The Serpent Gets a Bad Rap

Robert Crumb artwork
Why doesn’t anyone ever think of the serpent as humankind’s liberator instead of some villain who got us kicked out of Eden? Why does Eve take the blame for listening to the serpent instead of being considered another hero for taking a bold step to ensure our collective freedom?

Okay, I know the whole Genesis-Eden-Adam-and-Eve story is an allegory, and not meant to be taken as fact. But the story pervades Western culture (our literature and art are full of it) so that even a nonbeliever knows the details. The tale has informed religious and social policy for millennia, and was instrumental in establishing and maintaining the Western patriarchies.

But what if the popular interpretation all these years has been wrong? What if the tale has been told in a slanted way to shore up orthodox theological and patriarchal viewpoints rather than tell us something about free will and freedom? Let me explain.

The story of the Garden of Eden is told in Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 2, right after the second creation myth.* It continues through the next chapter (3) and ends with the humans being kicked out of Eden. Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve. But let’s look at some of the verses.

Chapter 2: The Garden of Eden gets created in verse 8. And in verse 9 it is planted with “every tree pleasant to see and good to eat, and the Tree of Life in the midst of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.” I guess those unpleasant trees with bitter fruit are planted elsewhere. I wonder if lemon trees were in the Garden? Lemons are good for you, even if not too pleasant to eat by themselves.

A river is added in verse 10, flowing out of Eden from somewhere in the Garden.  No mention of anything but trees, mind you. No bushes, flowers, cacti, lilies, moss, lichens. Just trees and a river. And, we assume, dirt for the trees to grow in. Not exactly Kew Gardens.

In verse 15, that newly-created man is placed “in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.” So this looks like a forced labour camp, not a vacation spa. Okay, it has nice trees in it, but they have to be guarded. From what? There aren’t any animals there. Guard with what? He doesn’t have any weapons or even tools.  Just guard the damn things. The man doesn’t get a choice: he’s put to work. Guarding and working. 

In verse 16, the man is told he can freely eat “of every tree of the garden.” So he’s a vegetarian, eating nothing but fruit and presumably nuts. At least he can drink from the river, which apparently is unpolluted by animal or bird feces at this point.

That raises an awkward question: where does he defecate and urinate? An all-fruit diet can lead to runny stool, maybe even diarrhea. That’s an important issue that will arise again later. Keep in mind this guy’s guarding trees barefoot and naked, but as payment for those services, he only gets to eat from the trees. Hope that fruit isn’t too high up, because he hasn’t got a ladder. 

But not all of the trees are on the menu. He gets warned in verse 17 that “… of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” Seems okay to nibble on the Tree of Life, though. Maybe. It doesn’t get mentioned again for many verses so it’s questionable. Okay, let’s stop a moment and consider this.

Here’s the creator telling the man (he hasn’t been named yet) that there’s a tree in the garden that will tell him about good and evil. But since he’s fresh from the oven, so to speak, the man doesn’t know what those concepts represent. He’s innocent. So the warning is like me telling you “The Gostak distim the Doshes.” But just in case the man gets curious and wants to take a bite, he’s threatened that it will kill him that same day. We’ll soon learn it doesn’t, which raises another question: was the creator lying? Or perhaps the creator wasn’t capable of carrying out that threat? Why make it if you can’t or won’t follow through? And what sort of deity is it who rules by threat of violence?

And no, it’s not an apple tree. The bible doesn’t say what sort of fruit is hanging on the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. It could as easily be bananas. Some scholars think the tree became an apple in pop culture because the Latin word for apple is spelled the same as that for evil (malum). Latin, of course, is not around at this time, and won’t be for many more millennia.

And it’s not a Tree of General Knowledge, a sort of botanical Wikipedia. The man won’t learn about farming, sex, making a fire, sewing buttons, hunting, baking bread, fishing, building houses, or even guarding trees. He won’t learn anything practical, just how to discriminate between good and bad. But wait, you ask, isn’t that really a subjective qualification? A relative distinction? At least at this point in the bible there are no absolute moral statements made. The Ten Commandments are a few millennia in the future. He’s alone in the world, with no one to be good or bad to, and no one making laws to obey. Maybe he’ll only learn is what’s good or bad about guarding trees.

Back to work. Guarding trees from nothing without any tools isn’t too taxing, so in verse 19 the creator decides to give the man more work. Without, it seems, more pay. The creator formed “…from the earth every beast of the field and every fowl of the heavens.” Suddenly the Garden is crowded and noisy. What can all these animals and birds eat?

The man is given the thankless job of giving them all names. I wonder how the man came up with names like platypus, lemur, and aardvark. Or how long it took him to name everything. Probably a good thing he didn’t have to name all the fishes and insects, too. But, apparently, he named the serpent… serpent. That’s the name that is used in later verses.

Hmmm. Do flightless birds count as “fowl from the heavens”? And why aren’t insects mentioned, because they are necessary to pollinate all those fruit trees. Am I expecting too much from a simple allegory? Wouldn’t all those animals and birds soon eat all the fruit in the Garden and leave the man hungry?

