Genesis iii. 1.

June 26, 2010

III.  By the serpent’s cunning our first parents transgress the command of God, and, with their individual punishments pronounced, are driven out of paradise.

Now the serpent was more cunning than any of the beasts of the earth which the Lord God made. And he said to the woman: Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise?*

[*N.B. “not eat of every tree” in the Hebrew idiom means “not eat of any tree.”]

1. (i) Concerning the temptation by the devil in general.

a. The devil’s enmity with the human race; his desire to tempt man.

St. Ambrose: “The devil is the true enemy of the human race.  Now what is the cause of this enmity except envy?  As Solomon says: By the envy of the devil, death came into the world.[1] Now the cause of his envy was the blessedness of man, placed in paradise; because the devil himself had not been able to retain the grace he had received, he envied man: he envied that this creature formed from slime should have been chosen to inhabit paradise.  For the devil considered: he himself was of a higher nature, and he had fallen into temporal and worldly things; but man, of a lower nature, hoped for eternal things.  This, therefore, is what he envies; he says: ‘This lower creature is gaining what I was not able to keep?  Is this creature of earth to enter heaven, when I have fallen from heaven to earth?  I have many ways by which I can deceive man.  He was made from slime; the earth is his mother; he is enveloped in corruptible things.  And if he is a soul of a higher nature, it is nevertheless possible for him to be liable to a fall, established as he is in the prison of the body – for I myself was not able to avoid a fall.  Therefore this is the first way: he may be deceived, provided that he desires a greater condition for himself.  (For a certain industrious one attempted this for himself.)  Next, he is of flesh; he is to desire what he does not have.  Finally, how can I be seen to be wiser than all, unless I cheat the man, and contend with him by cunning and fraud?’  And so he plotted, not to be hated first by Adam, but to try to cheat Adam through the woman.  He did not begin with him who had received in person a heavenly command, but with her who had learned what was to be observed, not from God, but from her husband.  For you do not read anywhere that God spoke to the woman, but that he spoke to Adam; and therefore it should be considered that the woman knew of the command through Adam” (De Paradiso, xii. 54.).

St. Chrysostom: “Observe the envy of the malicious demon, and his many arts.  For since he knew man was formed to be in the highest honor, and to have practically no less than the angels themselves, as blessed David says: Thou hast made him a little less than the angels:[2] and this little less was introduced by the sin of disobedience; for the prophet spoke this after the transgression: the demon therefore saw on the earth an earthly angel, and his envy gnawed at him, the author of evils: for after he was himself among the heavenly powers, and was thrown down from the peak of heaven for the wickedness of his will and his enormous malice, he conceived a great plot that he might be able to deprive man as well of the grace of God, and make him ungrateful, and strip him of all the good things bestowed on him by the divine goodness.  And what did he do?  He found this animal, the serpent, and made us of it as of an instrument, by which he might provoke the woman, as the simpler and weaker vessel,[3] to error and deception by its familiarity” (Homiliæ in Genesin, xvi. 1.).

b. Why God permitted the temptation.

St. Augustine: “If then it be asked why God permitted man to be tempted, when he knew already that he would consent to the tempter: I am not able to penetrate the profundity of his plan, and I confess this to be far above my powers.  Perhaps there is some more hidden cause, which is reserved for better and holier men, by God’s grace rather than by their merits: but nevertheless in as much as he grants me to know, or permits me to say, it does not seem to me that man would have been greatly praiseworthy, if he was able to live a good life only because no one had suggested that he live a bad one; when he naturally had the power, and in that power the will, not to consent to the suggestion, nevertheless being helped by him who resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.[4] And so why would God not allow him to be tempted, even though he knew he would consent, when he would do this with his own will, through guilt, and would be regulated with his justice by punishment: so that he might thus also show him to be of proud soul for the instruction of future holy men: how rightly he would make use even of the souls of evil creatures, although they made perverse use of their good natures?” (De Genesi ad litteram, XI. iv.).

