That Cunning Serpent

This post is the third of a series that began December 12th.

In my previous post, I explored some of issues around “greatness” which, as we saw, came up in the slogans of our recent elections.

Let’s be clear:  greatness isn’t evil.  Indeed, seeking greatness is natural.  In the Bible, it is embedded in the original instruction to Adam and Eve (and the fish) to be fruitful and multiply.  The word for “multiply” comes from the same Hebrew root that we often translate as “great.”  In ancient times when humans were few, becoming many, becoming “great” in number, was a key to survival.

Yet, the Bible tells us that corruption began to fill the world “when humanity began multiplying on the face of the earth” (Gen 6.1).  “Sons of gods,” probably meaning kings and nobles, began impregnating “daughters of men.”  This sounds like harems or exercising the ancient “right of the first night.” “Strong men,” “men of renown,” took over and imposed their will on others.  The “imagination of man’s heart” became “evil continually” (6:4-5).  What had happened?

The old story of the serpent gives us a clue.  Recall that the cunning serpent enticed Chava (Eve) to eat of the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil by saying, “You won’t die… You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Then the text reports Chava’s experience. She saw “that the tree was good to eat, and that it was desirable to the eyes, and the tree was pleasant for gaining insight, and she took from its fruit and ate” (Gen 3: 4-6).

She couldn’t see anything except goodness, beauty, and clarity in that tree.  What had tempted her was the idea of greatness, of being more than she already was, “like God,” and specifically by the possibility of knowing something that, until then, was beyond her – namely evil.

The serpent was indeed cunning, because he was manipulating her ignorance. She had no idea what evil was.  To her it might as well have been called “the tree of the knowledge of good and zlwgoeinv.”  Evil, of course, was what the serpent had done – confused her by contradicting what she had been told, and claiming that God had actually hidden the truth from her.

(Today we would call it fake news.)

Adam followed her down that path, and they found themselves hiding from God, lying, and blaming others.  They discovered not greatness but shame.  God postponed the death penalty; but instead of the goodness, delight, and clarity that Chava had glimpsed in the tree, she and Adam faced lives of struggle and pain.


In these texts, thousands of years ago, human beings already understood that lies and manipulations, the cunning of the serpent, were the source of humanity’s problems. The serpent said, “You will be like God.” Soon men would claim to be sons of gods.  Later, when Moses warned the people about claiming their wealth as “the work of my own hands,” or of kings “multiplying horses and wives for themselves,” he was referring to the same problem.

I would add one inner dimension, which we also saw in the last post:  The lies promote the idea that “I did it myself,” and pride arises instead of gratitude for all the help we have received. That is the place where we have to do the work. The awareness of our own limits, the feeling of gratitude, the knowledge that the source of success is beyond ourselves – those enable us to feel humility.  And humility is what humanizes greatness.

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