Genesis 3: 4-5 (Satan as a Trickster)

Genesis 3: 4-5 (Everett Fox translation):

The snake said to the woman: Die, you will not die! Rather, God knows that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened and you will become like gods, knowing good and evil.

Because I wish to talk about Satan in a broader and character based sense in this post, I will call him Satan rather than the snake or serpent. Satan’s dialogue with Eve reminds me of the trickster role of Prometheus in Greek myth. Prometheus is positioned liminally beween Gods and mortals. He’s a Titan— that is, a member of the old, defeated generated of Gods conquered by the Olympians led by Zeus. He also straddles divine and mortals worlds as a creator of humans from clay. Later, he becomes a teacher to them and gives them fire after Zeus takes it away. At a feast intended to promote unity between Gods and humans, Prometheus tricks Zeus into taking the bad half the of the humans’ offering. He hides bones and gristle inside the attractive roasted exterior of the animal, and puts the bacon inside organs for the humans to enjoy. Zeus punishes the  humans for this deception so they can’t follow Prometheus’s suit and offer such offensive sacrifices in the future. But Prometheus steals fire from heaven and brings it to the humans, which allows them to gain new knowledge and build civilization by making tools and so forth. This time, Zeus punishes Prometheus by tying him to a rock and causing an eagle to tear out his liver, which grow anew every day. Some literature exalts Prometheus as a hero, even a symbol of human perseverance, intelligence and achievement. But other perspectives, such as Hesiod’s Theogony treat Prometheus as ordinary and pretentious, and his trick as a minor ploy that can’t defeat Zeus’s more enlightened way of being toward humans.

The way we treat the serpent’s deceptions is similarly open to different perceptions and interpretations. How vital his actions are in the course of events is in question. Does the serpent really change anything? What cause, if any is he fighting for? Tricksters are usually catalysts of otherwise impossible events. They can wield this influence precisely because of their in-betweenness. When Prometheus brings fire down from heaven to mortals, for example, this is something humans cannot do for themselves. Only someone who has access to Olympia and who is also intimately concerned with human events could do such a thing. Major changes occur among humans and to their society as a result. Like Prometheus, Tricksters tend to initiate rites of passage in myths—they are transformative figures that tend to exalt what is lowly. They shake up the spaces they inhabit and leave them changed.

They often are initially lowly or defeated figures who succeed in exalting themselves and or others.

This is my list of meanings and intentions Satan’s words might possibly claim in the passage at hand today that I am considering as I question the nature of Satan’s deceptions:

  1. “Die! You will not die!” God lied to Adam and Eve about the consequences of partaking of the fruit; Adam and Eve will not “in the day” (Eve’s words) they eat the fruit. As others have discussed on this blog, Eve has already altered God’s words here, and Satan is playing off her apparent carelessness or misunderstanding. God said they would “surely die” without communicating, as far as we know, that it would be in the same day.
  2.  Perhaps Satan implies that they will not die immediately after. Dropping dead, Snow White like, after biting the fruit might have been something Eve had imagined and was frightened of, and perhaps Satan guessed at this.
  3. “Rather, God knows…” Fox’s use of “rather” here is useful to me, it helps the reader identify that Satan is assertively claiming he has superior knowledge about God, his purposes and motivations. Also, that he claims to offer concealed information. “Rather” intends to cut through error, leading a listener to the truth.
  4. “…on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened…” What will happen “on the day” they partake of the fruit is not death, but a desirable transformation—they will become like Gods, have their eyes opened, and gain knowledge. This seems like an especially dangerous half truth. Adam and Eve’s eyes may be opened in a new way, but only in a way more comparable to how a newborn baby first opens his eyes and looks on an unfamiliar world with blurry vision.
  5. Satan appears to use a false and ill-intentioned countenance of openness. We might occasionally see such tactics in people around us. Some people speak “openly” about life in a manner that is superficially or prematurely intimate. The façade is instant friendship and benevolence, but the motivation is often selfish. This kind of voice seeks to gain trust in order to become a greater influence. The appearance of selfless honesty masks some of the greatest lies.
  6. God told Adam and Eve that they would die not because they actually would, but because he didn’t want their eyes to be opened, and for them to become like him.
  7. “…you will become like gods…” God is jealous of his status and knowledge. He is exclusive and keeps others from progressing; he gains personal benefits from the fact that Adam and Eve are ignorant and blind. This plays off of Satan’s own character; it is of course Satan who actually seeks solo self-aggrandizement at the suffering of others.
  8. Gaining knowledge is as easy as consumption and mere absorption. While death will not come instantaneously, Godhood and knowledge will. Another particularly dangerous half truth. They will not “[know] good and evil” in any rich sense in an instant. What might transform a little more instantaneously is not knowledge but their potential and desire to gain knowledge, including capacities for personal responsibility, pain, enjoyment, and moral discernment.
  9. God is not on the side of humans, but Satan is. God does not promote human progression, especially when assertively sought by humans, but Satan does.
  10. Disobedience is desirable and right if it appears it will increase your personal knowledge, power, and pleasure, even if it damages relationships and trust.