St. Thomas: “The divine wisdom ordereth all things sweetly,[5] in as much as in its providence it attributes to individuals those things that are in keeping with their nature; for, as Dionysius says, ‘it is not for providence to corrupt nature, but to save it.’[6] Now it pertains to the foundation of human nature, that it is able to be helped or hindered by other creatures.  Whence it was fitting that God should both permit man in the state of innocence to be tempted by bad Angels, and cause him to be helped by good ones.  Now by a special blessing of grace it was granted to man, that no exterior creature would be able to harm him against his own will, by which he was able to resist even the temptation of the demon” (ST. IIa-IIae q. clxv. a. i.).

“Just as God knew that man was to be thrown down in sin, in the same way he also knew that by his free will he was able to resist the tempter.  And this was required by the terms of his nature, according to this passage, God left man in the hand of his own counsel[7] (ibid., ad 2.).

“An attack that is resisted only with difficulty is penal.  But in the state of innocence man was able to resist temptation without any difficulty.  And therefore the attack of the tempter was not a punishment to him” (ibid., ad 3.).

c. The mode of temptation: externally, through the serpent.

St. Thomas: “A suggestion by which the devil suggestions something to man spiritually, shows the devil to have more power over man than an exterior suggestion, because by the interior suggestion the devil changes at least the mental image of the man, but by external suggestion only the exterior creature is changed.  Now the devil had very little power over man before sin, and therefore he was not able to tempt him by interior suggestion, but only by an exterior one” (ibid., a. ii., ad 2.).

St. Augustine: “Nor are we reasonably to think that, because he tempted and persuaded to sin through the serpent, the devil chose the serpent for himself; rather, since on account of his perverse and envious will the desire to deceive was in him, he was unable to do anything except through that animal that he was permitted to use.  For the will to harm can be depraved from its own soul also; but there is no power but from God;[8] and this is a very high and hidden justice, because there is no iniquity with God[9] (De Genesi ad litteram, XI. iii.).

St. Thomas: “[Obj.] The serpent is an irrational animal.  But wisdom, speech and punishment do not apply to an irrational animal.  Therefore it is unfittingly said that the serpent was more subtle than all animals, or the most prudent of all beasts, according to another translation; and it is also unfitting that it is said to have spoken to the woman, and to have been punished by God … I reply … It is to be said that, as Augustine says, ‘the serpent is called cunning,’ or prudent, ‘because of the cunning of the devil, which was working deceit in it; just as we say a prudent or cunning tongue to refer to the tongue of a prudent or cunning man that he moves to persuade someone prudently or cunningly.’[10] ‘Nor did the serpent understand the sounds of the words that were spoken out of it to the woman, nor should it be believed that its soul was changed into a rational nature, seeing that men themselves, whose nature is rational, do not know what they are saying when the demon speaks in them.’[11] ‘Therefore the serpent spoke to man in the same way as Balaam’s ass spoke to man, except that one was a diabolical work, the other an angelic one.’[12] ‘For this reason the serpent was not asked why he had done this, because it was not he in his own nature who had done it, but the devil in him, whose sin had destined him for everlasting fire.  That which is said to the serpent refers to him who worked through the serpent’[13] (ST. IIa-IIae q. clxv. a. ii. ad 4.  Cf. St. Bede, In Principium Genesis I col. 52-53.).[14]

Note: The teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas that the serpent was simply a tool used by the devil, without its knowledge, and that all that is said of or to it is to be referred to the devil, differs significantly from that of the earlier Fathers SS. Chrysostom and particularly Ambrose, who, while certainly recognizing the diabolical use of the serpent, retained the the strict literal sense of iii. 1., referring to the serpent as a cunning beast in its own right, and applied the punishments of iii. 14-15 to the serpent itself.  This is one of the few places in the Bible where it seems that the face-value interpretation cannot be the correct one, as here it would involve attributing reason to an irrational beast, as St. Thomas notes in the objection.  St. Chrysostom himself says that the serpent remained irrational, xvi. 2 (seemingly inconsistently: how can an irrational animal be cunning?).  SS. Chrysostom and Ambrose brilliantly expound the punishments as applied directly to the serpent, but the premise for their expositions remains condemned by St. Thomas’s objection.  The other opinion’s departure from the text’s strict literal sense is therefore justified; and apart from this it is much more plausible, and is supported by the authority of probably the two greatest Doctors of the Church.  It is also confirmed by the testimony of Bl. Anne Emmerich, who describes the serpent as having an appearance like that of an upright eel with short legs and a pointed tail; but as the note by the editor Rev. Schmöger observes, “According to Gen. iii. 1. ff, the serpent is described as the most cunning beast of all the beasts of the field; it appears here, however, not as a beast, but rather as a demonic being [Wesen] that cunningly brings about the Fall of our first parents” (Die Sünde und ihre Folgen: 1. Der Sündenfall).  The interpretation of SS. Augustine and Thomas provides the solution to this seeming contradiction: the serpent was an animal made by God, but was completely taken over by the devil.

