An Ancient Strategy, Part 2

The Authorship & Content

“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”Gen. 3:1

The opening question of this primeval debate allows us, I believe, to see the serpent’s question as two intertwined questions: a.) the question of authorship, and b.) the question of content. This is due to the ambiguity of the serpent’s question, which is rooted in his inversion of the allowances and restrictions stated within the commandment.[1] Is he asking the woman if God authored the commandment? Or is he presenting himself as trying to clarify what he had somehow heard God has said? To put it another way: Is he asking the woman about the authorship of the commandment, or the commandment’s content?

By approaching the woman, who was given the commandment secondarily by means of oral transmission via Adam, the serpent makes it evident that his question could lean in either direction. The woman did not receive the commandment directly from God (at least the text does not give us good reason to believe she did), but was given the commandment by Adam (which could serve to explain why she distorts the commandment by adding an additional restriction in 3:2-3).[2] Therefore, questioning the authorship of the commandment would be an effective means of deceiving her. His question could then be read as: Did God author this commandment or did Adam?

The pertinence of this exchange for Christians lies precisely in the question of authorship. If we have received the Word of God secondarily, via oral transmission (at least initially), then how do we know who authored it? We stand in much the same position that the woman did, having to give an account for the authorship of the Word of God. What is her response? The woman confidently asserts that God has said and then tries to correct the serpent’s inversion of the commandment, but unfortunately adds another restriction. What is our response?

The serpent’s question of content, in spite of the woman’s reply, still needs to be addressed. If God did author the commandment, did He forbid the woman to eat of “every tree” of the garden? This question is particularly crafty because it uses language directly taken from the commandment itself [3]. The serpent’s intention is to touch upon the logical integrity of the commandment by pointing out that God did not say that Adam and the woman were not to eat of “every tree” but, in fact, stated: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat.” The seemingly contradictory nature of God’s commandment can be seen in its allowances (“every” tree) and its restriction (“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” – obviously situated within the garden).

Is God’s commandment inherently contradictory? There are two reasons why God’s commandment is not inherently contradictory. Firstly, the phrase “every tree of the garden” is immediately qualified by the phrase “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…[etc]”, indicating that God’s use of “every” was not meant to be all inclusive but served to signify the abundance of trees to which the couple had legal access. The serpent’s understanding of the phrase as meaning “all inclusive”, therefore, is unwarranted by the commandment itself. The question of content must always be assessed in light of context.

The second reason why God’s commandment is not inherently contradictory is given in the woman’s response to the serpent’s question. In 3:2-3, she states:

“We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”[4]

By differentiating between “the trees of the garden” and “the tree which isin the midst of the garden” we again see that God’s commandment does not lack logical integrity, but simply communicates the same information differently. Whereas the first defense of the commandment’s logical integrity depends upon the context of the phrase “every tree”, the second depends upon the type of communication being employed by God. The commandment was given in the narratival context of relationship (between God, man, and woman), and is, therefore, spoken accordingly.[5]

–Hiram Diaz


[1] Genesis 2:16-17 informs us that God grants Adam the freedom to “eat of every tree” of the Garden, while the serpent asks if God has prohibited him to “eat of every tree of the Garden”.

[2] Gen. 3:2-3:  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may the fruit of the trees in the garden; but of the tree which is in the midst of the Garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’” (emphasis mine).

[3] cf. Gen. 2:16-17 & Gen. 3:1

[4] It is true that the text states this clearly in 2:9; however, this is not direct dialogue but the narrator.

[5] Compare this to Gen. 2:9, where the narrator, in his description of the geography of the land, closely parallels the woman’s description of the “trees of the garden” and the tree “which is in the midst of the garden”.

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Posted on September 5, 2009, in Theological Studies. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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