Instead of calling the fast talking serpent evil, let’s just say he is crafty. Crafty isn’t necessarily a bad thing in scripture. Jacob the grandson of Abraham, who was renamed Israel, from whom the people of God were named, was always presented as crafty. Jesus sent out the disciples to do good work in the world and told them in Matthew 10:14, “Behold, I am sending you as lambs among wolves, be therefore crafty as snakes and innocent as doves.” Scientists who have split the atom and cracked the genetic code are surely crafty. Crafty can just mean that you can see the bigger picture and vision new choices for people to consider.
Crafty doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but it can work out to be a bad thing. When I think back on many of my mistakes, there is often some crafty person that convinced me that the way I had looked at the world was wrong. “Okay Karl, if you are afraid, we will drop you off before we give lawn jobs, but really it’s no big deal, just some grass seed and rain, and their lawns will be back to normal.” “Try this, man, everyone is doing it and it will make you less uptight, dude.” “Karl you are in college.These aren’t high school girls, if you know what I mean.” These crafty people didn’t necessarily lie to me, they just made me anxious over what I had always trusted to be true. Until they started talking, I had been pretty content in what I believed.
The crafty serpent causes the man and woman rethink what they always had thought to be true, that God had their best interest first. The serpent starts with a broad statement that he probably knew better about. “So, what’s with God, why won’t God let you eat from any of these great trees in the garden?” The woman corrected him, “Oh no, God said we can eat from all of these wonderful trees…except from that one over there, the tree of good and evil. For whatever reason, we can’t even touch that one or we will die.” Now, the woman got it wrong. God had said nothing about a problem with touching the tree. Only that if they ate its fruit they would die. Since it was the man that God had talked to about this, maybe he got it wrong when he told the woman about it. He could have piped in because he was right there with the woman and this talking snake.
The crafty snake, like all crafty people, gives them a new way to look at the situation. “God knows you won’t die. You will just know what God knows, what good and evil looks like, and what could be wrong with that. Say, why do you suppose God doesn’t want you to know what God knows.” “Hmm…” They thought, good question. They looked at the tree, saw that it was beautiful, like the other trees and it would be kind of cool to be wise, which is what God is. And maybe they heard it wrong and they wouldn’t die when they touch it. “Do you remember honey?” “No. I am not sure, but what harm could one little bite be.”
The crafty serpent doesn’t entice. Doesn’t hold up the fruit and sell it to the man and woman. Doesn’t badger them. Doesn’t even lie, really. The crafty serpent just gives new options that hadn’t been considered. While it is true, that he is definitely pushing them one way. At the end of the day, the choice is the man and woman’s. What the crafty serpent gets the man and the woman to do is question what before they had taken for granted, that God had their back. Now they wonder if they can trust God?
They stopped trusting God even before they bit into that fruit. When they stopped trusting God, they started fearing what they had never feared before, their own well being. “We can’t run around this forest naked, think of the sunburn and chaffing that will happen, let alone the distraction from our work. If we don’t get these fields planted on time we won’t have enough food and then what. Who thought running around naked was a good idea anyway? God.”
God could no longer be trusted with determining what a good life looked like. If God couldn’t be trusted with their life, than God couldn’t be trusted with their death, either. Staying alive, avoiding death, a fear of death, became their motivating mantra that marked their days rather than a devotion to God and a trust in God’s ways. A fear of death causes people to gather and store food, more than they need, because who knows what any of us will need to survive. A fear of death causes people to lust and desire and steal from others, because what someone else has might make my life better or help me live longer. A fear of death causes people to take advantage of someone who might be weaker or less intelligent, because survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Fearing death we stop seeing our role in creation as stewards, called to take care of it, but as consumers, using it to live. Without trust in God, everything changes.
The wisdom gained from the fruit wasn’t what sent them into existential angst. The temptation from the crafty serpent wasn’t to be like God, but to not rely upon God. Gaining knowledge, gathering wisdom will always be a part of our human experience. We will always be “tempted” by crafty people who have a way of seeing the world differently. Intelligent people will have to make tough decisions in God’s good creation. Crafty scientists will keep calling us to ask deep ethical questions about life and death. The serpent’s role in part is to help the woman and man grasp the freedom that was always in front of them. We can always eat of that tree.
Freedom is at the heart of this story. We alone are made in God’s image. God’s intent for humanity is surely not to keep us dumb and naked in paradise. The temptation to reach beyond our creatureliness is a part of our natural desire for what is best for us. We learned to fly, even though that was not God’s initial intent when we were made. But saying, “If God had wanted us to fly, God would have given us wings.” Is putting your head in the sand and refusing to recognize our human potential. God’s hope is that our potential is reached while maintaining a trust in God and God’s wider view of things. Before we fly, we need to ask is it good that humans can fly? Before we experiment with genetic coding, we need to ask is it good that we can design new life? Before we extend life far into old age, we need to ask is it good to live to be 120?
We are made with the freedom and ability to make choices and the intelligence to make the best choices. Whatever knowledge gained when they ate from that tree, was likely knowledge humanity would have gained eventually, just in God’s time, in God’s way. Intelligent, crafty people are always giving us new ideas to consider, new ways to be in the world. But our fundamental choice will be to either grow trusting God or grasp and reach trusting just ourselves and our ability to know what is best. At the end of the day, do we believe God has our best interests at heart? Does love of God or fear of death motivate us?