Grasping for Godhood: The First Human Sin

God gave the man and woman access to all the trees of the Garden for food (Gen 2:9, 16) but forbade access to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen 2:17). The Serpent has cast God’s prohibition in a negative light. God is hiding the truth from the humans and doesn’t have their best interests in view (Gen 3:4-5). In response to the Serpent’s slanderous insinuation of God’s malevolent intentions toward the humans and his deceitful claim about the benefits of disobedience, the woman now focuses her attention on the tree.

An Autonomous Assessment

Eve begins to assess the forbidden fruit independently.1 She observes three distinct aspects of the fruit. But the syntactical structure of the sentence explaining her assessment distinguishes the third description,2 making the motivation for her taking the fruit two-fold.

Physically Desirable

First, the woman evaluates the fruit as physically appealing, “good for food” in terms of flavor and nourishment. The phrase “good (טוב) for food” echoes both God’s appraisal of creation as good (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) and his provision of vegetable produce for humankind as part of his “blessing” (1:29–30; 2:9, 16). She also saw the visually appealing quality of the fruit. The Hebrew word תאוה (“pleasant”) is used elsewhere to describe someone’s “favorite dish” (Job 33:20). In one sense, Eve’s assessment of the fruit is accurate. God did create the fruit “pleasant to the sight” (2:9). Her assessment, however, now assumes an autonomous posture. She wrests Yahweh’s own appraisal of the tree out of context and misapplies it to her situation.3

Psychologically Desirable

Second, the woman assessed the fruit of the tree as psychologically appealing: “The tree was to be desired to make one wise.”4 Eve now views the tree as an instrument for obtaining wisdom, and in a sense she is correct. “The knowledge of good and evil” does refer to ethical maturation and is to some degree synonymous with wisdom. This quality may be virtuous or evil. It all depends on the way one obtains it.

When obtained in dependence on and in consistency with God’s revealed word, “the knowledge of good and evil” is a virtue that God ultimately intends for mankind. When obtained independent of and in contradiction to God’s revealed word, this knowledge becomes a vice and something God never intended for mankind (cf. 1 Cor 1:26ff.). Now comes the fatal moment of choice, which stands at the very heart of the narrative.5

A Proud Partaking

The second half of 3:6 reveals the first human sin in a concise, matter-of-fact fashion: “She took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” The prepositional phrase describing Adam as “with her” (עמה) often connotes mutual participation (Gen 30:16; 39:10; Exod 22:15; Deut 22:23, 25, 28, 29; 2 Sam 11:4; 12:24) and sometimes implies physical proximity (Judg 13:9; 1 Kgs 17:20; Esth 2:13).6 Clearly the narrator wishes to implicate Adam in the crime. Moreover, the Serpent’s repeated use of the second person plural (3:1, 4–5) may also be an indication that Adam was at Eve’s side throughout the entire temptation.7 Certainly, God’s initial interrogation of Adam (3:9, 11) and the rest of Scripture lay the blame equally if not more so on Adam (cf. Rom 5:12ff.; 1 Tim. 2:14).8

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

As to the nature of this first human sin, a number of modern writers seem intent on defending or minimizing the human action. Gunkel describes the action as “harmless and childish desire.”9 Susan Niditch argues for a feminist reading of the narrative: “Together with the snake, [Eve] is a bringer of culture.”10 Francis Watson encourages the reader to view “the Serpent as the liberator, Eve as heroine in her courageous quest for wisdom, and the Lord God as a jealous tyrant concerned only with the preservation of his own prerogatives.”11 Other, less radical, proposals suggest “mistrust,”12 “folly,”13 or “disobedience”14 as opposed to the stronger idea of “rebellion.” While these descriptions of the primordial sin are true enough, they fail to identify the root cause behind man’s sin as well as to highlight its aggravated nature.

Grasping After Divinity

At the root of humankind’s first sin is hubris or pride. The Serpent suggested to the humans that they, not God, controlled their destiny (3:4), and therefore, that they were free to determine independently what was right or wrong, beneficial or harmful (3:5). By heeding Satan’s words, Adam and Eve chose to disregard God’s word because they were motivated by an aspiration to God-like prerogatives that were inappropriate for them to possess as mere creatures.15 This interpretation of pride as the motivating factor behind the first human sin finds intertextual support from three other passages of Scripture.

