Was the Tempter attacking God's kindness or God's severity?

I’m posting this here because I value the critiques I’ve received of my other theological arguments in the past. I want to pressure-test this theory:

In Genesis 3, Satan begins his subterfuge by asking Eve, “Did God actually say you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”

In my experience, evangelicals almost always interpret the strategy here as follows:

  1. Call into doubt the goodness of God’s rule and/or provision.
  2. Get Eve to rebel against what she sees as oppression.
  3. Profit! (Eve dies)

This sounds plausible on a very superficial reading, because Satan begins by overtly doubting the goodness of God’s rule and/or provision. He seems to be explicitly questioning God’s kindness. But surely reading him this way makes him the opposite of shrewd (v. 1); it is not subtle to overtly question God’s goodness in order to get someone to rebel. It is ham-fisted. This kind of “trick” would not even work on a child. Try to convince my daughter that I am an oppressor by asking her, “Did Dad actually say you can’t eat anything in the kitchen?” Only a socially handicapped moron would expect that strategy to be effective. Rather than making me look like an ass, it makes the questioner look like an ass—while giving my daughter a chance to explain the goodness of my provision, the kindness of my generosity.

Let’s assume that Satan is not a socially handicapped moron. Let’s assume that he understands how people work, and that his first question to Eve was calculated to get the exact response that it did get. What was that response?

It was not, “Yeah, isn’t it strange to put us in an orchard and deny us all the fruit?”

I was, “No dummy, we can eat anything we want except this one tree.” Eve speaks God’s kindness, and in the process, that kindness becomes solid to her.

(It’s true that she also adds a fence to the the law at this point, which no doubt aids in the deception, since touching the fruit doesn’t end up killing her and therefore presumably makes the transition to eating easier. But this isn’t relevant to Satan’s overall strategy.)

Has Satan succeeded in casting doubt on God’s kindness?

No, of course not—he has achieved the exact opposite. God’s kindness is now more real in Eve’s mind than when the conversation started. She doubts it less. She does not feel oppressed; she feels blessed.

Since Satan is shrewd, and not a moron, this was presumably his intent. Why?

Because by focusing Eve on God’s kindness and provision, he creates an implicit contrast with God’s severity and prohibition. Implicit contrasts, when they are not made explicit and examined, feel like dichotomies or contradictions.

Hence he can say, “You will not surely die,” and it sounds plausible to Eve because she is primed to think, “God is so kind. Why would he prohibit anything? And why would he punish so severely?”

Satan follows up his lie by substantiating it with an authentic explanation of what the tree will do. Eve thinks, “We are supposed to be like gods. We are supposed to be the counterparts on earth to the divine council in heaven” (cf. Ps 8:5; 82:1, elohim). She knows that she and her man are made for dominion; to represent God’s kingly rule on earth. She knows that the knowledge of good and evil is the paradigmatic skillset of a good king (cf. 1 Kings 3:7–10; 2 Samuel 14:17; Hebrews 5:14). She knows that God is kind and generous and wants them to have all good things. And she checks out the tree and sees that its fruit is beautiful and looks delicious and will make them wise (v. 6).

In light of all this, she is able to disbelieve in God’s severity. She is able to disbelieve that he would really impose difficult prohibitions on his children—or harsh punishments.

In other words, Satan does not trick Eve into thinking that God is keeping something from her, but rather that he would never keep something from her. His strategy is the very opposite of what evangelicals seem to assume: he is not calling God’s kindness into question, but rather his severity.

Why it matters

Aside from the obvious importance of understanding Scripture rightly, I think it is critical to ask if evangelicals tend to invert this passage, because it is paradigmatical, prototypical, for temptation in general. We are under intense pressure from the culture to capitulate and compromise on all manner of prohibitions which God has given. We are under intense pressure to believe that God will be nice, that he will deal agreeably with us, even when we defy his rules. We are under intense pressure to deny that he is serious about denying us or severe in judging us. We are under intense pressure to do all this because we are under intense pressure to go along to get along; to accept what God does not; to avoid the shame of disapproving the approved doctrines and practices. We are conditioned to think that loving our neighbors means being good at having fun with them.

Are we not currently engaged in reassuring ourselves that God does not punish severely, that he is not really serious about prohibitions—because he is so kind, and wants only our ease and happiness and harmony?

