The Serpent was Right

One of the more unusual features of Genesis 2–3 is this:

1. God tells Adam that on the day Adam eats of the tree he will surely die. Genesis 2:17: “for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” NET: “for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.”

2. But the serpent tells Adam that will surely not happen. Genesis 3:4: ““You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman.”

3. The serpent was right. They did not die.

How to explain this? A few options:

1. Maybe “death” here is that they will eventually die, though not as quickly as one would have thought from reading Genesis 2:17, which says they would die “on that day.”

2. Maybe it only means “mortal” but that Adam needed the tree of life suggests without eating that fruit they’d not live forever.

3. Maybe it means metaphorical death as in kicked out of the garden, a kind of death since it means cessation of fellowship with God.

4. Maybe this is a spiritual death and not a physical death.

Claude Mariottini, in his book Rereading the Biblical Text, has another suggestion: Maybe God changed his mind. That is, maybe the serpent knew how compassionate God was and that the compassionate God would not destroy what he had made, but would make a new offer in grace. That is, “the grace of God intervened” (9). This was the view of John Skinner, who said God “changed His purpose and modified the penalty” (9). In the history of theology this is where common grace enters human history, where God begins to restrain the recompense for sin and corruption.

Thus, the serpent did not misunderstand God; the serpent knew the nature of God and believed God would find a way to show grace.

What do you think?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Marshall

    Eve reported that God said “… neither shall you touch it, lest you die.” God didn’t say she couldn’t _touch_ it, just that she shouldn’t _eat_ of it. Everybody says that Satan is a liar, but it seems he does his best work by speaking truth. Twisted truth, but not lies.

    ….Of course Eve wasn’t around when God said that; she must have heard it from Adam. Did Adam exaggerate??

    ….And _later_ God changed his mind and commuted the death sentence, like he does. Yet people say there’s no grace in the OT.

  • Anders Lundblad

    “That is, maybe the serpent knew how compassionate God was and that the
    compassionate God would not destroy what he had made, but would make a
    new offer in grace.”

    Could this have some bearing on the discussion of hell?

  • Abib14

    Like Marshall says, the First Adam knew the First Eve better than The Fall Account of original sin tells us, since it was he, the First Adam, that added to God’s word by telling the First Eve she could not touch the Tree of Life. Maybe the First Adam knew that if the First Eve touched the Tree of Life, and did not die, then the next thing the First Eve would do is eat of the Tree of Life?

    In the Garden of Eden, Both were garmented by the Man’s obedience, by the First Adam’s belief of the Lord, and not garmented by textiles or by fur as Esau was covered by fur, with not being a thing as a fabric garment is a thing, suggesting that this Temptation Account is to be read symbolically
    which is not to say that it did not actually occur but is to say that its
    literalness is not of foremost importance.

    Since the Woman was covered by her Husband’s obedience, with her obedience being to her head (i.e., to her Husband), the the First Eve as a visible physical depiction of today’s Church (the Last Eve) with both under natural grace: the Woman would not die if she ate forbidden fruit. All that would happen if the Woman ate was for her Husband to divorce her because of the hardness of her heart in refusing to obey him.

    Since the Man was one with the Woman, the the First Adam stayed with the the First Eve, thereby choosing the Woman over the Lord.

    By the Woman believing the serpent instead of her Husband, the Woman revealed the unbelief that was in her Husband’s heart; for the Man was not deceived whereas the Woman was.

    The First Adam did not believe the Lord, thus, sin entered the world … and forms the visible (readable) depiction of Day 220 of the Affliction, the Great Falling Away from the Last Adam.

  • Susan_G1

    I always assumed their ‘death’ was both immediate (in becoming seperated from God’s will) and physical, in that their aging began then, leading to death (thus why they must not eat of the other tree). I thought physical death was God’s grace to Adam and Eve, knowing that they would not be well served to live forever separated from Him. So in that way, the serpent was being truthful, as was God. It is also possible that “on that day” was idiomatic, as it is used elsewhere to mean something will certainly come to pass.

