One afternoon during Sukkot we took a walk on a country road near the farm where we were staying. Chatting away, we barely noticed it–a brown snake winding across the dirt road in front of us. It was a little snake, not particularly frightening looking, so we took a closer look. I saw that it was swelling up in the mid-section and then suddenly it lifted its head, hissing its tongue, opening its jaws to show its fangs, and looking as menacing as a little snake can appear. We backed off, and it slithered into the grass by the side of the road.
This well-timed encounter reminded me of the famous snake incident in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-15), where the nahash tempts/dares/convinces Eve to eat the fruit and “become as gods, knowing good and evil.” (translation of Robert Alter; all Hebrew sources are below). There are many word plays and paradoxes woven through this narrative. If Eve’s goal was to become god-like, the result was quite the contrary. Rather than becoming the powerful lords of their environment, the first humans instead become vulnerable to pain (in birth), to hunger (in agriculture), and to fear (of snakes). As Alter comments (p.27), “the vista of thorn and thistle is diametrically opposed to the luscious vegetation of the garden and already intimates the verdict of banishment that will be carried out in verses 23-24.”
Still, the snake doesn’t promise ease and plenty, only knowledge of good and evil. To his credit, the snake seems to have been correct in his prediction. Indeed, a few verses later God confirms this fact, saying, “Now that the human has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he may reach out and take as well from the tree of life and live forever.” This narrative raises two questions: Is this what it means to be god-like—to know good and evil? And, is gaining such knowledge worth the consequences? Continue reading