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The First Sin and Its Punishment

 3

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”


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1. Now the serpent was more subtil In this chapter, Moses explains, that man, after he had been deceived by Satan revolted from his Maker, became entirely changed and so degenerate, that the image of God, in which he had been formed, was obliterated. He then declares, that the whole world, which had been created for the sake of man, fell together with him from its primary original; and that in this ways much of its native excellence was destroyed. But here many and arduous questions arise. For when Moses says that the serpent was crafty beyond all other animals, he seems to intimate, that it had been induced to deceive man, not by the instigation of Satan, but by its own malignity. I answer, that the innate subtlety of the serpent did not prevent Satan from making use of the animal for the purpose of effecting the destruction of man. For since he required an instrument, he chose from among animals that which he saw would be most suitable for him: finally, he carefully contrived the method by which the snares he was preparing might the more easily take the mind of Eve by surprise. Hitherto, he had held no communication with men; he, therefore, clothed himself with the person of an animal, under which he might open for himself the way of access. Yet it is not agreed among interpreters in what sense the serpent is said to be ערום (aroom, subtle,) by which word the Hebrews designate the prudent as well as the crafty. Some, therefore, would take it in a good, others in a bad sense. I think, however, Moses does not so much point out a fault as attribute praise to nature because God had endued this beast with such singular skill, as rendered it acute and quick-sighted beyond all others. But Satan perverted to his own deceitful purposes the gift which had been divinely imparted to the serpent. Some captiously cavil, that more acuteness is now found in many other animals. To whom I answer, that there would be nothing absurd in saying, that the gift which had proved so destructive to the human race has been withdrawn from the serpent: just, as we shall hereafter see, other punishments were also inflicted upon it. Yet, in this description, writers on natural history do not materially differ from Moses, and experience gives the best answer to the objection; for the Lord does not in vain command his own disciples to be ‘prudent as serpents,’ (Matthew 10:16.) But it appears, perhaps, scarcely consonant with reason, that the serpent only should be here brought forward, all mention of Satan being suppressed. I acknowledge, indeed, that from this place alone nothing more can be collected than that men were deceived by the serpent. But the testimonies of Scripture are sufficiently numerous, in which it is plainly asserted that the serpent was only the mouth of the devil; for not the serpent but the devil is declared to be ‘the father of lies,’ the fabricator of imposture, and the author of death. The question, however, is not yet solved, why Moses has kept back the name of Satan. I willingly subscribe to the opinion of those who maintain that the Holy Spirit then purposely used obscure figures, because it was fitting that full and clear light should be reserved for the kingdom of Christ. In the meantime, the prophets prove that they were well acquainted with the meaning of Moses, when, in different places, they cast the blame of our ruin upon the devil. We have elsewhere said, that Moses, by a homely and uncultivated style, accommodates what he delivers to the capacity of the people; and for the best reason; for not only had he to instruct an untaught race of men, but the existing age of the Church was so puerile, that it was unable to receive any higher instruction. There is, therefore, nothing absurd in the supposition, that they, whom, for the time, we know and confess to have been but as infants, were fed with milk. Or (if another comparison be more acceptable) Moses is by no means to be blamed, if he, considering the office of schoolmaster as imposed upon him, insists on the rudiments suitable to children. They who have an aversion to this simplicity, must of necessity condemn the whole economy of God in governing the Church. This, however, may suffice us, that the Lord, by the secret illumination of his Spirit, supplied whatever was wanting of clearness in outward expressions; as appears plainly from the prophets, who saw Satan to be the real enemy of the human race, the contriver of all evils, furnished with every kind of fraud and villainy to injure and destroy. Therefore, though the impious make a noise, there is nothing justly to offend us in this mode of speaking by which Moses describes Satan, the prince of iniquity, under the person of his servant and instrument, at the time when Christ, the Head of the Church, and the Sun of Righteousness, had not yet openly shone forth. Add to this, the baseness of human ingratitude is more clearly hence perceived, that when Adam and Eve knew that all animals were given, by the hand of God, into subjection to them, they yet suffered themselves to be led away by one of their own slaves into rebellion against God. As often as they beheld any one of the animals which were in the world, they ought to have been reminded both of the supreme authority, and of the singular goodness of God; but, on the contrary, when they saw the serpent an apostate from his Creator, not only did they neglect to punish it, but, in violation of all lawful order, they subjected and devoted themselves to it, as participators in the same apostasy. What can be imagined more dishonorable than this extreme depravity? Thus, I understand the name of the serpent, not allegorically, as some foolishly do, but in its genuine sense.