    Even though this might be an ancient story, it holds spiritual truth. Man is condemned by his sin; God responds to this condemnation with Grace. Is that when common grace was given to creation? That depends on if one considers common grace to extend only to mankind or to all of creation. Since I believe common grace to be God’s sustaining care to all of creation, I think it had to exist from the beginning of creation.

    just my 2 cents. I’m flexible because I think we are being given a spiritual lesson, not *necessarily* a historical one.

  • http://gcjeffers.wordpress.com/ Gregory Jeffers

    I don’t believe in talking snakes, so wondering whether the snake was right or wrong and in what way about this question of death, framed in Christian theological terms, seems to miss the point of the myth for me.

  • Norman

    I think I’ll take my cue from Paul again and also Revelation and recognize the author’s anthropomorphic and symbolic application in telling Israel’s story. Paul says Gen 2:24 is prophetic of Christ and the church and I would propose that if this is true then Adam likely represents a fleshly (mortal) headship denoting man seeking God while Eve represents his wife the church (or in this case old Israel).

    The Death however comes from the actions of the Serpent. Christ applies this “deceiver/serpent” category upon the rulers of the Jews whom he likens to a brood of vipers and to their father the “devil”.

    The “Death” is undoubtedly IMO the inability of man to “stand” before God through his own self-righteousness and as long as Israel/church continued to pursue God through that means. She would remain in the “mortal” dust of the earth category, that is; mortal existence without eternal Life that right standing with God entails as its gift.

    Today in Christ we are “Dead to Sin” but “alive to God” as the “death” role has been reversed from the Garden fall.

    Rom 6:11 Col 2:13-14

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/ pduggie

    There is another possibility which occurred to me a while ago when contemplating this:

    The thing that dies THAT DAY is the marriage, which has already been detailed as an organic “one flesh” thing. One flesh was created in the marriage, and now that “one flesh” is dead flesh. The place where adam and eve would unite is a source of shame, and they put *barriers* in the way of their uniting. God blessed them to “be fruitful and multiply” but the place that Adam and Eve are in post-eating is one where the story gives no indication this will be possible.

    That also fits with the curse.promise to Eve, that “in pain” [curse] “you WILL bear children” [promise].

    It also fits with the covenanrt God makes with Abe later: DEAD SPLIT animals (representing Abe and his future) are unified by the presence of God.

    God IS merciful to that death sentence, and he restores the dead relationship, though imperfectly: (domination? death? pain?)

    for your consideration

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/ pduggie

    Or, Eve added it (wrongly) or Eve theologized it (rightly). Every thing you’re not supposed to eat in Leviticus is ALSO something you’re not supposed to touch. She may not be doing the wrong thing here, in articulating an implication of God’s command

  • scotmcknight

    Norman, a long time coming but your comments, being ever so long, end up either blunting conversation or ignored. Try working at succinct responses. And this one is shorter than most of yours.

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/ pduggie

    why wouldn’t you pay attention, in the myth, to the words that are spoken by the characters? I’d assume the writer “of the myth” gave the characters words for some reason.

  • http://gcjeffers.wordpress.com/ Gregory Jeffers

    Yes, you pay attention to the words spoken. I meant the talking snake was evidence that this is clearly a myth and not a recorded dialogue from the beginning of time. And, given its mythic qualities, should be read as such and not as a direct consideration of Christian theology. That is, I’m doubtful that the myth makes use of the theological categories that we now possess, like “fellowship with God” and “Grace” as those are understood today.

  • Orton1227

    I think the idea of “death” was simply futility. Romans says that all of creation was subjected to futility in hope that it will be brought into the freedom of God (i.e. the New Covenant, the Kingdom of God).
    Some may term this “spiritual death”, but whatever it’s called, I think the idea was that no longer did their lives have the purpose they did in the garden because what awaited them was Sheol and not an eternal, intimate relationship with the Father. They no longer had that intimate relationship, but that was restored to us via the Jesus Event when the Spirit was given to us as a guarantee.
    1 Thess says that Christ died so that we could live together with Him, which implies that prior to the Christ Event, we didn’t live together with Him (and not physical living together, but a deep spiritual flow and rhythm, of which the human marriage is a shadow). The “death” in Genesis 3 was futility because we weren’t together in fellowship with the Trinity any longer.
    Many natural things like childbirth, farming, etc, because futile as part of the curse. Their end was only to prolong life. Now their end is to glorify God, as we work in those things in fellowship with Him.
    Physical death wasn’t a product of the curse, I don’t believe, but it became the final, consummate realization that their lives were futile.