If we don’t clearly understand the original temptation, how will we anticipate and resist derivative temptations? If we are so naive about Satan’s strategy, and our own psychology—if we know neither him nor ourselves well enough to anticipate or resist—how will we stand? Indeed, if we have fundamentally flipped the way temptation comes, if we are on guard for exactly the wrong things, if we are warning each other about the very things we are least in danger of, that is when we are most likely to recapitulate Eve’s foolishness and sin, and fall headlong into judgment.

I know your deeds, and your love and faith and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads my bond-servants astray so that they commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with pestilence, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. (Revelation 2:19-23)

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Bnonn,

Tangential to this, I’ve always thought the disciples were such morons, when I read verses like Luke 22:24:

And there arose also a dispute among them [as to] which one of them was regarded to be greatest.

In my imagination this has always translated to a discussion something like this:

Disciple 1: Brothers, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, and I wanted you to know that what I’ve come up with is that I’m the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Disciple 2: No, actually I’m the greatest, because [begins to list off reasons]…
Disciple 3: Both of you are wrong. I’m clearly the greatest, because…
[Discussion continues…]

Complete doofuses, so bad they’re in a league all their own. But this can’t be right. If Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, then the disciples were men with natures like ours too. And we would never be so gauche as to say plainly what was in our hearts. So I think when the gospel writer says that a dispute arose as to which of them was regarded to be greatest it must have been veiled. Something more like this:

Disciple 1: How you doing, brother?
Disciple 2: I’m alright, I’ve been putting a lot of time into church work lately here these past weeks.
Disciple 1: Oh really, how much time?
[Disciple 2 describes the amount of effort he’s put in…]
Disciple 1: Wow, thanks for keeping up with that. I’ve been focusing my efforts recently on [some other area Disciple 2 has not been active in]
Disciple 2: Wow, cool, glad to hear you’ve been taking care of that, those things haven’t even been on my radar.
[Disciple 1 and Disciple 2 then conjecture how much effort they think Disciple 3 puts in or not behind the scenes…]

See? All couched in terms of making sure the church work gets done. All supposedly about glorifying God and working hard for Him. But all full of flexing your muscles, boasting, and comparing yourselves with yourselves.

That’s what I think the disciples were doing when the Holy Spirit calls it “a dispute…as to which of them was regarded to be greatest.” And the thing is, the slackers and the floaters and the non-committal people never commit this sin. This is a sin of the all-in, the ones who pull hard and make sure things get taken care of. I don’t know that it’s any different in God’s eyes than openly arguing that you’re greatest.

So now when it says there was a dispute about who was greatest, I see myself there, and repent. So @bnonn I’m sympathetic to the idea that in your example the devil’s not a complete doofus either.

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Intriguing.

I can think of two ways to push back on your reading.

The first is that it is not perfectly clear that the death that follows from eating the fruit is meted out by God. If I tell my son that the day he touches the poison ivy that grows around our property, he shall become itchy, I do not mean that I will cause him to be itchy as punishment. In like manner, God’s warning could be read as meaning that the fruit is poisonous. And if that were the case, then whether death is in the fruit or not has little to do with the severity of God. But this is a weak objection because God has given a command and it is reasonable to assume that an abrogation of it will be punished.

Secondly, Satan says, “God knows that when you eat of it…” Why would he emphasize that God knows how good these things are when He has forbidden them? It is easy to see how that works if Satan is trying to convince Eve God is holding out on her. But if he wants to get her to think God is a softie, what purpose does phrasing it that way have?

While contemplating that, another take on the temptation occurred to me. And it presents a solution to something that I have never understood. How it can be said that Eve was deceived but Adam was not? If the substance of Satan’s lie was that God is holding out on you, so you should stick it to the Man, then I just don’t understand how it is that Adam was any less deceived than Eve. Both ate the fruit and rebelled.

But if the substance of the deception is that God would actually want you to eat the fruit, then being deceived is in a whole different light. In the first scenario, the woman knows she is rebelling but has been tricked into being motivated to do it. In the second, the woman thinks she is not rebelling. She thinks she is doing something that God will approve; she has been played for a fool.

This take on what it means to be deceived fits neatly with 2 Cor 11, where Paul worries that the Corinthians will be beguiled away from the simplicity that is in Christ by another gospel. His concern is not that they will be seduced into knowing apostasy, but led astray into thinking something is gospel truth that is not.

