(1) Now the serpent.—Literally, And. The Hebrew language, however, is very poor in particles, and the intended contrast would be made plainer by rendering “Now they were both naked (arumim) . . . but the serpent was subtil (arum), more than every beast of the field.” This quality of the serpent was in itself innocent, and even admirable, and accordingly the LXX. translate prudent; but it was made use of by the tempter to deceive Eve; for, it has been remarked, she would not be surprised on finding herself spoken to by so sagacious a creature. If this be so, it follows that Eve must have dwelt in Paradise long enough to have learnt something of the habits of the animals around her, though she had never studied them so earnestly as Adam, not having felt that want of a companion which had made even his state of happiness so dull.
And he said unto the woman.—The leading point of the narrative is that the temptation came upon man from without, and through the woman. Such questions, therefore, as whether it were a real serpent or Satan under a serpent-like form, whether it spake with a real voice, and whether the narrative describes a literal occurrence or is allegorical, are better left unanswered. God has given us the account of man’s temptation and fall, and the entry of sin into the world, in this actual form; and the more reverent course is to draw from the narrative the lessons it was evidently intended to teach us, and not enter upon too curious speculations. We are dealing with records of a vast and hoar antiquity, given to man when he was in a state of great simplicity, and with his intellect only partly developed, and we cannot expect to find them as easy to understand as the pages of modern history.
Yea, hath God said . . .?—There is a tone of surprise in these words, as if the tempter could not bring himself to believe that such a command had been given. Can it really be true, he asks, that Elohim has subjected you to such a prohibition? How unworthy and wrong of Him! Neither the serpent nor the woman use the title—common throughout this section—of Jehovah-Elohim, a sure sign that there was a thoughtful purpose in giving this appellation to the Deity. It is the impersonal God of creation to whom the tempter refers, and the woman follows his guidance, forgetting that it was Jehovah, the loving personal Being in covenant with them, who had really given them the command.
They sewed fig leaves together.—There is no reason for supposing that the leaves were those of the pisang (Musa paradisiaca), which grow ten feet long. Everywhere else the word signifies the common fig-tree (Ficus carica), one of the earliest plants subjected to man’s use. More remarkable is the word sewed. The Syriac translator felt the difficulty of supposing Eve acquainted with the art of needlework, and renders it, “they stuck leaves together.” But the word certainly implies something more elaborate than this. Probably some time elapsed between their sin and its punishment; and thus there was not merely that first hasty covering of themselves which has made commentators look about for a leaf large enough to encircle their bodies, but respite sufficient to allow of something more careful and ingenious; and Eve may have used her first advance in intellect for the adornment of her person. During this delay they would have time for reflection, and begin to understand the nature of the change that had taken place in their condition.
Aprons.—More correctly, girdles.
Hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.—This does not imply a visible appearance, for the whole narrative is anthropomorphic. The Fathers, however, saw in these descriptions the proof of a previous incarnation of the Divine Son (see Note on Genesis 12:7). Next, we find in their conduct an attempt to escape from the further result of sin. The first result was shame, from which man endeavoured to free himself by covering his person; the second was fear, and this man would cure by departing still farther from God. But the voice of Jehovah reaches him, and with rebuke and punishment gives also healing and hope.
Her seed . . . shall bruise thy head.—We have here the sum of the whole matter, and the rest of the Bible does but explain the nature of this struggle, the persons who wage it, and the manner and consequences of the victory. Here, too, we learn the end and purpose for which the narrative is cast in its present form. It pictures to us man in a close and loving relation, not to an abstract deity, but to a personal and covenant Jehovah. This Being with tender care plants for him a garden, gathers into it whatever is most rare and beautiful in vegetation, and, having given it to him for his home, even deigns at eventide to walk with him there. In the care of this garden He provides for Adam pleasant employment, and watches the development of his intellect with such interest as a father feels in the mental growth of his child. Day by day He brings new animals within his view; and when, after studying their habits, he gives them names, the Deity shares man’s tranquil enjoyment. And when he still feels a void, and needs a companion who can hold with him rational discourse, Jehovah elaborately fashions for him, out of his own self, a second being, whose presence satisfies all his longings. Meanwhile, in accordance with the universal law that hand in hand with free-will goes responsibility, an easy and simple trial is provided for man’s obedience. He fails, and henceforward he must wage a sterner conflict, and attain to victory only by effort and suffering. In this struggle man is finally to prevail, but not unscathed. And his triumph is to be gained not by mere human strength, but by the coming of One who is “the Woman’s Seed;” and round this promised Deliverer the rest of Scripture groups itself. Leave out these words, and all the inspired teaching which follows would be an ever-widening river without a fountain-head. But necessarily with the fall came the promise of restoration. Grace is no after-thought, but enters the world side by side with sin. Upon this foundation the rest of Holy Scripture is built, till revelation at last reaches its corner-stone in Christ. The outward form of the narrative affords endless subjects for curious discussion; its inner meaning and true object being to lay the broad basis of all future revealed truth.
As regards the reading of the Vulgate and some of the Fathers, ipsa conteret, “she shall bruise,” not only is the pronoun masculine in the Hebrew, but also the verb. This too is the case in the Syriac, in which language also verbs have genders. Most probably a critical edition of the Vulgate would restore even there ipse conteret, “he shall bruise.”
Like a large proportion of the words used in Genesis, the verb is rare, being found only twice elsewhere in Scripture. In Job 9:17 the meaning seems plainly to be to break, but in Psalm 139:11, where, however, J the reading is uncertain, the sense required is to cover or veil, though Dr. Kay translates overwhelm. Some versions in this place translate it observe; and the Vulgate gives two renderings, namely, “She shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt lie in ambush for (his or her) heel” (gender not marked—calcaneo ejus). The translation of the Authorised Version may be depended upon as correct, in spite of its not being altogether applicable to the attack of a natural serpent upon a wayfarer’s heel.
Lest he put forth his hand.—Adam had exercised the power of marring God’s work, and if an unending physical life were added to the gift of freewill now in revolt against God, his condition and that of mankind would become most miserable. Man is still to attain to immortality, but it must now be through struggle, sorrow, penitence, faith, and death. Hence a paradise is no fit home for him. The Divine mercy, therefore, commands Adam to quit it, in order that he may live under conditions better suited for his moral and spiritual good.
He placed.—Literally, caused to dwell. The return to Paradise was closed for ever.
At the east of the garden of Eden.—Adam still had his habitation in the land of Eden, and probably in the immediate neighbourhood of Paradise. (Comp. Genesis 4:16.)
Cherubims.—The cherub was a symbolical figure, representing strength and majesty. The ordinary derivation, from a root signifying to carve, grave, and especially to plough, compared with Exodus 25:20, suggests that the cherubim were winged bulls, probably with human heads, like those brought from Nineveh. We must not confound them with the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:5), which are the “beasts” of the Revelation of St. John. The office of the cherub here is to guard the Paradise, lest man should try to force an entrance back; and so too the office of the cherubs upon the mercy-seat was to protect it, lest any one should impiously approach it, except the high-priest on the Day of Atonement. The four living creatures of the Apocalypse have a far different office and signification.