Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Serpent In The Garden

1Now 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’?”
2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; 3but 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.’”
4Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
_Genesis 3.1-5

Have you ever stepped back and read this without your Sunday school lens on? I don’t know about you but there are some places in scripture that if I don’t catch myself I’ll assume a lot about it, simply because that’s what I’ve been taught to assume. I call it the Sunday school lens; it is reading the text and assuming it means exactly what your Sunday school teacher would tell you.

Now if you have a Sunday school lens try taking it off and re-reading the text above. Who do you think the serpent is? I always assumed it was Satan but the text never tells us that it’s Satan. And when you assume it’s Satan you automatically assume his/her intentions are evil. Have you ever actually stopped to wonder what’s going through the serpent’s mind? Usually we just skip that part and go on thinking that the serpent was lying to them, knowing that they’d bring about a curse if ate from the tree. But what if the serpent was honestly thinking in the best interest of the people? After all, at this point nothing negative has been said of the serpent. In fact the text seems to hold him/her in high regard; “the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.”

Why would the serpent want the curse to come about anyway? Remember it wasn’t just the woman and the man that were cursed. The first one who gets cursed is the serpent.

“Because you have done this, You are cursed more than all cattle, And more than every beast of the field; On your belly you shall go, And you shall eat dust All the days of your life. And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.”

Poor serpent… this doesn’t sound too good so what’s the motivation? Why would the serpent want this? Why would he/she knowingly bring about such a curse upon him/herself? If the serpent is so “cunning” then why, unless it was unintentional? Maybe the serpent didn’t want Eve to be cursed any more than she did. Maybe the serpent isn’t evil but just ignorant. Of course they all should have known better. Eve should have known better than to listen to a talking snake anyway.

So what importance could this possibly have? Are these questions a waste of time? Who cares if the serpent is Satan or not, it’s just a character to help us understand our current struggle with temptation. True, but if the serpent isn’t Satan, isn’t evil, and isn’t really trying to hurt anybody then our whole perception on the struggle between good and evil will change. Our view on sin nature will change. Our view on theodicy (the problem of evil) will change.

God created a lush garden, a paradise. He didn’t create anything that wasn’t good at all. “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1.31). God didn’t create evil He created good, He couldn’t have created evil because His act of creation was an act of love. God is love (1 John 4.16) and love doesn’t even think evil (1 Corinthians 13.5) let alone create it. So what was it that convinced Eve to take of the forbidden? Was it Satan, was it Evil? If not then what was it? It had to have been something good, something very good. This makes the dichotomy a little more fuzzy than we’re comfortable with doesn’t it? Evil becomes a little more mysterious, it’s not as simple as a snake in a garden.

Saint Augustine, who thought a lot about this, suggested that since God created everything very good then everything that has any substance is good. And if it wasn’t good it wouldn’t exist. “If then, they are deprived of all good, they will cease to exist. So long as they are, they are good. Therefore, whatsoever is, is good” (Confessions 7.12). In fact something is only evil if it is something that is good in the first place and is somehow not “harmonizing with other” things which are also good (Confessions 7.13). So maybe this scene in the garden is not evil meddling against good but good not “harmonizing” with other good. Maybe the scene of our lives is not good against evil but good desperately trying to harmonize with itself.

The biggest struggle in our lives is not necessarily against Satan. Maybe the enemy is the brother you can’t forgive or the friend you fought with and never reconciled. It’s bruising your heal isn’t it? Maybe the voice you hear deceiving you is not to be fought against and defeated but embraced and befriended. We are struggling for reconciliation, the restoration of harmony in the garden. Our victory is not in the destruction of our enemies but in renewed harmony with them through the love we have for them. God created us out of love and it is by love we will be restored. So we love relentlessly and by love we will restore our relationship with God and even with the serpent, ending this terrible bruising.

7 comments:

Dolores said...

OK. Once again you have taken what I thought I knew and turned it on its head. The Sunday School lens is so much easier! Must I think so hard? Thank you for your inquisitions. Keep using your mind and may your heart be blessed beyond all levels of understanding or logic!

Mike Exum said...

Wes,

I appreciate your inquisitiveness too. However, I am not sure you have successfully overturned traditional analysis with a few questions. You have merely shown that they can be questioned.

All my comment here should come under the umbrella thought of assumeing that God, Creation and this passage in particular are all deeply mysterious. And your questions have only scratched the surface really.

But to begin, let me hug closer to tradition. You surely realise that Genesis, not even the opening scenes, was not written in a vacuum. To question it in one is not really fair to the text. It is a deeply Hebrew text with a deeply Hebrew context in which to read it. The challenge and the job of a student/minister of Genesis is to learn that context as much as possible. Then interpret it.

So, as you question the text, what contextual issues present themselves? Do ancient Hebrew writers expect the kind of questions you are asking? Or are your questions actually Enlightenment or post-Enlightenments questions of a text that it was never designed to answer? I am sure we could argue endlessly over criteria for deciding the issue, but the issue must be wrestled.

