Barry Newman's Blog

April 29, 2011

Science and Genesis 3: 1 – 24 (part II)

Filed under: Genesis,Science — barrynewman @ 3:03 am

The dialogue between the serpent and the woman

“And the serpent said to the woman” – I am reminded of the boy with Asperger Syndrome in Jodi Piccoult’s book, “House Rules” who told the following joke:  Two buns were in an oven.  One bun said to the other, “It’s hot in here.”  The other replied, “Wow a talking bun!”  (End of joke – a joke that some do not appreciate.) The serpent not only speaks but assumes that the woman will understand what it is saying.  Indeed the conversation proceeds without a hitch.  There is no surprise on behalf of either party.  Are we not surprised?  It is an interesting question.  Did the narrator, the writer not think that his hearers/readers would be surprised or at least indicate in some other way the oddity of it all?  We will revisit this matter later.

The craftiness of the serpent is evident throughout the dialogue.  It would appear that we are to assume that the serpent knows something of what God said to the man.  Walsh (Walsh, J.T., “Genesis 2: 4b-3:24: A Synchronic Approach”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 96, 1977, 161-177) claims that the serpent makes a statement, rather than asks a question.  Perhaps what is said should be viewed as a statement of surprise that begs a question – “So God really said …!” Are we meant to understand at this point that it has overheard God speaking to the man and expresses concern about what it thinks God has said?  Perhaps, to begin with, we are meant to assume that he is not quite sure exactly what God said and invites the woman to provide clarification. And why does he speak to the woman and not to the man?  Are we supposed to think that the serpent operates on the basis that she, having been told what God had said to the man, second hand, is going to be more open to suggestion as to what God really said?  The subtlety of what is going on here is intriguing.  The question implied in the statement made by the serpent, as though it does not actually know, is “What did God really say?”  Many of us are conscious of this sort of question being asked when we wish to avoid facing up to what he really did say!  The suggestion made by the serpent as to what God might have said is of course to be dismissed outright.  What, not to partake of the fruit of any tree of the garden?  Of course God could not have said that.  How were the man and the woman to live?  Anybody faced with the serpent’s suggestion would know that the response has to be a resounding, “No, that is not correct.”  The serpent, in order to deceive, does not have to appear to be trustworthy in every respect.

The woman in her response seems to be on the right track, or nearly so. We were told in Gen 2: 9 that the tree of life is in the midst of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil seems to be there also.  This is confirmed in what the woman says in reply to the serpent.  However, her reply can also be understood to indicate that she finds conversing with the serpent not all that unpleasant.  She could have said simply, “No that is not right. There is only one tree, the fruit of which we are not allowed to partake of, and that is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  It could be that we are reading too much into the dialogue but by not naming the tree the woman is perhaps denying its character and so weakening an understanding of what has been forbidden.  Additionally, by referring to a prohibition against touching it, while this may have been a sensible precaution to adopt, even though there is no indication that God had so said, she seems to be displaying her fear of partaking of the fruit itself rather than a respect for the actual commandment of God.  Certainly she gives her own version.  She does however faithfully refer to death, though not with the striking certainty of “surely”.  No, we cannot be satisfied with the appropriateness of her response.

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