And it makes sense of Satan citing God’s knowledge of the benefits of eating the fruit. “No, he won’t kill you. Of course not. He knows it will make you wise and more like him. He wants that.”

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I think Matthew Henry’s commentary on Genesis 3 is helpful in understanding this issue, and how the serpent was successful. It can be found here. In essence, he points out the Devil’s subtlety in these areas:

  1. Appearing as a serpent, which seems either miraculous or angelic in some way.
  2. Engaging Eve (the weaker vessel) first.
  3. Clever lies when speaking. It’s here I think Henry’s explanation is clearest, so I’ll quote it(sorry for the length).

That which the devil aimed at was to persuade Eve to cut forbidden fruit; and, to do this, he took the same method that he does still. He questioned whether it was a sin or no, v. 1. He denied that there was any danger in it, v. 4. He suggested much advantage by it,v. 5. And these are his common topics.1. He questioned whether it was a sin or no to eat of this tree, and whether really the fruit of it was forbidden. Observe,(1.) He said to the woman, Yea, hath God said, You shall not eat? The first word intimated something said before, introducing this, and with which it is connected, perhaps some discourse Eve had with herself, which Satan took hold of, and grafted this question upon. In the chain of thoughts one thing strangely brings in another, and perhaps something bad at last. Observe here, [1.] He does not discover his design at first, but puts a question which seemed innocent: "I hear a piece of news, pray is it true? has God forbidden you to eat of this tree?’’ Thus he would begin a discourse, and draw her into a parley. Those that would be safe have need to be suspicious, and shy of talking with the tempter. [2.] He quotes the command fallaciously, as if it were a prohibition, not only of that tree, but of all. God had said, Of every tree you may eat, except one. He, by aggravating the exception, endeavours to invalidate the concession: Hath God said, You shall not eat of every tree? The divine law cannot be reproached unless it be first misrepresented. [3.] He seems to speak it tauntingly, upbraiding the woman with her shyness of meddling with that tree; as if he had said, "You are so nice and cautious, and so very precise, because God has said, ’You shall not eat.’’ The devil, as he is a liar, so he is a scoffer, from the beginning: and the scoffers of the last days are his children. [4.] That which he aimed at in the first onset was to take off her sense of the obligation of the command. "Surely you are mistaken, it cannot be that God should tie you out from this tree; he would not do so unreasonable a thing.’’ See here, That it is the subtlety of Satan to blemish the reputation of the divine law as uncertain or unreasonable, and so to draw people to sin; and that it is therefore our wisdom to keep up a a firm belief of, and a high respect for, the command of God. Has God said, "You shall not lie, nor take his name in vain, nor be drunk,’’ etc.? "Yes, I am sure he has, and it is well said, and by his grace I will abide by it, whatever the tempter suggests to the contrary.’’(2.) In answer to this question the woman gives him a plain and full account of the law they were under, v. 2, v. 3. Here observe, [1.] It was her weakness to enter into discourse with the serpent. She might have perceived by his question that he had no good design, and should therefore have started back with a Get thee behind me, Satan, thou art an offence to me. But her curiosity, and perhaps her surprise, to hear a serpent speak, led her into further talk with him. Note, It is a dangerous thing to treat with a temptation, which ought at first to be rejected with disdain and abhorrence. The garrison that sounds a parley is not far from being surrendered. Those that would be kept from harm must keep out of harm’s way. See Prov. 14:7 Prov. 19:27 . [2.] It was her wisdom to take notice of the liberty God had granted them, in answer to his sly insinuation, as if God has put them into paradise only to tantalize them with the sight of fair but forbidden fruits. "Yea,’’ says she, "we may eat of the fruit of the trees, thanks to our Maker, we have plenty and variety enough allowed us.’’ Note, To prevent our being uneasy at the restraints of religion, it is good often to take a view of the liberties and comforts of it. [3.] It was an instance of her resolution that she adhered to the command, and faithfully repeated it, as of unquestionable certainty: "God hath said, I am confident he hath said it, You shall not eat of the fruit of this tree;’’ and that which she adds, Neither shall you touch it, seems to have been with a good intention, not (as some think) tacitly to reflect upon the command as too strict (Touch not, taste not and handle not), but to make a fence about it: "We must not eat, therefore we will not touch. It is forbidden in the highest degree, and the authority of the prohibition is sacred to us.’’ [4.] She seems a little to waver about the threatening, and is not so particular and faithful in the repetition of that as of the precept. God has said, In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die; all she makes of that is, Lest you die. Note, Wavering faith and wavering resolutions give great advantage to the tempter.2. He denies that there was any danger in it, insisting that, though it might be the transgressing of a precept, yet it would not be the incurring of a penalty: You shall not surely die, v. 4. "You shall not dying die,’’ so the word is, in direct contradiction to what God had said. Either, (1.) "It is not certain that you shall die,’’ so some. "It is not so sure as you are made to believe it is.’’ Thus Satan endeavours to shake that which he cannot overthrow, and invalidates the force of divine threatenings by questioning the certainty of them; and, when once it is supposed possible that there may be falsehood or fallacy in any word of God, a door is then opened to downright infidelity. Satan teaches men first to doubt and then to deny; he makes them sceptics first, and so by degrees makes them atheists. Or, (2.) "It is certain you shall not die,’’ so others. He avers his contradiction with the same phrase of assurance that God had used in ratifying the threatening. He began to call the precept in question (v. 1), but, finding that the woman adhered to that, he quitted that battery, and made his second onset upon the threatening, where he perceived her to waver; for he is quick to spy all advantages, and to attack the wall where it is weakest: You shall not surely die. This was a lie, a downright lie; for, [1.] It was contrary to the word of God, which we are sure is true. See 1 Jn. 2:21, 1 Jn. 2:27 . It was such a lie as gave the lie to God himself. [2.] It was contrary to his own knowledge. When he told them there was no danger in disobedience and rebellion he said that which he knew, by woeful experience, to be false. He had broken the law of his creation, and had found, to his cost, that he could not prosper in it; and yet he tells our first parents they shall not die. He concealed his own misery, that he might draw them into the like: thus he still deceives sinners into their own ruin. He tells them that, though they sin, they shall not die; and gains credit rather than God, who tells them, The wages of sin is death. Note, Hope of impunity is a great support to all iniquity, and impenitency in it. I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of my heart, Deu. 29:19 .3. He promises them advantage by it, v. 5. Here he follows his blow, and it was a blow at the root, a fatal blow to the tree we are branches of. He not only would undertake that they should be no losers by it, thus binding himself to save them from harm; but (if they would be such fools as to venture upon the security of one that had himself become a bankrupt) he undertakes they shall be gainers by it, unspeakable gainers. He could not have persuaded them to run the hazard of ruining themselves if he had not suggested to them a great probability of bettering themselves.(1.) He insinuates to them the great improvements they would make by eating of this fruit. And he suits the temptation to the pure state they were now in, proposing to them, not any carnal pleasures or gratifications, but intellectual delights and satisfactions. These were the baits with which he covered his hook. [1.] "Your eyes shall be opened; you shall have much more of the power and pleasure of contemplation than now you have; you shall fetch a larger compass in your intellectual views, and see further into things than now you do.’’ He speaks as if now they were but dim-sighted, and short-sighted, in comparison of what they would be then. [2.] "You shall be as gods, as Elohim, mighty gods; not only omniscient, but omnipotent too;’’ or, "You shall be as God himself, equal to him, rivals with him; you shall be sovereigns and no longer subjects, self-sufficient and no longer dependent.’’ A most absurd suggestion! As if it were possible for creatures of yesterday to be like their Creator that was from eternity. [3.] "You shall know good and evil, that is, every thing that is desirable to be known.’’ To support this part of the temptation, he abuses the name given to this tree: it was intended to teach the practical knowledge of good and evil, that is, of duty and disobedience; and it would prove the experimental knowledge of good and evil, that is, of happiness and misery. In these senses, the name of the tree was a warning to them not to eat of it; but he perverts the sense of it, and wrests it to their destruction, as if this tree would give them a speculative notional knowledge of the natures, kinds, and originals, of good and evil. And, [4.] All this presently: "In the day you eat thereof you will find a sudden and immediate change for the better.’’ Now in all these insinuations he aims to beget in them, First, Discontent with their present state, as if it were not so good as it might be, and should be. Note, No condition will of itself bring contentment, unless the mind be brought to it. Adam was not easy, no, not in paradise, nor the angels in their first state, Jude. 6, . Secondly, Ambition of preferment, as if they were fit to be gods. Satan had ruined himself by desiring to be like the Most High (Isa. 14:14 ), and therefore seeks to infect our first parents with the same desire, that he might ruin them too.(2.) He insinuates to them that God had no good design upon them, in forbidding them this fruit: "For God doth know how much it will advance you; and therefore, in envy and ill-will to you, he hath forbidden it:’’ as if he durst not let them eat of that tree because then they would know their own strength, and would not continue in an inferior state, but be able to cope with him; or as if he grudged them the honour and happiness to which their eating of that tree would prefer them. Now, [1.] This was a great affront to God, and the highest indignity that could be done him, a reproach to his power, as if he feared his creatures, and much more a reproach to his goodness, as if he hated the work of his own hands and would not have those whom he has made to be made happy. Shall the best of men think it strange to be misrepresented and evil spoken of, when God himself is so? Satan, as he is the accuser of the brethren before God, so he accuses God before the brethren; thus he sows discord, and is the father of those that do so. [2.] It was a most dangerous snare to our first parents, as it tended to alienate their affections from God, and so to withdraw them from their allegiance to him. Thus still the devil draws people into his interest by suggesting to them hard thoughts of God, and false hopes of benefit and advantage by sin. Let us therefore, in opposition to him, always think well of God as the best good, and think ill of sin as the worst of evils: thus let us resist the devil, and he will flee from us.