Ezekiel’s Oracle

Ezekiel’s oracle against the king of Tyre not only accuses the monarch of hubris and of assuming the prerogatives of deity (Ezek 28:2–10) but also likens him to primeval man in Eden, whose heart “was proud” and who “corrupted [his] wisdom” (Ezek 28:12).16

The Second Adam Who Didn’t Grasp

The apostle Paul’s acclamation of Christ, the Second Adam, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil 2:6)17 provides the polar opposite portrait of the First Adam’s action in Eden. It was Yahweh-Elohim’s intention to exalt his human vassal-son and to give him a name above every name in keeping with his ultimate design for humanity (Gen 1:26–28).18 But Adam “grasped” at kingship prematurely and disobediently.19 Because of this pride, Adam disqualified himself and his seed from the eschatological reward (2:9; 3:22).20

The Love of the World

The apostle John appears to have Genesis 3:6 in view when he characterizes the “love of the world” (another way to describe “sin”) as “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life” (η αλαζονεια του βιου; 1 John 2:16, NAU).21  If John is alluding to the Fall as a paradigm for human sin, then he interprets Adam and Eve’s quest for autonomous wisdom (3:6) as ultimately springing from hubris.22 In conclusion, pride is the root that motivates human sin.23 This pride, in turn, prompts unbelief in the veracity of the divine word,24 the violation of which constitutes rebellion or a breach of covenant.25

A Guilty Conscience

Prior to Adam and Eve’s sin, their nakedness was unaccompanied by shame (2:25). Following their sin, however, their nakedness is now associated with “opened eyes” (ותפקחנה עיני שניהם), a metaphor for acquired knowledge, and with a newfound impulse to cover their nakedness (3:7). Interpreters offer various explanations for the newly acquired knowledge and urge for clothing.26 The most contextually responsible interpretation is to view the knowledge acquired as a form of ethical maturity but in a negative form. They now know good and evil but in disloyalty to the divine will, and the resulting knowledge (i.e., bad conscience) has produced the unpleasant feeling of shame (3:7b)27 and fear (3:8–9), the opposite of their experience prior to the Fall (2:24–25).


Note: The entry above is excerpted from my  monograph Where Sin Abounds (a theological commentary on Genesis). Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.

