Now the serpent was more subtle - We have here one of the most difficult as well as the most important narratives in the whole book of God. The last chapter ended with a short but striking account of the perfection and felicity of the first human beings, and this opens with an account of their transgression, degradation, and ruin. That man is in a fallen state, the history of the world, with that of the life and miseries of every human being, establishes beyond successful contradiction. But how, and by what agency, was this brought about? Here is a great mystery, and I may appeal to all persons who have read the various comments that have been written on the Mosaic account, whether they have ever yet been satisfied on this part of the subject, though convinced of the fact itself. Who was the serpent? of what kind? In what way did he seduce the first happy pair? These are questions which remain yet to be answered. The whole account is either a simple narrative of facts, or it is an allegory. If it be a historical relation, its literal meaning should be sought out; if it be an allegory, no attempt should be made to explain it, as it would require a direct revelation to ascertain the sense in which it should be understood, for fanciful illustrations are endless. Believing it to be a simple relation of facts capable of a satisfactory explanation, I shall take it up on this ground; and, by a careful examination of the original text, endeavor to fix the meaning, and show the propriety and consistency of the Mosaic account of the fall of man. The chief difficulty in the account is found in the question, Who was the agent employed in the seduction of our first parents?
The word in the text which we, following the Septuagint, translate serpent, is נחש nachash ; and, according to Buxtorf and others, has three meanings in Scripture.
In Ecclesiastes 10:11, the creature called nachash, of whatever sort, is compared to the babbler: Surely the serpent (נחש nachash ) will bite without enchantment; and a babbler is no better.
In Isaiah 27:1, the crocodile or alligator seems particularly meant by the original: In that day the Lord - shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, etc. And in Isaiah 65:25, the same creature is meant as in Genesis 3:1, for in the words, And dust shall be the serpent's meat, there is an evident allusion to the text of Moses. In Amos 9:3, the crocodile is evidently intended: Though they be hid in the bottom of the sea, thence will I command the serpent, (הנחש hannachash ) and he shall bite them. No person can suppose that any of the snake or serpent kind can be intended here; and we see from the various acceptations of the word, and the different senses which it bears in various places in the sacred writings, that it appears to be a sort of general term confined to no one sense. Hence it will be necessary to examine the root accurately, to see if its ideal meaning will enable us to ascertain the animal intended in the text. We have already seen that נחש nachash signifies to view attentively, to acquire knowledge or experience by attentive observation; so נחשתי nichashti, Genesis 30:27; : I have learned by experience; and this seems to be its most general meaning in the Bible. The original word is by the Septuagint translated οφις, a serpent, not because this was its fixed determinate meaning in the sacred writings, but because it was the best that occurred to the translators: and they do not seem to have given themselves much trouble to understand the meaning of the original, for they have rendered the word as variously as our translators have done, or rather our translators have followed them, as they give nearly the same significations found in the Septuagint: hence we find that οφις is as frequently used by them as serpent, its supposed literal meaning, is used in our version. And the New Testament writers, who seldom quote the Old Testament but from the Septuagint translation, and often do not change even a word in their quotations, copy this version in the use of this word. From the Septuagint therefore we can expect no light, nor indeed from any other of the ancient versions, which are all subsequent to the Septuagint, and some of them actually made from it. In all this uncertainty it is natural for a serious inquirer after truth to look everywhere for information. And in such an inquiry the Arabic may be expected to afford some help, from its great similarity to the Hebrew. A root in this language, very nearly similar to that in the text, seems to cast considerable light on the subject. Chanas or khanasa signifies he departed, drew off, lay hid, seduced, slunk away; from this root come akhnas, khanasa, and khanoos, which all signify an ape, or satyrus, or any creature of the simia or ape genus. It is very remarkable also that from the same root comes khanas, the Devil, which appellative he bears from that meaning of khanasa, he drew off, seduced, etc., because he draws men off from righteousness, seduces them from their obedience to God, etc., etc. See Golius, sub voce. Is it not strange that the devil and the ape should have the same name, derived from the same root, and that root so very similar to the word in the text? But let us return and consider what is said of the creature in question. Now the nachash was more subtle, ערום arum, more wise, cunning, or prudent, than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. In this account we find,
Had this creature never been known to speak before his addressing the woman at this time and on this subject, it could not have failed to excite her surprise, and to have filled her with caution, though from the purity and innocence of her nature she might have been incapable of being affected with fear. Now I apprehend that none of these things can be spoken of a serpent of any species.