Hopefully the length of the quote didn’t put anyone off. Perhaps his best point, in regards to @bnonn’s question, is “Satan, as he is the accuser of the brethren before God, so he accuses God before the brethren.” This, I think, is Satan’s main effort in the garden.

I appreciate the entirety of your comment, but do want to comment on this spot. Scripture is clear that Eve was deceived by the Devil, and Adam wasn’t deceived but willfully rebelled. That’s the difference in the two. See 1 Timothy 2:14. Eve’s deception doesn’t mean she didn’t sin, as Deuteronomy 11:16 shows, it means that it was a different sin than Adam’s.

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This is what I am suggesting. I don’t think Satan’s strategy is to convince Eve that God is soft; rather, he wants to lead Eve to the conclusion that because God is good, he actually does want the couple to eat from the tree, and won’t punish them after all.

Btw, I take it as read that the promised death was immediate. Death is not a primarily biological category in Scripture. The second death, which bookends with the Fall, constitutes eternal biological life.

Hey all - I fat-fingered some moderation stuff on this conversation, and so you may have seen some weird notifications. Please disregard. Thanks!

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I have always read the deception as being against God’s goodness, I.e. His Holiness. I see this in Satan’s false accusation that God lied to Adam and Eve, that he has ulterior selfish motives, and the other remarks were just to remove the fear of defiance. But I’m gonna go back and reread the OP, I’m just a little distracted at the moment.

This requires Eve to believe that God is lying to them, though.

My first question with something like this is whether you have found any historical precedent of others interpreting the passage this way, or if it is entirely new with you. I’m not much interested in entirely new, unless there is a very strong case as to why our fathers missed it.

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Ok, let me give this a shot…I think your argument that Satan is causing Eve to question God’s severity is fine…but why? Why would she even make that leap if she did not first desire, and why would she desire that which is forbidden if not disbelieving what she had been instructed by her husband.

I don’t think so, it’s merely opening the door to desire. Covetousness of the heart is the most difficult sin for us to manage, and contrary to our shallow reading, coveting your neighbor’s belongings is not a sin against your neighbor but God, who gave your neighbor his belongings and not you.

Again, provoking desire doesn’t have to be subtle and in fact never is. Is Satan subtle when he tempts Jesus in the Desert. But he is not tempting his deity but his flesh, is he not.

Of course she gives a defense, she has no reason to doubt her husband or God at this point. But it begs the question is there really a reason.

Satan’s overall strategy is for Eve to be fallen as he is fallen. This is well played out also in Job. Satan is unable to dethrone the Lord, but is very able to cause His creation to curse God, as Job’s wife would have had him do.

Only this sets the scene for Satan to reveal the benefit of what God is withholding.

Exactly the contrast made is between what she has and what she doesn’t. No argument at this point is furthered about God’s mercy or his kindness.

