January 12, 2020

Article at Graham on Authory

We all fall short

 Art attribution:

Temptation, Hugo van der Goes

c.1470 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)


Why we all fall short,

and how the devil made us do it.


 A look at the circumstances surrounding what is widely believed to be the “big” original sin – disobedience to God – through the eyes of a lifelong newspaperman with limited Biblical scholarship skills.



By Graham Osteen

June 20, 2008

The Bible As Literature

Sewanee School of Letters

Prof. Jennifer Lewin

 1) Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said,

Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

2) And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3) But of the fruit of the tree which [is] in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

4) And the serpent said unto the woman,

Ye shall not surely die:

5) For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.


Genesis 3: 1-5

 This essay focuses on the King James Version of Gen. 3: 1-5, which is from the “J” tradition, not the “P” tradition, which my Sewanee School of Letters graduate school teacher tried to confuse me about, eventually admitting “my bad” in an e-mail that I can confirm. This is a new scholarly term they’re apparently now using in Cambridge.


         The Word of God as we know it in biblical and literary terms continues to shape the human experience, confound us, and provide a road map that remains subject to intense and widely divergent interpretation when it comes to the very nature of right and wrong.

         We’re dealing here with a conversation between Eve and the Devil – Satan, Beelzebub, the Tempter, Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, etc. – and through it the Biblical writers have given us a story as simple and powerful as anything ever written. It’s about right and wrong, disobedience to God, making excuses for our actions, temptation, the need to push the limits of authority, seeking earthly pleasure in spite of God’s warnings and just about every other imaginable human weakness that leads to the decisions we make, good and bad.

         Remarkably, the entire five verses contain just 127 words. That’s an awful lot of the human condition that gets covered in a tiny bit of space, and a testament to the unmatched literary skills the biblical writers have employed. When looking at the Bible in this way, we are constantly reminded that the economy of words and the lessons revealed are unlike anything ever written.

         In the accompanying 1470 Hugo van der Goes masterpiece, “Temptation,” we see the representation of the serpent/devil/little freaky thing in the garden with Adam and Eve sporting not just a strange tail that may or may not be bifurcated, but weird little arms, legs and an incredibly unsettling, quizzical stare as Eve (who looks pregnant) reaches for a second piece of the forbidden fruit, which looks like another apple. She’s got one in her right hand and one in her left. No doubt she’s entirely crossed the line at this point.

         I discovered through the wonders of the Internet that this little “personality” is considered one of the strangest devil/serpent figures ever put on canvas, which shows that I’m not paying enough attention to art and biblical history these days.

         It’s interesting to note that we also know he’ll be losing his arms, legs and tail in the not-too-distant future – “upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life,” Gen. 3:14.

         And Adam? Don’t get me started. He looks like he just got back from four days on acid at Bonnaroo.

         In the painting, note that it’s not really clear if the serpent/devil figure is male or female, but we know that the Biblical writers we are using in this study call him “he.”

         Note also that writers say, “the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made” (Gen. 3: 1). In that one sentence, then, we realize he’s the trickiest of all the animals, and throughout the scene is cast as being “hostile to God and an enemy of the human race,” according to my mimeographed notes from the New Jerusalem Bible, Readers Edition.

         With all that’s going on here, I believe it’s ultimately the literary power of the word “subtil” that works to paint – for the reader – this entire picture and complete the scene in an unmistakable way. It clearly influenced the artist.

         Back to the text.

         Note the familiarity the serpent uses with Eve to gain her trust, saying, “Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” (Gen. 3: 1).

         This language can be interpreted in modern terms as: “Yo Eve,” or “Hey Eve, did God tell you that you can’t eat something from all the trees in the garden?”

         The tone of the devil/serpent’s language here is something you might find in an Elmore Leonard character, smooth and inviting, hip. Kind of like, “you’ve got to be kidding. Let’s get on with it.”

         Eve answers back in (Gen. 3: 2-3), “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which (is) in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.”

         Eve at first glance appears to be expressing herself clearly in terms of her understanding with God on this entire matter, but once again it’s a subtle literary technique – an example of what has been called “dialogue fraught with implication” – in which the reader is able to allow that she has left herself open to the devil/serpent through an unspoken sort of equivocation.

         What do I mean by that?

         The writers don’t have her say, for example, “ God said don’t touch the fruit of the tree or else I’ll die, he’ll die and that’s final. End of story. We’re clear on the consequences. Now get out of here and leave us alone so me and my man Adam can get freaky in the Garden of Eden, where the wine is fine and the animals are friendly.”

         Because of the open-ended tone of her response – certainly a literary “crucial silence” – the serpent/thing/devil is able to continue working on her, easily overcoming her concerns when he says, “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3: 4-5).

         This can be interpreted as, “Come on, Eve, lighten up. God knows you’ll see the light and know all that he knows. That’s the only reason he’s forbidding it. You’ll be a goddess, for god’s sake. Wake up.”

         So in effect, the devil overcomes Eve by questioning if it is a sin or not, which is a fairly typical way we are able to convince ourselves to act badly and then justify it. The devil made me do it.

         The devil is also saying – through what is left unsaid – don’t worry, no problem and there’s no danger involved anyway. Once again, this is a common way we justify bad behavior and questionable actions, and the use of it here is not just effective, but incalculable in terms of the effects on the discussion of right and wrong that has existed throughout human history.

         He tells Eve that there’s an upside to disobeying God, because “your eyes shall be opened,” which is an attractive way of saying we’ll be smarter if we do something we know is questionable in God’s eyes. Seek the carnal, earthly knowledge, the intellectual delights this brings, and experience all the world has to offer rather than obeying a stifling, demanding and ultimately jealous and selfish God.

         Put yet another way, she’ll have more insight and the ability to see things more clearly if she crosses the line. Come on in, the water is fine.

         He tells her she’ll be a god herself, furthering this theme of being all-knowing and all-seeing as the most desirable state, and that her actions will bring immediate gratification. That’s almost always what we humans want, and this need for immediate gratification instead of obedience to God becomes a common theme throughout the Bible.

         All in all, he suits the temptation to her needs on many levels, and, I would reiterate, the writers do it all in 127 words.

         To further demonstrate their mastery, consider that through all of this interplay and dialogue, they still manage to “leave us in realm of vagueness,” as was pointed out in class recently.

         Another point worth considering about the phrase “For God doth know” goes back to the subtlety of the tempter’s language.

         He’s praising God by saying that God would never forbid Eve or anyone else from eating this wonderful fruit that’s so readily available. Why would God deny them that? Isn’t God perfect? Why does he want to keep you down on the farm, as it were? The effect here is to cast doubt on God’s power and omniscience, another example of the “dialogue fraught with implication.”

         What seems most important about the entire episode is the notion of choosing immediate gratification over God’s will. It this case, it was simply  don’t eat the fruit, which means Eve – and Adam – blew it for all of us.

         The devil made them do it.