At the moment I’m reading up on Genesis chapters 1-3 in preparation for the “Genesis, Scripture and Creation” session at The Gender Conversation, which will be held on Monday the 7th of September 2015 at Morling College. Today I read this statement written by one of my fellow presenters.
“… the prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is spoken to the man alone (in 2:17). He is given responsibility to mediate this command to his wife after her creation and protect her from disobeying it. Presumably this command could have been given to both of them after the creation of the woman, but the account as it stands implicitly gives the man this responsibility to which he is later held to account …”
I’ve read this kind of statement many times. Is there any truth in it? What does the biblical account “as it stands” tell us about God’s command concerning the forbidden fruit? Did God give the command to the man alone? Eve’s reply to the serpent may indicate otherwise.
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 middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” Genesis 3:2-3.
Plural Verbs versus Singular Verbs
The woman’s quotation of God’s command in Genesis 3:2-3 is slightly different from the command given to the man recorded in Genesis 2:16-17. The extra phrase about touching the fruit in Genesis 3:3 is an obvious difference, but there is another difference between the two quotations that is not immediately apparent in modern English translations.
In Genesis 2:16-17, where the solitary human is being given the command, there are three singular verbs in the Hebrew text. Note the use of the singular pronoun “thou” three times in the King James Version of Genesis 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.”
In Genesis 3:2-3, however, the command is quoted with three plural verbs in the Hebrew text. Note the use of the plural pronoun “ye” three times in the King James Version of Genesis 3:3: “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said,’ Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.’”
Is the plural significant here?
The text of Genesis 3 tells us that Eve was deceived by the snake but it does not tell us she was a fibber. Later in chapter 3, her answer to God’s question regarding her eating the fruit shows honesty, candour, and accuracy (Gen. 3:13). Her answer in verses 2-3 to the serpent’s question may have been equally honest, candid, and accurate. The author of Genesis 3 may well have meant for his readers to understand that Eve, in fact, correctly quotes what God has said.
The author gives no explanation as to why her words are different from those in Genesis 2 but this has not stopped people from making their own assumptions. Instead of the idea that Adam relayed the command to Eve and did a poor job of it, as suggested by some, an equally credible idea is that God gave the command about the forbidden fruit at least once to the solitary human (with singular verbs), quoted in Genesis 2:17, and at least once to the couple (with plural verbs), as quoted by the woman in Genesis 3:3. However, the narrator of the biblical story is simply not interested in how Eve came to know about the forbidden fruit. And speculations may take us away from the narrator’s aims.
The veracity of the woman’s statement to the serpent has been doubted and its significance downplayed or distorted, but there is no reason to assume her quotation of God’s command is incorrect. We are told at the conclusion of the temptation scene that Adam was with Eve (Gen. 3:6). And while the serpent directed his speech to the woman, he also uses plural verbs which seem to indicate Adam was present during the entire conversation, and Adam doesn’t contradict or correct what his wife said.
Differing Versions of the Same Story
Stories and statements are sometimes repeated in the Bible in slightly different ways, with elements being added or omitted or highlighted. This story-telling technique provides variety and emphasises certain plot points.
An example of a shorter statement given first, and a longer one with additional information given later, occurs, for example, in 1 Samuel 30:9 and 30:24 about David’s 200 exhausted men who stayed behind with the baggage, and also in 1 Samuel 31:10 and 31:11-12 about Saul’s body hung on a wall, as well as his sons’ bodies.
An example of a divine message being repeated in slightly different ways occurs in Judges 13. Here the angel of the LORD gives instructions to Samson’s mother and to Samson’s father that are slightly different but essentially similar. The mother’s own account of the angel’s message is also slightly different again. No one assumes the angel of the LORD got it wrong despite relating two different versions of the one prophecy. And no one assumes the mother’s account of the prophecy is flawed. Yet most people presume Eve got it wrong.
~ The woman’s statement about the forbidden fruit is different in a few regards from the statement in 2:17, but that doesn’t mean her statement is incorrect.
~ The Bible gives no indication that the woman got it wrong. No one corrects her and she is presented in Genesis 3 as someone who speaks truthfully.
~ Stories and statements are often repeated in the Bible in slightly different ways, with more or less, or even slightly different, information.
The assertions in the quotation at the beginning of this article do not agree with the biblical text “as it stands.” There is no mention, implication, or hint in the biblical text that the first man was given the responsibility of passing on God’s command to her, or that he was meant to protect her from disobeying the command. These ideas are simply not present in the text.