It’s true that she must believe that the benefits are greater than the risks, and we aren’t explicitly told how she assessed the risks, but death was of course completely abstract and theoretical to her, so her assessment is clearly lacking.

Eve is not told whether it is by direct punishment of by natural consequence that she would die, and given that she was last of all the creation to be made, I think we come to expect that she lacked what the Lord has given Adam in experience and instruction.

My problem with your reading is how you set two tactical moves as dichotomous motives. The motive is to cause Eve to fall, there are barriers to that. Namely, God’s instructions, and their love for God. Your children would be less likely to obey you if they did not love you, and they would love you less is a credible argument against your very worthiness was made.

Galatians 5:16-17
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.

While this is speaking of fallen flesh, it is an imprint of this original sin. Eve desired, she wanted something she didn’t have, she observed it’s benefits and was deceived. She could not only be deceived about God’s wrath and severity and not also be deceived about his good provision for her.

Anyways, from a layman’s view my reading of this is that there are multiple motivations at play, God’s, Satan’s, and Eve’s. But what is clear is that what motivated Eve changed between the beginning of the chapter and the end. Satan accomplishes that by several tactical moves, which included planting a seed of doubt that she would die, but also bringing for desire, covering that which God has not given her.

I think Joseph’s question above about historical precedent for this interpretation is a good one. There is an inherent danger in exegesis motivated by correcting a specific theological imbalance. The danger is that we may read too much of our own cultural situation and controversies into it and (even unwittingly) bend it to take our side. Maybe the text does take our side or maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe the text doesn’t even address the issue the way our opponents think it does, but our counter-exegesis is unduly shaped by responding to them. Historical interpretations have the benefit of weighing in on the text without any of our current cultural baggage (though they will have baggage of their own, to be sure). We should always be suspicious of novel interpretations, as Joseph indicated.

So I have two questions and one comment:

Question 1) To what extent does your interpretation have historical precedent?
Question 2) To what extent does the “standard evangelical” interpretation have historical precedent? Was this a 20th century novelty? 19th century? Or does it go further back?

Comment) I’m not persuaded by your insistence on the serpent having to be subtle for two reasons:

  1. Genesis 3 only records the serpent uttering two phrases, a question and an assertion. I don’t think this is literally all and only the words that were spoken in his conversation with the woman. I understand this to be a faithful (indeed, infallible) representation of the conversation, not a complete reproduction of it. We should expect that the summary of the conversation would be much more straightforward (even ham-fisted) compared to the conversation itself.
  2. Anecdotally, when I was a young Christian, I was taken in by all sorts of specious arguments and even blatant lies that appear to me now as ham-fisted and moronic. Is it unthinkable that the woman could be deceived by a less-than-subtle argument–particularly considering she it was an argument she had never heard before? How many of us have been deceived by bad arguments, only because they were new to us?
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I guess I’d side with what I understand to be the prevailing historical interpretation.

Satan was subverting the word of God, calling into question the truthfulness, the reliability, and the authority of God’s word. And in summary, yes, I do believe he was calling into question God’s goodness.

Up to the point of the fall, it is God’s goodness that is emphasized, as displayed in his creation (Genesis 1:31). Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruit of God’s creativity. They ate the food that he provided, they saw with wonder all the things that he had made, etc. And part of what God created, in his goodness, was a boundary for man to obey, lest he die.

By questioning God’s command, Satan implies that God’s word is not, in fact, good, but rather that God is withholding some measure of goodness from the man and the woman. He leads the woman to believe that she would be better off – that there is more goodness to be found – by disregarding God’s law. He tells Eve that God has been holding out on them.

Did he attack God’s “severity?” I guess I don’t see it that way, since the “severity” of God was not really something God had stressed upon them. And what I mean by that is that God had not displayed himself to Adam and Even as the fearful, consuming fire that we would later see at Sinai. Yes, there was definitely a law given, and the promise of death for disobedience – so in that sense yes, the severity of the consequence for sin was “under assault.” But when I consider the character of God and his dealings with his creation in Genesis 1-3, I do conclude that the fall is better understood as a fundamental subversion of the goodness of God, and the authority of his word.

