A new character is introduced to the story in Genesis 3. The serpent gives form to a creature ‘more crafty’ than any other of the created things God had given freedom to. A creature lacking in innocence, already enamoured by the knowledge of good and evil which has only been withheld from the human beings.
The serpent entices the woman to eat of its fruit, and she, discovering that a little knowledge is a good thing, shares the new-found discovery with the man.
The immediate consequence is the death of innocence. Knowledge is neither good nor bad per se, but always comes at a cost. They make clothes for themselves, at the cost of being entirely at ease with their self and one another.
The next consequence is that the man and woman hide from God’s approach. A distance is opening up between them. Banks are bursting, and water is rising, swirling at their ankles, knees, waist, as the man points to the woman and the woman points to the serpent.
God asks questions: Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat? What is this that you have done? These are not the harsh questions of an interrogator, but the loving questions of a parent responding to the sobs of their child: Where are you? Who told you that you should be ashamed, about this or that or the other? Did you do what I told you not to do – did you venture into danger? I am not angry with you, but there are consequences we need to deal with together. And the plaintive cry, What have you done? My son! My daughter!
God addresses the serpent: as a consequence of what you have done, your freedom will be restricted. A curse is a restriction on the fullness of life. Moreover, the human offspring will not listen to the serpent’s voice. A restriction on abused influence.
Next God addresses the woman, telling her three things. She will experience increased pain in childbirth. Yet, she will desire her husband. And he will rule over her.
This sounds to us like a curse. Pain, as a punishment. And the punishment of a wife condemned to be unable to break free, condemned to return again and again to an abusive husband. But there is no mention of a curse in God’s words, and any such interpretation utterly misses the point.
God is not punishing his daughter, but providing for her in her need. She needs to know that the work of bringing forth earth-creatures from primordial amniotic sea is hard labour. To sustain her, God reminds her of the corresponding nature of her relationship with the man – as the two banks of a river flow side-by-side – and strengthens that connection, also reminding the man that their shared role of bringing forth life includes helping the woman to bring forth human life. Here is the first instruction for expectant fathers to be present and a helper at the birth of their children (and to women to allow that).
Of course, this is not just a story about a man and a woman becoming parents, but a story about men helping women to birth life in the world. This, then, is a particular outworking of Genesis 2, where male and female are made for this very partnership.
Then God addresses the man, telling him three things. Because of human action, the ground has been cursed, has had its freedom to bring forth life restricted. They will discover that the work of setting creation free – here expressed in cultivating a harvest – is a never-ending task. And in time, they will return to the ground from which they were taken.
Again, this sounds to us like a curse. But the curse relates to the ground. And the nature of the curse is not that because of what the man has done, a good ground has become bad. Rather, it is that as a result of what the humans have done, the creatures who were commissioned to restore chaos to order have themselves contributed to a chaos that already threatened the world. We’ll return to that idea in a story about Adam and Eve’s sons.
Nonetheless, God does not take away the human commission, and even puts restrictions on what chaos can achieve. Though it will be hard, there will be a harvest.
And by removing the humans from access to the tree of life, God both sets a limit on the length of time they will experience estrangement from the creation, and sends them out into a whole world waiting to be set free.