Satan is a unique kind of trickster. Mythological tricksters, like Prometheus, frequently suffer and sacrifice. It is through this that they evoke change– they offer something of themselves. They are loyal to some cause, even if they tear down and deceive others in the process who have created boundaries. Satan does this only pretentiously and insincerely. He pretends to care about humans, but only intends harm. Also, while Prometheus is invested in humans as a creator on earth, Satan pops into this scene out of nowhere in our narrative. Even when we consult the richer array of pre-mortal narratives about him, he never promotes anyone but himself, and that only tragically and failingly. Even if we took the perspective as Prometheus as inferior to Zeus, Prometheus at least offers meat, warmth, and light to humans at his own cost and his own suffering. Satan claims to offer knowledge and to promote human advancement, but all he ultimately offers is lies. These lies are especially dangerous because of the way Satan mixes insinuations that God is a selfish monster (the truth about Satan himself actually) with deeper hidden truths about human exaltation that Eve hasn’t learned from God yet and is not yet ready to identify and separate from error. Satan pressures and confuses. He is not on the side of humans or Gods, however catalystic we might interpret his role to be in the transgression and course of events that follow.

God’s punishment to the serpent after this temptation does not inflict the kind of suffering that refines or exalts. God basically communicates to Satan he is going to ignore him more and feed him less than ever; he is worth less attention, not more, and there is no need to inflict any kind of violence. It is tempting to celebrate Prometheus as a hero because he suffered in consequence of helping humans, but Satan suffers only out of selfish disobedience.

But despite all these thoughts, I still feel the need to compare Prometheus bringing fire with Satan offering the fruit. Satan’s opposition may catalyze meaningful changes the world, even if most or all of these changes are not what he specifically intends. Fire and fruit are both such beautiful and powerful representations of the enjoyment of life, and human striving after light and intelligence. The partaking of the fruit ultimately benefits Adam and Eve, as they recognize later, even though they first tasted it in the obscurity and confusion of Satan’s presence. Satan’s opposition appears to prove productive, but because of human agency, it does so in two directions—evil and good. His pressures accelerate human growth and unintentionally (for Satan, tragically) aid the Father’s purpose of exalting humans again and again.

Or perhaps, as some have treated Prometheus, we should treat Satan’s efforts more as pathetic deterrents to God’s plans that are really just mild annoyances more than vital opposition and catalysts. I sometimes wonder what would happened had Satan not appeared here. Perhaps a day would have arrived when Adam and Eve were prepared to partake of the fruit, and the Father would have encouraged or even commanded it. And perhaps this even would have been a better kind of learning and growing experience for them.

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4 Responses to Genesis 3: 4-5 (Satan as a Trickster)

  1. rosalyndewelch says:

    Candice, I love the airspace you inhabit above the text as you read: you hover just high enough to make surprising observations and connections, not so high that you miss the micro-scapes of the text, yet not so low that you can’t see over the characters’ heads. Like Obama’s military drones, but in a good way. :) Here are some of my favorite of your observations:

    “Dropping dead, Snow White like, after biting the fruit might have been something Eve had imagined and was frightened of, and perhaps Satan guessed at this.” What would the woman have understood of death? As we’ve talked about before, the dust and soil in Eden suggest the presence of vegetable death in some form, but the woman has presumably never seen a dead animal or human. How would she know what death is, and that it is something to fear? If I am recalling correctly, Milton writes a scene in which the humans are frightened by sleep, having never seen it or experienced it before. Yahweh uses death as a threat in his initial statement of prohibition to the human, so from this the humans would have gathered that it’s something undesirable but they might not have known anything beyond that.

    A follow-on meta-question for me is whether we can assume that the narrative voice is attentive to these sophisticated, character-driven issues of limited point-of-view vs. narrative omniscience, etc. In other words, does the text attend to the possibility that the woman doesn’t yet understand death (no, not really), or does it simply (naively?) import a shared human understanding of death and ascribe that to her. This is probably a primer-level problem for most of you, but I still get hung up on whether or not we can impose a more sophisticated interpretive schema on the tale than the narrative voice itself brings.

    “Some people speak “openly” about life in a manner that is superficially or prematurely intimate. The façade is instant friendship and benevolence, but the motivation is often selfish.” I love how you peel back the surface of the serpent’s rhetorical posture. This hit home because I am personally susceptible to the seduction of an intimate, open, vulnerable and complicit tone — as long as it is offered by a mind to which I am attracted, that is. Otherwise it’s just icky.

