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Today's Study

Genesis 3:5: Become like God?

Was the serpent more honest with Adam and Eve than God was? The serpent had explained God's prohibition against eating from the fruit of the tree from the motive of divine envy: "you will be like God, knowing good and evil." What knowledge did the man and woman attain?

Some have seen parallels in this passage to the Babylonian flood story, called the Gilgamesh Epic, in which the wild man Enkidu, who is finally civilized by spending six days and seven nights with a prostitute, sees the animals flee from him, and the woman congratulates him: "You are wise, Enkidu. You have become as a god." But the two sentences from Genesis 3:15 and Gilgamesh are totally different, and Enkidu sheds no light on this passage, contrary to undemonstrated assurances from a number of leading scholars.

There are five passages in which the antithetical pair good and evil and the verb to know occur: Deuteronomy 1:39; 2 Samuel 14:17; 19:35; 1 Kings 3:9; and Isaiah 7:15. These passages help to dismiss certain theories that have been proposed. Certainly we cannot say that Adam and Eve attained premature sexual union due to the aphrodisiac qualities of the fruit on these trees. The only argument in favor of this dubious interpretation is the awakening of shame (Gen 3:7) and the punishment on the woman, which was placed in what some construe as the area of her sexuality (Gen 3:16). However, even while the disturbance affected the sexual aspect of personhood, the text makes it clear that the knowledge of good and evil is a divine prerogative (Gen 3:5, 22). The extension of a sexual interpretation to God is obviously grotesque and unwarranted.

This would mean that humankind could become like God either by attaining total knowledge or by having autonomy, particularly moral freedom. Such wisdom "to know good and evil" can be seen in 2 Samuel 19:35, where Barzillai as an eighty-year-old man doubts his ability to exhibit the knowledge between good and evil needed from the king's counselor. Likewise, the woman from Tekoa likened David to an angel who was able to discern good and evil (2 Sam 14:17). Solomon asked that God would also give him "a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong" (1 Kings 3:9).

The lure of the serpent, then, did not imply that humanity would have infinite knowledge like God's knowledge or even that there was some aphrodisiac in the fruit that would open up sexual or carnal relations as an option until then unknown. Instead, the lure of the serpent was an invitation to experience that perpetual quest of human autonomy and freedom. Unfortunately for all, that autonomy turned out to be illusory and actually ended up in a sense of alienation, which has been studied so often since Freud introduced the concept to the modern world.