In Defense of the Serpent

Garden-of-Eden

In the garden of Eden, we encounter two trees: the tree of knowledge, good and evil; and also the tree of life. In Genesis chapter III, we find the newly created humans in the garden (assuming we accept either the 7 day creation narrative of Genesis I, or the ‘soil and rib’ narrative of Genesis II) who now freely roam, eating of the vegetation as they please.

Of all the beasts in the field, the serpent is the most “cunning” (here, the original Hebrew employs a clever pun connecting the two words “cunning” and “nakedness”). While the humans are naked, exposed, and vulnerable to one who possesses greater knowledge; the serpent remains concealed, masking his inner intentions. He, thus, has greater power over the humans.

Up to Genesis III, we are given no evidence that the humans have had any greater ambitions other than to obey the will of God: not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil. God continues this commandment, or law, with a probable punishment – a hypothetical outcome. If this forbidden fruit is eaten, the humans shall surely be doomed to die.

The crafty serpent, however, successfully persuades the woman that she will not die, but rather that she will possess new knowledge of good and evil and she will be “like a god.” What do we make of the serpent’s intent in this speech? Surely his motives are at odds with God’s, but could it be in the best interest of the humans to become like a god? The woman rebuts the serpent, yet she cannot resist the lustful temptation of forbidden fruit. It can be said that the woman, rather than wishing to be like a god, eats of the fruit solely of her own lustful wish. The fruit is desirous simply for its own sake -the law has made it compelling to break. As St. Augustine later notes in his Confessions, the sin of eating an apple arose merely from the apple being an object of terrible beauty, stepping from the sinful desire. The woman’s actions, and all human actions for that matter, render perfect obedience to law an impossibility, leaving an edenic Kallipoli to be nothing more than a city in speech, as evidenced in Plato’s Republic. Perhaps this is a reason why God notably omits labeling his human creation as “good” at the close of the sixth day.

Upon eating the fruit the woman gives it to the man and, contrary to God’s bluff, the humans do not die. God does not make good on his foreboding promise that the humans shall surely perish. Rather, their eyes are opened, as promised by the serpent, seeing good and evil. Upon breaking the law, they now see the delineation between both good and evil. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, they rush to conceal themselves, thereby protecting their vulnerabilities. With new moral knowledge, the humans gain a unique status separate from the beasts who are not bound by laws. By learning of the existence of evil, it is fitting that the humans would seek ways to protect and preserve their substance. Additionally, they immediately cling to what we might call personal property -leaves and branches- used to cloak themselves.

In closing, is it possible to entertain the notion that the serpent has actually aided the humans by beguiling them with new godlike knowledge, good and evil? Without falling prey to more recent and sophisticated theological interpretations involving comparisons between the serpent and ha-satan, or the adversary, let us instead reassess the serpent in Genesis III as a creature of good will, bringing truth, moral knowledge, and also politics to the humans. God, envious and threatened by the humans’ new knowledge, quickly banishes them from the garden before they can eat of the tree of life and become immortal, too. Theology, as confirmed by God’s character in the Torah, remains skeptical of the human quest for knowledge. The desire, or lust, to learn is evil in the eyes of God and can be dangerous to humans. Jerusalem, in contrast to Athens, is founded on the oppositional tension between politics and Mosaic theology, the regime and the account of the god. One might also call it the tension between God’s law and human law. God desires obedience, absolute invigilation. Theology rejects human greatness in favor of human safety, whereas the cunning serpent encourages the humans to become like gods, in pursuit of knowledge because it is both good and also rewarding.

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