All these things considered, we are obliged to seek for some other word to designate the nachash in the text, than the word serpent, which on every view of the subject appears to me inefficient and inapplicable. We have seen above that khanas, akhnas, and khanoos, signify a creature of the ape or satyrus kind. We have seen that the meaning of the root is, he lay hid, seduced, slunk away, etc.; and that khanas means the devil, as the inspirer of evil, and seducer from God and truth. See Golius and Wilmet. It therefore appears to me that a creature of the ape or ouran outang kind is here intended; and that Satan made use of this creature as the most proper instrument for the accomplishment of his murderous purposes against the life and soul of man. Under this creature he lay hid, and by this creature he seduced our first parents, and drew off or slunk away from every eye but the eye of God. Such a creature answers to every part of the description in the text: it is evident from the structure of its limbs and their muscles that it might have been originally designed to walk erect, and that nothing less than a sovereign controlling power could induce them to put down hands in every respect formed like those of man, and walk like those creatures whose claw-armed paws prove them to have been designed to walk on all fours. Dr. Tyson has observed in his anatomy of an ouran outang, that the seminal vessels passed between the two coats of the peritoneum to the scrotum, as in man; hence he argues that this creature was designed to walk erect, as it is otherwise in all quadrupeds. Philos. Trans., vol. xxi., p. 340. The subtlety, cunning, endlessly varied pranks and tricks of these creatures, show them, even now, to be more subtle and more intelligent than any other creature, man alone excepted. Being obliged now to walk on all fours, and gather their food from the ground, they are literally obliged to eat the dust; and though exceedingly cunning, and careful in a variety of instances to separate that part which is wholesome and proper for food from that which is not so, in the article of cleanliness they are lost to all sense of propriety; and though they have every means in their power of cleansing the aliments they gather off the ground, and from among the dust, yet they never in their savage state make use of any, except a slight rub against their side, or with one of their hands, more to see what the article is than to cleanse it. Add to this, their utter aversion to walk upright; it requires the utmost discipline to bring them to it, and scarcely anything irritates them more than to be obliged to do it. Long observation on some of these animals enables me to state these facts.
Should any person who may read this note object against my conclusions, because apparently derived from an Arabic word which is not exactly similar to the Hebrew, though to those who understand both languages the similarity will be striking; yet, as I do not insist on the identity of the terms, though important consequences have been derived from less likely etymologies, he is welcome to throw the whole of this out of the account. He may then take up the Hebrew root only, which signifies to gaze, to view attentively, pry into, inquire narrowly, etc., and consider the passage that appears to compare the nachash to the babbler. Ecclesiastes 10:11, and he will soon find, if he have any acquaintance with creatures of this genus, that for earnest, attentive watching, looking, etc., and for chattering or babbling, they have no fellows in the animal world. Indeed, the ability and propensity to chatter is all they have left, according to the above hypothesis, of their original gift of speech, of which I suppose them to have been deprived at the fall as a part of their punishment.
I have spent the longer time on this subject,
I think it can be no solid objection to the above mode of solution that Satan, in different parts of the New Testament, is called the serpent, the serpent that deceived Eve by his subtlety, the old serpent, etc., for we have already seen that the New Testament writers have borrowed the word from the Septuagint, and the Septuagint themselves use it in a vast variety and latitude of meaning; and surely the ouran outang is as likely to be the animal in question as נחש nachash and οφις ophis are likely to mean at once a snake, a crocodile, a hippopotamus, fornication, a chain, a pair of fetters, a piece of brass, a piece of steel, and a conjurer; for we have seen above that all these are acceptations of the original word. Besides, the New Testament writers seem to lose sight of the animal or instrument used on the occasion, and speak only of Satan himself as the cause of the transgression, and the instrument of all evil. If, however, any person should choose to differ from the opinion stated above, he is at perfect liberty so to do; I make it no article of faith, nor of Christian communion; I crave the same liberty to judge for myself that I give to others, to which every man has an indisputable right; and I hope no man will call me a heretic for departing in this respect from the common opinion, which appears to me to be so embarrassed as to be altogether unintelligible. See farther on Genesis 3:7-14, etc.