  • Orton1227

    Also, I think the warning of “death” scared Adam and Eve. I think they knew that disobeying the Father was very wrong, as we also know with our earthly fathers. But the serpent simply posed that God was hiding something from them. That they shouldn’t be scared of disobeying Him because they had the opportunity to reign just like Him, which is partially true as we were designed to reign with God; however, not in opposition to (or drawn from a longing for power) but in harmony with Him, in a submissive role.

  • Brian Metzger

    Throughout the Old Testament we see God suspending the just penalty of sin in favor of showing mercy – something about mercy triumphing over justice. I think this is the first case of many more that follow.

  • Andrew Holt

    In a way, though, the serpent was still lying, because the truth is she would die, though just not right away. His promise to her was that she would not die, which of course was a false promise. Though they didn’t die that particular day, their sin did usher in a new “day” (era) in which sin and death would reign.

  • KateHanch

    Many Christians believe that God’s character never changes, but God’s love and grace is expressed in a way in which God appears to change God’s mind. It would also be interesting to do a word study on the Hebrew “die” to see if there are any nuances–how else is it used? Is it figurative or metaphorical?

  • Scott Gay

    The eating of the fruit represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Many today can empathize as opposed to the historical hardening of the doctrine of justification of faith into harsh theories of moral depravity. Eating the fruit symbolizes the evil inclination.
    There seems to be a common internal understanding among many that the great task is to sift through the mixture of good and evil within and to extract and liberate the holiness trapped therein. Once evil is separated from good its source is cut off. This is accomplished mainly through observance of laws( obedience). God is manifested( revealed) in nature and reason as a lawgiver.
    However, truth be told, the law is only a mask. How to say this is complex……”that he may do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act”…..”the function of the law is to bring us to despair of self”…….We understand the comforting words ‘Come unto me’, only because we have heard in our depths ‘Depart from me’…”.through his alien activity he works his proper activity”.
    I like the mixture symbolism. I think it can help us to look rightly into the mirror of the law and see, in the end, it is a dissolving mirror. I mean that righteousness doesn’t mean distributive justice, rewarding the good and punishing the evil. I take the love of God seriously as it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not rude, it is not self seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. God is manifested( revealed) in the incarnation as love.

  • NathanMichael

    God is faithful to His word and to His promises. Saying otherwise is bad theology. Is God a lair? Does He not really mean what He says? If God is not faithful to his word, then we’re all screwed. I know that we all want God to be all ‘love and mercy’ (which He is), but let’s not also forget the Biblical paradoxical revelation that God is also a righteous judge.

    I think Scott’s listed options 4 and 3 (with qualifications) are the best explanation of this text that keep the integrity of God’s revealed character throughout the rest of scripture as well as corroborating with other Biblical ideas like ‘in Him is life’ and ‘apart from Him there is no life.’ The body may be continuing to biologically function, but the person comes to a short end and not fulfilling God’s created intention for life.

  • Rodney Reeves

    I’ve often thought God comes off sounding like the worrisome parent warning the children with hyperbole: “don’t play with matches; you’ll burn the whole house down.”

  • Phil Miller

    That actually isn’t a horrible metaphor. Have you read Peter Enn’s book, The Evolution of Adam? In it he makes the point that rabbinical commentary and a lot of early Christian commentary on Genesis doesn’t see Adam and Eve as perfect beings who become imperfect after the fall. It sees them as immature beings who are given a path to follow to head towards maturity, and rather than follow they, try to choose a shortcut. It would be something a kid who has never ridden a bike thinking he can start out on a Harley.

    So in Genesis end up “playing with matches”, and they end up causing something that gets out of control. I actually like that!

  • Rodney Reeves

    Yes, I’ve read Enn’s on Adam. Good stuff. The other part of the story where I hear the echo of a paternal God is his absence/presence–like the father who “goes off to work” and returns home finding he has to “discipline” the children.

