The Bible is laden with conflicts between characters who exemplify good and evil. And while our sympathies may lie with the character who aligns himself with the "good," he or she is not always the center of the story. Consider, as an example, the narrative of Cain and Abel. The story really isn't about Abel. We know virtually nothing about him; he is killed and he disappears. Like it or not, the story is really about Cain. What brought him to murder; what did his inner world look like? What did God mean to tell him just before he killed his brother? And did he really ever achieve forgiveness?
Who are the main characters in the story of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden? Our first impulse is to point to Adam and Eve. But maybe the story is about someone else, too: The snake. He's not a very popular being -- he's certainly not a hero -- but perhaps the story is about him almost as much as it is about us. Let's spend some time trying to understand how he fits into the story.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SNAKE?
In email responses I received when these essays were first published on the web, a number of readers speculated about the identity of the snake. Some pegged him as "the Devil" -- a sort of fallen angel, a powerful "enemy of God" who seeks to thwart the Divine plan at every turn. As a Jew, I have to confess that I have difficulty with the notion of an independent source of evil in the universe that serves as a counterweight to God. Jewish thought tends to see Satan in different terms -- not as one who opposes the Divine plan, but as a sort of "Heavenly prosecutor" who is part and parcel of the Divine plan. Just as no earthly court is complete without a prosecutor, so too, the Heavenly Court is incomplete without its "prosecutor", too -- a being who advocates forcefully for the application of Divine justice in all its rigor.
Was the snake, then, a manifestation of an angelic Satan -- whoever this Satan is? Maybe. But I'm a simple guy, and when I read the text, I see an animal here. One could argue that the angel is disguised in the form of an animal -- but let's at least give it a whirl and see if we can make the text understandable at its simplest level. Let's say the snake is an animal. What does he want? How are we to understand him?
Let's begin by gathering some information. From the text of the Torah, what do we know about this snake?
Well, for starters, he talks -- and this doesn't seem very snake-like at all. And to make matters worse, we're not even supposed to be surprised that he talks. When, for example, the Torah relates the story of Bilaam and his talking Donkey, we are clearly meant to be surprised by the animal's speech. But here in Genesis, the snake's capacity for language just seems to be a given. The Torah tells us that one day a snake approached Eve and happened to strike up a conversation. Don't be surprised. That's just the way it is.
And it gets even more puzzling. The snake doesn't only talk. He walks, too. We know this because at the end of the story, the snake is cursed by God -- and the curse states that from this point forward, the snake must crawl on his belly and eat dust. The implication is clear: Before that point, the snake was not a creature that crawled. He walked.
Let's go still further. What did this walking, talking creature eat, before he was cursed? We don't know, but evidently, it wasn't "dust" -- that only became his diet afterwards. As the snake was originally created, it seems he was meant to dine on something more appealing.
And what about the intelligence level of this creature? The Torah is fairly explicit about that. The snake, according to the text, was pretty bright:
"And the snake was more cunning than any beast of the field..." (Genesis, 3:1).
So let's add it all up. The snake walks. The snake talks. He likes good food. He is intelligent.
What does he remind you of?
I don't know about you, but he reminds me of a human being.
The snake so closely resembles a man that he forces us to ask: What, in the end, makes him a snake and not a man?
Indeed, the snake so closely resembles a man that he forces us to ask: What, in the end, makes him a snake and not a man? This question hits close to home, because it's really a question about us and the nature of our humanity. Bottom line -- what makes us human and not a snake? If you walk, talk and are smart, are you then a person? Or can you still be a snake?
The snake, perhaps, forces us to ask: What is the essential dividing line between man and animal?
A CURIOUS TEMPTATION
But the mystery of the serpent does not end here. What else is strange about how the Torah portrays him in the story?
Well, let's talk about what this talking snake actually says. Remember, the Torah describes the snake as a smart operator, as being very "cunning". So pretend, for a moment, that you were the snake and you were very smart, and you wanted to con Eve into eating some fruit that she shouldn't be eating. How would you go about it?
