Genesis 2:25. What we will see in Genesis 3 is the frustration and undoing of God’s good creation, described in Genesis 1-2, particularly related to humanity’s exercise of the image of God.
The snake, one of those creatures over which the human couple were created to have dominion, convinces them instead to rebel against their Creator.
At issue here is human moral autonomy. The man and the woman seek knowledge and understanding apart from God, and we see as a result a rift opening up in that relationship. Shame is elicited by this first ever act of willful disobedience.
They are compelled to hide, from God and one another. Alienation, a turning inward away from communion with one another by covering their bodies, demonstrates that their relationship, too, is strained by their actions.
ALIENATION FROM GOD
When, as usual, God walked in the garden and called to them, the man attributes his impulse to hide to his nakedness, and when pressed, blames the woman for enticing him to eat the fruit, even going so far as to remind God that it was he himself who brought them together.
THE ACCURSED CREATURE
In keeping with this new tradition of blame shifting, the woman points an accusatory finger at the snake. As stated above, the appropriate human exercise of authority in the world has been turned upside down.
And here we get to the root of my beef with all of snake-kind (Genesis 3:14-15):
“Because you have done this,cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.I will put enmity between you and the woman,and between your offspring and hers;he will strike your head,and you will strike his heel.”
The snake is put into a submissive position – crawling, eating dust. Where its primacy among the creatures was previously derived from its craftiness, it is now a result of its cursedness.
ALIENATION OF THE WOMAN
God next addresses the woman, not, it is important to note, cursing her, but describing the “new normal” that will characterize her life in a world marred by rebellion (Genesis 3:16):
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
In Genesis 1:26-28, the command to be fruitful and multiply is given to man and woman together. Now we see further evidence of the fracturing of human community and the frustration of the image of God in human beings – where man and woman are together intended to image God in the world (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:23-25) we see sin causing isolation and alienation between them. Thus the woman alone is addressed regarding family relationships. It seems the consequences of sin will weigh heavily on her in this arena.
Due to the (I am told) painful nature of childbirth, we often skim over this section and assume that the physical pain of labour is what is described here. While that may be a part of it, what it at stake here is the integrity of human relationships – men and women are alienated from one another, resulting in power imbalance and subjugation. Meanwhile, fulfilling God’s command to act out his image through procreation, by being fruitful and multiplying, becomes difficult and sorrowful, marred by physical and spiritual anguish.
I come to this passage having experienced this pain in a specific way through my own struggle with infertility – bringing forth children is proving to be an existentially painful process for myself and my husband. We all know people who have grieved over death or difficulty or alienation in their relationships. We see in Genesis 4 how violence escalates among the children of the first couple – the fatally fractured relationship between brothers Cain and Abel must have caused unspeakable horror for their mother. We see the matriarchs from Sarah-to Rebekah-to Rachel- being unable to conceive without the Lord’s miraculous intervention. Their story has become my own – I laugh, with Sarah. I pray, as Isaac did for Rebekah. I share Rachel’s desperation; I weep and cry out, “give me children or I will die!”
ALIENATION OF THE MAN
The man is addressed alone in Genesis 3:17-19:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you,‘You shall not eat of it,’cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust,and to dust you shall return.”
EARTH ACCURSED: DEATH AND DIRT
The ground is cursed on account of the man, but he himself is not cursed by God. Again, what God communicates to the man here is a descriptive account of life in a besmirched world.
Here a previously unapparent, divisive, gender dynamic is introduced into the outworking of the image of God – subduing the earth will weigh particularly heavily upon the man. It is fitting that the man, adam, infects the ground from which he was formed, adamah, with a curse.
The participatory work to which God calls human beings in filling and subduing the earth is made burdensome and difficult. Mere survival, and the endurance of the human race, will become precarious.
The man and woman are exiled from the garden where they had enjoyed such fellowship with God and harmony with creation, and are barred from accessing the tree of life in their degenerate state. Here, physical, bodily, death is both consequence and concession – death, inasmuch as it results from disobedience, also serves to put a boundary over the spread of evil in humanity (cf. Genesis 6:3).
Cheery, isn’t it?
