The Subtlety of the Serpent

The Serpent was subtle, not stupid. The Serpent knew very well that God had said to Adam and Eve, “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat” (Genesis 2:16), but He then had put certain restrictions in their path. Using those restrictions as the basis of his temptation, Satan said, “Well, did God say you can’t eat from all of the trees?” I find an amazing parallel here between the implication of the Serpent and the twentieth-century philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, who said that God cannot exist because we exist as human beings. He was saying that the essence of being human is found in freedom, and since we know that we are free, that we are moral agents, then God cannot exist, because if God did exist, humanity would not be autonomous, which means “a law unto oneself.” By contrast, the Bible says that God created us free but not autonomous—in other words, the authority of God always limits our freedom. Only God is a law unto Himself. As our God, He delegates to us all kinds of freedoms, as we see demonstrated in the garden—He gave Adam and Eve freedom to eat from all the trees except one. He grants a high degree of freedom to the creature, but when He places restrictions, He shows that this freedom, however broad it is, nevertheless is limited. Sartre’s argument was that unless we are totally free or autonomous, free to determine for ourselves what is right and what is wrong, then we’re not really free at all. And it is fascinating to me that this basically is the same argument the Serpent gave to Eve when he said, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” Every person who has ever been a parent has discovered the subtlety of this argument. Your teenage son comes to you on Monday night and asks: “May I stay out this evening? I want to go to the movies with my buddies. I know it’s a school night, but I really want to see this movie.” You say, “Okay.” Tuesday night he says: “My friends are going out for pizza, and they’d like me to go along. May I go?” Again, you say, “Okay, you may go.” Wednesday night he comes home and says, “Dad, may I borrow the car tonight?” You say, “Sure, go ahead, but be home at a reasonable hour.” Thursday night he wants to go on a date, and you say, “Okay.” Friday night he wants to go to a concert, and once again you give permission. Then, on Saturday night, he wants to go somewhere else with the car, and you say, “Not tonight, Son.” What’s the normal response a teenager gives at that point? “You never let me do anything.” You can say yes five times in a row, but if you finish the sequence with a no, all of a sudden you’re a tyrant. You have given your teenager no freedom. That’s the suggestion that the Serpent gave to Eve. “Did God say you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?” God had said nothing of the sort. In fact, He had said they could eat of nearly all the trees in the garden. But the subtle implication was that by denying one tree to the man and the woman, God might as well have denied all of the trees to them. He suggested that God had not given them freedom but limited their freedom. TO BE LIKE GOD After this subtle attack, the Serpent switched quickly to a frontal attack, clearly contradicting what God had said. Eve responded to his initial suggestion by saying, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:2–3). The Serpent replied: “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vv. 4–5). Now the temptation, the seduction, is that humanity can be elevated to the very highest level of reality, to the level of God Himself, to know good and evil as God knows good and evil, presumably to establish the standards of good and evil, to decree what is good, to do what is right in their own eyes. This is, for the creature, the very essence of sin—to do what is right in its own eyes. That which destroys the covenantal foundation of our relationship to God is the human quest for autonomy. Satan knew this, so he held out to Eve the promise of deification. When Eve and her husband fell into this trap and were seduced by the Serpent, then, of course, the covenant of works, or the covenant of creation, ended in complete disaster. The probation carries with it a punitive element: the promise of death to all who violate the covenant. It is important for us to understand that the consequence God set forth for disobedience to this covenant was not simply death at some point. He had said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). The punishment for breaking the probation of the covenant of creation was not just death but immediate death. But, of course, God did not follow through with that. How should we understand this? Some people say that Adam and Eve did suffer death in the very moment when they violated the terms of the covenant—spiritual death, from which they could be resurrected only by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is true, but I think more than that is in view in the warning God gave to them. The idea that sinning against God would bring death carries with it the idea of the physical dissolution of the body, biological death, the death that we understand attends every mortal person. Still, the fact that God did not kill Adam and Eve on the day they sinned does not make God a liar; it simply makes Him gracious. He allowed Adam and Eve, who were now spiritually dead, to continue to live biologically. By postponing their deaths, He provided for them the opportunity of redemption. From the third chapter of Genesis onward, the rest of the Bible is indeed the story of God’s work of redemption. All of the future covenants, all of the rest of God’s activity with us, is about His purpose of redeeming us from the fall. The penalty of death that comes upon Adam and Eve is extended to all of their descendants. That is why the New Testament tells us, “by the one man’s offense many died” (Rom. 5:15). We all die because we all participate in our original parents’ transgression.

(The Promises of God: Discovering the One Who Keeps His Word by R.C Sproul, pg. 79-82)

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