Much has been made of the serpent and his role in the Garden of Eden story, not to mention his ability to speak. To my thinking: much too much.
Scholars point out that in ancient cultures, serpents and snakes were often considered divine and invested with powers ranging from fertility, wisdom, and immortality, to evil. With that overlay on the Torah, the serpent takes on epic dimensions and the story is made to center on the serpent’s manipulation of Eve. In concert with this thinking, Torah commentators have identified the serpent with Satan, again focusing on Eve’s vulnerability and the serpent’s power over her.
Perhaps Eve manipulated the serpent as much as he appears to have manipulated her. Eve lives in the lap of verdant luxury, a life of infinite leisure and no responsibility. Think Club Med for eternity. So long as she eats the fruit of the Tree of Life, she will remain alive, surrounded by fruit-laden trees and idyllic scenery. But where in this existence does she derive purpose and meaning? She has no responsibilities, no tasks to perform, nothing from which to derive satisfaction and fulfillment, and all the time in the world to do… nothing. What is more, she lacks moral discernment. She can experience the world physically and emotionally, but she cannot discern good and evil and act morally. She is a higher order animal, but has not yet blossomed into a fully human being. Somewhere in the deepest recess of her being she understands that without moral discernment, she is not substantially different from the other animals that share the garden habitat. She longs to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Tree of Knowledge is forbidden fruit. God has told her that the cost of moral discernment will be mortality: And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die” (Genesis 2:16-17). It’s a trade-off. She can continue to eat from the Tree of Life and thereby be immortal. Or she can eat from the Tree of Knowledge, become fully human by acquiring moral discernment, but be cut off from the Tree of Life and hence surrender immortality. Yet perhaps it’s a good trade-off, because immortality coupled with no responsibility generates malaise: nothing has meaning or purpose.
Eve has a long time to make this choice. Immortality is like that. At some point, she makes her decision yet worries that it is the right one, because this is a can’t-go-back-again step into an unknown and finite future. That’s where the serpent enters the picture. He seems to entice Eve to do what she would otherwise never have done. I think he simply provides her with emotional cover to forge ahead with her plan to move humanity to a higher level, one in which moral discernment and mortality make purposefulness, spirituality, and meaning not only possible, but the sine quibus non – the very grounding – of humanity.
We are here because Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, knowing that she would have to surrender access to the Tree of Life as a result. She purchased moral discernment at the cost of immortality, not only for herself but for all of us. Our very lives – and our potential to live them well and meaningfully – are due to her courageous decision to truly become the Mother of all Life. Each day is a precious gift precisely because we do not have an infinite supply. What will you do today to honor the gift of life?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman