READ GENESIS 3:1–7
The first two chapters of Genesis confront us with beautiful realities about God the Creator, about the power of His Word, and His loving devotion to the crown of His handiwork, namely, mankind. There is not a hint of sin or rebellion. God left no stone unturned until everything is in place. Man is given both covenantal privilege as God’s partner and creation’s ruler, and also covenantal responsibility as the servant and guardian of the Garden of Eden. The trees bearing fruit are all before him, and only one is expressly forbidden him, that is, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. From that tree he may not eat for when he does, he will certainly die.
In addition, God provides the first man Adam with his wife to serve with him as covenant partners in their calling before the face of God. This causes Adam great joy, and they live before the LORD their God and before each other in happiness and profound satisfaction. But then…
Textual clues for the reader
Bible study always requires close reading in order to pick up both the broad strokes of the picture as well as the interesting and subtle clues of the inspired writer. Notice the following items. In Genesis 2+17 the LORD God is the active character, while man is portrayed as passive. God is busy, while man is the one created and given his calling in the Garden that God has planted. We read in verses 4–17 about “cultivating” and “guarding.” We hear of the “tree of life” and “Eden.”
When we move on to Genesis 2:18–25 we have more details provided. Now we read not only about the LORD God and man, but also the animals and the woman. Now certain relationships come into clearer focus. The man names the animals, but he also calls his wife (“bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh”) a woman, because she was taken from the man (v.23). Thus a fundamental headship is established by the text. There is order in the creation-kingdom of God. One might call it a kind of hierarchy. It is true that the word hierarchy may have a bad connotation to many in our society today. Yet the textual givens cannot be suppressed here. Adam is the covenant head of the human race, as Paul clearly affirms in Romans 5:12–21 (d. I Timothy 2:11ff).
But when we come to Genesis 3:1ff, we notice that the two principal characters are the snake (a creature) and the woman. The man is “off to the side,” one might say (see vv.6–7), and the LORD God does not come back into the text in an active way until verse 8. In other words as the text moves us closer to the center of the Garden where the trees are—and thus to the covenantal testing area—the order of the creation is “turned on its head.” A lower creature, a snake (the Devil, as we shall discuss below), engages the woman in a dialogue that he controls. She falls to the temptation of the serpent, and the woman, that helper so suitable for the man, gives the forbidden fruit to the head of the covenant. They eat!
Later on in Genesis 3 we will notice how those relationships are reasserted in the text. Genesis 3:22–24 will again reveal the LORD God active and the man “passive” as he is expelled from the Garden, lest he eat from the tree of life (d. Gen. 2:4–17).
The kingdom invaded
There is an interesting play on words in the original language (not usually caught in English translations) between the word “naked” (Gen. 2:25), describing the condition of the man and woman, and the word “crafty” (Gen. 3:1) which describes the serpent. Earlier God had told the man to keep the Garden, and that command has the added idea of guarding. Is there present here the subtle suggestion of keeping a watch out for a hostile invader, such as the evil one?
In any case, our innocent parents let down their guard as the shrewd and crafty serpent makes his approach to the woman. The reader should notice how in Genesis 3:1–5 the snake initiates the conversation, and he controls it.
But can snakes talk? There are many who scoff at this temptation account as merely myth or a fable, that is, a story written to give an account of how evil came into the world. But, many say, the odd or strange way recalled in the story has no reality in historical time and space.
The New Testament, however, clearly assumes the full historicity of this account of the temptation and fall into sin. Sin entered into the world through one man (Romans 5:12). Through that one transgression and disobedience, death has passed to all of humanity and “the many were made sinners,” resulting in the condemnation of all (Romans 5:18, 19; I Corinthians 15:20, 21 ).
Paul writes in II Corinthians 11:3: “But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” He notes a parallel in the kind of temptation faced by the church today with the first temptation that Eve faced. Paul even argues from both the order of creation and the order of the fall to provide a basis for his directives to the young pastor Timothy in Ephesus. Writes the Apostle Paul, “For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression” (I Timothy 2:13, 14).
Snakes do not talk. However. the shrewd and crafty creature of Genesis 3:1 is no common, creeping snake. Revelation 12:9 identifies the ancient serpent as the dragon who waged vigorous warfare against the woman (the Old Testament church) because she bore the Child who would crush the serpent’s head. The serpent is the Devil (evil one) and Satan (accuser), “who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) but who is now bound for a thousand years (Rev. 20:2).
