Eastward in Eden – past speculations

I believe the serpent in Genesis 3 was a literal being created by God with capabilities for the express purpose of testing Adam & Eve.  The following article “Eastward in Eden” from the 1964 Vol 102 Christadelphian Magazine disagrees, proposing the serpent is a literary device.  Obviously LG Sargent (the editor) disagreed with that assessment.  The article also touches on the ability of Adam & Eve to have evil thoughts.  Once upon a time variances in views and explorations were tolerated and explored – though passionately debated.  Worth a read and consideration of how difference should be dealt with.

“The events narrated in Genesis 3 have an importance far beyond the time at which they occurred, and we all have been born in the shadow which they cast over the human race. For there we read of the Fall, and the consequent estrangement of our first parents from God. There we learn that the wages of sin is death, and come to understand why the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. There we discover how desperate is man’s need of redemption.

But there also, in the mercy of God, we are promised that the power of sin will be destroyed. We are given prophetic hints of the virgin birth, and of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And the whole of scripture, in all its richness, looks backward to the failure of the first Adam, and forward to the victory of the second, as it unfolds the glorious outworking of the purpose of God.

It is wholly right that we, as a community, should take this record seriously. Here, as in all Scripture, God speaks to us. Our understanding of much other Scripture depends upon it. We discard it, or mutilate it, at our peril.

Nevertheless the record is not without its difficulties, and they are not far to seek. They have nothing to do either with science or with the wisdom of this world. They lie upon the surface and are apparent to any careful reader.

We may individually arrive, indeed we do arrive, at different suggestions as to how these difficulties may be met, though probably none of us is able to dispose of them all. Certainly the writer of this article is not, and he is therefore in no position to dogmatize. He can merely indicate the view which he himself favours as being most in accord with the rest of Scripture and with the doctrines firmly held among us.

The difficulty which seems to give rise to most unrest concerns the nature of the serpent, and this article will therefore take this as its sole theme.

On a literal reading of the record the serpent was one of the beasts of the field. Distinctions between beasts and men are many; among the main ones are that beasts possess neither speech nor reasoning powers. The serpent, at any rate for the duration of his encounter with Eve, possessed both, and this could only have been by divine endowment.

No believer will deny that God, in the exercise of His almighty power, is fully able so to endow a beast of the field, but we run into immediate difficulty if we try to visualize a situation in which God performed a miracle in order to incite Eve to sin. We cannot extricate ourselves from this by postulating that no miracle was involved because this particular beast of the field might have been created in the first place with speech and reasoning powers. Not only is this piece of information absent from Scripture; the theory would require us to explain a most remarkable omission a little later, for “thou shalt be deprived of speech and reasoning powers” was no part of the curse upon the serpent. This postulate must therefore be rejected, and the hard fact remains that, if we regard the serpent as a literal beast of the field, we must accept, however grave the moral problem and whether we can explain it or not, that God performed a miracle in order that Eve might be incited to sin.

It may be felt that the words “incited to sin” are too sweeping, and place a wrong complexion on the facts. It may be felt that the moral problem disappears if we take the view that the miracle was performed so that Adam and Eve might be put to a test of character which could not have been made in any other way. Let us see.

The record of the temptation and Fall is contained in Genesis 3 : 1–6, and we must ask ourselves whether we have there a complete account of what transpired. If we have, then the whole episode was over in a few minutes, and we are required to believe that, although Adam and Eve had faithfully observed God’s command, possibly for many years, yet because they succumbed in a moment of weakness to the plausible reasoning of a divinely endowed serpent, their momentary lapse resulted in six thousand years of human suffering, sorrow, and death. We are required to believe that the only remedy for this momentary lapse was that the sinless Son of God himself should be put to shame and to a cruel death.

We cannot, of course, question the work of God, whose judgments are unsearchable and His ways past finding out. Yet the moral problem is there, for God changes not. The God of Adam before the Fall was the God who revealed Himself to Moses as merciful, gracious, long-suffering, and shall we say that the longsuffering which was extended in turn to the ante-diluvian world, to the nations of Canaan, and to the Israelites themselves, was denied to our first parents? We must say this if we believe that the record as it stands is complete.

