Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is the Serpent the "Good Guy" and God the "Bad Guy" in Genesis 3?

The Current Debate
I posted recently about the deconstructionist model of historiography and biblical interpretation. You might be surprised by this, but even the devil gets to be the good guy in the deconstructionist’s world. Rather than seeing the serpent in Genesis 3 as the bad guy who deceives Eve, he is repainted as the good guy who offers divine wisdom and the betterment of humanity. Of course, in order to do so, the good guy in the story has to become the bad guy, so God is seen as the One who lies and the serpent who tells the truth. God is the one who is the oppressor of humanity and the serpent the liberator. Of course, only modern man, in all of his quest to vindicate the serpent’s seed of 3:15, as he views himself as his own deity, would come up with such an obnoxious interpretation, but there it is.
What most scholars within the deconstructionist camp say is that the serpent is obviously telling the truth about the human couple becoming like God in their knowledge, since YHWH seems to admit that the humans have become like God in their knowledge of good and evil in v. 22. If this is the case, then the serpent told the truth, and in our modern view of knowledge, since it is such a generous offer, allowing the couple to evolve to a greater position in life, can only be described as a good thing. Hence, it is God who kept the couple back for fear of their grasping his power. In order to stop them from doing so, He lies to them by falsely informing them that they will die on the day they eat of the fruit.
So, for instance, R. N. Whybray argues that God reveals His motive in v. 22 as fear that man would achieve divine status that God selfishly wanted to reserve for Himself. He interprets God’s halting the couple from eating the tree of life as a fear that they will now take upon full deity, having not only His knowledge, but also His immortality (“Shall Not the Judge of All the Earth Do What Is Just?” 4). In fact, Whybray repeats this idea that God is afraid over and over again in the span of just two pages.[1] The snake, of course, he argues, is “in the right” (p. 4). Hence, in Whybray’s view, “God is fearful” of humans becoming like Him (p. 5), and in His fear, He lies to the human couple to try to hold onto what is exclusively His (p. 4). Whybray is himself picking up on things that James Crenshaw argues in books like, A Whirlpool of Torment: Israelite Traditions of God as an Oppressive Presence (OBT 12; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). James Charlesworth recently attempted to vindicate the symbol of the serpent in his The Good and Evil Serpent: How a Universal Symbol Became Christianized (AYBRL; New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2010), although, to his credit, he does note that J makes the serpent a bad guy in the current narrative, so it would be perhaps unfair to put Charlesworth into the same category as the other deconstructionists.
There are, of course, numerous issues that the deconstructionists, who wish to paint God and the serpent this way, have failed to incorporate within their analysis. In fact, the entire theory seems to be based on a cursory reading of the text (which Whybray admits by always assuming the basic meanings found in the English translations of the text, e.g., his seeing “death” as literal, p. 4), rather than upon a detailed, synchronic investigation of the terminology used. Questions that need to be asked are, “What does ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?” “What does ‘to know’ mean?” and “What does ‘like God’ mean?”[2] These terms all seem to be assumed, and that is a mistake. Of course, one always can wonder as well as to why Eve plainly says in v. 13, “the serpent deceived me.”

Genesis 1–3 as a Unit for Synchronic Investigation
One of the problems in modern scholarship is that it has often preferred to atomize the text in the past. That, of course, is changing now, as scholars attempt to put the text back together through larger literary readings, and such a change that considers context is welcomed, as it will lead to the actual intended meanings rather than wild speculations that have characterized modern scholarship in our time.
Part of this change needs to begin to see Genesis 1–3 as a literary unit, rather than two different sections of Scripture arbitrarily pushed together. What is said in Genesis 1 has important ramifications for what is said in Genesis 2–3ff. Hence, when we look at the terms in Genesis 3, we need to see them in light of the argument made thus far. In doing so, we will begin to understand what the nature of “good” and “evil” are in this context.

