The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 2

Is the spirit of the Bible anti-intellectual?

Editorial Note: This posting forms the second part of a two-part reflection. To follow the full flow of my thoughts, please read “The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1” (posted on May 18) first. 

In the ancient Mesopotamian myths the supreme gift humanity desires is the one gift denied them. It is the gift of immortality. The hero Gilgamesh discovers the plant of immortality in the depths of the sea and picks it. But he places it on the grass while he bathes in a pool. A snake slithers up and snatches it.

By contrast in the Genesis creation story (Genesis 2-3), God does not deny humans access to the tree of life. Presumably they can eat of its fruit and be constantly rejuvenated. Instead God prohibits eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Knowledge is the forbidden fruit, not immortality.

Faced with this oddity, we are left to wonder: What is so dangerous about knowledge?

In my last posting, I suggest that when Adam and Eve grasp at this fruit, they are seeking to gain omniscience. Once they know everything, they can be truly independent. They will be masters of their own lives. God will be pushed to the fringes of life. He becomes a needless hypothesis.

This, I think, carries us to the heart of the author’s concern. The grasping for omniscience is a delusional act. Human beings are not gods. Instead the grasping for omniscience severs their relationship of trust in God. It cuts the spiritual artery of life.

Are faith and knowledge in eternal conflict?

This raises another question. Does the author then see a fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge? Is his attitude deeply anti-intellectual? In fact, is the spirit of the Bible itself anti-intellectual?

Some Christians today certainly hold this position. They worry that too much intellectual study will undermine a person’s faith. Instead “give me that old-time religion” simple and emotional as it is, even if it is an ignorant faith.

Many non-believers assume the same. I find it a common prejudice among scientists. Religion and science are inherently incompatible, they contend. Many Christians also seem to confirm that prejudice. In field after field, they set themselves in opposition to the scientific consensus.

But that is not a fair reading of the Bible. The Biblical writers place great value in knowledge, especially knowledge that advances human well-being (wisdom). There are many places where the Biblical authors praise wisdom. The opening chapters of the Book of Proverbs are one classic exposition. There not only are humans exhorted to pursue wisdom, but wisdom is praised as God’s partner in the creation and ordering of the world (see Proverbs 8). One can hardly exalt knowledge and wisdom to a higher status.

There is one striking feature, however, of how the Bible, especially the Book of Proverbs, understands its lauded pursuit of knowledge. That pursuit begins—and must begin–with a foundational reverence for God as God. This is stated explicitly in the opening verses of Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;

        fools despise wisdom and knowledge. (Proverbs 1:7)

Psalm 111 repeats this conviction:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

         all those who practice it have a good understanding. (Psalm 111:10)

The Biblical writers do not use the word fear to stand for terror in the presence of God. Rather it stands for a basic reverence for God. That reverence is grounded in trust, trust in the power and the goodness of God.

The pursuit of knowledge is not dangerous as long as it is united with a basic reverence for and trust in God. When Adam and Eve grab the forbidden fruit, they seek knowledge at the expense of that relationship to their Maker.

The contrast between the Greek and Hebrew attitudes towards knowledge

The Garden of Eden story highlights, I believe, a fundamental contrast between ancient Greek and ancient Hebrew attitudes towards life. If I understand the Greek philosophical tradition correctly, the fundamental assumption of that tradition is that the source of humanity’s many frustrations and problems is ignorance. Therefore our salvation is closely tied to the pursuit of the truth. Knowledge will save.

In his dialogues around Athens, Socrates, for example, seems to assume that if human beings can come to know the truth, they will do the truth. I have never been quite sure why. Maybe it’s because once we recognize the truth, it will be so attractive that we will want instinctively to live by it. We will not be able not to want to live by it. Truth attracts us by its beauty. So as knowledge advances and ignorance recedes, life will become better for everyone.

The Biblical authors operate on a different assumption. Ignorance is not the fundamental source of humanity’s problems. Humanity’s distorted will is. Humanity has sought to live in independence from its Maker. Therefore mankind’s salvation is closely tied to repentance, understood as a total reorientation to life. In repentance we return to a foundational trusting in God.

Until that happens, the pursuit of knowledge will always be an ambivalent affair. We have seen how science, for example, has done great good in advancing the welfare of human beings, especially in the field of medicine. But scientific knowledge has also given us the ability to annihilate life and civilization on this planet.

The question is: How will humans use the knowledge that science and other intellectual endeavors have given us? That involves choices made by the human will. And knowledge does not infallibly govern the human will. Attitudes, emotions, and desires play an important role as well. In fact, in my opinion, the more decisive role.

When Adam and Eve grasped at the forbidden fruit, they introduced a fatal separation between the head and the heart. Instead of working in harmony, reason and human desires work at cross purposes a lot of the time. We see this separation continued in the tension between science and religion in our own day. This is what makes the Genesis myth so insightful for understanding the human dilemma.

The Serpent’s Seduction, Part 1

What really motivates Adam and Eve to pick and eat the forbidden fruit?

Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 16th century
Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, 16th century

Genesis 2-3 has long fascinated me. I don’t read it as history. I regard it as a religious myth. But as a myth, it says some important things about human nature. That’s why I continue to ponder it and honor it.

It is Genesis’ second creation story. Genesis 1:1-2:4 is that magnificent recital of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth by God’s sovereign word. It moves day by day, stage by stage, in a stately procession. It begs for a royal Handelian march as musical accompaniment.

The second creation story (Genesis 2:4-3:24) reads more like a family tale told by aunts and uncles over the dinner table at a family reunion. The cousins eagerly listen in. It has a folkloric quality.

A tale of great depth

But we would be very wrong to assume it is naïve and childish. Its theology is very sophisticated. It lays an essential foundation for everything else that is coming in the Bible.

For example, its understanding of human beings. In the story God creates Adam (the representative human being) out of the dust (or clay) of the earth. Human beings are constituted of the same atoms and molecules as the rest of the physical universe. Yet into this fragile figurine God breathes the breath of life.

God creates a magnificent garden as a home for this human being. When you consider that in the desiccated lands of the ancient Near East, gardens were prized as luxuries, a privilege primarily enjoyed by kings and nobles, then Adam is given a very royal home. And he is given a noble task. God makes him caretaker of this glorious garden.

God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. Human science with its methods of classification has continued to carry out that noble task ever since. And finally God creates for Adam a companion, Eve, who is complementary to Adam, but equal to him in dignity.

How this noble vision contrasts with the creation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. In those myths the gods create human beings to be their slaves. Human beings do the work of growing food so they can feed the gods through their sacrifices. Humans do the back-breaking labor of building homes for the gods, those stupendous ziggurat temples. All this so the gods can recline on their couches and enjoy their leisure.

Despite their privileged status in creation, human beings in the Genesis story remain creatures. They are not children of God by birth, but by manufacture. It is essential that they continue to recognize that fact of their existence.

In the myth they acknowledge that fact by obeying the one command that God places upon them. They are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

What is the danger of knowledge?

Now this is one part of the story that has long engaged me. What is this knowledge of good and evil that is such poisonous fruit to these creatures that if they consume it they will die? The text does not define the phrase. So we have to tease out its meaning by paying close attention to the context.

Scholars have offered four different understandings:

1.This knowledge of good and evil is moral knowledge. It enables humans to comprehend the distinction between moral good and evil. But given everything else written in the Bible on the great value of moral knowledge, why would God prohibit such knowledge?

2.This knowledge stands for sexual maturity, as when children move from their innocence into the sexual awakening of adolescence. After all Adam and Eve become first aware of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. But is not such sexual maturation a part of the God-designed plan for human beings? Why again would God prohibit it?

3. This knowledge represents a mature wisdom that is a part of adulthood. Adam and Eve are like innocent children, who have yet to grow up. They try to do so prematurely and now must bear the burdens and anxieties of adulthood before they are ready. But given the Bible’s constant praise of wisdom and the search for wisdom, why would God want to keep humans in a state of perpetual childhood?

4. This knowledge is a descriptive phrase for omniscience. The contrasting good and evil stand for knowledge in its entirety. If one can know everything, then one can make independent judgments about what is best for human welfare. Such knowledge would transform the creature into a god, for omniscience is a divine attribute.*

I find option No. 4 most persuasive. It makes the most sense of the serpent’s temptation in chapter 3. He tells Eve the lie, “…God knows that when you eat of it [the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The heart of the serpent’s seduction

His lie appeals to the human desire to be captains of our souls and masters of our fate. We seek that security because to live trusting in the goodness, grace, and merciful love of God can produce great anxiety and restlessness. Can we really depend upon the power and love of God to carry us through the many vicissitudes of life? Therein lies the key to the serpent’s seductive temptation. It triggers the spirit of suspicion that God is not all that he is cracked up to be. It undermines our full-hearted trust in God.

Adam and Eve therefore reach out and greedily grab at this great treasure of knowledge. (Human beings still do.) But when they do so, they violate God’s commandment and sever their intimate relationship with God. Trust has been thrown overboard.

The eating has the intended consequence that their eyes are opened, although now they realize they are naked (a symbol of vulnerability). The eating also has its unintended consequences. It separates them from the one who breathes the breath of life into them. They are exiled from the garden. And they begin their inevitable journey towards death.

The security from anxiety that they hoped to achieve by omniscience slips through their fingers.

Editorial Note: I continue my reflection on this passage in my next blog posting. Please read the two together to get the full drift of my reflection.


* I want to acknowledge my great debt to Nahum M. Sarna’s masterful commentary on Genesis for assistance in understanding this theme. The commentary forms part of The JPS Torah Commentary, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989. I also acknowledge the insight into the passage that Martha Elias Downey gave me in her essay, “The Original Choice: The Prohibition of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil,” posted on I have adapted her analysis to my own use.