But most of us will probably take the view that in Genesis 3 : 1–6, as in so many other parts of Scripture, we have a conflated account of what happened. Most of us will probably feel that the events did not happen in the course of a few minutes, or even in one afternoon, but that the resistance of Adam and Eve was broken down over a longer period of time. So far as Genesis gives us any guidance at all, there appears to have been plenty of time available for such a process. We do not know how long our first parents were in the Garden of Eden, but we are told that Adam was 130 years old when Seth was born. Assuming that his age is reckoned from the time when God made him, the period he spent in the Garden could have been anything up to 100 years. Whether it was so long, or whether it was for a much shorter stay, the narrative clearly allows sufficient time for the serpent first to have gained the confidence of Adam and Eve, and then gradually to have built up within them a feeling of resentment because they were being denied something which would be for their lasting benefit, and then finally to have brought them to the fatal transgression. To suppose such a sequence of events is almost essential for an intelligent understanding of the narrative, and it disposes in part of the moral problem just mentioned by providing a period during which God could have exercised his forbearance.

But only in part, and only at the cost of creating another problem which is far more acute. For it requires us to believe that God endowed this beast of the field with supernatural powers, not for a few moments but for a long period of time, so that it could persistently and relentlessly exercise its subtlety until it had succeeded in its purpose of bringing about the downfall of Adam and Eve. It is true that Scripture tells us of the goodness and the severity of God, but nowhere does He reveal Himself to us as a God who seeks His own creatures’ undoing. Very much the reverse. And on a reading of the record, the words “incited to sin” seem, after all, an apt enough description. Once again we have to say, whether we can explain it or not, that the moral problem is there. I am not myself aware of any serious attempt to answer this problem in the form in which it is here presented.

Brethren who feel that a literal interpretation is essential to faith and to the integrity of Scripture are not, of course unmindful of the problem, and it may be that the stipulation that the serpent was amoral is an attempt to overcome it. If so, however sympathetic one may feel towards the intention (and I confess great sympathy myself) one is forced to the conclusion that this gratuitous assumption does not help. It would, among other things, compel us to re-define the meaning of the term “very good” not only in relation to the beasts of the field, which might not be difficult, but also in relation to Adam and Eve, which would be more serious. But the major shortcoming is that the assumption is irrelevant to the moral problem. Suppose we grant that the serpent was amoral, the facts remain that it was also “subtle”, that it used its subtlety to “beguile” Eve, and that it was miraculously endowed for this purpose. If the assumption is correct, it exculpates the serpent perhaps, but no more. It does not attack the problem at its roots.

A suggestion which has come to the forefront in the last year or two is that, because Adam and Eve were created “very good”, it was impossible that any evil thought could arise within them, and as they somehow had to be put to the test, it was necessary to provide an external source of temptation. Hence the serpent.

This suggestion immediately evokes some questions which, for the sake of clarity, are set out in tabular form:

a. Seeing that Adam and Eve, although made “very good”, were quite clearly not “perfect”, on what scriptural grounds is it maintained that evil thoughts could not originate within them?

b. What authority is there, in scripture or in logic, for defining their degree of goodness with much precision as to say that Adam and Eve were so very good that evil thoughts could not originate within them, but not quite good enough to prevent evil thoughts penetrating from without, and bearing fruit within?

c. If the evil thoughts did not originate with Adam and Eve, is it possible to give a scriptural indication of their true source, remembering that the beasts of the field, including the serpent, were also “very good”?

If satisfactory answers to these questions can be found, there will be some encouragement to seek further for answers to the moral problems also. Meanwhile one has the feeling that the suggestion, sincere and well-intentioned though it doubtless is, has not really developed, as it purports to have done, from the logical consequences of the term “very good”, but that it begins by pre-supposing the physical existence of the serpent and argues backwards from that to find justification for it. This a posteriori argument does not really do much to help when it is the interpretation of the serpent itself which is under discussion.

