Genesis Chapter 3 Summary: a Hebraic Understanding | Old Testament

In this episode, we will examine Genesis, Chapter 3 as part of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish faith while taking into account the surrounding ancient Near Eastern culture with its polytheistic connotations. 

Chapter 2 ends with the descriptive statement that “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25) which is to be contrasted with the opening verse in Chapter 3 stating that “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1). The text is already alluding to the contrast between the innocence of the man and his wife against the serpent’s craftiness, which will cost them their presence in the garden of Eden. While we all have an idea of what serpents look like, the serpent here is unique in that it does not begin to crawl on its belly until after God punishes it. As such, it is likely that the image that came to the minds of the original hearers of a walking serpent resembled a dragon as this was the common image of the Babylonian dragon associated with gods like Marduk and Tiamat. However, one must admit that the biblical text does not directly identify the serpent with the dragon god. Jewish and Christian exegetes or interpreters would later identify the serpent with Satan.[1]

Responding to the serpent’s question as to whether God commanded them not to eat the fruit of any of the trees, Eve responds with the original commandment of God forbidding them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge only although with the additional prohibition against touching it; a prohibition never given by God. Some rabbis saw this addition in a positive light as they saw in it an allusion to the rabbinic principle of adding a protective commandment to avoid trespassing the original commandment pronounced by God. For example, the Lord commands that no young animal is to be boiled in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19), but the rabbis would intensify this commandment by forbidding the consumption of any dairy with meat under Kosher laws. Other rabbis saw the addition more negatively as they deemed adding to God’s commandment to be effectively subtracting from it.[2]

After the serpent promises the woman to open her eyes and become divine, the woman’s thoughts go through a fatal progression that ends with the doom of both the man and the woman. Initially, the physical instinct suggests to the woman that “the tree was good for eating.” Moving from physicality to aesthetics, the woman finds the tree to be “a delight for the eyes.” Finally, the temptation culminates in the intellectual aspect as the tree becomes “desirable as a source of wisdom.” Together, the man and woman ate to find their eyes indeed opening and their mind possessing new knowledge though it led to them being ashamed of their nakedness.[3]

Inquiring where they are, God speaks to the primal couple and the serpent to find a chain of blame with the man blaming his wife and the wife, in turn, blaming the serpent. Reversing the order, God pronounces the punishment of the serpent, the woman, then the man. The punishment pronounced against the serpent that it will eat dust is not to be taken literally as serpents do not eat dust. Rather, the allusion here is to the animosity between the serpent and the man made from dust.[4] Simultaneously, the children of the primal couple will strike its head, that is to kill it.[5] The woman is said to desire her husband though she will be subject to him. Some scholars suggest that this happens immediately after God finishes pronouncing His judgment as “The man name[s] his wife Eve” (Genesis 3:20), an allusion to him having similar authority as he once did with the animals, giving her an identity derived from her name.[6] The man is likewise cursed to till the ground from which he was taken until he returns to it through death. Although cast out of the garden with curses and judgments pronounced against them, the final encounter between God and the primal couple is one of mercy with God making garments of skins to cover the nakedness they now feel. 

Seeing the new human reality of Adam and Eve, God casts out the primal couple while placing a cherub with a flaming sword to guard the tree of life. The cherub is a supernatural being entrusted with the protection of sacred objects such as the tree of life in this case or the arc of the covenant in the future. The peculiarity of the tree of life made it open to the speculations of Jewish commentators who identified the tree of life with wisdom that remains available to those who grasp it based on Proverbs 3:18. Further identifying wisdom with the Torah, it became obvious in the vision of rabbis that the tree of life is the wise Torah that gives life to those who practice it.[7]

Although the Jewish faith does not have a doctrine of the original or ancestral sin, the status and impact of this episode of disobedience engaged the minds of Jewish authors. Three common positions come from the intertestamental writings, a term referring to writings that did not constitute the Hebrew Bible but influenced people’s minds around the time of Jesus so much that some of these writings became part of the Christian Old Testament canon. One position comes from pseudo-Ezra, who writes, “O Adam, what have you done? For though it was you who sinned, the fall was not yours alone, but ours also who are your descendants” (2 Esdras 7:118). An alternative position comes from 2 Baruch, an apocalyptic text, stating, “For though Adam first sinned and brought untimely death upon all men, yet each one of those who were born from him has either prepared for his own soul its future torment or chosen for himself.” [8] A third position comes from Wisdom of Solomon, suggesting that “through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it” (Wisdom of Solomon 2:24).[9]

 

[1] Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 14.

[2] Berlin and Brettler, 14–15.

[3] Berlin and Brettler, 15.

[4] John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 76.

[5] Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 16.

[6] Kristen E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing, and Valarie H. Ziegler, Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Indiana University Press, 1999), 30.

[7] Berlin and Brettler, The Jewish Study Bible, 16.

[8] Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 77.

[9] Collins, 77.