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What's In It for the Snake? Serpents of Desire, Part 5

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

Forbidden Fruit and the assassination attempt.

The Torah describes the snake as being sly or devious. But whenever we talk about someone acting in a sly or devious way, we always mean that they are sly and devious in pursuit of some goal. With the snake, that piece of the puzzle is missing. We know that he is sly, but that all that the text says about him. We have no clue what his motive for the crime might be. To put it succinctly: "What's in it for the snake?"

If the Torah doesn't bother telling us about the snake's motivation, we might conclude that it is because the missing information is so obvious it hardly bears mention.

I'd like to argue that the snake's motivation is indeed rather clear. It's just a matter of seeing his temptation in context. For in fact, the serpent doesn't come out of nowhere with his offer of fruit to Eve. There is a history to that offer. And discerning that history, I think, is a key to really understanding not just the snake, but the entire story of the Forbidden Fruit as a whole.


Most of us are used to thinking that the story of the Forbidden Fruit begins at the start of chapter 3, when the serpent shows up, engages Eve in conversation and tempts her to eat what she shouldn't be eating. But in truth, that's not the beginning of the story. The story actually begins way back in the middle of Genesis, chapter two, where the Tree of Knowledge is first introduced, and the command to avoid it is first given:

Out of the ground God caused to grow every tree pleasant to the sight and good for food; the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (2:9). And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying 'Of every tree of the garden you may eat freely. But of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat...'(2:16-17).

Why does Adam's search for a mate interrupt the story of the Tree of Knowledge?

The reason it's easy to miss the fact that the story begins all the way back in chapter 2, is because after these two verses appear and introduce the trees, the text inexplicably digresses. In the verses that follow, God declares that "it is not good for man to be alone," and the Almighty then sets about trying to find a helpmate for him. The Almighty creates all the beasts of the field and parades them before Adam. Adam names all the creatures, but has no success finding a mate among them. Finally, the Lord puts Adam to sleep and takes a rib from him, out of which He builds Eve. And only then -- after the text tells us about the creation of both Eve and the animals -- does the story return to the Forbidden Fruit. Our familiar snake comes along, offers the fruit to Eve, and the rest is history.

All in all, it's a strange path for the text to take. Why does Adam's search for a mate interrupt the story of the Tree of Knowledge? At face value, it would seem more logical to get the creation of Eve and the animals out of the way first, and then begin talking about the Tree of Knowledge; that way, the narrator can bring each story to its conclusion without interruption. But for some reason, the Torah doesn't do this. It places the creation of the animals and Eve right in the middle of the Tree of Knowledge narrative. Why?

Let's begin by examining this "digression" a little more closely. The truth is, the story it tells is quite bizarre in its own right. Put yourself, for a moment, in the "shoes" of the Almighty. Imagine that you had created Adam and were then concerned that he not be all alone. You decide he needs a helpmate. What's the next thing you would do?

You'd probably decide to create Eve.

But that's not what happens. Instead, the Almighty creates all the beasts of the field and brings them before Adam to see if he might find an appropriate mate among them. One by one, Adam rejects them. In the process of that effort, Adam names each of the animals. Now, let's stop a minute to ask: Why, exactly, did God have to perform this little experiment? Are we to believe that God, the Great Matchmaker in the Sky, couldn't figure out that a zebra wouldn't be a good match for Adam? And after the zebra didn't work out as a wife, was it really necessary to try the hippopotamus and the flamingo also? The experiment with the animals seems almost like a charade. Why do we need to hear about it?


The combined weight of these questions suggests that perhaps we have been too hasty in classifying God's "attempt" to find a mate for Adam as a digression. Apparently, this thread is not an interruption of the Tree of Knowledge narrative at all. Instead, it would seem to be an integral piece of the larger picture. But how so?

Here's the outline of a theory. It's only an outline, so don't jump out of your seats and scream at me quite yet; we'll flesh this out later. But I'd like to suggest that the creation of the beasts of the field -- and Adam's rejection of them -- is actually crucial to the entire Forbidden Fruit narrative. In particular, I am going to argue that it is entirely impossible to understand the snake and his temptation without all this.

Perhaps it was Adam's rejection of the animals in favor of Eve that propelled the snake into action...

We had been puzzled earlier about the snake's motive. He is "cunning," but to what end? Well, perhaps the Torah doesn't talk about the motivation of the snake because it's clear from context. The earlier story about possible companions for Adam, I would suggest, provides the missing motive for the snake. In other words, perhaps it was Adam's rejection of the animals in favor of Eve that propelled the snake into action...