I’ve just told you that the world is not quite right, that there is something marred and gnarled about reality that doesn’t fit with our belief that God is good and our affirmation that he is the author of a good creation. I’m quite sure that I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, that you haven’t already experienced. You might rightfully wonder at the purported helpfulness of such an account.
The good news is that we’re just starting out.There is good news is because this episode is so very near the beginning of the Bible; we can be certain that there is more – much, much more – yet to this story.Let us look back briefly at 3:20-21: “The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man[b] and for his wife, and clothed them.” “Eve” – the name given to the woman means “the mother of all living.” Death, then, is not the last word. Furthermore, new (presumably more sturdy and functional!) clothing is made from animal skins – God is here meeting humankind and making provision for them in their fallen state. We may see this as the first instance of an animal sacrifice being used to cover the shame of our sin.
Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Christian reflection on this verse has resulted in it being sometimes called the “proto-evangelium” – conservatively, we might see it as messianic, given that the word “seed,” or “offspring,” will become very important in the coming chapters of Genesis, particularly as relates to the patriarchs and the continual insecurity of their lineage due to the barrenness experienced by their wives. God is the one who creates, sustains, and will finally redeem his people. Our future is in his hands.
More than that, however, hindsight allows us to see it as prefiguring Christ’s eventual defeat of sin, the ultimate frustration of the serpent’s attempts to sever humankind from their Creator. We may indeed look ahead to another garden, and another human, and another outcome: Jesus, in Gethsemane, chooses obedience to the Father’s will, doing what we were unable to do so that, being identified with him, he might offer his own obedience to the Father on our behalf.
In forgetting that this story is our story, we have forgotten who we are and our place in this world.
As Christians, we have been guilty of deserting our image relationships and responsibilities. Instead of calling one another back to our role of representing God among and to creation, we have abdicated our responsibilities to the world around us, even as we have neglected our relationships to one another and before God. We have treated our fellow creatures as resources to be abused and dominated to ensure our comfort. We have failed to recognize that the same God who redeems us is the one who created us – and not us alone, and not us for ourselves alone, but us for a purpose, to demonstrate God’s presence and rule in his world, to be his image.
We need to engage ourselves as servants of the world on God’s behalf. That might mean many things. God calls us to participate in his creativity – this is an area where we can seek to love him with all of our minds, by considering the best ways to faithfully serve creation as ambassadors of the Creator.
Perhaps this means pursuing equitable relationships. Perhaps it means a humane response to the creatures of the earth. Perhaps it means taking seriously that “the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1), and treating our natural resources as something for which we are responsible instead of something to which we have a right.
The world described to the serpent, the woman, and the man in Genesis 3:14-19 is one we recognize all too well – it is the world we live in, the world we grieve over, the world that sometimes we are at the mercy of, that seems like it will chew us up and spit us out. Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans describes the groaning of creation (8:19-22). Sin, death, decay have chained the world around us. This is not merely a human problem.
Between human-initiated and natural disasters, we suffer: and so we long for healing, for restoration, for salvation.
As Christians, we know that what we long for has already begun – Christ has already begun to restore his creation through his own life of obedience, reversing the deleterious effects of sin inaugurated by the first Adam by becoming incarnate as the Last Adam; becoming the first of creation remade through his bodily resurrection; in his ascension, hiding our life in his own at the Father’s right hand.
We anticipate a world righted and restored in him. And we have the privilege of announcing and participating in the realization, in the fulfillment, of what we anticipate. Let us then, in word and deed, point our brothers and sisters and the whole of creation itself, always, to the lordship of Christ: over all, above all, and in all.
Let us pray together,
Heavenly Father, in whom we live, and move, and have our being:You create us, sustain us, redeem us, renew us.Thank you for your work of creation and your commitment to, your covenant with, your creation.Forgive us for our short memories. We forget who we are. We forget that this story is our story, and that we are your image, and that as such we are responsible for our relationships to each other and to your world. We are often reminded of where we are – it is easy to see the distortion that your creation suffers under. Help us also to remember where we are going, where you are bringing us. You have not given up on us.Guide us as we represent you in the world we live in. As we seek you, grant us wisdom to faithfully demonstrate your attitude to your world.Show us how we can be involved in your healing and renewal of the world around us. Make us instruments of peace and reconciliation. We ask these things, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever, Amen.