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Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

Was the serpent a heretic or just a snake oil salesman

There are two distinct ways of understanding how the snake convinced Chava to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The Torah says that the snake promised Chava that she will be “like a God.”

כִּ֚י יֹדֵ֣עַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים כִּ֗י בְּיוֹם֙ אֲכלְכֶ֣ם מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְנִפְקְח֖וּ עֵֽינֵיכֶ֑ם וִהְיִיתֶם֙ כֵּֽאלֹהִ֔ים יֹדְעֵ֖י ט֥וֹב וָרָֽע 

“God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad.” (Bereishis 3:5)

It’s hard to argue that this was a complete falsehood. After all, this notion is confirmed by God Himself when God states the reason for expelling Adam and Chava from Gan Eden: 

יֹּ֣אמֶר ׀ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֗ים הֵ֤ן הָֽאָדָם֙ הָיָה֙ כְּאַחַ֣ד מִמֶּ֔נּוּ לָדַ֖עַת ט֣וֹב וָרָ֑ע וְעַתָּ֣ה ׀ פֶּן־יִשְׁלַ֣ח יָד֗וֹ וְלָקַח֙ גַּ֚ם מֵעֵ֣ץ הַֽחַיִּ֔ים וְאָכַ֖ל וָחַ֥י לְעֹלָֽם׃ 

“And God said, ‘Now that man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad…” (Bereishis 3:22)

The veracity of the snake’s statement is further supported by an unusual saying which is quoted by the Ramban “Three stated the truth and perished from the world, and these are: the serpent, the spies, and Doeg the Edomite.” (Nachmonides on Bereishis 2:9, Sources attribute this to Pirka D’Rabbeinu Hakadosh, Section 3)

From this description in the Torah alone you would conclude that the snake was directly responsible for destroying Mankind’s brief brush with paradise. But the snake didn’t lie. The difficulty comes from the continuation of the story. There is a sudden switch from the snake trying to convince Chava, to Chava seemingly being overtaken by the beauty of the tree.

וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָֽאִשָּׁ֡ה כִּ֣י טוֹב֩ הָעֵ֨ץ לְמַאֲכָ֜ל וְכִ֧י תַֽאֲוָה־ה֣וּא לָעֵינַ֗יִם וְנֶחְמָ֤ד הָעֵץ֙ לְהַשְׂכִּ֔יל  

“And the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom.” (Bereishis 3:6)

One must conclude that what was once simply a tree was now perceived by Chava as a portal to a transformative, life changing experience. This is where the Midrash fills in some critical missing information.

 The heretic snake

According to Midrash, the snake’s actions were far worse than an over-exuberant salesman. As we all learned in 2nd grade, Eve declared that it is forbidden to touch or eat from the Tree of Knowledge. The snake pushed her against the tree to prove that her assertion was not true. The commentary to Midrash Rabbah, Eished Hanechalim, (published 1843 in Vilna) says that Chava now assumed that everything that Adam told her, in the name of God, was false.  There was no punishment for eating from the tree. However, God was hoping she didn’t because God didn’t want her to reach such a powerful state of authority and knowledge where she can be in competition with Him. The snake went on to say that God Himself ate from the tree. That’s how He became a God. 

The commentaries analyze this exchange a little deeper. If God needed to eat from the tree to become a God, the tree was obviously there before God. Therefore the snake was the forerunner of an extreme, heretical idea that, in some form, there was a world that preceded God. A clear breach of one of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith – that nothing preceded God. 

Now or never.

But the deceit didn’t stop there. A good salesman knows that one of the most powerful tools in sales is the “limited time offer.” If you don’t act now you will lose out. This is your last opportunity to take advantage of this deal. 

According to Midrash Rabbah, the snake cast the story of creation as a lesson in global repression. It was portrayed as a series of events in which each new creation overpowered the previous creation: The heavens are only held up by the firmament. The firmament must water the vegetation. The luminaries must ripen the fruits. ….

וְאָדָם נִבְרָא אַחַר הַכֹּל לִשְׁלֹט בַּכֹּל, קִדְמוּ וְאִכְלוּ עַד שֶׁלֹא יִבְרָא עוֹלָמוֹת אֲחֵרִים וְהֵן שׁוֹלְטִין בָּכֶם, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית ג, ו): וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב וגו’, רָאֲתָה דְּבָרָיו שֶׁל נָחָשׁ.

“And Mankind was created last to rule over everything (that was created previously). Hurry and eat (from the Tree of Knowledge) before new worlds are created which will rule over you. ‘And the woman saw that it was good etc.’ (Bereishis 3:6) She saw the logic in the words of the snake.”

Chava  got the message from the snake. God’s next creation will rule over humans. That’s the pattern of creation. If she doesn’t eat from the tree she will be helpless. If she eats from the tree she will be a God who you can’t push around.  Be a god or be a victim. What will it be?

Stretching the limits of believability

With the overlay of the Midrash, the snake now becomes a brilliant propagandist  – twisted and pathological. Yet Chava believed it. Perhaps this is a lesson for humanity from the dawn of history. People will believe the most far-fetched lies. Jewish history can certainly attest to this. Using the blood of Christian babies to bake Matzah. The Aryan race. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The apartheid state. The snake’s foul legacy is still slithering throughout Jewish history.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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