The Serpent is the Hero in Genesis?

Theology

(S. Joshua Swamidass) #1

I found this surprisingJewish reading of Genesis being put forward by a self-labeled “conservative” Rabbi.

http://www.jtsa.edu/whos-the-hero

I’m going to argue that two of the main characters, the snake and God, have often been misunderstood. The snake has gotten a bum rap, and God has usually gotten off much too easily.

Adam and Eve do nothing wrong when they listen to the snake and disobey God by eating the fruit, since God’s command to them was an attempt to keep them in their place, to keep them basically the same as the animals but clearly distinct from God, thereby preserving God’s special status.

In this telling, the Serpent becomes something of a hero. God really seems like a villain. This is a very strange reading to me. Perhaps even more surprising is to actually develop this with connections to other passages about God’s nature. So this reading appears to have some sense “systematic theology” behind it (though I know Jewish conceptions of theology are different).

@MJAlter and @deuteroKJ what do you make of this? Is this really a “conservative” jewish reading? How is this remotely coherent?


#2

This Rabbi sounds more like a Luciferianist than a Jewish Rabbi.


(John Harshman) #3

There is certainly some biblical support for such a claim. God lied about the effects of eating from the tree, while the serpent told the truth. God says that Adam has become as one of us, separated primarily by lacking immortality, which he then proceeds to assure by keeping Adam away from the Tree of Life. The serpent seems rather like Prometheus in the story.


(Dan Eastwood) #4

I am reminded of this wonderful short story: The Devil You Don’t by Science Fiction author Keith Laumer

This also references Prometheus.


(Guy Coe) #5

That’s something you might hear directly from “the snake!”
Might want to read the passages again…


(George) #6

The Greeks, Egyptians and Semites all had a complex connection to snakes in their rituals and beliefs. Until domesticated cats became more widespread, snakes were the best protection of your grain storage facilities.

By having no visible sex organs, snakes were thought to have both male and female properties…and thus masters of fertility. The Sumerian god, Ningishzida was sometimes represented by a two headed snake - with one head male and the other female.

Snakes also shed skin, looking brand new after each shedding, contributing to the idea that snakes were immortal.

And finally, having 2 heads and immortality, snakes were seen as particularly sly and cunning.

Pharaoh’s had a snake on their crown. Greeks would use snakes to help choose locations for temples or altars. The Minoans used the title “Pythoness”, a female snake, as a title for a Priestess.

It is only with contact with the Zoroastrians of Persia that snakes became consistently villified. Killing snakes daily became the basis of being a good Zoroastrian.


(Guy Coe) #7

Not even Eve, in the story, sees “the serpent” as a “hero” --having taken its advice, she quickly regrets the experience, calling it a deception in Genesis 3:13.
Gotta let the story speak for itself!


(John Harshman) #8

What’s something you might hear directly from the snake? And given that the snake didn’t lie, why is something you might hear from him a problem?


(John Harshman) #9

That’s her excuse; of course she regrets it in an attempt to avoid punishment. But what was the deception? Did the serpent lie? What was the lie?


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #10

Is it lying when I tell my son he is going to face a punishment for doing something. Then, when he does wrong, I out of mercy withold the full weight of this punishment?


(John Harshman) #11

No, since you didn’t tell him what the punishment was going to be. But I think you have your hypotheticals confused. God told the first couple, in effect, that the fruit was poisonous. He didn’t say he would kill them. The snake told them the fruit wasn’t poisonous. There was nothing about punishment.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #12

You would benefit from reading some serious exegesis of this passage. I don’t know of any theologian or exegete who has thought that this was what God said. Rather, he said that if you eat the fruit, on that day, you will surely die. There are several meanings proposed:

  1. God meant spiritual death, and Adam actually did die that way. Augustine goes on to explain that spiritual death is more literal than physical death to God.
  2. Got meant the ending of the privilege of being immortal in the garden, and they actually did die in this sense that very day when they were exiled.
  3. God meant “day” as a figure of speech, and Adam does eventually die because he took the fruit, because he was now no longer immortal.
  4. God meant the punishment would be immediate physical death, but then showed unjustified mercy to Adam by exiling them instead of executing them.

I prefer option #4, as it echoes the parallel story in Genesis 4. @deuteroKJ and @jongarvey do you know of others?

@John_Harshman, until you rule out all these other views, you really don’t have a case. If you really want to argue that Genesis makes God a deceiver, then you should stop objecting to the Apparent Age argument, because the God of the Bible (in your view) might do things like that.


(John Harshman) #13

I am well aware of options 1-3, though option 4 is new to me. I find them all, including option 4, to be special pleading unsupported by the actual text, merely attempts to save God from the lie. Theologians and exegetes are biased in favor of presenting God in a good light.

Now, option 4 is suspect because it requires God either to lie about the punishment or to change his mind. Does God change his mind? It also has the problem that “you shall surely die” is not presented as a threat, as far as I can tell, but a statement of fact, i.e. that the fruit is poisonous. At least that’s the most natural reading of the translation and of the story itself. Was the snake really saying “God won’t punish you even though he says he will”? A more natural reading is that the snake is saying that the fruit isn’t poisonous.