  1. As Brueggemann notes, “The rhetoric of fidelity has given way to analysis and calculation. The givenness of God’s rule is no longer the boundary of a safe place. God is now a barrier to be circumvented,” Genesis, 48.
  2. The first two clauses of Genesis 3:6a begin with כי and are coordinate, while the last clause appears without the כי and stands off as the ultimate motivation.
  3. As Waltke notes, “In light of chapter 1, [Eve’s assessment of the Tree] is surely ironic. Good is no longer rooted in what God says enhances life but in what people think is desirable to elevate life.” Genesis, 92. See also Sarna, Genesis, 25.
  4. The Hebrew word translated “to make wise” (להשכיל) is the Hiphil of שכל, a word related to wisdom and success (Ps 32:8; Prov 16:23; 21:11; Dan 9:22; Neh 9:20). Most translators and commentators take the Hiphil as causative (i.e., to impart wisdom), but some, such as Speiser, Genesis, 23–24, argue for an intransitive meaning (i.e., to become wise).
  5. Walsh has analyzed the Eden narrative (2:4b-3:24) as consisting of seven scenes arranged concentrically, the fourth of which is Adam and Eve’s partaking of the fruit (3:6), marking the structural center of the narrative (169–71). Thus concludes Walsh, “The central word of the entire narrative is at once the man’s sin and his acquiescence in and affirmation of the perverted chain of influence it achieves.” “Genesis 2:4b-3:24: A Synchronic Approach,” 176–77.
  6. Paul Joüon interprets the preposition her as a nominal attribute, which implies that Adam is viewed as the one present with Eve during the temptation (GBH § 132a).
  7. So argue Keil, The Pentatuech, 95; Cassuto, From Adam to Noah, 148; Sarna, Genesis, 25; and Walton, Genesis, 206. Aalders seems to think that 1 Timothy 2:14 (“the man was not deceived”) requires that Adam was not physically present. Genesis, 1:102. Leupold also believes that the placement of the phrase “with her” in the sentence suggests that Adam was not with Eve at the outset of the temptation but only joined her at this point. Exposition of Genesis, 152–53. But Walton argues that the placement of the prepositional phrase actually proves Adam was with her since otherwise it would have been connected with the verb “eat” rather than “gave.” Genesis, 206. Of course, one might argue that the narrator could have been clearer and said something like, “so she took some of its fruit and gave to her husband, and they ate it.” This would remove the ambiguity but might sacrifice the author’s emphasis on the personal responsibility of each.
  8. Higgins goes too far in attempting to exonerate Eve from blame, even arguing that God only addressed Adam in the prohibition (2:17) and that God’s final words to the woman (3:16) may be read as a prophecy rather than a judgment. “The Myth of Eve: The Temptress,” 645. On the other hand, she does offer several plausible reasons for viewing Adam as present during the Serpent’s temptation (645–47).
  9. Genesis, 17. See also Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, 11–12.
  10. “Genesis,” 14.
  11. “Strategies of Recovery and Resistance,” 103.
  12. According to Fretheim, “The primal sin may be best defined as mistrust of God and the word of God.” “Genesis,” 366. Fretheim is correct to note that Adam and Eve failed to trust God and His Word. But mistrust, in itself, is a somewhat neutral word. For it to be sinful, there must be some evil disposition that dissuades the individual from trusting one who is trustworthy.
  13. Sailhamer argues that their sin should not be viewed as rebellion but as folly: “There are several features of this story that suggest the author wanted to draw a relationship between the Fall and man’s quest for wisdom. Man’s disobedience is not so much depicted as an act of great wickedness or a great transgression as much as it is an act of great folly.” He concludes, “Thus, the temptation is not presented as a general rebellion from God’s authority. It is rather portrayed as a quest for wisdom and “the good” apart from God’s provision.” “Genesis” 50–51. But Sailhamer’s assessment misses the point. To pursue wisdom apart from and in disobedience to the expressed will of God is rebellion!
  14. Roop, Genesis, 43. But this too is open to the objection that in the context of a Suzerain-vassal relationship, disobedience to the Suzerain’s command is viewed as rebellion.
  15. As Dumbrell rightly observes, “By eating of the fruit man was intruding into an area reserved for God alone, and the violation of the command is tantamount to an assertion of equality, a snatching at deity.” Covenant and Creation, 38.
  16. Some interpret the proud entity of Eden as a possible allusion to Satan. For example, see Feinberg, The Prophecy of Ezekiel, 160–64; Unger, Biblical Demonology, 15. Even if Satan is in view, however, one may still infer that Adam and Eve were drawn away from God by the same kind of hubris since Satan tends to beget children in his own likeness (John 8:44; 1 John 3:8, 10, 12). Even so, a number of scholars have advanced good reasons for viewing the Edenic entity to whom Ezekiel compares the king of Tyre as Adam, who falls into sin because of pride. See Leslie Allen, Ezekiel 20–48, 89–96; Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 123–25; Duguid, Ezekiel, 344–47; Gowan, When Man Becomes God, 69–92; Keil, Ezekiel, 410; Taylor, Ezekiel, 195–97; Zimmerli, A Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 90–95. Though most of these authors are quick to find many elements from the Genesis 2–3 account in Ezekiel’s description, a number of them stumble over Ezekiel’s reference to “the Holy Mountain of God” (Ezek 28:14, 16), alleging the concept to be alien to Genesis 2–3. Such a conclusion completely misses the topographical implications of Genesis 2:10–14.
  17. The Greek word translated “a thing to be grasped” (αρπαγμον) refers to what is taken by force or snatched away (see Matt 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12; 2 Cor 12:2).
  18. This ultimate design is further elaborated in texts such as Ps 8:3–9; Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; 1 Cor 6:3; Col 2:10; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 4:4; 5:10; 11:16; 20:4, 6; 22:5.
