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Perhaps you’ve heard the story before.
Everything was goin’ just fine in the Garden of Eden until that pesky lil’ serpent weaseled his way into the situation and shot everything to hades.
The infamous first words of this primordial agent of chaos? Did God really say “you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”
The obvious answer is no. That’s not what God said. And if we didn’t remember that from the chapter that directly precedes this question, then Eve clarifies for us in the answer we find in the verse immediately following that question.
Except, her reply isn’t what God said either. God’s instruction to the man (before the woman was created) was to not eat from the tree. She understood that she wasn’t even supposed to touch its fruit. We’re left to assume that the woman received the instruction from the man or in a separate communication from God or by some other agent—or maybe even that she simply got the instruction wrong. But what she said simply doesn’t match what we’re told God commanded.
The serpent asked a valid question. And, in Christian circles, the serpent’s question has been weaponized as a way to suppress questions since we learned about it.
If people question whether prohibiting women from ecclesial roles actually honors the Spirit of God…
If people suggest that including people of the LGBTQ+ community into the fullness of fellowship—and even leadership—might actually be in line with Jesus’s ethic of reaching out to those that have found themselves on the margins of society…
If someone argues that the context in which the books of the Bible were composed was so different from our own that wisdom demands we re-examine God-talk for our time…
There comes steady voice, warning caution. Did God really say…?
The implication is clear. You’re doing the devil’s work when you pursue these questions. These questions are slippery slopes to the gates of hell.
The voice scares us away from the question. It is an effective tactic. So effective that we often forget to note that the answer to the question was no. God did not really say that.
The serpent’s deception was not in asking that question. Eve provided an acceptable answer, even if it wasn’t exact according to the story we have. In fact, one could argue that the very first humans were setting a pattern that many Jewish thinkers (including one Jesus of Nazareth) would undertake for generations. Perhaps Adam was building a fence around the command. Maybe the man was so desperate to make sure the fruit was not consumed that when he conveyed the instruction, he intensified it. She definitely can’t eat it if she doesn’t even touch it! We see Jesus do a similar thing when he says yes, murder is wrong. So don’t even get mad at your brother. Adultery is wrong. So don’t even lust. Jesus’s zeal for justice and righteousness can only be fully understood in the context of his being clear about the actual commands of God and what walking them out requires. Questions are a good vehicle for establishing that clarity. The serpent’s deception wasn’t the question. The question introduced clarity.
The serpent’s deception was in misrepresenting the character of God. The serpent’s reply to the woman’s clear representation of what God had blessed them with was a claim that God was trying to keep them from experiencing wholeness. After God had spent the entirety of human history to that point shaping an environment that would sustain creation on its own—giving the first humans everything they needed to thrive—the serpent comes along and suggests that God wants them to live in ignorance. God created an environment in which humans had no need to even know or conceive of what evil was. The serpent painted God as controlling for doing so. And that misrepresentation led humans to pursue knowledge of that which God recognized as a barrier to the wholeness they were created for.
There are people who’d like us to believe that our questions are what separates us from God. They’ll often point to this story as a warning. But this story sounds a different alarm. It is not the questions that separate us from God. Questions can help us reflect on and clarify who God has been for us.
It is misrepresenting who God is that separates us from the Creator. When we understand God as some authoritarian whose desire is punishment, judgement, and domination—instead of a Creator whose desire is to see us whole and thriving—we have fallen for the deception of the serpent in the garden.
Questions are not the work of the devil. Viewing God as a tyrant is.
Maybe it’s time we stopped doing the devil’s work for him.
Questions are not a work of the devil. A to the men!
What a powerful reclamation of this weaponized text!