Mr Bigg's Blog A blog about politics, theology, education and the rest…


On “death” in Genesis 3 (or, did the Serpent get it right?)

Posted by Mike

What follows is a precis and discussion of the wonderful R W L Moberly's essay entitled "Did the Serpent Get it Right?" (Journal of Theological Studies 39, no. 1 (1988), pp. 1-27). I often find myself coming back to this exposition of Genesis 3 because it is incredibly important for how we understand the human condition and, therefore, the rest of the Bible. A close and careful reading of what happens in the Garden of Eden illuminates much about the "problem" that Christianity is attempting to solve and has significant theological implications.

(Note: My summary is based on memories of a lecture almost 10 years ago, and a subsequent reading of the article about 9 years ago. My apologies go to Professor Moberly for any inaccuracy or lack of nuance.)

Setting the scene

The key scene-setting moment comes in Genesis 2:16-17. God has just created Adam and his first commandment to Adam (in this version of the creation story) is a positive one: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden!" (NRSV) but there is one minor restriction: "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat". God doesn't particularly justify this prohibition (creator knows best and we should trust him on this) but offers Adam a warning: "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die". It is the nature of this death that needs some discussion, but we'll come to that later. All that needs to be said for now is that the implication is that there will be some fairly immediate consequence ("in the day").

Enter the serpent...

The beginning of Genesis 3 sees the entrance of the Serpent. Much could be said about the way the serpent twists God's words (the positive commandment with a single prohibition becomes purely prohibitive in the mouth of the serpent: ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’) but this would be a diversion from the main purpose of this post.

What is really of interest is Eve's correction of the serpent. She rightly notes that God says they can eat of any tree, except for one (and, for some reason, adds an extra prohibition about touching the tree). Eve clearly knows the rules God has set out. However, at this point, the serpent flatly contradicts God's warning about eating from this tree: But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ From this point on the tension of the story is established. On one hand, God has declared emphatically that "in the day that you eat of it you shall die" while the serpent contends that "You will not die" and implies that God's prohibition is a form of protectionism (we don't want these human beings to have our knowledge). So who is right? The only way to find out is for someone to eat the fruit... Cue Eve.

Eating the fruit

So, the scene is set. Who was right? God or the serpent? If God was right, then we expect to see the fairly immediate death of those who eat of the forbidden fruit. If the serpent is on the money then we expect to see no death and instead we'll find that eyes are opened. Let's see what happens:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (Genesis 3:6-7)

On face value, it appears that the serpent is the one telling the truth here. Not only do Adam and Eve not die on that day (indeed, Adam lives to the ripe old age of 930! [Gen 5:5]), but also the serpent's prediction about eyes being opened come true! What are we to make of this? Do we have a situation in which the very first things God says to human beings is just self-serving lies and deceit? Is it the case that the shrewd serpent is the voice of truth? Surely a religion based on a deceptive, possibly bullying God deserves little attention. Therefore, if we want to save this story and avoid the Judaeo-Christian tradition falling down before it's begun we need to understand this story a little more carefully.

Did God *really* say...?

Let's reconsider what God says to Adam in Genesis 2:

And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

There are a number of ways to understand this command other than the wooden version we've already discussed. Some are more satisfactory than others.

1. Adam and Eve were immortal prior to this moment

I've heard it suggested that Adam and Eve were intended to live forever. Therefore, when God says "in that day... you shall die" it is not that they will literally drop dead that day but that the moment they eat of the fruit mortality comes to them. Previously they had been immortal; now the possibility of death is upon them. They don't die that day, they become able to die. I can see the appeal of such an approach but I end up rejecting it for several reasons.

Firstly, there is no suggestion prior to this moment that Adam and Eve were created with the intention that they might live forever. Secondly, at the end of Genesis 3 God is worried that Adam and Eve might "reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever". This surely implies that Adam and Eve may have had the possibility of living forever but now do not. The possibility of becoming immortal being taken away is rather different to the transition from immortality to inevitable death.

