Thought chang'd the Infinite to a Serpent...
--William Blake, Europe: A Prophecy
You will be like God. How's that for a come-on? It's how the serpent entices the man in the biblical creation story. The serpent is described as the subtlest of God's creatures -- certainly too subtle for the man, but God's creature all the same. His role is to give voice to the man's desire. The man's got his eye on some fruit. Trouble is, he's been told if he eats it, he'll die. (A meaningless threat to someone who has never known death.) Have some fruit, the serpent tells the man. You'll be like God, knowing good and evil.
The man has been created in God's image and given dominion over creation. Every creature he names becomes what he says it is. But he's still wet behind the ears, an easy mark. (The whole thing is starting to look like a set-up.) He eats the fruit and for the first time utters the fateful "I" -- the name by which he will know himself and the name that will separate him fatally from the one who formed him from the dust of the ground. I heard you coming, he tells the Lord, and I was afraid -- fear being the inevitable by-product of his new-found self-awareness.
Why was the forbidden fruit forbidden? Why did God tell the man that to taste of this fruit was to taste death? The serpent claimed the man would be like God. This was the con. The man was already like God, created in his image. All he needed was to know good and evil, or so he was told. But God beheld his creation and saw only good. Where did the evil come from? As Hamlet would say, "There is nothing bad or good , but thinking makes it so!" The man had only to name the thing to call it into being. The knowledge of good and evil does not make us like God; it is what sets us apart from God and what sets us on the road to perdition. That is our curse.
Now here's the kicker. There was another tree in the garden. It was called the tree of life. If you ate fruit from this tree you would live forever. Nobody told the man he could not eat the fruit from this tree. Nobody was egging him on. He had his eye on the wrong fruit. And so the life-giving fruit was left untasted on the tree.