    I’m also struck by the “knowingness” of the serpent’s posture. He presents the idea of eating the fruit as that which “God knows” — implying, of course, that he knows what God knows — and the effect will be that the humans also know what God knows and what the serpent knows. Is there a whiff of irony in this circle of complicit knowingness?

    Finally, does the serpent offer the first instance of directly figurative speech in “your eyes will be opened”? This is a species of metaphor, comparing the acquisition of understanding to the acquisition of visual information upon opening one’s eyes. Obviously we as modern readers understand the entire tale to be largely figurative, but at the level of the text itself has trope been introduced into Eden before now? It seems that one of the serpent’s roles in the story is to fertilize language, to generate new forms of discourse — dialogue, irony, trope — that subtly separate the world from the word.

  2. Adam Miller says:

    Some thoughts:

    1. I think the comparison (both in terms of similarities and contrasts) with Prometheus is productive. This may be especially true if we resist too strongly identifying our own ideas about Satan with the role played here by the serpent. In some ways, we can’t resist this, but in others we can if we focus more narrowly on the text itself. At any rate, noting a kind of trickster/carnival atmosphere is helpful here.

    2. Great point, Rosalynde, about the serpent introducing the first bit of figurative speech, here.

    3. I love the intertextual association of Satan with the titans, the old gods, defeated and displaced. As if chaos were more primal than order. Which, perhaps, may be an option open to Mormon cosmology.

    4. “Eyes will be opened.” The implication is that they’re still currently shut. That they have an ability, an additional sense, that is built in and functional but not activated. Are they asleep? In 2:22, we’re told that God caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam, but we’re never explicitly told that Adam woke up.

    5. Knowledge of good/evil and death. Is the promised/questioned consequence of death a promised punishment? Is death associated contingently with this knowledge by God’s external fiat, or is there an internal, essential connection between death and this kind of knowledge? Is death not a punishment, here, but the condition of possibility for this knowledge? Does the same apply to Jesus: to atone for real, he must die for real? Is death the only capable of opening our eyes? Of waking us up? If so, is the fall itself a kind of local, human version prefiguration of the atonement? Not a problem that the atonement solves, but a prefiguration of the essential movement that Jesus’ atonement models by which good and evil are planted in life?

    6. Have we lost too much, theologically speaking, if we only do a Dante-Satan (pure evil!) rather than allowing for an OT/Job-Satan (accuser, adversary, ambivalent force)? Is there in Mormon thought for an OT-Satan? If not, is there room for something/one else to play the role of ambivalent trickster who is not pure evil?

  3. juliemariesmith says:

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    (1) I’m interested in “become like gods” and “eyes opened.” Are these two different things or two ways of saying the same thing? What does it mean? Is it even accurate? More on “becoming like gods”: is this true, or a lie? If so, did God not want them to become like gods? Did Eve want to become like a god? Was that a wrong desire?

    (2) It seems that most LDS thought is moving in the direction of seeing Eve’s act as brave/correct/necessary. If this is the best reading, how do we explain Satan’s role in this story?

    (3) In your (1), you make an interesting point about timing: God said they would die, but not when. Eve takes it to be “in that day.” (And, as someone pointed out last week, it might have been her ability to touch-without-dying that led her to think she could also eat without dying.) Was it possible for not-yet-fallen individuals to understand the idea of the passage of time? (Does anything change in the garden?)

    As a larger issue, the serpent’s statement here reminds me of that old saw: a box with the words “every statement inside this box is false” written on it. So is it true, or isn’t it? Is what the serpent is saying true or false? How do we know? Did Eve know? If she had not yet partaken of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, how could she have determined whether his statement was . . . good or evil?

  4. Candice says:

    I really appreciate all your thoughts. Thank you for pointing out how Satan introduces new kinds of speech. I see a connection between this and the reservations expressed here to see Satan as pure evil. As a “humanist” I feel the tension here– this trickster figure is likable, his speech employs the kinds of tools artists use– questioning appearances, speaking symbolically, presenting what is beautiful and inviting us to partake and understand it better. I don’t think we need to come to solid conclusions about Satan’s role and who he is– we just don’t know enough. Christ also spoke symbolically– is Satan imitating him in some ways, and are Satan’s imitations of Christ’s speech and symbolic thinking something that stimulates important growth in us, even in the artistic and communicative abilities that we have? I think this is possible and likely.

    I personally feel it’s possible we’ve put Eve on a bit of a pedestal recently in Mormon culture, possibly for benevolently sexist reasons. We assume she knew a lot at the partaking sometimes, that she knew just what she was doing and why. I’m open to the possibility that Eve was legitimately deceived and enticed by Satan, and that this deception is not something to celebrate and praise her in the way that we sometimes do. I’d rather praise the later Eve who knew more, watched her family suffer, lost children, etc., than this newborn Eve.

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