Maybe you'd tell Eve how delicious the fruit looks. Maybe you'd craft a seductive lie about ' mysterious powers. Maybe, like the Evil Queen in Snow White, you'd just show up at her doorstep with a shiny apple. But let's see what the snake actually does. He approaches Eve, and, in the original Hebrew, says the following words: "af ki amar elokim lo tochlu mikol etz hagan". Most translations render these words:
'Did God really say that you may not eat from any of the trees of the garden?' (Genesis, 3:1).
But that's not the most precise translation of the Hebrew. A better, more literal translation would read:
"Even if God said do not eat from any of the trees of the garden..."
Well, it's no wonder that most translations take liberties with the Hebrew -- for the basic, literal translation of these words is quite strange, to say the least. First of all, the sentence has no ending. It just trails off into nothingness, as if the snake was interrupted before he could get to the punch-line. But even if we help the snake finish his thought, his words are hardly more understandable. For what he seems to be telling Eve is: ...even if God said don't eat from any trees of the garden, so what? Do it anyway!
One second. The best possible argument the snake could come up with was: even if God said don't do it, so what? That doesn't seem very cunning, does it? Of all things, why choose to remind Eve that she's not supposed to eat the fruit? Why flippantly suggest that she disregard her Creator's command? Remember: To Eve, God is not just some abstract concept. God is real; God quite literally created her. What kind of argument is: "Even if God said no, so what?"
TO BE AS GOD
Read on a few more verses, and the snake's argument takes another interesting twist. Let's listen in as the snake suggests to Eve that he knows the real reason that God forbade her and Adam to eat the fruit:
"Really, God knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Genesis, 3:5).
Ponder this for a moment. Ask yourself: Is the snake lying, or telling the truth?
I don't know about you, but at first blush, it sure seemed to me that he was lying. I could hear my mind work: What kind of preposterous nonsense is it to suggest that God is jealously guarding the Tree of Knowledge because it holds the key to being godly? Is God really territorial -- worried that lowly humans, by virtue of eating some fruit, would magically become just like Him and encroach upon His heavenly realm? Please. He must be lying.
But there's no reason to philosophize about it. The text itself reveals to us whether the snake was lying or telling the truth. The verse I'm thinking of appears after Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit. Reflecting on their failure, God declares to Himself that mankind must now be banished entirely from the Garden. And here's the reason why:
God said, 'Man has now become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now he must be prevented from putting forth his hand and also taking from the Tree of Life. He [can] eat it and live forever!' (3:22).
If the Tree of Knowledge really does make one "godly", wouldn't the Almighty want us to have it?
As impossible as it seems, the snake was telling the truth after all. It's black on white. God clearly states that the fruit has somehow elevated Adam and Eve to become "like" Him, as they are now "knowers of Good and Evil". But how could it be? If the Tree of Knowledge really does make one "godly", wouldn't the Almighty want us to have it? It seems pretty blasphemous to suggest that God was afraid of competition from the creatures he created.
Finally, if this statement of God were already not perplexing enough, there's one last thing that's odd about it: Listen to how God defines what it means to be a Divine being:
Man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil... .
Ask ten people on the street for a one-sentence definition of God. You'll probably hear that God is all-powerful. That he is all-knowing. The He is One. Or that He is the Creator.
Would anyone tell you that being God means "knowing Good and Evil"?
But that's precisely what the Almighty Himself says.
The snake -- this walking, talking representative of the animal world -- is right. God himself confirms his words. Being godly means knowing good and evil. Now it's up to us to find out what they both meant.
Rabbi Fohrman invites comments or questions from readers. Please use the comment section below. Rabbi Fohrman is now teaching a fascinating series of classes via the internet, and you can join the excitement. Check it out at www.jewishtextstudy.org.
Click here to watch a gripping one-minute trailer about Rabbi Fohrman's new series.