Genesis 1–2 and God’s Victory over Chaos
In Genesis 1, God reverses chaos, that is described in v. 2 as a humanless world that is humanless because it cannot be inhabited by humans, nor are there any humans to populate it. He does this by creating the world and all that is in it as “good.” Now, taking into consideration that what is “not good” is the humanless world and the conditions that create an environment that leads to a humanless world, the “good” here is that which is beneficial toward a human-filled world. In other words, the “good” is what is beneficial toward the procreation and preservation of human life. Hence, it is only after God makes the man and woman and gives them the command to procreate in an environment that is conducive to human life, He calls this d)m bw+ “utmost good” (v. 31). When, in Chapter 2, an element is mentioned that will hinder the procreation and preservation of human life (i.e., the fact that man does not have a woman with whom he can accomplish the work of human procreation and preservation), the text states that this is bw+ )l “not good.” If we understand that this phrase is meant to draw back to the statements in Chapter 1, we then understand that “not good” means “not beneficial toward the procreation and preservation of human life.” In fact, this is basically said plainly in the statement, “It is not good for man to be wdbl. This word, often translated “alone,” and often interpreted as “lonely,” is actually used in Genesis to refer to one who is separated from a larger group to which he belongs. The larger group here, of course, is the humanity he was created to procreate and preserve.
Hence, “good” means beneficial toward the perpetuation of human life upon the earth. By taking upon the role of doing good, then, mankind joins with God, as His image/representative over human non-existence, to fill up the world with humans and preserve that human filled world through his “good” deeds that make the world beneficial and a welcoming place toward human life.

The Chaotic Agent in Genesis 3
Here enters the serpent of chaos. I’ve already argued in my book, Revisiting the Days of Genesis (111–19), that the serpent here is the symbol of chaos. He is the chief of the chaotic realm, the realm of death (i.e., he’s the bad guy, not the good guy). He enters in with an alternate proposal, and this is where many of the modern scholars mentioned get it wrong. The serpent brings a proposal contrary to God’s in that he argues that to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (TKGE from here on out) would make them “like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). These scholars argue that such is true. The couple does know good and evil, so the serpent wasn’t lying. We even have this confirmation given by God in v. 22.
Of course, the promise is that they will not die, and they do (Revisiting the Days of Genesis, 119–21); so the serpent does lie; but there is more to the lie than that, since he states that they will be “like God, knowing good and evil.”
Now, one might think that the confirmation by God in v. 22 seals the deal that the devil did not lie, but the interesting thing about the author of Genesis is that he loves word-plays, and I think that his use of the word (dy “to know” is one of them.

To Know Good and Evil
So the central issue of all this is the interpretation of the serpent’s statement that tells the couple they will be like God in their knowledge of good and evil.

     <yhlak <tyyhw
                         urw bwf yudy 

 “Does (dy have any significant connotations within this passage and others within the larger book?” What is the nature of  urw bwf in terms of the literary unit and the larger book as a whole?” I believe the correct answer to these will give quite a different picture of what is transpiring within the passage, and to whom is due the title of hero or villain. But let's first look at what it means to be "like God" in the context of the book.

Myhl)k within the Primeval History
Whether the phrase Myhl)k means “like God,” as a specific reference to the deity within the text, or “like gods” in a more generic designation, is irrelevant to the ultimate meaning of the phrase. The serpent tells the woman that the couple will be similar to deity in some way. This is repeated by God in his declaration found in v. 22: “the man has become like one of us.” In what way the humans will become like God, however, must be gleaned from the text of Genesis.
The concept of being “like God” in some way only appears four times in the book of Genesis, twice here in vv. 5 and 22, and again in 1:26 and 11:7. As I will show later, the concept in 1:26 is not only radically different than that found in 3:5, 22 and 11:1–, but is even employed as a contrastive element to Myhl)k for literary and theological purposes.
For now, however, let us examine the concept in 11:7 and determine its relationship to the concept found in Genesis 3.
It must first be pointed out that the terminology that is used to convey this idea switches from the identification of God as a third party (i.e., when the serpent refers to him, he uses the phrase Myhl)k in 3:5) to the identification of God in the first person plural (i.e., when God refers to himself in v. 22) to men simply talking about making a name for themselves by building a great city that commands the power of heaven. Hence, in 3:5 the phrase is Myhl)k, but in v. 22 the phrase is wnmm dx)k “like one of us.”; and the terminology is altogether lacking in Genesis 11, although the concept is clearly visible.