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From Matthew Henry’s commentary, which Jesse quoted above:

There is something to be said about the tempter attacking God’s severity, so I don’t want to say the text has nothing to do with that. But as I’m processing this more, I think my main criticism is that the construction of the question in this post’s title produces a false dilemma. I don’t think we have to insist on a binary that the tempter was either attacking God’s kindness or severity. The tempter was likely attacking both His kindness and severity. Though this may produce a contradiction of tactics on a superficial level, how many atheists have you met online that believe blatantly contradictory arguments about the Bible, yet still hold to them all because it seems to justify their unbelief?

The serpent’s deception worked by causing Eve to 1) doubt the punishment of death and 2) believe she could become like God. Her natural desires worked in tandem with this, for she “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.” But she also had an illicit mental/spiritual desire, for she saw that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise.” She desired a wisdom that God was withholding from her.

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I think an important point here is that while the text doesn’t tell us how long Adam and Eve had been in the garden, she was probably—almost literally—born yesterday when this all happened.

And even though I’m sure that the garden has its own learning curve for life there, Adam and Eve did not have the level of experience with being hustled, cajoled, put on or lied to that even a typical 5-year-old has today.

So what seems to us a terribly un-subtle argument may in fact have been incredibly nuanced to someone such as Eve.

Another anecdote for consideration:

In my experience Christians, and particularly Christian women, are quite susceptible to believing that God is not good even when He has been very kind and given good gifts. In fact, they sometimes fear that God is giving them good things just so He can take them away and make them miserable later. Or they think He’s capricious and they can’t trust Him not to “randomly” take them away for no reason.

Granted, we are fallen now, but Satan hasn’t changed. He’s been a liar from the beginning and still is today. If he’s using such hamfisted anti-factual lies today and succeeding I don’t think it’s far-fetched to think he has all along.

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Actually that strategy would be effective with many daughters. It would be illogical. It would be stupid. But people don’t argue from mere logic. They argue from feeling, from intuition, from impression. Particularly women, but also, y’know, everybody.

We’re a race of socially handicapped morons, I suppose.

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I found Bnonn’s idea attractive because it suggests that when the woman was deceived, it means she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong. Whereas if the deception is about God’s goodness, the woman very much knows she is doing wrong, she just doesn’t care. And while getting the woman to think God is not good is still deception, it is a kind of deception that is present in every willful sin (“Yes it’s wrong, but it is worth it”), and so I just don’t understand how one can say that Adam was not deceived in that sense.

So I thought I would look at other places in the new testament that use the word ‘deceived’. Here is what I found that seemed relevant:

  • Romans 7:11. Sin deceives and kills. Verse 8: “But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.” Verse 11: “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” The deception seems to be covetousness, or is closely related to it. This seems to fit better with the “God is not good” deception. The sin was knowing, the deception is in the motive.
  • Ephesians 5:6. “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” This is solidly a “God is not severe” deception.
  • Romans 16:17-18. " I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive." I assume he is talking here about Judaizers. I don’t think the temptation there was to doubt goodness or severity as such, but to argue that God’s ways are different from the way you have been taught. On the balance, though, this fits more with the “God is not severe” temptation, because the Judaizers are not trying to convince them to knowingly rebel but to believe that they will be serving God better their way, which way is in fact contrary to the gospel. It is unknowing sin.
  • 2 Corinthians 11. “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. …For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” In my first post I cited this as an example of deception being along the lines of getting one to rebel while thinking one is not, and there is certainly that idea here. If Satan is in the garden telling the woman, “God is holding back on you. You should stick it to him!,” he is not disguising himself as an angel of light, right? But on further reflection, I can also read this passage as having a “God is not good” angle. Because one of the things Paul is defending himself against is the charge that he did not have the Corinthian’s best interest at heart. He argues that he did not take advantage of them and did not even charge them what was his right. “Why? Because I love you not? God knows!” The “super-apostles” were declaring themselves more credentialed and accomplished than Paul, and also, it seems, as more interested in the Corinthians than Paul. In other words, part of the deception was, “Paul is not good. He is holding out on you.” They do not, however, seem to be questioning God’s goodness, just Paul’s.

Those instances all use the same word (or variation on a word) that Paul uses when he says that Eve was deceived (apatao), and which word Eve uses in the Septuagint about herself. If we cast our net wider, ‘planao’ would drag in a bunch more verses of interest. Most notable among them is James 1:16-17: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good and perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness or shadow or turning.” Very clearly dealing with doubting God’s goodness. But I don’t know if the difference in word choice is significant.

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