Wait a second… there are thousands of species of birds and animals on this planet. Where were they all put? Was Eden large enough to contain them all? How many of each were created? Why even name them at all? Sure seems like a make-work project. Keep the man too busy to think about that Tree.

And what about their poo? The man is walking around barefoot and naked amidst all this animal and bird poo. Think of the mounds of elephant and rhinoceros and walrus and giraffe and buffalo and horse poo, plus all the other poo and pee from the rest of the animals and birds. It would be messy and stinky. And he’s going to have to add to those piles with some of his own after all that fruit.

This is looking more like a forced-labour zoo than a paradise. And since he was by himself, I suspect the man was not really enjoying his job at this point. After all, there’s no prospect of career advancement and the hours are long.

How did those animals get from this garden in the Middle East to places like North America, Australia, China, and New Zealand after they got named? How did they cross the oceans to populate the planet (especially those flightless birds)?

So in verse 21, the creator decides the Garden needs another unpaid co-worker. The man is put into a deep sleep for some unrequested, involuntary surgery: “He took one of his sides, and He closed the flesh in its place.”

This removed flesh is cloned and genetically modified into a woman (verse 22). By which we’re given the hint the creator is a genetic scientist doing experimental work on an unsuspecting patient. That’s the stuff of scifi and horror stories: The Garden of Dr. Moreau.

After naming thousands of animals and birds, with a remarkable lack of imagination, the man names the woman, woman: “This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man).” That probably explains why he called the serpent, serpent. With that imagination, I am frankly surprised that he didn’t call the fowls: bird one, bird two, bird three, bird four, another bird, another bird two, and so on.

So now both of these workers wandered about in the trees, naked and barefoot, with all the animal pee and poo, doing whatever they must do to guard the garden, even though they still haven’t been told what to guard it from or what to use. In fact, the woman isn’t told to do anything. She’s just there while the man guards trees. They’re naked and they weren’t ashamed as Chapter two ends (verse 25). Seems that sex and being ashamed are conflated here.

We open Chapter 3 with an aside that tells us “…the serpent was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field.” We’re not told what cunning means in the context of being an animal. Alone of all the thousands of birds and animals, only the serpent is able to talk, which makes you wonder why the man never had a conversation with it. After all, it must have been lonely being alone guarding trees. Clearly this a favoured creature if the creator didn’t make more talking animals. And not just small talk: the serpent can argue like a lawyer.

But the serpent apparently only speaks to the woman, possibly realizing the man didn’t have the wits to hold much of a conversation. The serpent and woman converse about eating the fruit of the Tree. The serpent shrugs off the creator’s threat and says, “You will surely not die. For God knows that on the day that you eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like angels, knowing good and evil.” (verses 4 and 5). 

 That sort of takes the wind out of any claim that the creator is either omnipotent or omniscient because here’s a serpent that was created out of dirt contradicting the creator. And the serpent is right, we learn in a few more verses. We’ll also learn that the “serpent” walks on legs (two or four, it isn’t made clear, but later tradition puts it on two) so it’s more like a lizard. Or a dragon. It certainly wasn’t the snake pictured in all those medieval paintings.

Did the woman have any better understanding of these terms, good and evil than the man, since she hasn’t been subjected to them yet? Maybe not, but she must have been curious. I know I’d be, if a lizard came up and started talking to me about trees and fruit.

But I still wonder why the serpent suggests angels would know about good and evil, given that at this point there’s nothing around to identify as either. Trees can’t be good or evil. Nor can birds and animals, There are a mere two humans and they don’t know what these terms mean. Who are these angels anyway and why aren’t they doing some of the work? Why make the two humans do it all? It looks more like Planet of the Apes for our species than paradise.

In verse 6, the woman (as yet also unnamed aside from ishah) figures what the hell and eats a piece of fruit from the Tree. Since no alarms go off and she doesn’t die, she must realize the serpent was telling the truth. She finds the man and “also to her husband with her, and he ate.” I can’t quite figure out how they got from two naked strangers to being husband and wife without a ceremony in between.

Apparently eating the fruit made them prudish, as verse 7 tells us: “And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves and made themselves girdles.”

So, naked is now bad? Why? Surely there are other things that are worse. There are no other humans to see them, and they’ve been guarding the trees in the nude all this time without blushing over the jiggly bits. The pair won’t get around to sex and children until Chapter 4. The animals surely don’t care. Even the talking, walking serpent doesn’t crack any lewd comments. 

(Yeah, you’re going to ask how they knew to sew and what tools they had to sew with, or why they chose fig leaves (they would have been sticky and uncomfortable) but I don’t know either. It’s likely just another metaphor. Let’s move on.)

What strikes me here is that the woman is clearly the more curious, the more adventurous of the two humans, and the only one of the two willing to try something different. And why not? After all, she hasn’t been told NOT to eat the fruit of the Tree by anyone, although she seems to know about the order (who told her?). Nor has she been told to guard the trees, and all the animals have already been named. She’s really been given no role to play. She’s probably bored just walking around the garden, trying to avoid the piles of poo and the puddles of pee. 