 Another difference between the command as the woman tells it in Genesis 3 (compared with how God tells it in Genesis 3) is that the woman mentions the position of the tree in the middle of the garden, but God doesn’t (Gen. 2:16-17), probably because the narrative in Genesis 2 has already mentioned the tree’s position in Genesis 2:9. On the other hand, the woman doesn’t identify that the tree is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” probably because this piece of information has already been given twice (Gen. 2:9 & 17). Several important plot points are repeated once in Genesis 2-3, often in spoken dialogue.
Plot points are also repeated in Adam’s and Eve’s replies to God (Gen. 3:12 & 13). I suggest the narrator of Genesis 3 did not intend for his readers to understand that either Adam or Eve was trying to pass the buck in their replies to God as is commonly understood.
 God seems to confirm the honesty of Eve’s statement in Genesis 3:13b. As soon as she explains to God “The serpent tricked me, and I ate,” God says to the serpent, “Because you have done this …” (Gen. 3:14f).
 Furthermore, if we understand that the woman, or a significant part of her, was originally one side of the first human, she would have heard the original command. But this is pushing the story very hard (More about the first human having two sides here.)
 Compare the angel’s original message to the mother in Judges 13:3-5 with the mother’s statement in Judges 13:7: Judges 13:7 doesn’t include the word “razor” or the phrase about deliverance. And compare the angel’s original message to the mother with the angel’s message to the father in Judges 13:13-14: Judges 13:13-14 doesn’t include the words “razor” and “Nazarite” or the deliverance phrase, but adds the phrase “anything that comes from the vine.”
 Another example of different dialogue highlighting different elements is the telling and retelling of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus in the book of Acts. Compare Acts 9:3-9 with Acts 22:6-21 and Acts 26:12-18.
© Margaret Mowczko 2015
All Rights Reserved
Postscript: 2nd of September 2019
I just came across this paper on Eve’s words to the serpent: P. Wayne Townsend, “Eve’s Answer to the Serpent: An Alternative Paradigm for Sin and Some Implications in Theology” in Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998): 399-420. A PDF of this paper is freely available here.
Townsend does not believe the author of Genesis 3 meant for readers to think that Eve misquoted God. On page 406 he writes,
[Eve] specifies that “God did say … you may not touch it [the fruit] ” (Gen. 3:3). If we restrict the context of these words to Genesis, then we must admit that God did not say that (Gen. 2:17). But, if we allow that the writer of Genesis expected a basic familiarity with the law of Sinai, we must allow a broader context for this statement, including the Sinai laws found in the whole Pentateuch. In this broader context the words, “you may not touch,” take on deeper significance. We find parallels to Eve’s words in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14. Leviticus 11 defines food that is lawful for Israelites to eat. Concerning unclean land animals, verse 8 states, “You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses; they are unclean for you” (emphasis added). The vocabulary and sentence structure of this verse strongly parallels Eve’s words in Genesis 3:3: “You must not eat fruit … and you must not touch it…. Read in this light, the original readers of Genesis 3 would have understood Eve’s words as a natural outgrowth of God’s command in Genesis 2:17.
Also on page 406, Townsend cites Deitrich Bonhoeffer as saying,
[Eve] does not know or recognize evil and she can therefore do nothing but repeat the given commandment and put it correctly. This is a great deal, she remains true to the commandment. (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3, 69.)
On page 420, Townsend summarises his arguments and writes,
The words of Eve in Genesis 3:2, “you shall not touch it,” have been grossly misrepresented. They are not the expression of prefall apostasy or weak-mindedness on the part of the first woman. They communicate to God’s redeemed people that the Fall and original sin can be understood through the metaphor of uncleanness. [See his paper for his discussion on the metaphor of uncleanness.]
The Temptation of Adam and Eve (cropped and slightly recoloured). Detail of a stained glass window in the Virgin chapel of Saint-Julien Cathedral in Le Mans (Sarthe, France). Photo taken by Selbymay. This photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. (Source: Wikimedia)
Was it Adam’s responsibility to relay God’s command to Eve?
What was Adam’s Excuse?
Is Adam solely responsible for the first sin?
Kenegdo: Is the woman in Genesis 2 subordinate, similar or similar to the man?
Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16
A Suitable Helper (in the Hebrew)
A Suitable Helper (in the Septuagint)
Women, Eve, and Deception