Ipsissima Vox: A Defense of Eve’s First Response to the Serpent

The majority of commentators interpret Eve’s first response to the Serpent as the inception of a sinful attitude toward God. They base their negative reading of Eve’s initial response on the fact that she fails to quote verbatim the prohibition God gave to Adam (2:17), which, presumably, Adam had communicated to Eve. In their estimation, Eve’s “reformulation” of God’s word casts God and his prohibition in a negative light. But is this a responsible way to interpret Eve’s response? Did the first human sin begin at Genesis 3:2-3 or at 3:6?

Viewing Eve’s First Response in a Negative Light

Eve responds to the Serpent’s initial “query” (accusation) by appealing to God’s prohibitory stipulation regarding the Tree of Knowledge.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die” (Gen 3:1–3 ESV).

As noted above, most commentators evaluate Eve’s response negatively. In particular, they infer at least three incipiently sinful attitudes toward God.

God isn’t so generous.

First, she assures him, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden” (3:2). Her words are almost identical to God’s statement to Adam in 2:16 except she leaves out the infinite absolute which serves to underscore God’s generosity: “you may freely eat.” This may indicate a subtle shift in Eve’s mind away from God’s generosity and towards the prohibition, which she addresses in the next verse.

God isn’t so serious.

“But God said,” Eve adds, “‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (3:3). Once again, her representation of God’s original statement is close but not exact. She fails to include another infinitive absolute that stresses the certainty of God’s threatened penalty: “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17). Perhaps Eve is already questioning the seriousness of God’s warning or his ability to carry it out.

God isn’t so gracious.

Additionally, some have argued that Eve’s use of the negative particle פן (translated “lest”) also betrays a degree of uncertainty in Eve’s mind: “lest we might die.” She also adds an extra clause, “neither shall you touch it,” which nearly all commentators interpret as an exaggeration of the prohibition and therefore an indication that Eve was construing the prohibition in an entirely negative way. As John Calvin puts it, “The woman was beginning to waver.”1

Summing It Up

Regarding Eve’s “addition” to God’s word, Gerhard von Rad avers, “This additional word already shows a slight weakness in the woman’s position. It is as though she wanted to set a law for herself by means of exaggeration.”2  Gordon Wenham agrees and writes, “The creator’s generosity is not being given its full due, and he is being painted as a little harsh and repressive, forbidding the tree even to be touched.”3 “All in all,” says John Currid, “the woman distorts and mistreats the Word of God.”4 The majority of commentators agree.5

What do you think? Does Eve’s initial response to the Serpent (Gen 3:2-3) betray the beginnings of sin? Or may we interpret her initial response in a more positive light?

A More Positive Reading of Eve’s First Response

While most commentators find some fault with Eve’s initial response, I believe it’s equally possible to read Eve’s initial response in a more positive light for the following reasons:

First, Eve’s omissions may simply be examples of abridging a previous statement.

Second, the element of contingency expressed by the particle פן (“lest”) is related to the condition of their eating the fruit, not to any perceived uncertainty of God’s threat. For example, Edom’s warning to Israel, “You shall not pass through, lest [פן] I come out with the sword against you” (Num 20:18) was certainly not intended to be read, “I might perhaps come out,” but as an unyielding threat.

Third, Eve’s “addition” was probably a correct inference from the divine prohibition against eating since God’s prohibitions sometimes include the injunction, “Do not touch” (Exod 19:12; Num 16:26; Deut 14:8; see also 2 Sam 6:1–8; Exod 29:37; 30:39). As Umberto Cassuto rightly notes, the Hebrew verb “to touch” often “has a graver connotation than mere touching” (e.g., Gen 20:6; 26:11) and thus “the clause neither shall you touch it is simply synonymous with the preceding clause you shall not eat thereof.”6

Fourth, when Jesus responds to the devil by quoting Scripture, he does not cite the passage verbatim in every case but sometimes modifies, adds, or drops a word. In Matt 4:10 and Luke 4:8, Christ cites Deut 6:13, changing the verb “fear” (φοβηθηση, LXX) to “worship” (προσκυνσεις), adding the word “alone” (μονω) and excluding the clause, “and swear by his name” (και το ονοματι αυτου ομη, LXX). Hence, faithfulness to God’s Word does not demand ipsissima verba (the exact wording) but ipsissima vox (the same meaning).

Fifth, Satan’s quick rejoinder to Eve in 3:4 begins with a waw adversative (“But”), and his emphatic “You will not surely die” seems to indicate that he interpreted Eve’s first response as in basic agreement with God’s original warning.

Finally, since Eve does not experience shame and guilt until after eating the fruit (3:7), it is premature to assign the beginnings of human sin to this point of the narrative.

Conclusion

As a result of these considerations, Eve’s initial response to Satan’s attack appears to be an appropriate response. Like Christ, she answers the devil by appealing to God’s word (cf. Eph 6:17). Unfortunately, as the rest of the narrative reveals, Eve fails to maintain her stand on God’s word and leans instead on her own understanding. As a result, she and Adam exchange true godly wisdom (Prov 3:5-7) for a counterfeit wisdom, the so-called “wisdom of this world” (1 Cor 1:20-21; 3:19).

This post is a slightly modified version of my discussion of a portion of the Fall narrative in Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis (Wipf & Stock, 2010). Used with permission.

B.G.

  1. John Calvin, Genesis, 1:149.
  2. Genesis, 88.
  3. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 73.
  4. A Study Commentary on Genesis, 1:118.
  5. See also Aalders, Genesis, 1:100; Hartley, Genesis, 65; Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 148; Mathews, Genesis 1—11:26, 235–36; Ross, Creation & Blessing, 131, 134–35; Waltke, Genesis, 91; Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 239–40.
  6. From Adam to Noah, 145.