The story of Adam and Eve is one of the ‘Sunday School’ passages of the Bible that can easily lose their impact through over-familiarity. It’s a good story, but it also belongs to a bit of the Bible that we treat as distinct from the history books or the gospels. Life works differently in Genesis 1-11, as if the world hasn’t quite worked out the rules it’s supposed to keep just yet. Animals talk, people live to unbelievably advanced ages, divine beings mix with humans, and it’s possible to fit collections of animals from every species in the entire world on the same boat.
The standard debate around the Creation account focuses on history vs allegory, but in explaining why things are the way they are, these chapters rely more on observational wisdom and paranomasia – or, to put it another way, common sense and puns. Since this approach is good enough for the writer of Genesis, it will also be adopted here.
The Creation narrative is full of wordplay. The first human [’ādām] is formed from the ground [’adāmāh], animated with the breath of life from God (Genesis 2:7). The woman [’isshāh] is created from the man [’îsh]. And whilst Adam and Eve are naked [‘arûmîm], the snake is the most cunning [‘ārûm] animal in the garden. The assumption has often been that a direct link is intended here. ‘It has been suggested that the function of the wordplay is to establish a connection between the two verses, teaching that nakedness causes temptation; to emphasize that Adam and Eve were aware of their nakedness because of the serpent’s cunning; or to indicate that because Adam and Eve were naked, innocent and oblivious of evil, the serpent was able to use his cunning to mislead them.’
Alternatively, it might just be a handy turn of phrase to introduce the next chapter, with the writer engaging in a kind of Eddie Izzard-style free association approach to his narrative (minus the Saxon language). It’s one of many uncertainties about Genesis 2-3, our assumptions about which tend to reveal more about us than they do about the Bible.
‘I can resist anything except temptation’ – Oscar Wilde
Another of these uncertainties concerns the serpent’s strategy of approaching Eve, rather than Adam, and nudging her towards that tree.
Why Eve? Is it because she’s female? Or because Adam was the one that God forbid to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17), and she has only received the message indirectly from him and isn’t quite so clear about the precise terms and conditions? Or perhaps the snake knew that she held influence over Adam, and that he needed her on board if the plan was to succeed. Perhaps Eve did the majority of the catering in the relationship. Or perhaps she was just the one the snake happened to meet first.
As an aside, on the forbidden fruit itself, the Bible just has perî (fruit), which does not shed much light on matters. Biblical scholars abhor a vacuum and have made various efforts to fill the gap. Traditionally it is identified as an apple, probably due to wordplay on the Latin Vulgate’s malum (Latin malus pumila, cf. malic acid), meaning both evil and apple (making a bad apple a malum malum). The pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch describes it as a kind of tamarind tree (1 Enoch 31:4), and throughout history and in classical art there have been various other suggestions from pomegranates to – unconvincingly – very large hallucinogenic mushrooms. A forbidden fig appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, perhaps because Adam and Eve use fig leaves for clothes, or because the fig is a symbol of female sexuality in the Bible.
God has warned Eve that eating the fruit will lead to certain death. The snake tells Eve that the fruit will instead make her ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (Genesis 3:5). This is, indeed, an attractive deal, and one she considers worth taking the risk for – especially when it turns out that ‘the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom’. Would the story have ended differently if the fruit had been something less attractive, like a kiwi or an onion? Because it seems that gaining wisdom was the main attraction, but what really clinched the final decision was that it looked tasty. Eve picks some fruit and takes it to Adam, and they eat it together. Adam, for obvious reasons not given to navel gazing, goes right along with it. In the era before clothes or defined gender roles, it’s clear who wears the trousers.
Suddenly realising they are naked, Adam and Eve make underwear out of fig leaves and, hearing God’s voice, take cover among the trees. God asks Adam where he is and Adam tells him that they are hiding because they are afraid, on account of being naked (the Hebrew word can mean partially clothed). God immediately realises what has happened and, both literally and figuratively, calls them out. Under interrogation Adam breaks and gives up Eve, who in turn passes the buck onto the serpent.
Crime and punishment
Adam and Eve do not die, at least not instantly, as a result of eating the fruit – though death and suffering are introduced to the world with permanent consequences.
The immediate results of the Fall are telling. As a result of the rift in their relationship with God, Adam and Eve are also divorced from their essential natures. Adam, the first earthling, loses his relationship with the soil. From now on, his work of working the land and being a steward of creation will be an uphill struggle. Producing food will entail toil.
Eve, once a part of Adam as Adam was a part of the soil, loses her relationship with him. From now on, relations between them will be less than perfect. Imperfection is also introduced into her role as life-giver (it is only in 3:20 that Adam calls her Eve [chavvah], ‘because she was the mother of all the living [chay]’): ‘in pain you shall bring forth children’ (Genesis 3:16).
As for the snake, his cunning [‘ārûm] gets him cursed [‘ārûr] to crawl on the ground and eat dust, which is itself cursed. There will also be mistrust between snakes and humans forever. It is interesting that this is framed not in terms of Adam, but of Eve. She was the one the snake deceived, and so ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.’
There are plenty of lessons in the Eden story, nuancing the usual Sunday School message of simply avoiding temptation.
One is about the way we come to sin. Adam and Eve didn’t suddenly find themselves in a position to eat the fruit. Eve was approached by the snake, alone. She evidently found Adam and they went to the tree. From the outset, she must have had in mind what they were going to do. (It’s almost certain the conversation included the words, ‘We’re only going to look...’) This was not a spur-of-the-moment thing: like many temptations, it was considered in advance and approached progressively. She had a conversation with the snake. She found Adam. They went to the tree. They looked more closely at the fruit. Then they picked it, and then ate it. It’s worth recognising that her rebellion against God began not when she bit the fruit but when she first entertained the snake’s idea and walked towards the tree with Adam.
Then there’s the idea that we might argue ourselves into a course of action due to motives that seem high, even if they’re wrong, but a significant reason might be something altogether more mundane. Godlike knowledge of Good and Evil is a tempting prize, but the Bible notes that the decision was helped by the simple fact that the fruit looked tasty. How many decisions in personal lives and throughout history have been justified on the grounds of ideology, but ultimately come down to the ‘incidental’ benefits like money, fame, sex, and so on?
Lastly, there’s the way that sin impacted Adam and Eve’s relationship with God, Creation, each other and even themselves. There is something about the consequences of their sin that affected their essential natures and the reasons they were put on the earth. The lesson is that sin does the same for us. We were created in the image of God and sin makes us less a reflection of him, further away from what we are meant to be. If we have particular talents or callings, sin in these areas risks compromising our ministries – and equally, they are likely to be where some of the greatest temptations arise.
 Zvi Ron, ‘Wordplay in Genesis 2:25-3:1’, Jewish Bible Quarterly vol. 42, no. 1, 2014.
This article was originally featured in our October 2017 Engage Newsletter.