(dy in Genesis
The word (dy in the Book of Genesis takes upon itself a variety of nuances, but its primary reference in the book is experiential knowledge. In other words, the knowledge here refers to some sort of experience. I believe that this is the way that God is using the term in v. 22, and that He does so as an ironic statement within the narrative. The human couple will become like God in their experience of good and evil.
However, the term can also take upon itself the connotation of experience that gives someone mastery over something. So Esau became a man who “knows” hunting, meaning he became a master hunter, i.e., someone who gained mastery over the skill of hunting. In fact, the Qal participle is used only in 3:5 (what the serpent promises), 25:7 (Esau as master over hunting), and in 33:13, where Jacob is saying to Laban that he knows full well what will happen to the flocks. This means that the Qal participle may be used to specifically talk about knowledge as mastery of a subject. Notice as well that the Qal participle does not appear when God repeats the claim in v. 22, as there it is an infinitive "in order to know." I believe therefore that the way the serpent is using the term is one that argues the human couple will obtain the type of control over order and chaos in the world that God has, and why he says they will become like God in their mastery over good and evil. In other words, he is saying that they will have the control over good and evil that God has over it. They will be sovereign and be able to control all situations, good or bad.

Again, The Knowledge of Good and Evil
Hence, if we couple what we know of the word (dy with what we have learned about the word “good and evil,” “evil” simply being the word that expresses what is “not good” or not beneficial toward the creation and preservation of human life upon the earth (i.e., the filling up of the earth with humans), then we see that the serpent is actually promising them that they will be able to meet both situations of order and chaos, what is beneficial toward human life and what is not, with the same mastery and control that God has over these situations in life and in the world. The rest of the book goes on to show us the certainty of the lie in that men will attempt to take control of chaos and order by the arts, building cities, dominating each other and God Himself, only to horribly fail in the end and be brought to death. It is only God who is capable of knowing good and evil in a sovereign way, and hence, He is the only hope of Genesis, and the only hope of humanity’s survival. Hence, it will be argued that He lends such help to those who submit to Him in the original role that He gave them in becoming like His images, rather than becoming like Him, and representing Him by cooperating in His work toward the creation and perpetuation of human life upon the earth (again, toward the filling up of the earth with true [redeemed] humanity). In this way, we see the contrast to become like God’s image versus becoming like God. There is only One God in this universe, and He alone is capable of mastering order and chaos, good and evil, and He has promised that He will do so for the good of His people. Hence, by the time we reach the last theological statement made in the Book of Genesis (50:20), we see the only God capable of such a feat doing just that, and even using chaos (i.e., evil) as His subordinated instrument to accomplish order (i.e., good = the preservation of human life).

God is the hero, not the serpent. The serpent is a liar, and he continues to lie to us daily by deceiving us into believing that our lives are in our hands, and that we ought to take upon the role of divine mastery that only God can truly take in our lives. The question for us is whether we will continue to let him deceive us into thinking that we are our own masters rather than His servants. We must seek out the good (the creation and preservation of human life) in every way and everywhere and at all times to prove otherwise. Only then will we function as His images in the world, the images of El Shaddai, who alone wraps reigns around the serpent and drives him to aid in our salvation, even while seeking to thwart it.

[1] Of course, one can argue that God’s “fear” is not for Himself, but for the humans doing damage to themselves by seeking to become like Him. We know from larger biblical theology that God wants humans to be redeemed and partake of the divine nature through Jesus Christ; but I think I can show that His fear is for the humans, who will undoubtedly destroy themselves by doing this, not for Himself, even from the Book of Genesis itself.
[2] Of course, it would beneficial to ask what the trees symbolize as well, but we’ll save that one for another day.


  1. I love how we Christians jump to properly translating the Bible only when our dogma is challenged. Well while we are at it, why not correct the word 'hell' as 'grave' and 'He' as 'it' in John 1. This is indirect eisegesis to suddenly change the words just to fit what you believe or were taught

  2. The question isn't really about changing the meaning of words, but that the words always had a particular connotation in their respective contexts that are ignored, as though the Bible was written in modern contemporary English with our own socio-religious background as its context. Instead, the goal of exegesis is to interpret the words written within their own literary context, i.e., in interrelationship with the other words used to convey ideas within the cultural context in which they are spoken. Hence, it's a matter of so much eisegesis misinterpreting the words that causes one to think that true exegesis is a "changing" what is said. Nothing could be further from the truth.