1. (ii) The serpent’s question.

St. Jerome: “Now the serpent was wiser than any of the beasts on the earth.[15] For ‘wisdom’ the Hebrew has arom, which Aquila and Theodotion have translated πανοῦργον, that is, one who is wicked and a double dealer.  So this word denotes cunning and craft more than wisdom.”

St. Chrysostom: “Consider, I beg you, the most cunning subtlety of his malice.  For he introduces, in the content of his plan and his question, something that God had not said; as if he himself had some care for them: this is shown when he says:  Why hath God commanded you, that you should not eat of every tree of paradise? as if that malicious demon were saying: ‘Why has God deprived you of such enjoyment? why did he not allow you to be sharers in all the good things of paradise?  For he granted that you might enjoy one of them by looking at it, and yet he did not permit you to delight in it, and he forbade you from greater pleasure.  Why hath God said this? Why?’ he says.  ‘What  use is it to live in paradise and not enjoy the things that are in it, but rather bear a greater pain, because you are even permitted to look, but not to enjoy?” (Homiliæ in Genesin, xvi. 2.).

St. Ambrose: “Seek here the serpent’s cunning.  He pretends to speak the words of God, and weaves in his own deceptions.  For God had said: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat: but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat.  For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death;[16] but the serpent questions the woman as if when God had said: ‘From every tree in paradise you shall eat, but of one tree you shall not eat’ he had lied, meaning instead ‘You shall not eat of every tree,’ because he had commanded that the fruit of only one tree, that of knowledge of good and evil, was not to be tasted.  Now by saying this the serpent deceived the woman; do not wonder at this, because to deceive is the practice of those who try to cheat someone.  So the question of the serpent is not idle” (De Paradiso, xii. 56.).

St. Chrysostom: “From the attack itself the woman ought to have inferred the serpent’s great malice: both that which it said, as if out of diligence, about things that were not true, and its feigned concern for them, were said that it might learn what had been commanded to them by God, and thus lead them to transgress it.  But although she was at once able to see the imposture, she was unwilling  to reject its words as trash, and avoid throwing herself down into such vileness.  She ought, I say, not to have begun a conversation with the serpent, but to speak only to him for whose sake, and for whose help she was created, and in whose dignity she shared.  But because – I do not know how she was enticed – she carried on the conversation with the serpent, through whom, as through an instrument, she received the pernicious words of the devil, it was fitting for her, as soon as she learned from its words that they were at war with the truth, and that what the serpent said was plainly contradictory to what the Creator had commanded – it was fitting for her to turn away in disgust, and flee its company, and detest that creature who had dared to sharpen its tongue against the command given to them” (Homiliæ in Genesin, xvi. 2.).


[1] Sap. ii. 24.

[2] Ps. viii. 6.

[3] 1 Petr. iii. 7.

[4] Jac. iv. 6.

[5] Sap. viii. 1.

[6] IV cap. de Div. Nom.

[7] Eccli. xv. 14.

[8] Rom. xiii. 1.

[9] 2 Par. xix. 7.  Cf. Ps. xci. 16.

[10] De Genesi ad litteram, XI. xxix. 36.

[11] ibid., xxviii.

[12] ibid., xxix. 37.

[13] ibid., xxxvi.  The reference is to Gen. iii. 14-15.

[14] [see Note immediately following.]

[15] This is a translation of the LXX: Ὁ δὲ ὄφις ἦν φρονιμώτατος πάντων τῶν θηρίων τῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς …  In keeping with his commentary here, St. Jerome more accurately renders the adjective as callidior in the Vulgate.

[16] Gen. ii. 16-17.

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