Yea, hath God said - This seems to be the continuation of a discourse of which the preceding part is not given, and a proof that the creature in question was endued with the gift of reason and speech, for no surprise is testified on the part of Eve.
- Section III - The Fall
- The Fall
1. נחשׁ nachash “serpent; related: hiss,” Gesenius; “sting,” Mey. ערוּם 'ārûm “subtle, crafty, using craft for defence.”
7. תפר tāpar “sew, stitch, tack together.” חגורה chăgôrâh “girdle, not necessarily apron.”
This chapter continues the piece commenced at Genesis 2:4. The same combination of divine names is found here, except in the dialogue between the serpent and the woman, where God (אלהים 'ĕlohı̂ym ) alone is used. It is natural for the tempter to use only the more distant and abstract name of God. It narrates in simple terms the fall of man.
The serpent is here called a “beast of the field”; that is, neither a domesticated animal nor one of the smaller sorts. The Lord God had made it, and therefore it was a creature called into being on the same day with Adam. It is not the wisdom, but the wiliness of the serpent which is here noted. This animal is destitute of arms or legs by which to escape danger. It is therefore thrown back upon instinct, aided by a quick and glaring eye, and a rapid dart and recoil, to evade the stroke of violence, and watch and seize the unguarded moment for inflicting the deadly bite. Hence, the wily and insidious character of its instinct, which is noticed to account for the mode of attack here chosen, and the style of the conversation. The whole is so deeply designed, that the origin and progress of evil in the breast is as nearly as possible such as it might have been had there been no prompter. No startling proposal of disobedience is made, no advice, no persuasion to partake of the fruit is employed. The suggestion or assertion of the false only is plainly offered; and the bewildered mind is left to draw its own false inferences, and pursue its own misguided course. The tempter addresses the woman as the more susceptible and unguarded of the two creatures he would betray. He ventures upon a half-questioning, half-insinuating remark: “It is so, then, that God hath said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden.” This seems to be a feeler for some weak point, where the fidelity of the woman to her Maker might be shaken. It hints at something strange, if not unjust or unkind, on the part of God. “Why was any tree withheld?” he would insinuate.
The woman gives the natural and distinct answer of unaffected sincerity to this suggestion. The deviations from the strict letter of the law are nothing more than the free and earnest expressions of her feelings. The expression, “neither shall ye touch it,” merely implies that they were not to meddle with it, as a forbidden thing.
The serpent now makes a strong and bold assertion, denying the deadly efficacy of the tree, or the fatal consequence of partaking of it, and affirming that God was aware that on the eating of it their eyes would be opened, and they would be like himself in knowing good and evil.
Let us remember that this was the first falsehood the woman ever heard. Her mind was also infantile as yet, so far as experience was concerned. The opening mind is naturally inclined to believe the truth of every assertion, until it has learned by experience the falsehood of some. There was also in this falsehood what gives the power to deceive, a great deal of truth combined with the element of untruth. The tree was not physically fatal to life, and the eating of it really issued in a knowledge of good and evil. Nevertheless, the partaking of what was forbidden issued in the legal and actual privation of life. And it did not make them know good and evil altogether, as God knows it, but in an experimental sense, as the devil knows it. In point of knowledge, they became like God; in point of morality, like the tempter.
And the woman saw. - She saw the tree, no doubt, and that it was likely to look upon, with the eye of sense. But only with the eye of fancy, highly excited by the hints of the tempter, did she see that it was good for food, and to be desired to make one wise. Appetite, taste, and philosophy, or the love of wisdom, are the great motives in the human breast which fancy assumes this tree will gratify. Other trees please the taste and the sight. But this one has the pre-eminent charm of administering not only to the sense, but also to the reason.