Many persons are surprised that Moses simply, and as if abruptly, relates that men have fallen by the impulse of Satan into eternal destruction, and yet never by a single word explains how the tempter himself had revolted from God. And hence it has arisen, that fanatical men have dreamed that Satan was created evil and wicked as he is here described. But the revolt of Satan is proved by other passages of Scripture; and it is an impious madness to ascribe to God the creation of any evil and corrupt nature; for when he had completed the world, he himself gave this testimony to all his works, that they were very good. Wherefore, without controversy, we must conclude, that the principle of evil with which Satan was endued was not from nature, but from defection; because he had departed from God, the fountain of justice and of all rectitude. But Moses here passes over Satan’s fall, because his object is briefly to narrate the corruption of human nature; to teach us that Adam was not created to those multiplied miseries under which all his posterity suffer, but that he fell into them by his own fault. In reflecting on the number and nature of those evils to which they are obnoxious, men will often be unable to restrain themselves from raging and murmuring against God, whom they rashly censure for the just punishment of their sin. These are their well-known complaints that God has acted more mercifully to swine and dogs than to them. Whence is this, but that they do not refer the miserable and ruined state, under which we languish, to the sin of Adam as they ought? But what is far worse, they fling back upon God the charge of being the cause of all the inward vices of the mind, (such as its horrible blindness, contumacy against God, wicked desires, and violent propensities to evil;) as if the whole perverseness of our disposition had not been adventitious.154154     “Quasi non accidentalis esset.” As if it had not been accidental, where the word accidental is used in the sense of the schoolmen and logicians, as opposed to the word essential. — Ed. The design, therefore, of Moses was to show, in a few words, how greatly our present condition differs from our first original, in order that we may learn, with humble confession of our fault, to bewail our evils. We ought not then to be surprised, that, while intent on the history he purposed to relate, he does not discuss every topic which may be desired by any person whatever.

