Once upon a time I was teaching ethics for students age 15 to 18. Ethics was alternative for the students that didn’t want religious education. So, instead of Creation, Israel, Jesus, Church and so on, you could opt for topics on human rights, morality, corruption, etc.
Having before me students without religious education, I decided to make an experiment. How would they interpret Genesis 3? What happens there? That was their homework, to figure out what is this story about.
To my utter disappointment, virtually all the students offered the same interpretation: the text about speaking snake and a naked couple eating a forbidden fruit is the story about human fall into sin, from which we can be saved only through baptism. “OK, where do you find such words in the text?”, I asked them. They remained silent. Contrary to theologians who are very talkative when being asked the same question. “You see”, I can hear them, “Adam and Eve were sinless, they had no shame, because they had no lust, they walked freely with God, but, then, they listen to Satan’s voice and after that they cover their nakedness, flee away from God’s voice, become mortal” etc.
Well, to me Adam and Eve look like typical teenagers. You know that: “Kids, I’m just leaving a classroom for five minutes, please, sit down, be silent…” And what usually happens: turmoil and noise the moment you leave.
Thus, in this story, Yahweh leaves his garden for a while. Before that he sternly warns: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (2.17). No, he didn’t say: “You’ll become mortal”, but “You’ll die”, the very day you eat it. Remember that, mate, or you’ll misunderstand the whole story.
And in the beginning of the chapter we have someone who talks the human couple to a prank. This is a snake, but a talking one, something you’ve never heard of at your biology classes. Moreover, this snake knows in advance that 1. Adam and Eve will not die; and, 2. they will become like gods, knowing good and evil (meaning that they will know everything).
Both Adam and Eve fall for that story. Remember that they go together. Later theologies attempted to exculpate Adam, making of him a romantic hero who takes the fruit just because of Eve. But in the text, he is just as willing as Eve to eat this strange fruit. And then they start feeling stupid. They, firstly, become ashamed of their nakedness. Then they try to escape Yahweh. But you don’t need to be God to discover what some naïve teenagers did. Each of the culprits receives their due: the snake will have the problem with the dust and men’s heels; the woman will have the problems with childbirth and with men; the man will have the problems with tilling the ground. He is the dust, and he will deal with the dust all his life (just like the snake) and end in the dust. Finally, they have to leave the Garden. Now! You hear me?! They must not eat from the tree of life, for, as the snake predicted, they’ll become like God. A comforting thing is that they get leather garments. Animal rights societies, obviously, were not around. “Whoosh”, said Adam and Eve relieved. They didn’t die, as you may clearly see.
Therefore, a few words on later theological (Christian) constructs. Firstly, the text never implies some sinless nature of Adam and Eve. They’re as human as we are. Secondly, the text is not about the Fall into sinful nature, but about expulsion from the Eden. As the consequence of that expulsion, says the myth, we have to work hard, to deliver babies painfully, to wear clothes, etc. Next, Adam and Eve were already seen as mortal. But they escaped this time the death sentence. Yahweh in this story reminds to some stern parent or a pedagogue that threats with severe punishment, but, when a transgression really occurs, calms down and punishes in a milder way. Actually, it would be extremely stupid to kill anyone because of taking a single fruit, whatever it was. When theologians, beginning with apostle Paul, see in this text a verdict upon all humanity, some may really doubt their sanity. Why, on earth, all of us should suffer such terrible consequences of one pretty innocuous prank? Even if we agree with the interpretation I offer here (and I’m just leaning upon other biblical experts), the punishment was anyway exaggerated. Had I been Yahweh (had you been Yahweh) the punishment would be very simple: some yelling, no Internet today, no going out in the evening, and “The next time you do it…. Well, just try me, you little pranksters!” Chasing your kids from home for doing what Adam and Eve did would be too much. Killing them would me even more too much, right?
Lastly, a word about snake. In the book of Revelation it has been (probably) identified as Satan. Yet for the writer of Genesis 3 (nicknamed Yahwist) – it is just an animal. A strange, talking, divine-minded animal, but animal. And did you notice one thing? When Yahweh finds out what was done, he lets both man and woman to speak. But the snake has no such privilege. It has to remain silent while receiving its due. Really, no animal rights here. At the end of the story, Yahweh repeats the snake’s words.
And we’re left unsure whether the snake was not Yahweh himself.