The myth of the Fall as told in Genesis 2 and 3 is one of the fundamental narratives of Western culture. Even those who completely reject it have to come to an understanding of it because it so pervades our perception of what it means to be human. The common understanding of it is this:
God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden of Eden, a lush sanctuary where they could live and work in comfort and security. Along with all the trees God provided for food, he placed two special trees. One was the Tree of Life, of which a man might eat and live forever. The other was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, of which God forbade the two to eat, telling them that if they did they would certainly die.
One day the serpent, who was craftier than the other beasts, encountered Eve and asked her, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the Garden?”
“We may eat from any tree except the one in the middle of the Garden. He said if we eat from it or even touch it we will certainly die.”
“You will not certainly die,” said the serpent. “God has forbidden it because he knows that if you eat from it, you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”
Eve believed the serpent. She saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and desirable to make one wise, so she took some and ate it and gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then their eyes were opened. They became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their bodies.
Later God discovers them cowering among the trees and finds out that they have disobeyed his command. He pronounces curses on each participant. The serpent becomes a slithering beast who must eat dust. The woman is cursed with pain in childbirth. The man is cursed with drudgery, working very hard just to survive. Then God expels the pair from the Garden and places cherubim and a flaming sword at the entrance to prevent them returning and eating from the Tree of Life and living forever.
First off, it’s worth noting that by any objective standard, God is the villain of this piece. He does not appear as a loving Father but as an arbitrary and vindictive autocrat, punishing an outcome he surely must have foreseen, even if he were of only average intelligence and not all-knowing and all-wise. The hero of the story is the serpent. He risks God’s wrath to bring a wisdom and understanding to the human pair that God had apparently reserved for himself. Like Prometheus giving fire to humans, he defies God and lifts the unwitting humans out of their subservience and into genuine autonomy, by which they become fully human. If God chooses to curse them for their defiance, it is because he is evil, for their intentions were noble: they wanted to be like him.
Yet this is not the common interpretation given to this story. A few visionaries (for example, William Blake) have seen it this way, but for the most part, we all know that God is good and just, the serpent is the devil, and the human pair sinned and brought evil into the world. I don’t want to go into the differences between the interpretations we’ve inherited and the one I just expressed (which might be called a literal interpretation). I want to focus on just one question that we might ask of the story. Who lied?
According to the traditional understanding, the serpent lied. Eve lends support to this understanding when she testifies, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Yet her testimony is suspect because she seeks to deflect the blame that Adam had just cast on her. In fact, if we carefully consider the serpent’s words, we find that everything he said was literally true. God really did forbid eating from just the one Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they ate, they did not die. God himself testifies later that they had become like him, knowing good and evil.
The one thing that the serpent says which flatly contradicts what God had said is this, “You will not certainly die.” In fact, Adam and Eve did not die. They both lived on for many years—for hundreds of years, if the stories of antediluvian longevity are to be believed. Since what the serpent said was true and contradicts what God had said, it is rather God who must have lied. He told the human pair that they would die, but they did not. By taking God’s and the serpent’s words literally, we have to conclude that God lied and the serpent told the truth.