An Ancient Strategy

If there is one book of the Bible whose content never ceases to grab my attention in new ways, it is the book of Genesis. Recently, as I reread the Fall Narrative, I began to think over the dialogue between the serpent and Eve (Genesis 3:1-5), which is, in effect, an ancient, conversational debate over the authorship, content and authority of the Word of God. I found that the relevance of the dialogue lays primarily in its presentation of 1.)how skeptical enquiry typically proceeds, 2.)the logical fallacies that believers should look out for when engaged in debate, and 3.)the serpent’s claim that God’s law is the product of a despot who commands abstinence only for the sake of maintaining His own privilege and power.

While all three of these points are universal (i.e. for all times and all peoples), the third is particularly compelling in that it is not similar to what many contemporary critics of the Bible would say, but nearly a direct quote from any one of their writings. What we encounter in the serpent’s final critique of the Word of God is almost wholly in step with the claims of postmodern critics of the Bible. Many, if not all, of these critics see it as the product of a privileged male class who sought to maintain their power and privilege by forcing the marginalized of their society (e.g. women) into subservient roles via the threat of violence and/or explusion from the community altogether. Ironically, this case is made by pointing to the Fall Narrative!

This criticism of God’s Word as being the mechanism of the oppression of marginalized groups within society, moreover, has found clear articulation in films such as Zeitgeist and The Da Vinci Code, and secondarily in popular (non-academic) atheistic literature (e.g. the works of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins). However, the attack, as I will show, is far from novel. Contrary to contemporary caricatures of the Fall Narrative that would seek to equate it with the stock mythologies of its day, I will demonstrate that it is a detailed and complex analysis of an ancient strategy of attack launched against the Word of God by the enemy, and subsequent enemies, of God Almighty.

The Authorship & Content

“Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
Gen. 3:1

The opening question of this primeval debate allows us, I believe, to see the serpent’s question as two intertwined questions: a.)the question of authorship, and b.)the question of content. This is due to the ambiguity of the serpent’s question, which is rooted in his inversion of the allowances and restrictions stated within the commandment.[1] Is he asking the woman if God authored the commandment? Or is he presenting himself as trying to clarify what he had somehow heard God has said? To put it another way: Is he asking the woman about the authorship of the commandment, or the commandment’s content?

By approaching the woman, who was given the commandment secondarily by means of oral transmission via Adam, the serpent makes it evident that his question could lean in either direction. The woman did not receive the commandment directly from God (at least the text does not give us good reason to believe she did), but was given the commandment by Adam (which could serve to explain why she distorts the commandment by adding an additional restriction in 3:2-3).[2] Therefore, questioning the authorship of the commandment would be an effective means of deceiving her. His question could then be read as: Did God author this commandment or did Adam?

The pertinence of this exchange for Christians lies precisely in the question of authorship. If we have received the Word of God secondarily, via oral transmission (at least initially), then how do we know who authored it? We stand in much the same position that the woman did, having to give an account for the authorship of the Word of God. What is her response? The woman confidently asserts that God has said and then tries to correct the serpent’s inversion of the commandment, but unfortunately adds another restriction. What is our response?

The serpent’s question of content, in spite of the woman’s reply, still needs to be addressed. If God did author the commandment, did He forbid the woman to eat of “every tree” of the garden? This question is particularly crafty because it uses language directly taken from the commandment itself[3]. The serpent’s intention is to touch upon the logical integrity of the commandment by pointing out that God did not say that Adam and the woman were not to eat of “every tree” but, in fact, stated: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat.” The seemingly contradictory nature of God’s commandment can be seen in its allowances (“every” tree) and its restriction (“the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” – obviously situated within the garden).

Is God’s commandment inherently contradictory?

There are two reasons why God’s commandment is not inherently contradictory. Firstly, the phrase “every tree of the garden” is immediately qualified by the phrase “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…[etc]”, indicating that God’s use of “every” was not meant to be all inclusive but served to signify the abundance of trees to which the couple had legal access. The serpent’s understanding of the phrase as meaning “all inclusive”, therefore, is unwarranted by the commandment itself. The question of content must always be assessed in light of context.