Remember how God had brought all the "beasts of the field" [Hebrew: chayat hasadeh] before Adam to see if he could find a mate among them? It turns out that this phrase, chayat hasadeh, is relatively rare. It only appears in one other context in the entire Book of Genesis -- in the description of the snake. When we first meet this primal serpent, the Torah describes the creature as "more cunning than all the beasts of the field [chayat hasadeh]."

Perhaps that, indeed, is what "drives" him -- this walking, talking serpent. The representative of the animal world closest, as it were, to man -- was seeking to succeed where all other animals had failed. All the chayat hasadeh had been unsuccessful in providing a companion for Adam. The snake, perhaps, was more cunning than all the chayat hasadeh: He was seeking to convince mankind that at least one "beast of the field" could be his companion after all.

A fascinating and perplexing ancient Midrashic text seems to suggest precisely this. The Sages of the Midrash were puzzled, as we were, with the missing motivation of the serpent. What drives him? Their answer is shocking: They say that the snake was on an assassination mission. The snake, knowing that the forbidden fruit harbored the promise of death, hoped that Eve would pass the fruit to Adam before partaking herself. Why? Because according to the Midrash, the snake wanted to assassinate Adam and marry Eve.

At face value, the Midrash seems preposterous. "Assassinate Adam and marry Eve? What would the children look like!", you protest. But Midrashim are not all meant to be taken literally. The rabbis often have a way of conveying deeper truths in mysterious, allegorical garb. Perhaps the Midrash is trying, in its own inimitable way, to lead us towards the very conclusion we have gingerly been approaching ourselves: That somehow, the snake's offer of forbidden fruit follows naturally from the immediately preceding story about Adam's choice to reject the animals in favor of Eve. Perhaps, on some deep level, the animal world -- to speak anthropomorphically -- was leveling a challenge to Adam. What makes you so special? What makes you so different than us that you stand alone and require an Eve as your mate? We can be your soul-mates too...


Let's explore this notion a bit further:

The Almighty had given Adam dominion over the animal world. As such, he had been set apart from that world in a very fundamental way. Mankind, king of nature, was atop Creation - but he was all alone in this powerful and dominating position...

And God said: It is not good for man to be alone. I will make him a helpmate to join with him...

To be alone is truly a great temptation. All alone, in charge of a vast world of nature, Adam looks at himself and sees himself as different, in some fundamental way, from every other creature around him. A king, yes -- but a king who is not fully kin with his subjects. The temptation of loneliness is to seek solace where it ought not be sought. For Adam, perhaps, this would mean seeking companionship among the animals. Pretending, if only he could, that He is one of them.

The animal world, for its part, might be seen as only too happy to oblige. If animals could think rational thoughts -- if we could anthropomorphize the perspective of the animal world -- what opinions might they have about our dominion over them? If animals could challenge our right to dominate, how would they do so?

"Are you really so different from us, that you stand above us animals? At your core, aren't you really one of us?"

The implicit challenge of the animal world is: "Are you really so different from us, that you stand above us? At your core, aren't you really one of us?"

And it's not just a question that animals might be the ones asking. It's a question we could all ask ourselves, every time we exert control over an animal -- every time we harness an ox to a plow or saddle up a horse to ride upon:. "Who am I to do this?" "Am I really so different?"

In the eyes of the Midrash, perhaps, the snake gives a voice to these doubts. "Are you really so sure you need a human as a companion?", it whispers, "Why not choose a soul-mate from our world...?" We asked facetiously what the children of such a union might look like. But that's precisely the point. They would be "snake-men". The snake would have co-opted the world of man and made it part and parcel of the animal kingdom.

The Almighty gave Adam a chance to experience for himself how futile it would be to find real companionship in the animal world. It wasn't G-d, but Adam, who needed to be shown this. In allowing Adam to name -- or be intimate with -- the animals, G-d was seeking, perhaps, to "innoculate" mankind from the temptation he would soon face; to convince Adam through experience that he could never really be one with the animal world. Only after such a trial could he truly appreciate the unique compatibility of Eve -- "a bone from my bones; flesh from my flesh". And only after such a trial would he be ready for the challenge of the serpent -- 'aren't you one of us...?"

All this, of course, brings us back to a question we entertained earlier -- a question we've not yet answered question squarely, and perhaps now is the time to do so: "What, really, is the dividing line between man and animal?" The existence of the snake, we argued, presents this question to us in spades. The primal serpent walks. He talks. And he's clever. So in what sense is he really a snake and not a human? Why couldn't he be a fitting mate for mankind, after all?

The real answer to this question, I think, lies buried in the heart of our story. We'll try to begin unearthing it next week.


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