Robert Gregory, InterVarsity Staff at Bowdoin College
Genesis 3.1(b) He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
Genesis 3.14-15 The Lord God said to the serpent:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring;he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
A casual conversation between the woman and a crafty, but merely created, serpent, is the Biblical account for the origins of human conflict. And it is of greatest importance to know why.
The serpent was aiming directly at Eve’s desires, adding to them a desire to be like the Creator rather than dependent on Him. Before the temptation, Eve possessed no such desire to be like God. Created in the image of God, the temptation awoke in Eve a desire for what she did not have, a desire she did not need for life in the garden. That is how temptation works.
Eve miscalculated her capacity to resist the temptation to live her life in the garden independently of God who created her. With the casual question, “Did God actually say …?” the serpent pried open the doors of temptation, and Eve alone could not close them. God would have to do that for her.
God’s first promise to help Eve was heard in His judicial verdict pronounced on the serpent, quoted above. The first surprise is that this promise to Eve would be embedded in a sentence given the serpent. The divine initiative expressed in the “I will …” of this first gospel pronouncement in the Holy Scriptures has to do in the first instance not with an offer of peace, but with a promise to make enmity or hostility between these new friends. The second surprise is that Eve and Adam were third-party beneficiaries of God’s judgment on the serpent. God would put hostility where it was absent, and the hostility that God would interpose between Eve and the serpent, according to this promise, would descend to her offspring and his offspring.
God’s promise to invest divine anger, animosity and hostility is the unexpected beginning of God’s covenant with creation that Christians call the offer of the Gospel. This offer, in its most basic terms, has to do with enmity, the woman, and some mutual bruising between these antagonists. In the study of the creation texts of the Bible, we are able to discern the outlines of what it means to live as creatures made in the image of the Creator, of life in an ordered universe, lived within the norms offered by a God who redeems everything that he has made.
In this essay we are looking at the casual alliance that the woman Eve established with the serpent. Why should an alliance so easily entered prove so difficult to exit voluntarily? Why shouldn’t Eve, by her free will, be able to honor the single negative command God gave to Adam to limit life in the garden? Surely God’s rich provision for Eve and Adam in the garden setting provided them more than adequate grounds and motive to honor that command.
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2.16-17
The difficulty we have with grasping disordered desire is in reconciling that with a world of “created goods” that God called good in his 6th day pronouncement.
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis 1.31
If the creation is good, how can human desires for it be wrong?
Martin Luther described Eve’s disordered desires as a self-enclosure “incurvatus in se.” Oxford Professor of Ethics Oliver O’Donovan explains, that rather than accepting the world of creation as good, Eve chose to “divide the good world God has made into two “worlds”, one good and the other evil, and we make our own contingent perspectives the criterion for the division. And this gives a new, negative sense to the term “world”, which we have hitherto spoken of positively as God’s creation. This negative sense is characteristic of the New Testament, and points to the reality a constructed world, a world of our own imagination, pitched over against the created world and in opposition to it.” (New College Lecture Series, 2007, Lecture 2-Admiring, Professor Oliver O’Donovan)
The argument from Genesis 3 is that God has set himself in opposition to the imaginary world. That is a fundamental antagonism that God announced in our beginning text. What do we learn from this principle?
Observation One: For the free will of Eve (and Adam) acting independent of their creator, it seems the direct command of God alone was not sufficient inducement to obedience. Eve failed to resist the temptation by free will alone. Indeed, it was in the nature of the temptation that she ventured to exercise her free will independent of God and his ordering words. The temptation, by implication, was: “figure it out for yourself Eve, you do not need God to be wise.” Eve foolishly accepted the serpent’s idea of life without limits. This is the faint caricature that passes too easily as true freedom.
In her alliance with the serpent, the woman lost her innocence, and gained an understanding of evil unnecessary for her life in the garden. The free will of the woman, examined in light of the Apostle Paul’s analysis in Romans 1, was suppressing the truth she was created to disclose in acts of obedience to her maker. If there would be hostility between the serpent and the woman, God himself would have to create it. Friendship with the serpent was a casual alliance which could be dissolved only by a force greater than Eve possessed.