The second reason why God’s commandment is not inherently contradictory is given in the woman’s response to the serpent’s question. In 3:2-3, she states:

“We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”[4]

By differentiating between “the trees of the garden” and “the tree which is in the midst of the garden” we again see that God’s commandment does not lack logical integrity, but simply communicates the same information differently. Whereas the first defense of the commandment’s logical integrity depends upon the context of the phrase “every tree”, the second depends upon the type of communication being employed by God. The commandment was given in the narratival context of relationship (between God, man, and woman), and is, therefore, spoken accordingly.[5]

The Procession, Logic, and Content of the Serpent’s “Argument”

As we move through the text, we see that the serpent leads up to his argument against the truth and authority of the commandment by questioning 1.)its authorship and 2.)content (i.e. its logical integrity). Genesis 3:4-5 reads:

“Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Having no other recourse, the serpent attacks the moral integrity of God, implying that the commandment was birthed out of nothing more than His own desire to withhold a certain privilege from the woman. The procession seems to begin with reasonable questions, only ending with a fallacious argument against the truth of God’s Word. However, while the question of authorship is a valid question, the question of content is fallacious in that it is an example of equivocation, seeing as the serpent uses a different definition of the phrase “every tree” than that which is used by God in 2:16-17.

What is interesting, almost ironically anticlimactic, is that the most obvious error in logic, the serpent’s ad hominem “argument” against the truth of the commandment, is what convinces the woman to break the commandment. Despite her swiftness to confidently assert its divine authorship and clarify (to some extent) its content, she nonetheless is deceived by a groundless assertion about God’s moral character. Really?

As I reread this passage, I found myself remembering conversational debates that seemed to run in this same cycle: authorship (reasonable)-content(fallacious)-authority(fallacious). The more questions I honestly answered, the more my opponents chose to berate the character of God, mangling the Scripturesin order to do so, in an attempt to thereby disprove the veracity of the scriptures. This same style of “argumentation”, however, can be seen in the most contemporary popular atheists who, failing to provide a valid argument against the truth of God’s Word, resort to calling God a “tyrannical despot” who makes unreasonable demands from the humans He interacts with. Sound familiar?

I believe that Genesis 3:1-5 provides believers with an outline of an ancient strategy of attack. Not only this, but it seems to purposefully underscore the logical errors involved in the serpent’s questions of content and authority (respectively, equivocation and an ad hominem), for our benefit. What we should, therefore, also take heed to pay attention to is that the woman failed to see the error in his final “argument”, which aimed to play upon her subordinate position to God; for this is, I believe, where we are most vulnerable.

How should we respond? Where the woman failed is in her inability to again point to the commandment and respond to the serpent. If she trusted Adam to truthfully report its authorship and content, then why could she not trust the Author of life Himself? As it concerns us, I’ll ask: If we can show that the Bible is the Word of God and defend its content (by careful study and textual analysis), then should we have any reason to doubt the Word of God? No. Yet, at times we often fail to patiently weigh out the words of those who would seek to prove God wrong.

When we are confronted in a conversational debate, there are some things that we should watch for:

1. Interrogative Ambiguity: Although I interpreted the serpent’s opening question as being two questions, the fact is that it is difficult to determine what he is asking. What does evidence, however, is a possible question of authority and a possible use of equivocation. This is a purposeful strategy and is meant to drive his opponent into a trap.

2. De-contextualization: The serpent’s use of equivocation stems from his de-contextualization of the phrase “every tree”. This is also a trap, meaning to lead the woman to the conclusion that the commandment was inherently contradictory. This is, in my own experience, a very popular (and lazy) attack on the Bible. Learning how to spot it, therefore, is pertinent.

3. Ad Hominem Argumentation: As I noted earlier, this is typically the last recourse, although it surfaces immediately in some cases (see, The God Delusion).

Final Note: A very good example of a popular piece of atheist literature that incorporates all three of these errors is Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith.

[1] Genesis 2:16-17 informs us that God grants Adam the freedom to “eat of every tree” of the Garden, while the serpent asks if God has prohibited him to “eat of every tree of the Garden”.

[2] Gen. 3:2-3:  And the woman said to the serpent, “We may the fruit of the trees in the garden; but of the tree which is in the midst of the Garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die’” (emphasis mine).

[3] cf. Gen. 2:16-17 & Gen. 3:1

[4] It is true that the text states this clearly in 2:9; however, this is not direct dialogue but the narrator.

[5] Compare this to Gen. 2:9, where the narrator, in his description of the geography of the land, closely parallels the woman’s description of the “trees of the garden” and the tree “which is in the midst of the garden”.


4 thoughts on “An Ancient Strategy

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    This was a brilliant analysis, Hiram.

    And your extrapolation to how it repeats itself in contemporary discourse was a terrific insight.

    Thanks for the education!


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