It has been said that to believe that Eve was tempted, not by a literal serpent, but by thoughts originating within herself, is to destroy the doctrine of the Atonement. This surely is not so, and it would be regrettable if such an assertion were accepted without examination. The argument is that if we reject the idea of a literal serpent we are required to believe that God condemned in Christ that which He had Himself implanted in Eve, and that this is unthinkable because it involves God in unrighteous judment.

But this argument does not touch the roots of the doctrine of the Atonement, which fundamentally has to do with sinful man’s need of redemption and God’s merciful provision for meeting it. No one among us, I hope, will question the fact that God, in giving His beloved Son to die, condemned sin in the flesh. All that the argument does is to pose a moral problem which is certainly there, but which seems to me to be far more acute for those who accept the literal interpretation of the serpent than for those who do not. For on the literal interpretation it would seem that we should have to adopt the view that God created the serpent “very good”, then miraculously endowed it with speech and reasoning powers, then brought it into contact with Eve for the sole purpose of inciting her to sin, then condemned both Eve and the serpent for the consequences, and finally ordained that His righteous Son must die so that the evil implanted in human nature by His own miraculous intervention might be condemned and the consequences nullified. It would be difficult to understand in what way this sequence of events could reveal the righteousness of God more clearly than simple acceptance of the fact that Adam and Eve fell by reason of their own inherent weakness. Argue as we may, man was as God made him, and there is no great difference, either in quality of character or degree of culpability, between the man who falls prey to his own evil thoughts and the man who willingly receives them from elsewhere.

Indeed it seems to me that to accept the literal interpretation in any sense which would eliminate the moral problem would involve us in great doctrinal difficulty, for it would require us to believe, if we were completely consistent, that there was in the serpent an inherent principle of evil independent of God. This would bring us dangerously near to the devil of popular belief, and make it almost impossible to sustain the fundamental Bible doctrine of sin in the flesh in anything like the form in which we have so far understood it.

At its roots, the problem before us is the intractable problem of evil which, from Job onwards, has puzzled mankind. We shall not know the complete answer while we ourselves remain mortal, sinful men, and this realization should temper all discussion.

Without doubt the strongest argument for regarding the serpent as one of the beasts of the field is that Genesis so introduces it (at any rate up to 3 : 14). I would say that this is the sole argument, and the community is right to have a healthy regard for those who in simple faith find it all-sufficient, and who are prepared to leave the consequential problems to be solved by the fuller knowledge which will come with the Kingdom of God. The purpose of this article is not to disturb such faith, nor to convert any brethren and sisters from such a view. Its purpose is solely to demonstrate that another view can be held with full and grateful adherence to the integrity of Scripture and to Christadelphian doctrine, and it would not have been written at all had not the unfortunate pressure of events seemed to require it.

Having approached the subject from a negative point of view, we will now look at it more positively. First, let James speak:

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: but every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (1 : 13–15).

Here James, with unerring insight, robs us of all excuse, and exposes the processes within us which lead to sin. To this, the idea of a literal, divinely endowed serpent stands in stark contradiction. Let no one say that God dealt differently with Adam and Eve before the Fall. God changeth not.

If we accept James, as we must, supported as he is by other Scriptures in this matter, then we accept that the processes he names took place in the minds of Adam and Eve (Eve being the instigator) over a period of time during which God exercised his forbearance and longsuffering, until rebellion had reached such dimensions as to render inevitable the consequences of which we read in Genesis 3. Such a reconstruction, it seems to me, is not only consistent with the whole of Scripture, but is required by it.

Pursuing the positive approach we note that the temptation of Jesus is recorded in much the same way as the temptation in Eden, that is, in the form of question and answer. The accounts in the Gospels are just as circumstantial as the account in Genesis. Yet no crisis arises when a brother proclaims his view that during the temptation Jesus was alone, and that his experience was entirely subjective. Short of a belief in a personal, supernatural devil, which we reject on other grounds, it seems to me to be the only tenable view. If we can only faintly recreate in our minds the mental and the geographical situation in which Jesus found himself, as he turned over and over in his mind the words of the voice from heaven with their clear allusions to his suffering and his kingship, and as from the wilderness he gazed across the Jordan valley to the mountains of Moab where his great predecessor Moses lay buried, we may well feel that this interpretation is alone adequate.