Observation Two: The divine plan to implant hostility and antagonism into Eve’s new-found friendship with evil is the foundation to God’s covenant response to it. Demands for justice are not in short supply these days. But the Old Testament prophet understood that justice and divine anger toward evil were paired.
Correct me, O Lord, but in justice; not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing. Jeremiah 10:24.
God promised to invest in Eve’s relationship with the serpent an enmity or antagonism where it did not exist. The response of God to evil is one of justice, and the terms of justice belong to God alone. As Isaiah wrote:
Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
or what man shows him his counsel?
Whom did he consult,
and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
and taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding? (Isaiah 40.13-14)
A careful reading of Genesis 3 provides an understanding of the long-term implications of the moral and spiritual breach between the first human pair and their Maker. The scriptures unfold the rest of the history of human sin at its own pace. The promise expressed in terms of judgment would be followed by many unpleasant consequences: warfare, bruising, punishment and death.
Observation three: God promised to make two humanities, your offspring and her offspring. Jesus spoke clearly about these things in the gospel of John:
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” John 8.44-47
The Apostle John elaborated on the Master’s teaching about this:
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. 1 John 3.7-10.
It is in the context of these teachings that we better understand the implied promise of God in Genesis 3.15 to separate humanity on the terms of this God-ordained hostility. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, says John, and this is the fulfillment of the Genesis 3.15 promise of enmity and hostility, not only between the woman and the serpent, but between his seed and her seed.
We are aiming for the truth about matters that go beyond human understanding when we consider the divine purposes for allowing evil and sin to taint the entire human race. It is tempting to let our arrows of conjecture fly and then rush to paint the bull’s eye around them to prove that we hit the target. We learn from the creation narrative that temptation urged Eve to distance herself from God’s word. The way Jesus overcame temptation was by remembering and relying upon the written word. Jesus said,
“It is written …” Matthew 4.4.
Stanley Hauerwas writing in First Things (May 1995) reminds us that Christians cannot be Christians without enemies. The enemies peculiar to Christians, those who are the “offspring” of the woman, are only understandable in the light of the rest of the scriptures that make these matters plain. Many of our prayers to be relieved of conflict are undoubtedly pleas for God to relieve us of conflict he has created for us. A greater understanding of the place of conflict and having the right enemies is needed. Quoting Hauerwas:
Our difficulty is not that we have conflicts, but that as modern people we have not had the courage to force the conflicts we ought to have had. Instead, we have comforted ourselves with the ideology of pluralism, forgetting that pluralism is the peace treaty left over from past wars that now benefits the victors of those wars.
One hopes that God is using this time to remind the Church that Christianity is unintelligible without enemies. Indeed, the whole point of Christianity is to produce the right kind of enemies.
The last enemy to be destroyed, according to St. Paul, is death itself (1 Corinthians 15.26). The offspring of the promise, according to Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, is Christ himself (Galatians 3.16). That this was also Jesus’s understanding may be evident in the way he referred to his own mother, Mary, as “woman.” Twice in the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to his mother and called her “woman”—not mother, just “woman.” Jesus refers to his mother as “woman”, both in the first miracle of making water from wine (John 2.4) and later as he speaks to her from the cross (John 19.26). There is no shortage of commentators who find in these words a measure of disrespect and rudeness that would not be expected from the Son of God.
The life was one of conflict. It was a life lived among enemies who would nail him to a Roman cross. Could it be that Jesus recognized in his mother Mary the imminent fulfillment of the promise of an “offspring of the woman” we read of in Genesis 3.15? And that this promise was realized in Christ himself as the offspring of this woman? The conflict ends with the death of death itself.
Hebrews 2.14 says it this way:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.
That is the gospel. God fulfilled in the seed of the woman the promised enmity to destroy the one who had the power over death. The life of the Savior was lived with enemies, conflict, hostility, and bruising. The final surprise, however, is that the anger of God falls not on all rebel humanity, but his only son Jesus.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5