Yet Genesis 3:1 adds an important statement describing the serpent: it is a beast “that the LORD God made.” The Devil is not an eternally existing deity, an evil force that always was. Nor does the Devil have all the power and might. The evil one is mighty, but only God is Almighty. Even the Devil was originally created good, but he rebelled against God and led other angels in this rebellion. The Devil may be the god of this age that many follow, but in the end all kingdoms shall become the kingdom of the Christ. and He shall reign forever and ever.
A diabolical dialogue
The serpent speaks first, and his question suggests that God has insulted us. “Indeed, to think that God would actually say you cannot eat from every tree of the Garden!” In other words, can you really believe that God would put such unkind and unreasonable restrictions upon you? Did God really say that? The serpent comes across as very brazen, feisty and combative. We would say that he is “picking for a fight.” That is of course, true, for the Devil is the first creature in the cosmos God created, to rebel against Him. Also notice that the serpent does not begin by talking about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He starts with the topic in general (“any tree in the garden”). But once he sets the topic, he has set the parameters for the discussion. If the serpent in Genesis 3:1 seems to be ignorant (“Did God say?”), his diabolical and wicked purpose is to draw the woman out and to challenge her to join him in doubt and unbelief regarding God’s Word. His trick begins to work. His poison is already entering the human system as he has succeeded in enticing her into rethinking the Word of God. The woman responds (Gen. 3:2–3). The woman correets what the serpent has said by referring back to God’s prohibition in Genesis 2:16, 17. What is interesting to note is her paraphrasing of what God had said. She mentions “fruit” in her answer. But even more noteworthy are her words in verse 3: “You must not touch it, or you will die.” The commentators are divided in their evaluation of what the woman has said. E.J. Young tends to be disapproving of what the woman said, while John Calvin in general approves of her response. Aalders is probably the most accurate when he says that the woman has made the command more severe (God said nothing about not touching) while she has made the penalty for disobedience less severe (God had said, “You will surely die!”). How often that is true today: some Christians want to be more restrictive than God Himself, while others want to be more tolerant than God.
By engaging in this conversation that has been initiated by the serpent, the woman is “on the playing field,” so to speak, that has been set by the evil one. His remarks have set the context for the discussion, and the serpent has made problematic what is not problematic. If the woman thinks that she can reason with the Devil. she is sadly mistaken. One cannot reason with evil. just as one cannot play with fire. We are told in the Bible to hate what is evil and to flee from it (d. Amos 5:15a; I Cor. 6:18).
The serpent picks up on the last comment of the woman (verses 4–5). He makes a direct objection to the woman’s correction. He strongly denies what she has said and what God had said. “No! You will not surely die!” In other words, God lied to you about this tree; He has not told you the truth.
Once in a controversy with the Jews, Jesus made reference to the Devil as a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). This truth is clearly evident in his cunning deceit that he puts before the woman in Genesis 3. But Jesus says something else about the Devil: “He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth,-for there is no truth in him” (John 8:44). This dimension of the temptation is sometimes overlooked. Not only did the serpent “bear false witness” about what God had said, but he also was a “killer.” His words led to the death of the woman and the man, indeed, to the death of the whole human race (see Romans 5:12ff). A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf, and the wolf does not have kind and pleasant intentions for the flock. So too the serpent had murderous intentions against our first parents when he engaged in conversation with the woman. To be sure, the woman and the man were also fully responsible for what they did. They cannot say, “The Devil made me do it.” They acted in the full freedom of their own will.
In this regard it is not accurate to say that the first temptation is every temptation. We are not Adam, and Adam is not every man. Adam was the covenant head of the whole human race, responsible before God as corporate head. Furthermore, he was created sinless, and when he sinned, he freely chose to do so. But every one of his children, including you and me, is conceived and born in sin. We enter this world already guilty and constituted as sinners. By nature we are prone to hate God and our neighbor (d. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 2, Q/A 5). When we sin and fall to temptation, it is because it is our old nature to do so. Mankind’s problem is not that we are humans. Mankind’s problem is that we are sinners.
The anatomy of the temptation
It is important to take careful note of several things that emerge in this diabolical dialogue between the serpent and the woman. The Devil does not set out to convince the woman that God does not exist. His aim is not to make a case for atheism. Instead, he attacks the truthfulness of God’s own Word. Through God’s Word our Lord maintains fellowship with us, but if that Word is attacked or undermined, then soon enough the covenant bond is eroded, and friendship with God Himself first suffers and is then lost. So it is today. The Devil’s first line of attack is not to turn people into those who deny God’s existence. He attacks the truthfulness and infallibility of the Word of the Lord. The evil one is satisfied if he can get people to live as “functional atheists” (i.e., people who believe God exists, but it does not matter in their daily lives).