I rule them out on the basis that they aren’t supported by a natural reading of the text.

Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus? An interesting view of God, but one I don’t need to subscribe to. I’m surprised you do.


(S. Joshua Swamidass) #14

I have no problem with God changing his mind.


(John Harshman) #15

Interesting. This seems theologically problematic to me and inconsistent with both omniscience and existence outside time.


(Matthew Pevarnik) #16

I think that a good question to ask is what kinds of questions were the original authors trying to address and much of the early chapters and well Old Testament is in part polemical or at least aiming to answer big questions that the audience/culture had. I think particularly interesting to me is how did the writers of early Genesis deal with the other gods of surrounding cultures? Genesis 1 makes no hint of them being much of any gods at all, with instead of a cosmic battle to tame the chaos monster (as there are echoes of in many psalms) the spirit is just hovering over the face of a completely depersonalized deep (ortehom which likely would have given thoughts to the earlier cosmogony with Tiamat).

My point is simply one of the themes that is in tension but rather important is that human beings are said to be in the image of God in chapter 1 but the 2nd creation narrative firmly emphasizes their mortality and how they are not like God. I don’t think a simplistic viewpoint of ‘oh the Serpent told the truth’ even makes sense to superimpose on the text, but just as much as I don’t think the ‘plain reading’ of most evangelical Christians makes any sense either. So what is that part of the story about?

That’s a good question, but I think the themes of human mortality and the image of God are complex. The text does help address those questions and really emphasizes that mankind is made in God’s image, but is still mortal. Adam being made from the dust is important since it is emphasizing his mortality. Even experiencing pain in childbirth is emphasized because goddesses in the ANE didn’t experience pain in childbirth. And the serpent plays a role of helping clarify in what sense Adam and Eve are like God yet still mortal at the same time. His punishment was to crawl on his belly and eat dust because serpents played an important role in other origins stories and they were typically pictured upright. A horizontal belly crawling serpent is stripping him of any god-likeness that he had as well.

Just some things I’ve come across and am continuing to learn about, but a simplistic serpent hero narrative is far removed from the context of the ancient near east.


(Kenneth Turner) #17

I’m not surprised by any reading of Gen 3. It probably has the widest breadth of “interpretations” out there.

I disagree with the author’s overall take, but a full read isn’t as crazy as the headline. But he does focus on God’s emotions as part of “image of God” in a way I would not. I’m not sure where you got “conservative” from, but realize that a “conservative Jew” is nothing really like “conservative” we use in Christian circles.

On a more grammatical note, “in the day of” simply means “when” and has nothing to do with “day” in its normal sense. Any argument based on the meaning of “day” is a red herring. One’s interpretation of the story must go beyond that point. God said they would die; the serpent said they would not. There’s the lie. We could debate the exact meaning of “death” but the story of Gen 2-3 (and beyond) does read as if God’s prediction/warning turned out to be true.


(Jon Garvey) #18

Josh

This is the straight Promethean reading Genesis that began during the early Renaissance. When the Promethean story itself became available, Adam’s new “liberator” role was transferred to the Greek Titan as more appropriate, or more cultured, or more sexy, or something.

And so we have a founding myth for Modernism, going back several centuries. I have a chapter on it in God’s Good Earth.


(Jon Garvey) #19

@John_Harshman’s problem appears to be less with Genealogical Adam than with Christianity itself. Maybe it’s stretching PS’s brief to venture too far into apologetics, when people like William Lane Craig are about!

This is the option of yours that seems to fit best - though God, I think, was not going back on his word, but giving its most merciful interpretation. ie the other explanations all have merit: to be estranged from God is death (but their estrangement was not, at that stage, complete); they became liable once more to physical death; and the Hebrew idiom “on the day that…” expresses certainty rather than timing: their one sin earned them death that day - they didn’t get a warning and a second bite of the apple (as it were).

Now, I think the “back story” to (4) merits attention. God had planned for Adam’s folk to rule all things under him, and his plan has been apparently stymied by the malice of the serpent (representing Satan or, if you credit Mike Heiser, being an actual spiritual being, jealous of mankind’s preferment).

He cannot be just in giving Satan his final punishment unless he also gives the other culprit, man, his punishment of final death. But the whole of the rest of the Bible is about how God is able to deal with man’s sin (which is less culpable than Satan’s because the result of deception), thus save man from final death, and, in Christ, achieve the role for him he’d intended from the start.

And in so doing, Satan no longer has a hold over man (release from his accusation a big theme in the NT), and Satan no longer has a claim on God’s justice, because “the price has been paid.” Ergo, Satan falls from heaven and his time is near. Justice served, mercy pays off, God’s purposes stand. Job done.


(John Harshman) #20

I suspect it’s an adaptation of an older story in which the snake is indeed a sort of Prometheus figure. From God’s point of view, of course Prometheus was a criminal, stealing that fire and giving it to the undeserving and irresponsible. But the story seems to retain bits of the prior one, God’s lie and the snake’s truthfulness among them.