Adam and Eve have just eaten from the Tree. God is wrathful. Judgment! Judgment! Judgment! Man is sentenced to an existence of sweat and toil for his food, Women will suffer painful childbirth, and the serpent is cursed to crawl on its belly and eat dust… But hold on.
A fundamental Jewish belief is that only human beings have bechira (free will); not animals, not even angels. In fact, one of the biggest distinctions between Christianity and Judaism is the belief in Satan; where Christianity believes Satan is an angel who rebelled against God, Judaism believes the Satan is a messenger that gives humans tests to overcome. So if the serpent is carrying out God’s will, why is it being punished?
A desire of the body
To answer that, we need to understand what the serpent represents. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that the serpent represents temptation – specifically the temptations of the body. Prior to Adam and Eve eating from the tree, the body didn’t have a desire that affected their decisions. The body was just a vehicle for the soul. Granted, there was still temptation (otherwise, the serpent wouldn’t have been able to sway them), but that temptation was an intellectual one. A temptation of curiosity. “The woman saw that the tree …was appealing as a means of obtaining wisdom.” (Bereishis 3:6)
Once Adam and Eve ate from the tree, the external desires that the serpent represented became internal, which resulted in physical urges. It became a factor that mankind would now have to deal with in their decisions.
Punishment versus Consequence
Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Because they had free will, the consequence of their actions could be viewed as a punishment (though the argument of whether God punishes or not is a philosophical debate that’s not for this blog post). Since we’ve established that the serpent didn’t have free will, what happens to it is definitely only a consequence. Regardless, they don’t seem like particularly pleasant things to happen to the serpent. So why does the serpent need those consequences to happen?
Let’s look at those consequences. (Bereishis 3:14)
- Cursed are you beyond all animals and beasts of the field.
- On your belly you shall crawl.
- And dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
Rabbi Denbo points out an incredible insight that since the serpent is a representation of our bodily desires, these consequences will happen to us if we let those desires run rampant and unchecked.
Cursed are you beyond all animals and beasts of the field.
When the serpent was introduced, it was described as the most cunning animal in all of the Garden. In the hierarchy of Eden, first came God, then Adam and Eve, then the serpent, then the rest of the animals. Because of its actions, the serpent fell to the bottom of the chain. Had Adam and Eve overcome the serpent, they would have brought the world to completion, BECAUSE OF THE SERPENT. From here, we learn that our potential to do evil is matched by our potential to do good. Rabbi Elazar Shach once said, “If one man can kill 6 million Jews, it is absolutely clear that that same man can save 6 million Jews.” Adam and Eve needed to see how far they can fall if they let their physical desires overtake them.
On your belly you shall crawl.
From here, the serpent is brought down not just in the sense of honor and responsibility, but it is debased. We all have desires and temptations. When the struggle gets overwhelming, we rationalize that not only is it not bad for us to give in, we should give in! It’s only after we give in that the regret sets in and we become disgusted with ourselves. It can be the pint of ice cream, a drunk dial, or even just anger. Have you ever said something mean to someone because in the moment you thought it was the right thing to say? And only after saying that thing did you realize you just wanted to lash out at someone. Now you can barely face the person or the people who saw you lash out. It’s that level of regret that makes you feel low and base.
And dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a snake eat dust. They eat mice, rats, cockroaches, eggs, lizards, others snakes. Dust? Not so much. Snakes do not have a sense of taste. They eat their prey whole, with no sense of enjoyment. If you’ve ever gone to town on a whole pint of Haagen Dazs, you know the first few spoonfuls were great. As you let the urge take over, spoon after spoon, somewhere along the line, that enjoyment diminished and it’s like you’re on auto pilot. As you reach the end, as you’re scraping the bottom of the tub, virtually any and all enjoyment is gone. Because when you let the desires of the body run wild, and your rational mind has checked out.
So, even though you can view these curses as a punishment to the serpent, the Torah is trying to teach Adam and Eve (and us, of course) a lesson. Now that this physical desire is inside you, these are the consequences, should you let that drive dominate you. Humanity can now appreciate pleasures of the body, but don’t let them be a trap. If we can conquer and tame that physical desire, we can achieve the highest greatness and return to the Garden of Eden.