We must now enter on that question by which vain and inconstant minds are greatly agitated; namely, Why God permitted Adam to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him? That He now relaxes Satan’s reins, to allow him to tempt us to sin, we ascribe to judgment and to vengeance, in consequence of man’s alienation from himself; but there was not the same reason for doing so when human nature was yet pure and upright. God, therefore,155155     The reader will observe that Calvin is here putting forward the argument of an objector. — Ed. permitted Satan to tempt man, who was conformed to His own image, and not yet implicated in any crime, having, moreover, on this occasion, allowed Satan the use of an animal156156     Mesme il luy a preste le serpent.” — French Tr. which otherwise would never have obeyed him; and what else was this, than to arm an enemy for the destruction of man? This seems to have been the ground on which the Manichaeans maintained the existence of two principles.157157     On the intricate subject of Manichaeism, and its various cognate heresies, the reader may refer to the Bampton Lectures of the late Dr. Burton, who, with incredible erudition and industry, has searched the records of ancient and modern times, and has examined, with the greatest candor, the various conflicting sentiments which have been entertained by learned men in reference to this question. The fundamental error of Manes seems to have been, that, with nearly all the Oriental philosophers of antiquity, he held the necessary and independent existence of matter, which, in his view, was the origin of all evil. — See Burton’s Bampton Lectures, p. 294; and Lardner’s Credibility, etc. part 2, c. 63. Therefore, they have imagined that Satan, not being in subjection to God, laid snares for man in opposition to the divine will, and was superior not to man only, but also to God himself. Thus, for the sake of avoiding what they dreaded as an absurdity, they have fallen into execrable prodigies of error; such as, that there are two Gods, and not one sole Creator of the world, and that the first God has been overcome by his antagonist. All, however, who think piously and reverently concerning the power of God, acknowledge that the evil did not take place except by his permission. For, in the first place, it must be conceded, that God was not in ignorance of the event which was about to occur; and then, that he could have prevented it, had he seen fit to do so. But in speaking of permission, I understand that he had appointed whatever he wished to be done. Here, indeed, a difference arises on the part of many, who suppose Adam to have been so left to his own free will, that God would not have him fall. They take for granted, what I allow them, that nothing is less probable than that God should he regarded as the cause of sin, which he has avenged with so many and such severe penalties. When I say, however, that Adam did not fall without the ordination and will of God, I do not so take it as if sin had ever been pleasing to Him, or as if he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated. So far as the fall of Adam was the subversion of equity, and of well-constituted order, so far as it was contumacy against the Divine Law-giver, and the transgression of righteousness, certainly it was against the will of God; yet none of these things render it impossible that, for a certain cause, although to us unknown, he might will the fall of man. It offends the ears of some, when it is said God willed this fall; but what else, I pray, is the permission of Him, who has the power of preventing, and in whose hand the whole matter is placed, but his will? I wish that men would rather suffer themselves to be judged by God, than that, with profane temerity, they should pass judgment upon him; but this is the arrogance of the flesh to subject God to its own test. I hold it as a settled axiom, that nothing is more unsuitable to the character of God than for us to say that man was created by Him for the purpose of being placed in a condition of suspense and doubt; wherefore I conclude, that, as it became the Creator, he had before determined with himself what should be man’s future condition. Hence the unskilful rashly infer, that man did not sin by free choice. For he himself perceives, being convicted by the testimony of his own conscience, that he has been too free in sinning. Whether he sinned by necessity, or by contingency, is another question; respecting which see the Institution,158158     Calvin’s Institutes, Book III c. 1 Vol. 2, p. 73, of the Calvin Society’s edition. and the treatise on Predestination.

And he said unto the woman The impious assail this passage with their sneers, because Moses ascribes eloquence to an animal which only faintly hisses with its forked tongue. And first they ask, at what time animals began to be mute, if they then had a distinct language, and one common to ourselves and them. The answer is ready; the serpent was not eloquent by nature, but when Satan, by divine permission, procured it as a fit instrument for his use, he uttered words also by its tongue, which God himself permitted. Nor do I doubt that Eve perceived it to be extraordinary, and on that account received with the greater avidity what she admired. Now, if men decide that whatever is unwonted must be fabulous, God could work no miracle. Here God, by accomplishing a work above the ordinary course of nature, constrains us to admire his power. If then, under this very pretext, we ridicule the power of God, because it is not familiar to us, are we not excessively preposterous? Besides, if it seems incredible that beasts should speak at the command of God, how has man the power of speech, but because God has formed his tongue? The Gospel declares, that voices were uttered in the air, without a tongue, to illustrate the glory of Christ; this is less probable to carnal reason, than that speech should be elicited from the mouth of brute animals. What then can the petulance of impious men find here deserving of their invective? In short, whosoever holds that God in heaven is the Ruler of the world, will not deny his power over the creatures, so that he can teach brute animals to speak when he pleases, just as he sometimes renders eloquent men speechless. Moreover the craftiness of Satan betrays itself in this, that he does not directly assail the man, but approaches him, as through a mine, in the person of his wife. This insidious method of attack is more than sufficiently known to us at the present day, and I wish we might learn prudently to guard ourselves against it. For he warily insinuates himself at that point at which he sees us to be the least fortified, that he may not be perceived till he should have penetrated where he wished. The woman does not flee from converse with the serpent, because hitherto no dissension had existed; she, therefore, accounted it simply as a domestic animal.