It would be rash to suppose that we can analyze that lightning process of instinctive thought which then took place in the mind of the woman; and worse than rash, it would be wrong, to imagine that we can show the rationale of what in its fundamental point was a violation of right reason. But it is evident from this verse that she attached some credit to the bold statement of the serpent, that the eating of the fruit would be attended with the extraordinary result of making them, like God himself, acquainted with good and evil, especially as it did not contradict any assertion of Yahweh, God, and was countenanced by the name, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It was evidently a new thought to her, that the knowledge of good and evil was to result from the eating of it. That God should know this, if a fact, was undeniable. Again, to know good and evil as the effect of partaking of it, implied that the consequence was not a cessation of existence, or of consciousness; for, if so, how could there be any knowledge? And, if death in her conception implied merely exclusion from the favor of God and the tree of life, might she not imagine that the new knowledge acquired, and the elevation to a new resemblance, or even equality to God himself in this respect, would be more than a compensation for such losses; especially as the disinterestedness of the divine motives had been at least called in question by the serpent? Here, no doubt, is a fine web of sophistry, woven by the excited fancy in an instant of time.
It is easy to say the knowledge of good and evil was not a physical effect of eating of the fruit; that the obtaining of this knowledge by partaking of it was an evil, and not a good in itself and in its consequences, as it was the origin of an evil conscience, which is in itself an unspeakable ill, and attended with the forfeiture of the divine favor, and of the tree of life, and with the endurance of all the positive misery which such a condition involves; and that the command of God was founded on the clearest right - that of creation - occasioned by the immediate necessity of defining the rights of man, and prompted by disinterested benevolence toward His intelligent creatures, whom He was framing for such intellectual and moral perfection, as was by them attainable. It is easy to cry out, How unreasonable was the conduct of the primeval pair! Let us not forget that any sin is unreasonable, unaccountable, essentially mysterious. In fact, if it were wholly reasonable, it would no longer be sin. Only a moment before, the woman had declared that God had said, “Of the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden, ye shall not eat.” Yet she now sees, and her head is so full of it that she can think of nothing else, that the tree is good for food and pleasant to the eyes, - as if there were no other good and pleasant trees in the garden, and, as she fancies, desirable to make one wise, like God; as if there were no other way to this wisdom but an unlawful one, and no other likeness to God but a stolen likeness - and therefore takes of the fruit and eats, and gives to her husband, and he eats! The present desire is without any necessity gratified by an act known to be wrong, at the risk of all the consequences of disobedience! Such is sin.
Their eyes were opened. - Certain immediate effects of the act are here stated. This cannot mean literally that they were blind up to this moment; for Adam, no doubt, saw the tree in the garden concerning which he received a command, the animals which he named, and the woman whom he recognized as bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. And of the woman it is affirmed that she saw that the tree possessed certain qualities, one of which at least was conspicuous to the eye.
It must therefore mean that a new aspect was presented by things on the commission of the first offence. As soon as the transgression is actually over, the sense of the wrongfulness of the act rushes on the mind. The displeasure of the great Being whose command has been disobeyed, the irretrievable loss which follows sin, the shame of being looked upon by the bystanders as a guilty thing, crowd upon the view. All nature, every single creature, seems now a witness of their guilt and shame, a condemning judge, an agent of the divine vengeance. Such is the knowledge of good and evil they have acquired by their fall from obedience - such is the opening of the eye which has requited their wrong-doing. What a different scene had once presented itself to the eyes of innocence! All had been friendly. All nature had bowed in willing obedience to the lords of the earth. Neither the sense nor the reality of danger had ever disturbed the tranquility of their pure minds.
They knew that they were naked. - This second effect results immediately from the consciousness of guilt. They now take notice that their guilty persons are exposed to view, and they shrink from the glance of every condemning eye. They imagine there is a witness of their guilt in every creature, and they conceive the abhorrence which it must produce in the spectator. In their infantile experience they endeavor to hide their persons, which they feel to be suffused all over with the blush of shame.
Accordingly, “they sewed the leaves of the fig,” which, we may suppose, they wrapped round them, and fastened with the girdles they had formed for this purpose. The leaves of the fig did not constitute the girdles, but the coverings which were fastened on with these. These leaves were intended to conceal their whole persons from observation. Job describes himself sewing sackcloth on his skin Job 16:15, and girding on sackcloth 1 Kings 20:32; Lamentations 2:10; Joel 1:8 is a familiar phrase in Scripture. The primitive sewing was some sort of tacking together, which is not more particularly described. Every operation of this sort has a rude beginning. The word “girdle” חגורה chăgôrâh ) signifies what girds on the dress.
