This is a common translation of the snake’s opening words, seemingly innocuous, to Eve. The word “perhaps,” in particular, creates an unthreatening atmosphere.
But what did God actually say?
“From all the trees you may eat, but from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, do not eat from it” (2:16-17).
The snake appears to be contradicting God’s rule, which was that Eve and Adam were free to eat from all of the trees except one. The snake knows that Eve is aware of the original guidelines. What is the inner meaning, then, of the snake’s language?
When we come to a puzzling moment in the Bible, it helps to remember that although the text may not be poetry, its essence is poetic. The 19th century rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, also known as the Netziv wrote:
"The Torah, with a few exceptions, is not poetry. But its inner character is poetic because of its allusive and metaphoric quality. The implicit meaning is the heart of poetry. Similarly, the so-called hidden implications of the biblical text are its real message."
One way of exploring the hidden implications of poetry or the Bible is to micro-investigate the language and grammar. Samson Raphael Hirsch, the early 19th century German biblical exegesis, translated the snake’s words this way: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree...”
This language is even stranger than the first translation above. The words trail off into nothingness.
Hirsch argued that understanding the snake’s words is a matter of emphasis. The line should be read: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree...”
When read this way the snake does not really challenge the authority of God. He just suggests that God’s spoken words don’t need such attention. And the words trail off because Eve herself can fill in the gap. The snake is really saying: “Even if God said don’t eat from the tree, God’s words are not as important as `the God inside you.’”
The snake is simply being honest; he is pointing to a contradiction: the voice of God said don’t eat from the tree, but God’s voice inside you—your desires—is telling you to eat it.
This is neither cunning nor deceptive: the snake is an animal, and his argument faithfully represents the animal world. The voice of God throbs inside animals. As the contemporary rabbi and scholar David Forhman has written, “God speaks to animals through the passions, desires, and instincts they find within themselves.”
The snake compels us to ask: what divides humans from animals?
The text seems to suggest that if you identify primarily with your passions – you are an animal. If you have the capacity to observe your passions and examine them, you are human.
While the snake may be honest, he is also devious. The sneakiness of words lie in the untruth slipped in to the otherwise honest and seemingly innocuous line. He pretends that he doesn’t know the rule – this feigned innocence about getting it wrong pulls Eve into the conversation, engages her, and she feels compelled to explain:
“Of the fruit of any tree of the garden we may eat. Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden God has said: `You shall neither eat of it nor touch it.`” (3:2-3)
Looking carefully at her words we see that she is recasting God’s command in a different light. She is rationalizing, detaching herself from the imagination, pulling herself out of the poet’s trance.
When looking at the complete quotations you might notice that she subtly changes at least six things that God said, but I’ll focus on three.
While God said that “all the trees” may be eaten from, Eve minimizes the significance of what she can have. She shifts the emphasis and does not include the word “all” in her retelling of the command.
She also changes the location of the Tree of Knowledge – she says that it’s in the “center of the garden,” but the text tells us that the Tree of Life is in the center of the garden, not the Tree of Knowledge. What she can’t have becomes the focus, the center around which her world revolves.
She also says that she must not touch the tree. God said nothing about touching. She invents a restriction. It’s easier to rationalize a wrong if we exaggerate how difficult it is to abide by the rules.
Although Adam also eats from the tree, the text only gives us a record of Eve speaking with the snake. She is both the seduced and the seducer. Why her and not Adam? And why a woman?
Perhaps the text is suggesting that women are more easily persuaded by the beauty of language. On Mount Sinai when the Israelites received the Torah, God suggests that the women should be told first. Was it important to tell the women first about the Torah because they have the capacity to be convinced? Perhaps there is a concern that men can be rigid where women can sometimes more easily visualize alternatives that are not yet here.
The men’s rigidity can be seen in their attraction to the golden calf, an idol, which the women do not worship. The golden calf is the essence of rigidity and a regression to the old idolatries. God presents an alternative, the Torah, a dizzying challenge to the Israelites, a challenge that Emmanuel Levenas has called “difficulte liberte.” The women seem less afraid of this difficult freedom offered to them.
The Talmud discusses how women have a special sense of judgment--they can see beyond the way things seem to have to be. Does this make some view them as “flighty”? Perhaps, but this also means they can fly. Women come to represent the human ability to soar above convention and expectations, to open the mind to an alternative vision, to a truth that has not yet arrived, an inchoate meaning that is just beginning to blossom.
The danger of this soaring is that sometimes people get it wrong and soar into narcissism or authoritarianism or listening to a snake. When is the dominating “I” speaking a truth and when is it just rationalizing? It’s often impossible to tell the difference.
Keats wrote, “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of imagination.” We often can’t see clearly when in the midst of an ethical dilemma or when we have to make a choice—we are “certain of nothing.” But when clarity does visit us in its eloquent armor, we are blessed, and we cling to the “holiness:” the heart’s affections and the imagination.
After Adam and Eve eat from the tree the first thing they do is cover their bodies. Why? Before truth and falsehood were mixed together, before they ingested the mixing of “good and evil,” they saw the inner meaning of the physical world with clarity, through the divine imagination. Now that vision was blurred, and they only had a dim memory of the spiritual parallel to their bodies, which they now only experienced through their passions and desires. Covering up helped them to stay close to the merging of beauty and truth: modesty allowed them to contemplate their connection to the divine in the form of imagination and their hearts’ affections.
Emily Dickinson wrote,
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Adam and Eve knew, instinctively, that the truth of the body was now "too bright" – they covered themselves with the leaves, some say they were the leaves of the Tree of Knowledge; they needed to "tell it slant."
Eve changed the world. Robert Frost honors this idea in his poem “Never Again Would Birds' Song Be the Same.” The poem is written from the point of view of Adam who feels that the world, even the song of birds, has been influenced by Eve’s presence in it—she has added an "oversound” to our lives, a “tone of meaning” that includes a richness that will “never be lost”:
He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.