The question occurs, what had impelled Satan to contrive the destruction of man? Curious sophists have feigned that he burned with envy, when he foresaw that the Son of God was to be clothed in human flesh; but the speculation is frivolous. For since the Son of God was made man in order to restore us, who were already lost, from our miserable over throw, how could that be foreseen which would never have happened unless man had sinned? If there be room for conjectures, it is more probable that he was driven by a kind of fury, (as the desperate are wont to be,) to hurry man away with himself into a participation of eternal ruin. But it becomes us to be content with this single reasons that since he was the adversary of God, he attempted to subvert the order established by Him. And, because he could not drag God from his throne, he assailed man, in whom His image shone. He knew that with the ruin of man the most dreadful confusion would be produced in the whole world, as indeed it happened, and therefore he endeavored, in the person of man, to obscure the glory of God.159159     “Being under a final and irreversible doom, he looked on God as an irreconcileable enemy; and, not being able to injure his essence, he struck at his image. He singled out Adam as the mark of his malice, that by seducing him from his duty, he might defeat God’s design, which was to be honored by man’s obedience, and so obscure his glory, as if he had made man in vain.” — Bates’ Harmony of the Divine Attributes. Rejecting, therefore, all vain figments, let us hold fast this doctrine, which is both simple and solid.

Yea, has God said? This sentence is variously expounded and even distorted, partly because it is in itself obscure, and partly because of the ambiguous import of the Hebrew particle. The expression אף כי (aph ki,) sometimes signifies “although” or “indeed,” and sometimes, “how much more.”160160     אף כי, “Hebraeis tantundem valet interdum ac Latinis, Etiamsi, vel enimvero; interdum, quanto magis.” David Kimchi takes it in this last sense, and thinks that many words had passed between them on both sides, before the serpent descended to this point; namely, that having calumniated God on other accounts, he at length thus concludes, Hence it much more appears how envious and malignant he is towards you, because he has interdicted you from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But this exposition is not only forced, it is proved to be false by the reply of Eve. More correct is the explanation of the Chaldean paraphrast, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden? etc.’161161     See the Chaldee paraphrase in Walton’s Polyglott. The Latin translation is as follows: “Verumne est quod dixit Deus, non comedatis ex omni arbore horti?” Gesenius gives the same explanation: “Solte denn das wahr seyn, dass Gott gesagt haette?” “Can it be true, that God has said?” etc. — Ed. Again, to some this appears a simple, to others an ironical interrogation. It would be a simple interrogation, if it injected a doubt in the following manner: ‘Can it be, that God should forbid the eating of any tree whatever?’ but it would be ironical, if used for the purpose of dissipating vain fear; as, ‘It greatly concerns God, indeed, whether you eat of the tree or not! It is, therefore, ridiculous that you should think it to be forbidden you!’ I subscribe the more freely to the former opinion, because there is greater probability that Satan, in order to deceive more covertly, would gradually proceed with cautious prevarications to lead the woman to a contempt of the divine precept. There are some who suppose that Satan expressly denies the word which our first parents had heard, to have been the word of God. Others think, (with whom I rather agree,) that, under the pretext of inquiring into the cause, he would indirectly weaken their confidence in the word. And certainly the old interpreter has translated the expression, ‘Why has God said?’162162     “Cur praecepit vobis Deus,” etc. — Vulgate. which, although I do not altogether approve, yet I have no doubt that the serpent urges the woman to seek out the cause, since otherwise he would not have been able to draw away her mind from God. Very dangerous is the temptation, when it is suggested to us, that God is not to be obeyed except so far as the reason of his command is apparent. The true rule of obedience is, that we being content with a bare command, should persuade ourselves that whatever he enjoins is just and right. But whosoever desires to be wise beyond measure, him will Satan, seeing he has cast off all reverence for God, immediately precipitate into open rebellion. As it respects grammatical construction, I think the expression ought to be translated, ‘Has God even said?’ or, ‘Is it so that God has said?’163163     “Vertendum censeo, Etiamne, vel Itane?” Yet the artifice of Satan is to be noticed, for he wished to inject into the woman a doubt which might induce her to believe that not to be the word of God, for which a plausible reason did not manifestly appear.

Of every tree of the garden Commentators offer a double interpretation of these words. The former supposes Satan, for the sake of increasing envy, to insinuate that all the trees had been forbidden. “Has God indeed enjoined that you should not dare to touch any tree?” The other interpretation, however, is, “Have you not then the liberty granted you of eating promiscuously from whatever tree you please?” The former more accords with the disposition of the devil, who would malignantly amplify the prohibitions and seems to be sanctioned by Eve’s reply. For when she says, We do eat of all, one only excepted, she seems to repel the calumny concerning a general prohibition. But because the latter sense of the passage, which suggests the question concerning the simple and bare prohibition of God, was more apt to deceive, it is more credible that Satan, with his accustomed guile, should have begun his temptation from this point, ‘Is it possible for God to be unwilling that you should gather the fruit of any tree whatever?’ The answer of the woman, that only one tree was forbidden, she means to be a defense of the command; as if she would deny that it ought to seem harsh or burdensome, since God had only excepted one single tree out of so great an abundance and variety as he had granted to them. Thus, in these words there will be a concession, that one tree was indeed forbidden; then, the refutation of a calumny, because it is not arduous or difficult to abstain from one tree, when others, without number are supplied, of which the use is permitted. It was impossible for Eve more prudently or more courageously to repel the assault of Satan, than by objecting against him, that she and her husband had been so bountifully dealt with by the Lord, that the advantages granted to them were abundantly sufficient, for she intimates that they would be most ungrateful if, instead of being content with such affluence they should desire more than was lawful. When she says, God has forbidden them to eat or to touch, some suppose the second word to be added for the purpose of charging God with too great severity, because he prohibited them even from the touch164164     “Neither shall ye touch it.” “The woman herself adds this, which certainly in the divine law we are not permitted to do.” — Peter Martyr’s Commentary on Genesis. But I rather understand that she hitherto remained in obedience, and expressed her pious disposition by anxiously observing the precept of God; only, in proclaiming the punishment, she begins to give ways by inserting the adverb “perhaps,”165165     “Ne forte moriamini,” lest perhaps ye may die. when God has certainly pronounced, “Ye shall die the death.”166166     “Moriendo moriemini.” מות תמות. (Mot tamoot.) For although with the Hebrews פן (pen) does not always imply doubt, yet, since it is generally taken in this sense, I willingly embrace the opinion that the woman was beginning to waver. Certainly, she had not death so immediately before her eyes, should she become disobedient to God, as, she ought to have had. She clearly proves that her perception of the true danger of death was distant and cold.

4. And the serpent said unto the woman Satan now springs more boldly forward; and because he sees a breach open before him, he breaks through in a direct assault, for he is never wont to engage in open war until we voluntarily expose ourselves to him, naked and unarmed. He cautiously approaches us at first with blandishments; but when he has stolen in upon us, he dares to exalt himself petulantly and with proud confidence against God; just as he now seizing upon Eve’s doubt, penetrates further, that he may turn it into a direct negative. It behaves us to be instructed, by much examples, to beware of his snares, and, by making timely resistance, to keep him far from us, that nearer access may not be permitted to him. He now, therefore, does not ask doubtingly, as before, whether or not the command of God, which he opposes, be true, but openly accuses God of falsehood, for he asserts that the word by which death was denounced is false and delusive. Fatal temptation! when while God is threatening us with death, we not only securely sleep, but hold God himself in derision!




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