Father of Lies: The Serpent Casts Doubt on God’s Word

As we saw in our former post, the woman successfully parried the Serpent’s first attack by wielding the “Sword of the Spirit,” namely, God’s Word. But the Serpent’s initial exchange was designed only to set up the humans for his main attack. In the Serpent’s second communication with the woman (Gen 3:4-5), he advances an attack against the veracity of God’s word and the goodness of God’s character.

God’s Integrity and Goodness Questioned

His rejoinder begins with a waw adversative and assumes that her response was a basically accurate portrayal of God’s original prohibition: “But the Serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die'” (3:4).1 At first glance, Satan’s attack seems too bold and confrontational to win Eve’s sympathy. He immediately follows his direct attack against the veracity of God’s word, however, by suggesting the rationale behind the prohibition, which sows seeds of suspicion in Eve’s mind regarding God’s benevolent intentions.

Deceit Cloaked in a Semblance of Truth

According to the Serpent, two results will ensue from their eating the fruit: their eyes will be opened, and they shall become like God(s), knowing good and evil (3:5).2 The reader should note that both of these predicted results are confirmed by the subsequent context. Adam and Eve’s eyes are “opened” upon eating the fruit (3:7), and they do become like Elohim, knowing good and evil (3:22). Moreover, Adam and Eve do not appear to die “in the day” they eat from the tree.

Retrospectively, the Serpent’s claims have a prima facie semblance of truth. Marguerite Shuster captures the deceptive cunning of the Serpent’s temptation when she notes,

It is, first of all, artful and designing; it raises doubts and questions about what God said, putting a fatal gap between hearing God’s command and obeying it, a gap in which one’s own reasonings reign supreme…. More particularly, it involves distortion of the truth … [and] it has the appearance of good. A lie would not work unless it contained a great deal of truth. Traditional rat poison seduced its prey by being 96 percent good corn meal and only about 4 percent arsenic.3

The Sultan of Seductive Spin

Nonetheless, it is equally clear that the Serpent distorts the truth. Yahweh-Elohim desired his vassal-son to obtain the wisdom that the tree of knowledge symbolized. But the vassal-son must acquire this wisdom “in the fear of the Lord” (Prov 1:7; 9:10) and in obedience to God’s commands (Deut 4:6; 11:26–27; 30:19–20). As Terence Fretheim notes,

The command seems to forbid an immediate acquisition of knowledge, though without suggesting that humans should not have wisdom. The issue involves the way in which wisdom is gained. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (see Rom. 1:20–21). By using their freedom to acquire wisdom in this way, they have determined that the creational command no longer applies to them.4

It is not, therefore, as the Serpent insinuates, that Yahweh selfishly wants to keep man from experiencing what is good and desirable.5 And as Adam and his descendants learn, God’s death-threat (2:17) was not empty.6

In summary, the reader should interpret the Serpent’s claim as deceitful and not offered in man’s best interests. He is proposing nothing less than that Adam and Eve should pursue the way of counterfeit wisdom (1 Cor 1:20, 21; 3:19; Jas 3:15), which is based on creaturely autonomy—man acting as his own god. Derek Kidner aptly remarks,

The climax is a lie big enough to reinterpret life (this breadth is the power of a false system) and dynamic enough to redirect the flow of affection and ambition. To be as God, and to achieve it by outwitting Him, is an intoxicating programme.7


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.

  1. The Hebrew reads, לא מות תמתון. Normally, the negative particle occurs between the infinite absolute and finite verb. In this case, however, the negative precedes both the infinitive absolute and the finite verb. Gesenius describes such a construction as “exceptional” and lists Psalm 49:8 and Amos 9:8 as the only other two examples (GKC § 113v). Allen Ross argues that the shifting of the Hebrew negative לא forward is done for emphasis: “Not—you shall surely die.” Creation & Blessing, 135. See also H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, 149.
  2. It is unclear whether the second use of Elohim (כאלהים) should be interpreted as a singular, i.e., “as God,” or as a countable plural, i.e., “as gods” (cf. LXX, ως θεοι). The latter seems plausible in light of the fact that the participle translated “knowing” (ידעי) is plural. But the plural may also hark back to Adam and Eve. As Kenneth Mathews suggests, “Ambiguity here may be purposeful since the whole tenor of the Serpent’s speech is marked with clever devices.” Genesis 1:1-11:26, 236, n. 183. See also Victor Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, 189.
  3. The Fall and Sin, 22–23. Cornelius Plantinga also highlights the tempter’s subtle trickery when he remarks, “To prevail, evil must leech not only power and intelligence from goodness but also its credibility. From counterfeit money to phony airliner parts to the trustworthy look on the face of a con artist, evil appears in disguise. Hence its treacherousness.” Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 98.
  4. “Genesis,” in New Interpreters Bible, 1:361.
  5. Writes Meredith Kline, “Satan’s claim was that God, because of a jealous reluctance to share his honor with others, had lied about the probation tree to prevent man from becoming like him in respect to the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:5). With subtle artistry the devil painted a complete falsehood, a total distortion of reality, portraying God in his own devil-likeness and representing himself in the guise of divine virtue and prerogative.” Kingdom Prologue, 124.
  6. Chapter 4 of Genesis and following highlight the outworking of Yahweh’s death-threat curse.
  7. Genesis, 68. Hamilton, Genesis 1–17, is also on target when he writes, “Whenever one makes his own will crucial and God’s revealed will irrelevant, whenever autonomy displaces submission and obedience in a person, that finite individual attempts to rise above the limitations imposed on him by his creator” (190).