Here are these two humans, the only ones on the planet so far, and even with the fig leaves, they are ashamed. Doesn’t make sense to me, but they hide. Maybe they couldn’t pluck enough leaves to cover everything. Then the creator comes strolling by in the garden (which opens a whole raft of questions about the creator’s size, appearance, and nakedness). Seeing no one guarding the trees, he (she? it?) calls out; the man answers saying he was afraid because he’s naked. Well, aside from the fig leaves, which he doesn’t seem to remember he’s wearing. But why afraid? Why not just embarrassed?

The three get into a conversation about eating the fruit and end up blaming the serpent (verses 8-14). You’d think that now being aware of good and evil, they wouldn’t descend to blaming someone else. But, apparently, the Tree of Taking Responsibility wasn’t in the Garden.

In verse 15, the creator is pissed and metes out punishment like an angry prison guard. The serpent’s legs are shorn off, and it becomes quadriplegic (becoming a snake for the first time). And made speechless, we assume, although it’s not stated. It is “cursed … more than all the cattle and more than all the beasts of the field” which makes me wonder what the other beasts did to attract the creator’s wrath and get cursed. Maybe all that pee and poo got to the creator?

The serpent is condemned to “eat dust all the days of your life.” I take that metaphorically because snakes don’t literally eat dirt.

Even though she didn’t technically do anything wrong (like I said no one ordered her not to eat the fruit), the woman, and all women who follow, are cursed to suffer pain in pregnancy and childbirth. For the man (and, we presume, all his descendants too), the ground he walks on is cursed. He is forced to farm the soil in order to eat. “Thorns and thistles” will grow, “and you shall eat the herbs of the field.” This sounds like a nice change: a salad after all that fruit. Even better yet, in verse 19 the man is told “With the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” Bread and salad. Things are looking up. Can we get a little cheese in the future, too?

But they don’t die. The threat of death is transmuted into living a mere natural lifetime (were they immortal before this?). They will live “until you return to the ground, for you were taken therefrom, for dust you are, and to dust you will return.” Which doesn’t seem like too much of a threat. More like the way of nature. 

It’s not over quite yet. First of all, in verse 20 the man abruptly and incongruously gives the woman a name: “Eve, because she was the mother of all life.” Why he didn’t do that earlier, or why he dropped calling her ishah, I can’t say. He doesn’t strike me as the brightest of the lot.

The creator gets into fashion designer mode here. He (she? it?) decides fig leaves are unsuitable attire, so in verse 21, he dresses them in “shirts of skin.” Whose skin? What animal died for them? What about pants of skin? Or hats of skin? But at least they have some clothing. It just keeps getting better. Wonder if they finally got shoes, too.

But even all dressed up, they can’t stay in the garden. There’s a chance they might eat from the Tree of Life (it reappears in the narrative at this point) and become immortal. Which seems to contradict all the brouhaha over the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil. No one was ever told not to eat from the Tree of Life, Why didn’t the two humans eat from it when they had the chance and it was allowed?

The creator exiles the pair from the Garden of Eden, away trying to avoid stepping in all that pee and poo. It seems a somewhat ungrateful reward, for all of the work guarding and naming. They go out to “till the soil” while the creator puts “cherubim and the blade of the revolving sword” to guard the way to the Tree of Life. Why these beings weren’t assigned to guard it sooner, or why they didn’t guard the Tree of Knowledge to prevent anyone getting near it is not explained. 

Nor are we told why an allegedly omniscient creator wouldn’t know that the fruit-eating episode would take place. Why would an omniscient creator get angry over something he (she? it?) knew would happen? In fact, a creator who made it happen in the first place. And why pick on the serpent who was only fulfilling its inevitable role in this story? Without the serpent, humans would still be guarding trees naked in some magical tree farm and trying not to walk in all the animal pee and poo. The serpent was a martyr who helped free us from bondage.

I look at this story and see a weak, somewhat clueless and obedient man being helped to escape the drudgery of forced labour by a courageous, intellectually curious woman. Of the pair, only she seems to exercise any free will: the man just does what he’s told. She and the serpent stood up to the authoritarian regime so the pair could escape from this faux paradise into the real world. The serpent suffered for telling her the truth about the effects of eating the fruit.

I think we’ve been taught the wrong lessons from this story. Both the woman and the serpent deserve our kudos, not castigation. Maybe the real story we should celebrate is how we broke free of the gods, not how we stayed in thrall to them.

~~~~~

* Yes, there are two creation myths and they aren’t in the same order. There are significant differences and contradictions. For example, in the first, a man and a woman are created on day six after all the other plants and animals, but in the second only a man is created, and that is done before plants and animals. In fact, in the second myth, animals don’t get created until after Eden has been made, and the man is placed in it. Woman is created much later in the second myth, after the man is already in Eden, out of the man’s rib. What happened to the woman created in the first creation myth and the one created in the Garden of Eden is never explained. Maybe she got tired of watching over trees and left. The creation process is documented over seven days in the first account, but in the second seems to take only one day. You can read about the differences here,

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