“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” And thus begins the saddest tale in all of human history, because this crafty serpent is the reason that you and I find it difficult to be faithful and obedient to God. This serpent, a lesser creature than you or I, and a lesser creature than Adam and Eve, was able, through guile and deception, to bring about the downfall of all of humanity. This is the story of how sin came into the world.
Interestingly, the serpent is not identified as satan*, or as the devil in this passage, but simply as a wild animal that the Lord God had made. And while satan makes appearances in the Old Testament, the serpent is not identified with satan until we come to the New Testament.
And yet, even here, in Genesis chapter three, we can easily sense that there is something sinister and malevolent about the serpent, because the serpent displays a cunning and evil brilliance that is uncharacteristic of most of the snakes with which we are familiar. This serpent demonstrates a profound knowledge of God and a profound contempt for God, and this serpent seems anxious to share that knowledge of God and that contempt for God with human creatures who inhabit the Garden of Eden.
And so one day, the serpent came to the woman. Now just for curiosity’s sake, we know this woman as “Eve”. Eve is the wife of Adam, who’s name simply means, “the man”. Adam and Eve are the first human creatures that we read about in the Bible. But for now, the Bible simply refers to her as “the woman”. Eve does not get her name until verse 20, just before she and her husband are expelled from the Garden of Eden. But because it’s lots easier to refer to her by her name, that’s what we’ll do this morning.
So the serpent comes to Eve and says, “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Now already we’ve got a problem. This is not at all what God said. To find out what God said, we have to go back to chapter two verse 16, and it turns out that it isn’t a matter of what God said at all. It is instead, a matter of what God command: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘you may eat freely 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.” Now that’s a commandment. It is crystal clear, as commandments always are. It is non-negotiable, and the consequences for disobedience are clearly stated.
But in that commandment, there is also tremendous freedom and some amazing latitude. It even includes the word “free”. Enjoy yourself, Adam, there’s tremendous variety here in the garden, plenty to satisfy all of your desires, just don’t eat from this tree. This tree is called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It’s not for you. If you eat from it you will die. It is extremely important to note that God held nothing back in this commandment. All is plainly spelled out. There is no mystery, there is no carrot on a stick. There is no temptation. In God’s commandment, there is no sense that there is anything that is desirable about this tree, in spite of how the tree seems to appear later on.
And so when the serpent says, did God “say”, there is already the subtle suggestion that God’s authority is somewhat diminished. But at the same time, the serpent’s question is utterly ridiculous! “Did God say, ‘you shall not eat from any tree in the garden’”? Where did that come from? To this point Adam and Eve have been enjoying every tree in the garden, but one. What’s this business about not eating from any tree? It is a massive exaggeration, ridiculously false, and absolutely silly. But it drew Eve into the debate, and it drew her into the debate on the serpent’s terms. Eve must now correct the serpent’s false assertion, and she’s in the very difficult position of having to defend God in the presence of a very subtle and crafty challenger. And for a little while, she doesn’t do too badly. At first, she accurately repeats the commandment, in her attempt to correct the serpent. But in doing so, she over-corrects. She adds something that was not in the original commandment. She tells the serpent that she is prohibited from even touching the tree.
Now maybe in Eve’s mind, not even touching the tree was a good thing. Maybe it was a safety thing. Maybe she figured that if she didn’t touch the tree, she wouldn’t be tempted to eat of it’s fruit. But this is her prohibition, not God’s; and not only is she putting her own words on God’s lips, she’s also introducing the idea into her own mind that God is unreasonably strict. And in this, Eve was to have many followers. Perhaps the greatest sin, if there is one, is to put our own words on God’s lips, to equate our words with those of God, and in so doing, to magnify the strictness of God. Jesus did battle with the scribes and pharisees constantly over this issue, but we are often guilty of it ourselves. There is a perverse pleasure, I suppose, in making God’s word into something that it is not. It gives us a sense of power, and perhaps even of divinity.
And so now that Eve has begun to imagine that God is overly restrictive, or unreasonably strict, the serpent is prepared to come in for the kill. And amazingly, the serpent does it with an outright contradiction of God’s word. “You will not die”, the serpent says. And at this point, we want to shout to Eve, and we want to say, “Yes you will, you will die, you’re being tricked, you’ve just heard an outright contradiction of God’s word, isn’t it obvious to you? Quit now, while you’re ahead!” But Eve’s mind has already become fertile ground for the temptation. If God is defective in one area, if God is unreasonably strict, then perhaps God has other deficiencies, too. Perhaps God is bluffing. Perhaps God is a liar. And if God is a liar, then the outright contradiction of God’s word no longer seems unreasonable. Perhaps it is the serpent who is telling the truth.
I am convinced, that at this point, Eve needs no further convincing. There’s more convincing to come, certainly, and the serpent has a tremendously appealing speech prepared, but Eve is already hooked.
And she’s hooked because she is willing to consider the serpent’s pitch, even if it stands in direct opposition to God’s commandment. It is the serpent’s word against God’s; both are now at least equal in Eve’s mind. And this is rather ironic, because up until this point, Eve has had a wonderful relationship with God, and the serpent is only recently introduced. The serpent is a new-comer, and please, never, never miss this, the serpent is not offering a relationship at all. There is no word of that whatsoever. The serpent cannot offer a relationship. Eve and God share together in the divine image. There is a sacred and holy likeness between them. The serpent is merely a creature, and one of a very different kind. There can be no relationship. There is not even the subtlest of hints here that Eve and the serpent can become friends. The serpent offers no love, no companionship, no affection. Eve has received all of these things from God. The only thing that the serpent can do is to help her to destroy her relationship with God.
And so the serpent sweetens the pot, and suggests that there really is no relationship with God to begin with. The serpent suggests that God has only been toying with her, that God is in fact evil, that God is holding back something very wonderful and very precious, and for no good reason, and what kind of God would do that?
And so the serpent implies that if Eve eats the fruit, she will have life, and life more abundantly; that she will no longer be cheated by a God who cares little for her, that she has nothing to lose and everything to gain…that her eyes will be opened to another whole world of wonderful possibilities.
And so Eve took the fruit and she ate it, and she gave some to her husband and he ate it, and the two of them had their first communion with hell.
Their eyes were opened, all right, but what a grotesque revelation it was! Suddenly, they felt shame where there had been none before.
Suddenly this gloriously created couple was ill at ease with one another. Distance needed to be created where there once had been unity. Suddenly there were secrets that needed to be kept, parts of themselves that needed to be hidden from one another and from God. The relationship was seriously damaged. And sin has been damaging relationships ever since. It damages our relationships with one another and it damages our relationship with God. When sin is in our lives, there is always something that we’ve got to hide, always part of ourselves that needs to be kept secret, always something that we cannot fully share. The stench of death and hell is always in our nostrils. And yet, there is always hope.
We’ve talked a lot about Eve this morning, but when we get to the New Testament, it is not Eve’s failure that we read about. It is Adam’s failure. The Apostle Paul says this in Romans chapter five: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.” The curse is reversed, and Jesus Christ is the one who reversed that curse.
One evening, on the night that he was betrayed, this man Jesus, took bread, and he blessed it, and he said, “Take and eat, this is my body.” That night, those two verbs, “take”, and “eat”, which had once brought communion with hell, when Eve took the fruit and ate it, now bring communion with heaven. Where once they brought death and destruction, they now bring healing and eternal life. God is good.
* “satan” is not capitalized, because I will not allow that despicable being even that much dignity.