The Infernal Serpent

The infernal serpent; he it was whose guile, 
Stirr'd up with envy and revenge, deceived 
The mother of mankind.

--John Milton, Paradise Lost

Everybody makes mistakes, even God.  That's one explanation, at least, for the events that unfolded in the Garden of Eden and for all the unpleasantness that ensued.  But if God had it to do over again, what, if anything, would he do differently?  According to the biblical account, God took stock of his handiwork after his labors were done and pronounced it a success.  The man and woman were created in his own image, which presumably left little room for improvement.  Among the dramatis personae in the creation story, that leaves only the serpent.

The serpent in Genesis is introduced as the most subtle of God's creatures -- subtle in the sense of cunning.  The man and woman may have been created in God's image, but they are still a pair of prize chumps, and the serpent makes short work of them.  God has warned them not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."  The serpent assures the woman she will not die and promises that eating the fruit will be a real eye-opener -- all of which is true, so far as it goes.  The woman might have seen through the serpent's sales pitch, except she is not yet equipped with a working knowledge of good and evil.

If Adam and Eve had been represented by legal counsel, they might have plausibly argued that the forbidden fruit constituted an "attractive nuisance," making the landowner  -- in this case, God -- liable for injuries or damage resulting from his failure to take adequate precautions against misuse.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is only one among many trees in the garden and like them is described as pleasing to the eye and good for food.  Its only distinguishing feature is that it is forbidden, which is what makes it an attractive nuisance.  The mistake, Mark Twain once quipped, was in not forbidding the serpent; in which case the serpent would have been eaten.

Then again, perhaps God didn't make any mistakes, and if he had it to do over again, he would have done everything exactly the same.  If we assume that God does nothing without purpose, we have to ask why he would bother to create so cunning a creature as the serpent, when the man and the woman were so lacking in guile.  Theologians have been pondered such questions for a long time, and Thomas Aquinas coined the term "felix culpa," or "happy fall," to describe humanity's fall from grace in the Garden of Eden as the necessary prelude to their eventual salvation.  This idea was long enshrined in the Latin mass, which included a line in which the priest intoned, "O happy fall (or fault) that earned us so good and great a Redeemer."  Those who actually took the fall -- not to mention the serpent who put them up it -- might legitimately ask why they deserved any blame at all, since the whole thing looks like a setup.

Genesis 2-3

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