The story of this chapter isn’t one about divine law, divine anger and legal payment, but rather a story about the creation and the journey of her priestly overseers, namely humanity. God didn’t issue a law about the tree of knowledge, but a warning, like parents warning a child not to touch the fireplace.
The serpent is a symbol for an angel, endowed with beauty and wisdom. This wisdom was a good thing, before it was put to a bad use. The word seraph (snake) was also used in Isaiah 6 for a symbolic vision of God’s throne, with cherubim and seraphim calling out “holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God almighty.” There was nothing evil about the snake or the angels in the original creation of heaven and earth. Heaven and earth were together in the garden, along with the angels. God walked in the garden, meaning that is where he dwelt with us all. It was after the fall that our blindness separated heaven and earth. In Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21-22 this blindness is taken away.
When God made the heavens and the earth it was “very good,” meaning the creation was without evil. The story of the fall of mankind is also the story of the fall of the angel. The angel felt “he” should have been given the stewardship of the creation, rather than mankind, since he believed he had more beauty and wisdom. The angel misunderstood God, who loves to use the “weaker being” for his purposes. So the angel was moved by jealousy and pride. If he couldn’t rule the creation instead of mankind, he would destroy it through mankind. The angel and humanity fall together, at the same time.
This also shows us the origin of evil. God has gifted each of his creatures. If these gifts are used in love, they are a huge benefit to the whole community, but if they are used for self-centredness, they become harmful. The greater the gifts God has given us, the more harm they can do. It’s like any technology we have: the greater good it can do is also the greater harm it can do. It depends on the one who is using it. God gave us these gifts in love, meaning he isn’t a tyrant over creation. He also gave us choice.
The angel’s wisdom was to introduce law into the creation, by accusing God of unfairness towards Adam and Eve. Accepting the law in this way, to use it to accuse another, meant it would also accuse them. This was the trap. This law became lodged in the heart of humanity, making them ashamed and fearful. The reaction was to hide from God and to accuse each other. This way violence and death filled the creation.
With the law so lodged in the conscience of humanity, this captivity would seem to be eternal. The law becomes like the “voice of God” condemning our lives and relationships. Nothing could convince us of God’s love, not the ancient temples and not the sacrifices that were many. It would necessitate God himself coming among us, suffering all our sin at our hand and forgiving us, displaying his love fully to our own conscience. This is what God did in the incarnation and the gospel.
“The seed of woman shall bruise the serpent’s head…” The lineage of chapter 5 begins to trace this seed through to Israel. We don’t know exactly when this Messianic hope began in Israel, but anytime you get a called out and separated people, who are persecuted, a Messianic hope will develop. This hope might have become more acute in their slavery in Egypt, and fulfilled in part by Moses, who crushed the Pharaoh. As Israel consolidates as a nation this Messianic hope grows, and eventually the prophets see the Messiah as the one who delivers Israel from their sin. He crushes the head of the serpent, that is, his image in our hearts and lives, to produce a people of love and justice.
At the end of Genesis three God does not kill an animal and clothe Adam and Eve with the animal’s skin. There is no mention of an animal, blood or death. He clothes Adam and Eve’s skin with a woven cloth garment (just like in Exodus the poor’s tunic is a “garment for his skin,” not a garment of skin.) The same word cloth and garment was used in the Pentateuch, with was also a woven cloth garment. It is priestly clothing. The clothing meant that God was forgiving and restoring the priesthood of humanity over the creation.
In Genesis three mankind falls from their priestly service over creation. Humanity is no longer in the position to reflect God’s image into the world, but rather the image of the fallen angel, of jealousy and pride. Genesis three is a story of God restoring humanity to that priesthood, so also that the creation may be restored. This is the gospel Paul speaks of in Romans. “For all have fallen short of the glory of God,” refers to this priesthood, the “Adamic” vocation (Psalm 8). The whole letter is about the Jews fulfilling their call to the world through faith, which means joining with the gentiles in love and care. When God’s children are revealed the creation is set free from her bondage to corruption. We are restored to become divine image bearers, for a stewardship over creation.
The text claims death was introduced into the world through sin. Some commentators claim death already existed, but I don’t find such arguments compelling nor provable. However this does raise the question about entropy, the law of decay, that all systems in the universe breakdown over time. How did sin cause this to happen? Some scientists say entropy is part of an eternal cycle, claiming energy in the universe remains constant, but just changes forms. Entropy happens because of the distance between heaven (the rule and presence of God in our lives) and earth. Sin has brought blindness and has thus broken this holistic marriage. Isaiah 25 says heaven and earth shall again come rushing together into a marriage of peace snd then death and the curse shall be abolished. Paul reiterated this in 1 Corinthians 15.
Since there was no death in the original creation, if animal and human life kept multiplying, wouldn’t the earth become overpopulated? “Population emergency” is another false claim today, to control global society and markets. But what if there was no death and we kept multiplying? These are some questions I don’t have answers for. In eternity after the resurrection, in the new integrated heaven and earth, there will be no more sexual multiplying. Before then, we see many animals whose reproduction is naturally regulated by environmental factors, to maintain an optimum population. It’s foolhardy to conclude on issues we know so little about.
What I know is that the early chapters of Genesis have too much truth to be taken lightly in these other areas. What they say about the world, life, community and the purpose of creation are the richest sources of truth we have for human and social identity. Without these we would be lost, and destruction would take over all over relationships. I find these other questions intriguing and look forward to answers, but in the meantime, I won’t belittle the richest source we have, based upon what I don’t understand, or upon current rash and devastating trends in thought.The eternal is beyond our grasp and any investigation into things we don’t know requires faith and trust, otherwise we go it alone, and that independence produces all the worst qualities and outcomes in humanity and in this beautiful temple God has made to dwell in with us.