Here it becomes us to pause for a moment that we may mark what was the precise nature of the first transgression. It was plainly disobedience to an express and well-understood command of the Creator. It matters not what was the nature of the command, since it could not be other than right and pure. The more simple and easy the thing enjoined, the more blameworthy the act of disobedience. But what was the command? Simply to abstain from the fruit of a tree, which was designated the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death. We have seen already that this command arose from the necessity of immediate legislation, and took its shape as the only possible one in the circumstances of the case. The special attraction, however, which the forbidden tree presented, was not its excellence for the appetite or pleasantness to the eyes, since these were common to all the trees, but its supposed power of conferring moral knowledge on those who partook of it, and, according to the serpent‘s explanation, making them like God in this important respect.
Hence, the real and obvious motive of the transgressor was the desire of knowledge and likeness to God. Whatever other lusts, therefore, may have afterwards come out in the nature of fallen man, it is plain that the lust after likeness to God in moral discernment was what originally brought forth sin in man. Sexual desire does not appear here at all. The appetite is excited by other trees as well as this. The desire of knowledge, and the ambition to be in some sense, divine, are alone special and prevalent as motives. Hence, it appears that God proved our first parents, not through any of the animal appetites, but through the higher propensities of their intellectual and moral nature. Though the occasion, therefore, may at first sight appear trivial, yet it becomes awfully momentous when we discover that the rectitude of God is impugned, his prerogative invaded, his command disregarded, his attribute of moral omniscience and all the imaginable advantages attendant thereupon grasped at with an eager and wilful hand. To disobey the command of God, imposed according to the dictates of pure reason, and with the authority of a Creator, from the vain desire of being like him, or independent of him, in knowledge, can never be anything but an offence of the deepest dye.
We are bound, moreover, to acknowledge and maintain, in the most explicit manner, the equity of the divine procedure in permitting the temptation of man. The only new thing here is the intervention of the tempter. It may be imagined that this deciever should have been kept away. But we must not speak with inconsiderate haste on a matter of such import. First. We know that God has not used forcible means to prevent the rise of moral evil among his intelligent creatures. We cannot with reason affirm that he should have done so; because, to put force on a voluntary act, and yet leave it voluntary, seems to reason a contradiction in terms, and, therefore, impossible; and unless an act be voluntary, it cannot have any moral character; and without voluntary action, we cannot have a moral agent. Second. We know that God does not immediately annihilate the evil-doer. Neither can we with reason that he ought to have done so; for, to lay an adequate penalty on sin, and then put the sinner out of existence, so that this penalty can never be exacted, seems to reason a moral inconsistency, and, therefore, impossible in a being of moral perfection.
Third. We know that God does not withdraw the evil-doer from all contact with other moral agents. Here, again, reason does not constrain us to pronounce that it is expedient so to do; for the innocent ought, and it is natural that they should, learn a holy abhorrence of sin, and a salutary dread of its penalty, from these waifs of society, rather than follow their pernicious example. The wrong-doers are not less under the control of God than if they were in the most impenetrable dungeon; while they are at the same time constant beacons to warn others from transgression. He leaves them to fill up the measure of their inequity, while the intelligent world are cognizant of their guilt, that they may acknowledge the justice of their punishment, and comprehend the infinite holiness of the judge of all the earth. Fourth. We know that God tries his moral creatures. Abraham, Job, and all his saints have to undergo their trial.
He suffered the Lord Jesus Christ, the second Adam, to be tempted. And we must not expect the first Adam to be exempted from the common ordeal. We can only be assured that his justice will not allow his moral creatures to be at any disadvantage in the trial. Accordingly, first, God himself in the first instance speaks to Adam, and gives him an explicit command not arbitrary in its conception, but arising out of the necessity of the case. And it is plain that Eve was perfectly aware that he had himself imposed this prohibition. Second. The tempter is not allowed to appear in his proper person to our first parents. The serpent only is seen or heard by them - a creature inferior to themselves, and infinitely beneath the God who made them, and condescended to communicate with them with the authority of a father. Third. The serpent neither threatens nor directly persuades; much less is he permitted to use any means of compulsion: he simply falsities. As the God of truth had spoken to them before, the false insinuation places them at no disadvantage.