  19. Contrast Christ’s refusal to accept Satan’s offer to grant him “the kingdoms of this world” (Matt 4:8; Luke 4:5), which were rightfully his inheritance (Ps 2:8) but which had to be obtained according to the will and timing of his Father.
  20. Thankfully, the Second Adam has opened the way back to Eden and the tree of life (John 3:16; 11:25–26; Rev 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).
  21. The Greek word αλαζονεια refers to “arrogance” (Jas 4:16) and its connection with “life” (βιος) suggests not mere materialism but a cocky presumption of being the existential center of the universe and the controller of one’s destiny (see Jas 4:13–17).
  22. As noted above, the syntactical structure of Eve’s three-fold assessment of the tree actually emphasizes the third feature of appeal, namely, “that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (3:6).
  23. Eugene Merrill agrees with this analysis of the first human sin: “This episode describing the first attempt to undermine the sovereignty of God sets the tone for all subsequent human history, for history, in the final analysis, is reducible to a record of human hubris and sin, a condition redeemable only by God’s own gracious interposition.” Everlasting Dominion, 41. See also Augustine, The City of God, 460–62; Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 173–74; Shuster, The Fall and Sin, 52–55.
  24. Some writers insist that unbelief gives rise to ambition and pride. Spurgeon calls it “the monarch sin . . . the egg of all crime, the seed of every offense.” and argues that “everything that is evil and vile lies couched in that one word—unbelief.” “The Sin of Unbelief.” According to Calvin, “unbelief has opened the door to ambition,” and “ambition has proved the parent of rebellion.” The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:153, 1:245. Keil seems to agree with this sequence when he writes, “Doubt, unbelief, and pride were the roots of the sin of our first parents, as they have been of all the sins of their posterity.” The Pentateuch, 96. But it seems more likely that ambition and pride are what give rise to unbelief.
  25. Two eighth-century BC prophets allude to a primeval covenant and define human sin in terms of covenant breaking. Hosea brings his fellow Israelites before the bar of God because “like Adam (כאדם) they transgressed the covenant (ברית)” (Hos 6:7). Some translations render the Hebrew “like men” (LXX, GNV, KJV, NKJ) and others translate the text “at Adam” (NET, NJB, NRS), a town in northern Israel (Josh 3:16). But, as Reymond notes, the former rendering introduces “an inanity into the text, for how else could Hosea’s contemporaries transgress than ‘like men’?” A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 460. The latter requires an emendation to the text, changing the prefixed preposition from a כ to a ב. The word שם, which begins the second half of the verse, usually means “there” and might seem to lend credibility to a locative interpretation. But in some places, it may have the force of an interjection, “Look there!” (Pss 36:13; 48:7; Ps 132:17; Zeph 1:14), which would make perfect sense here (see NET). Consequently, there appears to be no substantial reason for an emendation of the text, and the translation “as Adam” (VUL, DRA, NIV, NAU, NLT, ESV, CSB) is preferred. For a helpful discussion of this text, see Curtis, “Hosea 6:7 and Covenant Breaking like/at Adam,” 170-209; McComiskey, Hosea, 95; Warfield, “Hosea vi.7: Adam or Man?” 116-29. The prophet Isaiah universalizes Hosea’s verdict, applying it to all the nations: “The earth is polluted because of its inhabitants, who have transgressed laws, violated statutes, broken the ancient covenant (ברית עולם)” (Isa 24:5, NAB). The fact that Isaiah’s indictment is directed to “all the nations” preludes a reference to any of the Jewish covenants. Some scholars opt for the Noachic covenant. But John Oswalt is correct when he notes that “while the eternal covenant may have specific reference to the Noahic covenant in Gen 9:1–17 with its prohibition of bloodshed, its broader reference is to the implicit covenant between Creator and creature, in which the Creator promises life in return for the creature’s living according to the norms laid down at Creation.” Isaiah 1–39, 446. See also Young, The Book of Isaiah, 2:156–158.
  26. Gunkel sees a transition from ignorance to enlightenment: “One may say that the narrator already has a very vague notion, although he does not attain clarity regarding it in his presentation, namely that enlightenment, maturity can only be achieved through sin.” Genesis, 18. Similarly, Driver argues that the knowledge gained was the transitional experience of moving “from the innocence of childhood in to the knowledge which . . . belongs to adult age.” The Book of Genesis, 46. Building on these ideas, Bonhoeffer has suggested that the knowledge refers to a “sexual awareness” that the couple did not possess before eating from the tree. Creation and Fall, 78–81. But as Henri Blocher appropriately notes, “Genesis 2 simply does not depict the man and the woman as two children before the age of puberty, and casts no shadow across the marriage union; on the contrary, the text provides the charter of this gift from the Creator.” In the Beginning, 129. This is not to deny the element of sexual shame that their attempt at covering their nakedness reveals. But such sexual shame is only the tip of the iceberg, perhaps a synecdoche. See Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis, 75–77.
  27. Since the urge to cover their nakedness indicates a reversal of the condition described in 2:25, then one should infer that the humans now experience “shame” (בוש), which in the OT can refer to a disappointment felt because of unrealized expectations (Job 6:20; Isa 4 2:17; Jer 14:3; 22:22; Hos 10:6), to a disgrace felt because of defeat at the hand of one’s enemies (Ezra 9:6; Isa 1:29; 30:5; Jer 2:36; Dan 9:7; Mic 1:11) or because of immoral or imprudent actions of a relative (Prov 10:5; 12:4; 14:35), or to feelings of guilt for sin committed (Job 19:3; Jer 2:26; 6:15; 8:12). Note also this last meaning in the apocryphal Sirach 41:17. Since this “shame” has come as a result of disobedience, it is most natural to interpret it in the last sense, as feelings of guilt.