2. We need to reconsider what God means by "death"

In recent years the concept of "quality of life" has been used in an increasing range of contexts. I've heard the idea used to justify abortion (the child will have a poor quality of life and so abortion may be more loving), I've heard it used to justify euthanasia (her quality of life is so limited that she would prefer to die). I've also lost count of the number of times I told my parents to "get a life" when I was growing up. By this of course I didn't mean that they lacked life in a biological sense; my outburst was related to my perception of their quality of life. Christian Aid have a wonderful slogan: "We believe in life before death". All of these examples serve to suggest that in many senses "life" and "death" are not simply binary options (ie. a person is either alive or dead). In a very real sense the concept of "life" is on a spectrum and we can rightly use the term "death" to refer those things that lessen our life in some way. When someone says, "A little piece of me died when..." they do not mean that they suffered necrosis of part of their body, they refer to an event diminishing the fullness of their life.

With that in mind it seems reasonable to ask whether God's proclamation that Adam would "surely die" is a reference not to biological death, but to death in this other sense. Let's consider what happens in the immediate aftermath of the eating...

Firstly, "they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves". There is an instant sense of a loss of innocence. Whereas they had previously been naked and had been comfortable with their nakedness, they now have a sense of shame. As such, there is an immediate death in Adam and Eve's relationship with their selves; they are not longer unified beings but are in conflict with themselves. Their life is diminished. Death has come upon them.

Secondly, "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden". What had previously been a close and intimate relationship has become fractured. Adam and Eve are now afraid of God, aware of their shame, and the relationship is now an uncomfortable one. Life is diminished. Death has come upon them.

Thirdly, "He [God] said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’" What is Adam's response to God's (correct) accusation? He blames the woman. And so begins the process of shifting blame and responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. Adam and Eve were previously united but now use each other as objects of blame. Their relationship begins to break down. Life is diminished. Death has come upon them.


Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground.

The last outcome of their disobedience is that Adam and Eve have a broken relationship with the natural world. Whereas once there was a sense of harmony, now there is a sense of discord. Life is diminished. Death has come upto them.

It is worth noting that the first three of these outcomes (and arguably the fourth also) are not "punishments" from God, but natural consequences of their actions. God does not make Adam and Eve at war with themselves, God and each other; this conflict is the natural outcome of what they have done.

So why does this matter?

This story sets the tone for everything that follows. In many ways it outlines the "human condition" and, therefore, the way we interpret it has implications. If we understand the story as being about biological death entering the world through the sin of Adam then we can end up with a Christianity that is overly focused on "pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die". The problem for humans (in this understanding) is that we are all going to die and need to do something about it. However, it seems to me that Jesus is much more concerned with the richness of our lives in the here-and-now. Broken relationships that diminish our lives are in dire need of healing. Our fractured sense of self, in which we find ourselves in conflict with our own desires, needs binding back together. Our distant and fearful relationship with God needs to be made intimate once again. Our troubled relationship with our natural environment needs to be changed.

The insight of Christianity is that we cannot rebuild these relationships purely in our own power. That is why God comes to us in the person of Jesus to enable our attitudes and egotism to change. This is no easy task and Jesus demonstrates just how far God will go in order to bring his children home into a right relationship with him.

"Salvation" means "healing", not simply "going to heaven when you die". I, for one, need salvation for the healing of all of my fractured relationships. "Religion" means "to bind back together" (re-ligio - think "ligament"), not simply a set of rituals or beliefs. I, for one, need to be made whole again. When we make Genesis 3 about a binary choice between "life" and "death" we lose what Jesus says about coming to bring "life in all its fullness". Let's seek Christianity in a way that makes "religion" about wholeness and "salvation" about healing our broken lives, not just a set of doctrines to which we must subscribe in the hope of an eternal reward.

Comments are very welcome. This post is brief and necessarily limited and incomplete to some degree. If there's anything I need to clarify/tighten up I'd appreciate the help!