The Challenge (Genesis 3)

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At this point, all looks well. God has created a good creation, fit for purpose. Humans live in that Creation, enjoying a garden paradise under God’s rule and blessing. They are responsible for caring for and ruling over creation. Then things start to go wrong

The Enemy

The Serpent’s cunning (v1). The snake is introduced as a new character in the narrative. It is described as “more crafty”[1] than the other creatures or “the shrewdest”[2]. This suggests a quality associated specifically with that animal. Different creatures take on particular metaphorical characteristics. For example, we are told to be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves.”[3]  Wenham notes that “explicit characterisation of actors in the story is rare in Hebrew narrative”[4] In other words, labelling the serpent as shrewd is significant to the story and meant to get our attention. It suggests that “Perhaps we should not take his words at face value as the woman did.”[5] There is also some word play between nakedness (arom) – the human condition and shrewdness (arum) -what they aspired to.[6]

It is still a creature however, made by God.  This will be important to remember as the story unfolds and we decide whether or not we can believe its claims. This also reminds us of the vital theological distinction between Creator and creature.

Who is the snake?  At first glance, we might take it to be simply a creature speaking in its own right. However, there are a few other options.

  • That it is simply a creature, acting and speaking for itself. This would mean that animals were able to talk before The Fall.
  • That it is a spiritual being taking the form of and possessing a dumb animal and speaking through it.
  • That it is a spiritual being who speaks with Eve and that we are not intended to think of it as appearing as a snake but rather that its cunning is “snake-like. ”In other words we have metaphorical personification similar to Jesus’  description of Herod as “that old fox”[7] or John’s announcement of Jesus as “The lamb of God.”[8] I Ancient Israel may then have associated the snake/serpent symbol with other surrounding powers and opponents such as the Ancient Egyptians or the Canaanites and with their associated creation myths.[9]

I believe that the second option fits best both with the immediate narrative and what we learn from the rest of Scripture because

  • God chooses to specifically curse the snake -so that this creature is historically associated with The Fall
  • We know from the rest of Scripture that there is a spiritual power, Satan, who is hostile to God and his people.
  • Scripture shows that spiritual beings are able to take on physical form and to speak through creatures. This includes angels and God himself appearing in human form and even speaking through a donkey[10]

The Temptation

“Did God really say?” (3:1b). Genesis now reports a conversation between the woman and the serpent. Note the repetition of the verb amor “To speak” echoing ch 1 where God repeatedly speaks. Here however God is silent until v 9. It is just the woman and the serpent speaking.  God’s words are reported (or misreported) and challenged but they do not listen directly to him.

The Serpent specifically challenges God’s command. “Did he really tell you that he could not eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?” Wenham notes also a distancing of God.  Elsewhere he is Yahweh Elohim, Lord god -symbolising his covenant lordship and love for his people, here he is simply Elohim.[11]

Eve responds, “of course we may eat” (3:2-3)  “but we cannot eat or even touch from the tree in the middle of the Garden.”  This seems to include an added, stricter prohibition than what is given in chapter 2.  It is possible that this is part of the general gist of God’s instruction summarised as “do not eat” in chapter 2 but it is also possible and likely that she is adding her own restrictions, misreporting God leads to a more legalistic view.[12]

“You won’t die” (3:4-5).  The phrase is usually translated emphatically as “You surely will not die” or “you certainly will not die”  though it is also possible that the serpent is introducing some ambiguity and the phrase could be “It’s not certain that you will die.”[13] The truth of God’s word is challenged. And God’s motive is challenged.  “God has said this because he knows you will become like him.” The temptation is to become as God or to be gods. Remember though that there is a sense in which the man and woman are already like God – made in his image

“She saw…” (3:6). In Genesis 1, it is God who looks and evaluates, declaring his creation to be good. Here, the woman now looks and evaluates. She observes three things about the tree, that its fruit was good for eating, that it was pleasing to look at and that it was desirable for gaining wisdom and insight.   So, she responds, takes and eats, giving some to her husband who “was with her.”  Up until this point, Adam has gone unmentioned. We may have been tempted to assume that he was absent and that the woman was left to make her own independent decisions. However, it is clear from the text that he was present, albeit silent and passive.

The Consequence

“Their eyes were opened…” (v 7). They do acquire new knowledge. The serpent may be right about new knowledge but the affect is negative not positive.  They see their nakedness and now it causes shame. They attempt to make clothes from fig leaves.

“The man and his wife heard the Lord…” (v8) God makes his presence known, walking in the garden[14], literally in “the breath of the day” or the evening which the NLT captures as “when the cool evening breezes were blowing.”  This is the first time in this chapter that God’s voice is heard.

He calls to the man and woman “Where are you?” (3:9).  Adam responds “I heard you walking in the garden, so I hid. I was afraid because I was naked.” (3:10). God draws the link for them, that their awareness of nakedness has come from eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.  What does it mean for humans to know evil as well as good? It means to know shame and guilt.

“It was the woman…” (3:12) The next consequence of disobedience is blame and blame shifting. The man blames the woman who in turn blames the snake. There is surely some irony in that the man and woman who were made in God’s image and told to rule over and subdue the creatures have listened to and obeyed a creature.