  • 4thegloryofgod

    I think this is stretching for novelty. Everything needs to interpreted within the whole unveiling of God’s intention. The Church has from ancient times interpreted this text against the backdrop of the unfolding drama of redemption. They did die. They aren’t walking around today. They lost eternal life in that moment. They lost spiritual life (fellowship) with God. And they would one day lose their physical life.

    Why must new things/ideas be given equal weight to 2000 years of uniform testimony?

  • Norman

    Scot,
    Wish I was a natural or well-trained writer but I’m not, (never wrote anything until my mid 50’s) and so it generally takes me way too long to go back and edit them to your standards. However; I will say that I don’t seem to have too much of a problem on theological sites where things are looked at on deeper level. In fact I often get remarks from others that they appreciate the detail they find in my responses as it sets the background discussion on subjects so much better for them. I realize that blogs have different purposes and readers and thus I realize that you like to encourage the pithy and concise dialogue. I just find that kind of discussion often ending up way too often as theology lite. However this is your site and I’ll try to work at writing more to your standards.

  • http://mysite.verizon.net/~vze2tmhh/ pduggie

    Y’know, it makes it hard for people wrestling with issues of genesis not only to say its mythic, but that because it’s mythic, it isn’t even an object for theological reflection. When Jesus meets the temptations of Satan in the wilderness, the content of the temptations and His responses are very instructive for theology. And since they are connected in some way to the genesis story, whether mythically or not, it would be foolish to not directly consider them, if only to illuminate Jesus own temptations.

  • http://gcjeffers.wordpress.com/ Gregory Jeffers

    Fair enough. I’m certainly not saying the story isn’t/can’t be an object of theological reflection, just that this way of thinking about the story as fitting neatly into Christian theological categories might do violence to the text. Any theology of Genesis 2-3 should arise from the text and not from Paul or Jesus. If, as some commenters have claimed on this blog post, the story is a picture of God and Israel, then so much the better. It feels more archetypal to me, but that may be my own training/bias.

  • attytjj466

    I will stay with: what God told Adam was wholly and completely true, and what the serpent told Adam was a lie, even if perhaps a kind of half lie/half truth. And that the sepent was wrong…….not right about what it told Adam.

  • John W. Morehead

    How
    might our understanding of the creation narrative take more “biblical”
    directions if we consider it in its ancient near eastern context? http://musingsonscience.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/the-garden-in-ancient-context/

  • http://wesleyanarminian.wordpress.com Kevin Jackson

    I think it’s #3, death means separation from God. That understanding also fits well with the “second death”.

  • Jeff Martin

    Chrysostom – Homilies on Genesis – Homily 17:42 – “God said, the text tells us, “On the day you eat from it you will truly die” yet they are shown living for a great number of years after the disobedience and tasting the food…you see even if they lived a long life, nevertheless from the time they heard the words, “Dust you are, and dust you are to return” and recieved the sentence of death, they became liable to death snd you would say from that moment they were dead. So this is waht Scripture is also implying when it says that “on theday you eat, you will truly die” that is to say receive the sentence of being mortal from now on. I mean just in the case of human tribunals, when someone receives the sentence of beheading and is cast into prison, even if he stays there a long time his life is no better than that of dead people and corpses, being already dead by reason of his sentence

  • William T.

    Everyday of our lives we are dying, as our body fights off infection, bacterial, virall. Over a 7 year period every cell in our body will have died and been replaced. Anyone who has studied the immune system will tell you this.

    The serpent was a liar, and the father of all liars. I take what it said with a grain of salt….

  • SteveSherwood

    This discussion seems to reveal the difficulty of literal readings of scripture. Many of the comments (30 at the time of this posting) are keen to defend the utter reliability of scripture and the intent of God, but do so by positing something other than the literal, “plain” reading of what “on that day you will surely die” would seem to mean if taken literally. While he may have done so in a provoking way at times, Christian Smith got it right, “none of us read the Bible literally.” Scot, you make the same point, more gently, in The Blue Parakeet.


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