Genesis 3:1-3

“…And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.”


The break between chapters 2 and 3 is a major formal and thematic cleft in the text. The first seven verses of chapter 3 are a kind of narrative carnival, an interlude during which Yahweh withdraws and a new maker-god temporarily takes his place to preside over a topsy-turvy feast of conversation and transgression.

(My thoughts here are informed, perhaps eccentrically, by an oldie-but-goodie from my undergraduate days, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Bakhtinian theory of dialogue/heteroglossia and carnival. Bakhtin is a bit musty in critical theory these days, but it seems to me that both of his major ideas are active in these verses so perhaps he is worth resurrecting here.)

“Now the serpent…” “Now” points to a temporal disjunction in the narrative, a new scene and a new plot. And a new character: the serpent. Whereas the walking, tree-like Yahweh initiates the action in the first scene of the story, the slithering, ground-like serpent (1) will take over during this interlude. But where has Yahweh gone? The last we saw of him, he was presenting the woman to the human; after the human accepts and names the gift, Yahweh disappears from the text. His sudden absence is what allows the serpent to appear in the narrative. Is this withdrawal analogous to the seventh day of the first creation story, in which Elohim withdraws from his work to rest? Perhaps Yahweh is off sleeping in the shade of the garden someplace. In any case, God, on the first of many occasions in human history, withdraws from human perception while things take a hard left-hand turn on earth.

“… was most cunning of all the beasts of the field that the LORD God had made.” Alter chooses the word “cunning” to describe the serpent; the NSRV uses “crafty”; the KJV uses “subtil.” Of the three I prefer “crafty” because it suggests a connection between the the serpent and Yahweh: after all, Yahweh is more than anything else a crafter, a tinker, an incremental maker of imperfect but living things out of material scrabbled together from the ground. The serpent is Yahweh’s double and his opposite. But also, the text reminds us, his creation and creature. Is there a whiff of theodicean reasoning here — an implied suggestion that if the serpent is crafty, cunning, and subtle, it is only because Yahweh made him so? Should his creatureliness excuse the serpent for merely acting on his nature, or, on the contrary, is he all the more blameworthy for controverting his own maker (as Milton has it)?

“And he said to the woman, “Though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden—” There is so much to be said here that I hardly know where to begin; please consult your commentaries! Perhaps one thing to be noted is the matter of God’s name: Yahweh Elohim. (Ben generously supplied his linguistic expertise to talk this through with me.) The narrative voice in chapters 2:4+ and 3 consistently uses both names together, Yahweh Elohim, which Alter and many other translators render as LORD God. But in the quoted dialogue of the serpent and the woman, Elohim is used alone. Is this coincidence, an artifact of redaction, or a thematically meaningful distinction? I don’t know.

This sentence also represents the introduction of the dialogic imagination into the garden. We have heretofore heard both Yahweh’s voice and the human’s voice, but never in responsive dialogue; there are scarcely even distinctly implied points of view distinguishing the human from his creator. In Bakhtinian terms, everything that has come before has been uttered in “authoritative discourse.” The serpent breaks this wide open by introducing a distinct voice, which in turn makes dialogue possible. There’s irony in the fact that he does so by subversively (mis)quoting Elohim, moving the original (and foundational) authoritative utterance (“You shall not you shall not eat from any tree of the garden…”) into a different register and thereby changing its meaning. The serpent here purports to reproduce Elohim’s speech, but of course Yahweh Elohim in fact said “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat” (emphasis mine). This is what Bakhtin calls “heteroglossia” or a “hybrid utterance” — the presence of multiple discourses (in this case, both Yahweh’s and the serpent’s, both authoritative and subversive-carnival-authoritative) in a single utterance. More on that when the woman starts speaking in a moment.

The introduction of distinct points of view, distinct discourses, is what makes dialogue possible. I love how Alter conveys a welter of overlapping voices by rendering the serpent’s first utterance not as a disingenuous question, as the KJV and NSRV have it (“‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’), but as an appositive clause which is frankly interrupted by the woman’s voice: “Though God said, you shall not eat from any tree of the garden — “ I have no idea how justifiable this is textually, but it’s fantastic storytelling and the perfect formulation of a truly dialogic consciousness: a worldview open to contest, multiplicity, and incommensurability. If we define a novel as a text infused by the dialogical imagination, as Bakhtin does, we might say that this sentence is the first and shortest novel ever written.

“And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the garden’s trees we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree in the midst of the garden God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it and you shall not touch it, lest you die.’” The woman’s words here are a tour de force of heteroglossia. Peeling back the layers of the utterance we discover: at the first level, the woman’s voice, interrupting and correcting the serpent’s mis-quotation; at a second level, an implied quotation of the male human’s voice, for how else did the woman to learn of the proscription?; beyond that, of course, is the authoritative voice of Elohim himself. Only not really, because the woman misquotes Elohim too. Somewhere along the way, either by the male human or the female, a hedge was added around the fence, and the woman now suggests that she is prohibited from both eating and touching the fruit. What do we make of this multiplication of the taboo?

