Snaky Words

God “spoke” all creation into being through “words.” The snake, who we have previously identified as a “demonophany,” the “dark side” of the Theophany motif in the Garden, attempts to undo creation by deceitful words. Since evil has no necessary existence independent of God’s purposes and creation, evil cannot be truly creative, but can only imitate. Still, we have before us a meditation on the whole idea of spoken words and their power, not only for good, but as we have here, for evil. The ancient Hebrews had a keen theology of words; they are symbols of great forces that underlie creation. When God speaks, there is creation, order, goodness, blessing, and truth. When Satan speaks, the opposite is unleashed; chaos, disorder, evil, and death.

How does the snake operate? It is the same thing over and over again; it so effective that it never changes! It always begins with suggestion; “So God said …,” a sort of half interrogation, half exclamation, as if the serpent brooded long over a problem (Skinner). This then gives way to exaggeration; “… from any tree of the garden?” We know Eve is tracking with evil when she herself exaggerates in her response, “… neither shall you touch it.” The snake knows that if he can make God and His commands sound ridiculous through exaggeration, then we are ripe for the final move, that of flat contradiction, “you shall not die!” (Kidner). We have no idea how this all transpired in space and time. We do know that what we have here, in this vivid, brief narrative, is the essence of temptation as it confronts every man since this infernal event. Adam is every man, Eve every woman, and the snake forever lisping the same lines.

The Hebrew word for the snake is nāḥāš. There is some debate as to whether the root of this word is connected to the verbal stem nḥš (practice divination) and the noun naḥaš (bewitchment, magic curse). Whatever the etymology, the sound of the word nāḥāš would certainly draw to the Hebrew mind witchery ─ temptation is a sort of spell casting. How else can we explain the irrationality of temptation and evil? The movement of these few verses invites us to see Eve in a voluntary trance-like state. Though tempted, she is not forced … she allows her will to be drawn by a stronger one. Evil captured her imagination; she follows, against her better judgment, the brush strokes as the snake repaints reality into a nightmare.

Eve’s sin is two-fold. At some point she lost confidence in God. Everything hung on the incomprehensible command not to take of the tree of “all knowledge” (see July 8, The Two Trees). Again, the tree was good in itself for it was created by God. The command could only be listened to and obeyed (Westermann). Eve came to believe that God was keeping something from her. Once she doubted God’s intentions, then the second aspect necessarily plays itself out, and that is to take matters into her own hands and be god (autonomy). These are the two aspects of rebellion that takes place in every temptation at all times, everywhere. This two-fold sin is the essence of infidelity, of unbelief. Its opposite, that of believing God has our best in mind, and that we will therefore not take matters into our own hands, is the essence of faith, which we might call a “pre-fall,” or “original” attitude of humanity. It is precious to God.

Though Eve was tempted, Adam, who was conspicuously “with her” when the nāḥāš was working his wife, failed to subdue evil by neglect; it was directly to him that God gave the commandment and therefore he was more directly responsible. Adam, in fact, was the ultimate goal, for the nāḥāš knew that to get Adam it must go through Eve. Eve wanted to be “like God,” an irony, for she was already made in the image of God; Adam made a god of Eve, and intentionally chose her over God. Neither let God be God.

2 Responses to “Snaky Words”

  1. Hi Father John,

    I wonder if you could expand on the meaning of the phrase in this treatise on Snaky Words; “since evil has no necessary existence independent of God’s purpose and creation,.”

    In Friendship,


  2. Good question, Joe. In the Augustinian tradition, evil has no real essence of being, for it was not created by God. Rather, it is looked upon as non-being. God made everything “good,” and bad is the absence of good. Evil has reality only to the point where we, by our evil wills and actions, give it definition. It is in this sense that evil has existence, as something created by us and not God. Evil therefore has no right to exist before God, and has no “integrity of being.” We might look upon evil as a parasite or cancer in the physical realm that can exist only if there is something good to feed on, and when it sucks the life out of the good, it dies itself. The only other alternative is dualism, where we see that both evil and good are necessary ans substantial, locked into eternal conflict. Dualism has made a bold comeback with gnosticism into western culture (e.g. Carl Jung’s psychology, Star Wars, etc.) Dualism is essentially the old paganism.

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