But a second teaching that comes under attack from the serpent is the doctrine of divine judgment. The Devil affirms in strong language, “You will not die!” In other words, God was lying to you about any kind of penalty for breaking His commandment regarding eating from the tree of life. There is no death for sin, and there are no bad consequences for disobedient actions. Again, so it is today. Nearly everyone will vote to have heaven, but the percentages fall off when people are asked about the reality of God’s judgment and His penalty of hell for those who are unbelievers and disobedient. Many people think, “If hell exists, it is for someone else, because I am not that bad.” Someone has said somewhere that most North Americans think that the only thing one needs to do to go to heaven is to die. If you lead a “pretty good life,” then God has to let you into heaven. The reality is something else: without the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, no one can be saved.
“Forbidden fruit always tastes sweeter,” it is said. The serpent also holds out to the woman the prospect of acquiring a knowledge that will put the woman and the man (the word “you” in verse 5 is plural) on a par with God Himself. But this is not what God had said! God warned about certain death, while the serpent affirms the elevation of mankind to divine rank. In fact, the serpent is jeering God. God is keeping vital information away from the human pair. He has a secret that, if it were revealed, would actually benefit mankind. The diabolical suggestion is that this God of ours is not truly good.
To “know good and evil” is a difficult phrase to explain. God knows all things, but He certainly does not know evil experientially. The phrase suggests moral discernment, moral autonomy, the ability to be self-legislating. By taking what God has forbidden, man is violating the covenant relationship with God, and man will snatch at being divine. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil has judgment surrounding it. The woman and the man were to live in faith and obedience based on that faith in God’s Word. But the evil one deliberately and in a very subtle manner cast the whole discussion into the wrong context: acquiring knowledge that would lead to equality with God. The question at the end of Genesis 2:17 was this: what will man do, eat (and therefore die) or not eat? But now the question at the end of Genesis 3:5 is this: whom does man believe, the snake or God? If the serpent is believed, then the covenant has been violated. If the woman and the man eat, the penalty for covenant rebellion in the creation-kingdom of God is certain death.
Eating the forbidden fruit (3:6–7)
Following the conversation between the serpent and the woman, the action now picks up speed. Her eyes are drawn to the fruit; wisdom appears to be the desired goal if only she takes, eats, and believes the serpent.
Sin is always a matter of the heart, but it is also a matter of one’s actions. The command in Genesis 2:16, 17, was not to eat. Therefore, the critical action, the operative word in Genesis 3:6, is ate. “She ate,” and then she gave to her husband who is with her, and “he ate.” Now the man is brought into the story. The man is not an innocent victim here of a trick from the woman. He is fully responsible, since he was the covenant head of the whole human race. The woman was deceived, but the man was not deceived (I Tim. 2:14). Victor Hamilton (Genesis 1–17, p. 191) says the following:
The woman does not try to tempt the man. She simply gives and he takes. He neither challenges nor raises questions. The woman allows her mind and her own judgment to be her guide; the man neither approves nor rebukes. Hers is a sin of initiative. His is a sin of acquiescence.
The serpent had promised knowledge. But the result, as their eyes opened to a new reality of sin and death, is embarrassment and shame. They can no longer tolerate their own nakedness as the wonderful innocence of sinlessness is lost in one fell swoop. In a pitiful manner they now grab for the fig leaves to cover themselves. It will take far more to cover sinfulness: it will take the complete and flawless righteousness of a second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ.
POINTS TO PONDER AND DISCUSS
1. Mankind had the obligation to keep and guard the Garden. Yet the tempter entered and in a subtle way took the woman down the road of temptation. What are the steps that you (and your family) can take to guard yourself from the first steps of temptation? How easy (or hard) is this?
2. What does the Bible teach about the Devil? How seriously does our society take the existence of the Devil and the reality of the (evil) spirit realm?
3. What is understood by “free will?” During the Reformation period there was a great debate between Erasmus and Martin Luther over the question of whether man today has a free will. How would you answer that question? Support your answer from the Bible and the Reformed confessions (d. Rom. 3:9ff; I Cor. 2:14; Belgic Confession, articles 14–15, etc.).
4. See Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12, 13; and Luke 4:1–13. What parallels, if any, can be drawn with the temptation faced by the woman in the Garden, and the temptations faced by our Lord Jesus Christ?
5. Job 1–2 records the trials of the righteous man Job. How did his situation differ from that of our first parents? Do righteous believers still face Satanic attacks today as Job faced them?
6. Read James 1:12–15 and discuss the “anatomy of temptation” as outlined by James. What is the relationship between external factors that tempt us and our own nature and inner disposition? Why do some sins tempt some people but seemingly have little effect or attraction to other people?
Mark D. Vander Hart