Man has now come to the second step in morals - the practice. Thereby he has come to the knowledge of good and evil, not merely as an ideal, but as an actual thing. But he has attained this end, not by standing in, but by falling from, his integrity. If he had stood the test of this temptation, as he might have done, he would have come by the knowledge of good and evil equally well, but with a far different result. As he bore the image of God in his higher nature, he would have resembled him, not only in knowledge, thus honorably acquired by resisting temptation, but also in moral good, thus realized in his own act and will. As it is, he has gained some knowledge in an unlawful and disastrous way; but he has also taken in that moral evil, which is the image, not of God, but of the tempter, to whom he has yielded.
This result is rendered still more lamentable when we remember that these transgressors constituted the human race in its primeval source. In them, therefore, the race actually falls. In their sin the race is become morally corrupt. In their guilt the race is involved in guilt. Their character and doom descend to their latest posterity.
We have not yet noticed the circumstance of the serpent‘s speaking, and of course speaking rationally. This seems to have awakened no attention in the tempted, and, so far as we see, to have exercised no influence on their conduct. In their inexperience, it is probable that they did not yet know what was wonderful, and what not; or, in preciser terms, what was supernatural, and what natural. But even if they had known enough to be surprised at the serpent speaking, it might have told in opposite ways upon their conclusions. On the one hand, Adam had seen and named the serpent, and found in it merely a mute, irrational animal, altogether unfit to be his companion, and therefore he might have been amazed to hear him speak, and, shall we say, led to suspect a prompter. But, on the other hand, we have no reason to suppose that Adam had any knowledge or suspicion of any creature but those which had been already brought before him, among which was the serpent. He could, therefore, have no surmise of any superior creature who might make use of the serpent for its own purposes. We question whether the thought could have struck his mind that the serpent had partaken of the forbidden fruit, and thereby attained to the marvellous elevation from brutality to reason and speech. But, if it had, it would have made a deep impression on his mind of the wonderful potency of the tree. These considerations apply with perhaps still greater force to Eve, who was first deceived.
But to us who have a more extensive experience of the course of nature, the speaking of a serpent cannot be regarded otherwise than as a preternatural occurrence. It indicates the presence of a power above the nature of the serpent, possessed, too, by a being of a malignant nature, and at enmity with God and truth; a spiritual being, who is able and has been permitted to make use of the organs of the serpent in some way for the purposes of temptation. But while for a wise and worthy end this alien from God‘s home is permitted to test the moral character of man, he is not allowed to make any appearance or show any sign of his own presence to man. The serpent alone is visibly present; the temptation is conducted only through words uttered by bodily organs, and the tempted show no suspicion of any other tempter. Thus, in the disposal of a just Providence, man is brought into immediate contact only with an inferior creature, and therefore has a fair field in the season of trial. And if that creature is possessed by a being of superior intelligence, this is only displayed in such a manner as to exert no influence on man but that of suggestive argument and false assertion.
The glad tidings of salvation are to be taken to those who have not yet heard them. Satan is determined to place God's people in a false light before the world. He is pleased when their lives reveal defects, when they cherish objectionable traits of character. These traits of character he uses in his service. He tries to keep God's people in a continual state of uncertainty by bringing in false theories and false science. He seeks to deceive them as he deceived Adam and Eve. He would lead them to depart from God, their true Counselor, and accept his spiritualistic sophistries. With these sophistries clothed in the garments of light, he seeks to deceive if possible the very elect. TDG 325.2Read in context »
When our first parents were placed in the beautiful garden of Eden, they were tested in regard to their loyalty to God. They were free to choose the service of God, or by disobedience to ally themselves with the enemy of God and man.... If they disregard God's commands, and listened to the voice of Satan, as he spoke through the serpent, they would not only forfeit their claim to Eden, but to life itself.15 TMK 14.2Read in context »
Many complain that Jesus seems a long way off. Who has placed Him a long way off? Has it not been your own course of action that has separated you from Jesus? He has not forsaken you, but you have forsaken Him for other lovers.... It is when you wander from His side, and are charmed with the voice of the seducer, and fasten your affections upon some trifling thing, that you are in danger of losing your peace and trust and confidence in God.... Then it is that Satan presents to you the thought that Jesus has forsaken you; but is it not that you have forsaken Jesus? ... We dare not let His name languish on our lips, and His love and memory die out of our hearts. OHC 30.3Read in context »