Also, how did ancient Hebrews question the text? How about first-century Jews? My questions of it should find congruity with theirs. Anywhere mine differ, I should plan to explain why I think mine are worthwhile.

None of this is to say that our traditional "sunday school lense" has suffinciently wrestled these issues either. But I get the sense your questions unfairly hold the text in an Enlightenment vacuum. Thus, I will stay with the tradition until I am otherwise pursuaded. But, and do not think I underestimate you, I will keep listening to you because I hope you are only getting started here and on revisioning your questions, I expect you to take us closer to the heart of things.

Now for more mystery.

I find it incredible that the serpent tempts Eve to "be like God" and to "know good from evil." As far as the first is concerned, she already is like God -Gen 1:26. How is that a temptation? Why is it a temptation? I am mindful at the same time that the Philippian Hymn suggests that Jesus did not grasp for deity status, but gave that up to be a slave and to die on a cross! That un-grasping posture was the antidote to the Fall that came with Adam and Eve. And Eve's response to the serpant seems to fit the other side of that coin. She wanted to "be like God" in some inappropriate way.

And then for "knowing good from evil" -Hey, I thought that was the point of my life when I was about 6-12 years of age. I think that was the main thing my parents wanted for/from me. It seems to have been their most basic agenda for me to teach me just that. So why is it a temptation to sin for Eve?

As I said, my thoughts all come under the umbrella of mystery. I think your questions are only the tip of the ice berg really.

Good thoughts. Keep it up. I am impressed.

Many blessings...

WES ELLIS said...

Mike,
Initially your comment bothered me. People don't usually accuse me of thinking in an enlightenment bubble. My point afterall was to call to question an assumption, though traditional, that comes from an enlightenment bubble. The more I question it the more I don't think the text ever meant for us to think of the serpent as Satan or even evil. So this post is simply a questionin. If it's not Satan, if it's not evil, who is it? And how does that effect the way we read this text and thus live our lives.

In further considering your comment I realize my conclusions may not be the original intention of the text either. Maybe I am reading in a bubble. This is something I need to investigate. But I'm left in a gap between tradition and truth; I don't believe the serpent was supposed to seem evil to us, I don't believe that anything was evil when it was created. So why do we seek to defeat evil, to destroy it? Maybe we should seek to bring it to harmony.

Yes, I am only hitting the tip of a very mysterious Ice berg. I intent to swin down to its' belly.

Thanks so much for challenging me once again. Perhaps one day I'll be able to challenge you in the same way. You are always appreciated here, I hope you know that.

Shalom,
Wes

WES ELLIS said...

Dolores (AKA Mom),
Before you decide to change you're whole world I encourage you to read Mike's comment. It's very challenging.
-WES

Mike Exum said...

Wes,

I hear ya, bro. I think I am seeing what you are saying. And by using the word "think" I am not softening it. I really think so, but I am willing to acknowlegde my fallibility -it is possible that I really don't. But allow me to make some clarifications that might illuminate my earlier comments in a new way. Because, I think what you have said is all exactly true, but it seems that your view of what I offered is a bit limited too.

You are not the typical enlightenment thinker. And you are not typically traditional -not in the sense of uncritically accepting tradition. That is all exactly true, and my comment does not accuse you of such at all.

Think of it this way: Originally, the Enlightenment was hostile to Tradition. At some levels, you have that in common with the Enlightenment -because Enlightenment thinking is the new Tradition, in a sense. And yet, another tradition of the Enlightenment is to question Tradition -but in a sterile field.

Now by sterile field, I will have a hard time making clear what I mean, but I will try. Enlightenment tried to hold to test-tube style observations -even of matters of Bible and faith. Test-tubes are found and used in laboratories typically, rather than all natural environments. You take a solution of chemicals in a tube, heat it over a burner, shine red or purple light on it and watch it fizz. You can learn a lot about said solution by doing this, but nothing like this happens in nature. It is all a lab experiment. There may actually be great insight into the solution, but it really does not tell you much about how it lives in its natural environment.

I am suggesting that some questions brought to a text do that too. They lift it out of context etc or whatever, thus the observations might be of great interest without conveying the message God is sending.

How do we guard against that? Well, we might quibble on those details until the parousia, but I was not convinced you had made your observations of the text in its natural setting.

You definitely challenged tradition, even Enlightenments best conclusions. However, I am not sure you didn't use Enlightenment tools to do it. At least not in this specific instance.

Perhaps that is arguable really, but that does not seem to be your rebuttal either. So, I am sticking with my challenge for the moment.

So, let me rephrase my initial challenge like this, and see if it makes better sense... Would an ancient Hebrew writing this text intend for you to ponder whether the serpent is the Satan or not; evil or not? You might actually answer the question with a yes, but then when I say why? you would make your case for it. Or, we might put the question the otherway round... Would an ancient Hebrew, or first-century Jes read this text and question whether the serpent is the Satan or not; evil or not? And again I would ask why, and you no doubt would have your reasons for thinking they would.

