Who’s in charge now? (Genesis 3:1-14)

Genesis 3 is strange to our ears. Why is there a talking snake? Why is the creature called crafty? Why is the snake craftier than the other animals? Ultimately the story is all about who rules, but we need to deal with some of these issues so we can get to the main point.

A common response is to say, “It’s not really a talking snake. It’s the devil.” That’s not a good way to hear this story. When you read a good spy story, there is some conflict (perhaps a murder) in the opening chapters. Later in the book you may well discover that the perpetrator was not acting alone, but was the agent of a foreign power. That may be the case, but it is not the way to read the opening chapters: you need to make sense of the story as presented, before you interpret it through later details. Genesis 3 must be understood as a story in its own right first.

It’s all about who rules. We’ve been told that God rules. Heaven and earth are his realms, with earth under heaven’s rule. On earth, humans rule the animals. The narrator spelled it out in detail: the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and the land animals were placed under human dominion (1:26). It was important: the narrator repeated it (1:28).

Now think in terms of ancient kingdoms. The ruler held complete power, so the subjects came to him to present their requests. The subjects of King Adam and Queen Eve are the animals, so in the context of this narrative it is natural for the animals to come and present their requests. Genesis 3:1 assumes the animals are coming with their requests. The problem with the snake is not that it brings a request but that its request is not straight-forward. Compared to the other animals of the kingdom, the snake has another agenda.

What the serpent wants its rulers to do is to wriggle out from under the established authority structure. It claims that if they take the fruit their sovereign has reserved for himself, they will have a sovereign’s wisdom—the ability to determine good and evil. They will become like gods—able to establish their own laws instead of being subject to God’s commands. Naively, yet with full awareness that they are taking the fruit reserved for the sovereign, they grasp his power for themselves (Gen 3:1-7).

Describing this as “the fall” sounds like a white-wash. We should label it “the rebellion.”

So does the coup succeed? The ancient audience leans in to hear what happens next. If the coup succeeded, the rebels now take authority and banish the previous ruler. If the coup failed, the monarch steps up to judge the traitors.

Look what happens! The sovereign is unruffled. He waits for the cool of the day, the time he would walk the palace grounds with his servants (3:8). He knows they are hiding, but he is no tyrant impatiently parting the bushes to expose their treachery. He calls, waiting for them to acknowledge him (3:9). He listens, asking the questions that elicit the details of the plot to take his authority (3:10-13). Are you hearing the character of the sovereign here?

These rebels have not dethroned God. They haven’t even threatened him. He’s still in charge—confronting them and investigating their crime. He calls each to the witness stand in turn (3:10-13). He hears their case, and hands down judgement on each rebel (3:14-19). We’ll look at his wise decisions next post.

Yet, the rebels did cause lasting damage to human society and the animal kingdom by their attempt to oust God and rule in his place. This is the source of all the conflict in the realm. Grasping at power that ought to reside with God—is that what sin is?


What others are saying

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1–3, trans. Douglas Stephen Bax, vol. 3, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 104:

Simply to blame the devil as God’s enemy for bringing all this about would be to vulgarize and distort the biblical account completely. This is just what the Bible, for very definite reasons, does not say.

We’ve suggested that God was not overthrown, that he still reigns even though the rebels damaged the realm. Some see it differently. What do you think? Here’s an example of someone who thinks God was dethroned and the devil now reigns. T. Desmond Alexander, From Eden to the New Jerusalem: Exploring God’s Plan for Life on Earth (Nottingham, England: Inter-Varsity, 2008), 78–79:

By betraying God and obeying the serpent, the royal couple dethrone God. Adam and Eve, commissioned by God to play a central role in the building of his holy garden-city, not only forfeit their priestly status but also betray the trust placed in them to govern the earth. The ones through whom God’s sovereignty was to be extended throughout the earth side with his enemy. By heeding the serpent they not only give it control over the earth, but they themselves become its subjects.

Here’s something else to ponder. The Book of Jubilees is not Scripture, but it is interesting to see how some Jewish people understood these things a couple of hundred years before Jesus’ time. As they retold the Genesis story, they concluded this in Jubilees 3:28:

On that day the mouth of all the beasts and cattle and birds and whatever walked or moved was stopped from speaking because all of them used to speak with one another with one speech and one language.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Read Genesis 3:1-14.




Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

One thought on “Who’s in charge now? (Genesis 3:1-14)”

  1. A great example of the use of story to answer the big questions about life; in this case why is the world the way it is? Why is there both good and bad? Whose fault is it? Is there any hope to change things? In all ancient, and modern cultures, though modern cultures tend to hide there worldview stories, there are stories that seek to answer the big questions of life; who are we? where do we come from and where are we going? what is our purpose? All of these questions are wrapped up in your overall sovereign narrative Allen; a great perspective.


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