It’s interesting that the woman identifies the tree only by its position, its locality in the midst of the garden, rather than by its characteristics. Does she know that there are two trees in the “midst” of the garden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, but only one is proscribed? Matter of fact, do WE know that there were two trees? Is it possible that the text in 2:9 applies two descriptors to a single tree?

I don’t have a great way to tie this all together. Let’s dive into the discussion.

(1)  Does the serpent slither at this point? Yahweh later curses him to “go on his belly and eat dust”, so it’s possible that at this point the serpent is a walking, upright-oriented beast. Either way, it’s worth noting that the serpent’s associations are not negative at this stage; indeed, my commentary suggests that the serpent was anciently associated with wisdom and fertility.

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3 Responses to Genesis 3:1-3

  1. Candice says:

    One extension of this perspective might be that once Eve and Adam leave the garden and the Father’s presence, they once again enter a period of carnival which continues to this day. Intelligence is gained and tested in heteroglossia laden questioning and dialogues (just think of philosophy :) ). False voices pop up, truths are distorted. It didn’t take the eating of the fruit and the “fall” however, for this kind of state to begin on earth– all it took was agency.

    I wonder to what extent we might view the serpent as a positive symbol of human agency, questioning, and capacities to find answers. I know he is a symbol of Satan. But he might also be perceived as allegorically voicing thoughts and questions that arise in Eve’s heart and mind. As Rosalynde suggests, serpents are anciently very positive figures in some ways. The serpent here seems like a strange blend between “natural” or animal like instincts and human intelligence and agency. Human desires and intelligence rise up in carnival fashion to defy God’s wisdom.

    Rosalynde is inspiring me to crack open my mythology textbooks to see what more I can understand about Satan’s role in the narrative.

  2. Adam Miller says:

    Some thoughts:

    1. “A narrative carnival . . . ” I love it. Fantastic.

    2. What else might we say about God’s withdrawal/absence at this point in the story. Does the arrival of the woman fill the need for his immediate presence? Because Adam and Eve are finally together and this is good, God doesn’t need to be right there?

    3. The serpent is a “beast of the field.” That is, the serpent is a failed attempt at the woman. Does that play in here? Is the serpent aware of this? Could it account for his enmity? A motivation?

    4. Great point, Rosalynde, about how Eve has multiplied the taboo from not eating to not touching. Alter notes that the extension of the taboo may have played a role in Eve’s succumbing to temptation: finding that she could touch the fruit without consequence, she may have felt more bold then in just plain eating it. Here, the additional protection actually makes things more dangerous! (And we could, I suspect, multiple other possible contemporary examples of this kind of thing. Plus there’s nothing like prohibition itself to generate desire! And the more prohibitions, the more desire!)

    5. As Rosalynde indicates, this exchange between Eve and the serpent is the first real bit of dialogue in Genesis. We get God saying stuff prior to this and Adam saying stuff, but no one responds to anyone else. Significant features then of this first dialogical exchange: interruption, correction, misstatement, and misunderstanding! The space of the symbolic, so slippery!

    6. With respect to the serpent’s mis-stating what God had said, I thought of Harold Bloom’s nice little word for this: misprision. Bloom defines misprision as an act by which a later poet seeks to win imaginative space for him/herself by creatively misreading the work of a strong predecessor so as to evade the crippling knowledge that the great poems they want to write have already been written. That, perhaps, fits well the general scenario here.

  3. juliemariesmith says:

    Great thoughts.

    (1) You wrote, “The last we saw of him, he was presenting the woman to the human; after the human accepts and names the gift, Yahweh disappears from the text.” I don’t know if this was your intention, but your phrasing here makes me wonder whether we might read Eve as a substitute for YHWH at this point in the text. (Ah, I now see Adam ran with this in his comment.) If we take Eve as a substitute YHWH (a not-entirely-insane idea, depending on how we read ‘help meet’), what does that do to the rest of the story?

    (2) You also allude to an issue that interests me: Where does the serpent come from? In this text, is he just another one of YHWH’s creations? (If so, what does it say about the creator to say that one of his creatures could be like this?) Is the serpent something other than one of YHWH’s creations? (If so, what is he exactly?) I’ve even seen suggestions that the serpent could be a Christ-figure (think: brazen serpent) . . . what do we think about that? Others have understood the serpent as a symbol for “the carnal appetites” (because basically all a serpent is is a digestive tract or [cover your eyes, kids] a phallic symbol).

    (3) From my notes:

    Differences between 2:16-17 and 3:2-3
    Original Commandment (2:16-17) …………………………….Eve’s Restatement (3:2-3)
    God commanded ………………………………………………….God said
    Freely eat from every tree …………………………………………May eat
    Tree of knowledge of good and evil…………………………….Tree in the midst of the garden
    You (singular) …………………………………………………………We and you (plural)
    No eating ………………………………………………………………..No eating or touching
    Surely die that day ………………………………………………….Lest you die

    What strikes me the most is that every single word is not quite right. What does it imply to say that, before the fall, when humans walked in the presence of God, when there was no sin, the human can’t/doesn’t transmit God’s word accurately?

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