As it is, I suspect questions of the kind you specifically have asked of the text are foreign to the context of the writer or the early readers. However, they sound very suspiciously Modern and Tradition bucking.

Nevertheless, I actually have great faith in you. I don't think every scholar (notable possible exception being Wright of course - but then I am an overboard enthusiast) knocks a home run with every thought or querry. However, most of the really good ones revise and revisit their methods and perfect them as they go. And I believe you are definitely in that group of scholars!

But you are right, I am asking you to consider your approach here carefully. But I am not rejecting it outright -more like questioning your questions. And I suspect you are right to analyse the passage with questions, but why these?

Anyway, I hope that is clearer. And, you seem to understand well that I have great admiration for you. You also seem to take me seriously, which I appreciate. And you look forward to challenging me! Good. I welcome it. And I say, you actually have already. It is just not so stark. But your latest comments on my blog have given me great cause for pause. You have highlighted an aspect of greed that neither I or any of my other commentors have drawn out. And I think it needs wrestled with, which until you came along wasn't.

So now I am looking for ways to incorporate your very apt observation about worry, more deeply into my view of greed. As I was just talking to my Mom on the phone as I read your comment, I told her, "You know, that Wes is a very bright 20 year old. Now that he has said it, it is as plain as the nose on your face, but I had not seen it before!" Actually I have seen it before, but I have barked so far up another tree on the issue of greed at this point that I had forgotten to consider the affect fear has on it.

So, you do challenge me. A lot in fact. But perhaps not as starkly as it seems I have challenged you.

Hey bro, we actually get bigger pictures and deeper insights by sharing and challenging than we get on our own. When I bring my puzzle pieces and you bring yours, and Dolores brings hers etc, we form new pictures we don't get without each other.

And that is not to say that everyone is equally effective in placing puzzle pieces, but it is a community thing. No Lone Rangers here!

Many blessings...

WES ELLIS said...

Right on Mike!

I love your thoughts... i'm with you.

I will say you have challenged me to examine my methods but after thinking through it I don't think I am too far off base (or at all) in my questions and conclusion about this specific text.

The first thing I call into question is the assumption that the serpent is Satan and that he is evil. In doing this I am going back to the text.

Of course a Hebrew writer wouldn't have me thinking about weather or not the serpent is evil but tradition would have me assume that it is. I am merely saying what you are saying; no hebrew author would have us assume that. I suspect that a Hebrew author would have us assuming something else. I think we are to assume the serpent is good, in fact the greatest of all animals.

questions arise from that. Now we, who've always thought the serpent was evil, have to question weather or not he/she is and how that should change us. I think there may be an important aspect of this text that has been ignored and I think it is something the author would have wanted us to understand. it is obvious the author wants us to know that everything God made was good (see all of Geneis chapter 1). So we have to assume the serpent is good, the author would want us to. If I'm right about this then we must re-think our whole understanding of the origin of sin and the curse. Instead of an evil influence prompting Eve it was actually a "good" one, meaning something good prompting her to do evil. This may be implied by the cursing of the serpent (God cursed Adam and Eve and we know they weren't evil).

If I'm right about this then we have to rethink what the often discussed breaking of the curse should look like. Instead of seeing the bruising of the serpent as prophesy for Satan being defeated in the end times we should see it as another part of the curse to be broken. And if I'm right about this then the breaking of the curse doesn't mean destroying and crushing our enemies it actually means harmonizing with them. It means that we are to restore peace with the serpent, with the things that tempt intead of defeating them in some final battle. Perhaps the defeat of Satan is more about practicing peace than "spiritual warfare."

Do you see where I'm coming from? I don't think I'm asking any questions a Hebrew author wouldn't want me to ask in light of our current pop-interpretations. I don't think I'm putting it in a test toob. I am desparately wrestling it out of the stinking test toob.

Mike, I hope you know how much I appreciate your help in thinking through this. I should not have expected to go it alone. I still don't, if you still think I'm failing to do the text justice please help me out. If you think I'm asking unnecessary questions please sugget how we are to approach the text without asking them. Do you not think we are to assume the serpent is good? Let me know.

Thanks for taking the time to read and share with me. Your aspect of the picture always makes mine look so much better.

-Wes

Mike Exum said...

Wes,

Today is moving day for me. Actually, all week has been, but that is a long story -no time.

Anyway, I bet I need a couple days to get back with you here. And I trust the conversation can wait. Plus, I need to do some thinking. I am not convinced that you questions are really contextual. But, I am not the final judge on that either. However, you are right to expect me to say why I am not, and I am too busy being distracted at the moment.

Very interesting exchange though. I really enjoy it. And as always, you definitely have my respect as a thinker. You are a rather brash questioner yourself.

Many blessings...