Yet the gospels say that the devil “came”, that he engaged in conversation with Jesus, and that, when he had finished, he “departed”. Language could scarcely be couched in more personal terms. If we have no difficulty in adopting the view that no second person was present, and that the words attributed to the devil were not in fact uttered, but that the writers of the gospels used this imagery to describe the thoughts which arose in the mind of Jesus the second Adam, why should it be thought a thing incredible among us that similar imagery might have been used in recording the temptation of the first Adam? And if anyone should attempt to formulate an answer to this question, let him remember that though Jesus was not “perfect” (as yet), he was sinless, holy, and undefiled.

There are in the New Testament various direct and indirect references to the events in the Garden of Eden. In recent discussion the most quoted passage with a bearing on the theme of this article seems to have been 2 Cor. 11 : 3 (“as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty”), and this is adduced as the verdict of an inspired Apostle on the literal nature of the serpent. It is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is doubtful whether the nature of the serpent crossed the Apostle’s mind as he wrote. He was using the narrative in Genesis to provide an apt illustration of the subtle dangers confronting the church at Corinth, and the ease wherewith believers could be beguiled. That, and no more. And he naturally employed the imagery of the narrative to do it.

But there is in the New Testament a passage which directly refers to the serpent in Eden but which does not appear to have been quoted so much. The words are the words of the Lord Jesus, and are of such significance that they must be given in full:

“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it” (John 8 : 44).

The allusion throughout is to “the beginning”; to the Garden of Eden where lies and deceit plunged not only Adam and Eve, but the whole human race, into death. And this, says Jesus, was accomplished by the devil. And he repeats this in Rev. 20 : 2.

And so it was—by the only devil we know. The devil who deceived Eve was the same devil who put the thought of betrayal into the heart of Judas, and who dwells within us all. It is the devil which has the power of death and whom Jesus came, through death, to destroy. Scripture provides, in the form of a poisonous serpent, a most fitting symbol of this devil’s methods and effectiveness (Psalm 58 : 4 and other references) and a picture of its end (Psalm 91 : 13).

In this discussion of the subject I have tried to keep to the broad issues. The literal view is one for which I have a deep respect and I hope that nothing in this article will create a contrary impression. But, in the light of Scripture teaching as a whole concerning the nature of God and the nature of sin, it seems to me that the weight of the argument favours the view that the serpent of Genesis 3 is symbolic. On this view Adam and Eve, in spite of their ideal circumstances and environment, developed with the passage of time a feeling of resentment at divine restraint, and sought to establish their own self-sufficiency and independence or, in scriptural language, to grasp equality with God. And if there is one sin which has bedevilled the world in every generation, and is markedly apparent in our own, this is it. If it is possible to comprehend under one heading the factors which render fellowship with God impossible, this is it. One may say that it is the sin of the world, which Jesus came to take away.

The lessons of Genesis 3 run deep, and bear not only on our theology but on the lives we live. The view of the serpent here put forward weakens those lessons not at all, and keeps all our theological concepts intact. If it does not dispose of all difficulties (and it does not) it avoids the most serious, and the others will disappear if, by God’s grace, we are allowed to enter into the fuller knowledge of the age to come.

The anxiety shown by brethren over the symbolic interpretation of the serpent does not, one suspects, arise from theological objection so much as from suspicion, in the main laudable, of any spiritualizing tendency. For it is possible to spirit away the very substance of the gospel if our thinking is not governed by the whole counsel of God. We guard our position best, not by closing our minds on every issue, but by squarely facing the question: Is it “according to the scriptures”? Let that always be the test, and if it should appear that two different views may faithfully be held, let us in humility acknowledge this, and wait in patience for the day when we shall know even as we are known.

A. DAGG

(2001). The Christadelphian, 102(electronic ed.), 298–302.

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One thought on “Eastward in Eden – past speculations

  1. Pingback: LG Sargent on the serpent and Gen 3 | Christadelphians Origins Discussion

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