 “Because you have done this…” (3:14). Having heard from the man and the woman, God now casts judgement. He starts with the serpent.  It has risen up and sought an exalted position in the creation order, now it is brought low. It must crawl in the dust. As mentioned earlier -this suggests that the enemy is not merely a metaphorical snake but rather in some way is embodied by a literal serpent.

I will cause hostility between you and the woman.” (3:15).   There will be generational conflict “your seed and her seed.” Is this simply about a phobia of snakes?  No, there’s also the promise that “He will strikeyour head,and you will strike his heel” which Christian commentators down through the ages have read as being the earliest prophecy of Christ’s coming.[15]

The woman is told “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy…” (3:16). Pain and suffering enter into the very heart of the positive blessings and duties that God has given to humans. In chapter 1, they were blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply. Now the woman is told that as she fulfils that command to multiply, her pain will be multiplied.

 “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” is a fairly literal translation of 3:17. Some interpreters read it as negative and a further sign of judgement with pain and struggle entering to the very heart of human relationships. This is because the wording and syntax are echoed in Genesis 4 where God warns Cain regarding sin that it is crouching at his door and again, literally:

“its desire is for you and you must rule over it.”[16]

So, for example, the NLT reads:

“And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”

In that case, “desire” here would be about the aim to possess and control whilst Adam’s rule” over woman would be a case of enforced subjugation, a battle of the sexes if you will.

However, in other places, both these concepts of “desire” and “rule” are treated positively so that a number of commentators think that there is actually an element of grace here in the midst of judgement.[17]

I think that we would be wise to be cautious, particularly as the whole concept of a “battle of the sexes” with male-female relationships as a problem that needs solving is a fairly recent, modern concept.[18]

 “Since you listened” 3:17). Now God addresses the man.  A Key theme in the passage has been who speaks and who pays attention. Adam chose to listen to other voices (his wife and implicitly the serpent) over God’s voice.

As with the woman, creation duties and blessings now become a struggle. The earth is cursed. He must battle with thorns and thistles. Food and eating will come only with sweat and toil

Death is coming as promised. So first of all, there is death because the land is cursed. Secondly,  he will experience physical death. He will know mortality.

“…until you return to the ground from which you were made.

For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”[19]

“Then the man—Adam—named his wife Eve” (3:20) There is another naming event. Eve means life -and the woman is the mother of all human life.

 “And the Lord God made clothing from animal skins for Adam and his wife.” (3:21) There are two hints of grace here in Genesis 3. The first is when God promises a saviour -the descendent of the woman who will crush the serpent. The second is here when God clothes Adam and Eve covering their shame.

 “Look, the human beingshave become like us, knowing both good and evil” (3:22). There is one sense in which the serpent was right, that eating the fruit would enable the humans to know something (good from evil) in the same way that God knows the two things. This does not mean that they have become equal with God knowing all things perfectly -simply that they have new knowledge which belonged to God.[20]

“What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!”(3:23). Remember that we’ve said that the knowledge was provided not through magical or drug like properties but through what it symbolically represented. It is likely that the two trees function in the same way. If so, then the issue is not that there are properties in the fruit from the tree of life that will preserve their life. Rather, eating the fruit fulfils the condition for ongoing life without death. It represents outwardly trust in God in the same way that circumcision (for Israel) and baptism and communion (the church) do.[21]  Such a situation is not tenable.

The solution is physical banishment (3:23) Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden and an angel put in place to guard it. The third aspect of death then is exile from God’s loving presence and the source of eternal life. Exile as death is seen when certain Israelites are banished from the camp during the Exodus (Leviticus 13:45)[22] and when the people of Israel are exiled from the land to Babylon and Persia.


We started with God’s good creation but now the land is cursed. We started with man and woman safely protected and provided for in a garden paradise but now they are in exile, banished from the Garden. We started with humans blessed and told to be fruitful and multiply and rule over creation but now their calling and work comes with the curse of pain, sweat and toil.

[1] ESV

[2] NLT

[3] Matthew 10:16

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 72.

[5] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 72.

[6] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 72.

[7] Luke 13:32.

[8] John 1:29.

[9] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 72.

[10] E.g. Genesis 18-19 and Numbers 22:21-39.

[11] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 73.

[12] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 73.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 74.

[14] Leviticus 23:13 and Deuteronomy 23:15 use the same verb halek to describe God’s presence in the Tabernacle sanctuary reinforcing the sense that Eden is a first Temple. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 74.

[15] See Romans 16:20, Hebrews 2:14, Revelation 12.

[16] Genesis 4:7.

[17] See , Susan T Foh, Women and the Word of God. A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phil.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 67-69, Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984),182 and Gordon J Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1987), 82. 

[18] Cf. Geneviève Fraise, “A Philosophical History of Sexual Difference” in  A History of Women  in the West Volume IV Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War (Ed. Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot.  Trans.  Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 73.) 5

[19] Genesis 3:19

[20] Wenham treats this as a conversation n  God and the heavenly hosts so that it is not that the man has become”  like God’ himself but ‘like one of us,’ that is like one of the heavenly beings including God and the angels in so far as man knows good and evil.” Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 85.

[21] Note Wenham thinks that Adam hasn’t yet eaten from The Tree of Life. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 85. I think that works on the assumption that eating would be a one off event leading to immortality.  I don’t think that this is necessarily the case and particularly when you trace the imagery through to Revelation 22, it may well have been there as something to eat from daily and habitually as a statement of trust.

[22] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 74.

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