The serpent never summoned the couple to obey him. Should he have his whole project would have been undermined. No one is tempted to disobey God by obeying the serpent. No one in the palace desires the slum. The serpent does not seduce its prey by convincing them that they too can become as serpents. It is not the serpent the couple is attracted to. Turning them against God would be like turning an ear against music, like turning a heart against love. The couple knew that the glory of everything under the sun was a gift. It was a glory like that of the moon—a mere reflection—adorned with a supreme but alien beauty, clothed in light but naked of itself. The serpent had no raw materials to work with.
The Garden world was therefore free of exterior temptations. It was a safe place with no hidden pitfalls or trap doors. The only command was to not commit suicide. Accidental death was not possible. God made death as tangible as a pomegranate but as appealing as a porcupine. There were life-giving trees and one death tree. But it was not just another tree. It had a name, scarlet letters branded on its branches and a foul inhabitant slithering in its shade. But it of itself was no real threat. Scary though he might have looked, the serpent’s fangs were not as sharp as his tongue nor was his venom not as toxic as his words. This was a petting zoo. And despite the recollection of the woman, God never said the tree could not be touched. The tree, like the serpent himself, was under the jurisdiction of the couple. The threat was real but not accidental, not like a car wreck or collapsing factory or a snakebite in a garden. God forbade the fruit of the tree as a parent forbids Drano. This was not about arbitrary power. It was about divine care for a creature to whom he gave such unfettered dominion that he had even the power to uncreate himself.
Besides, we shouldn’t be so shallow to pretend like we do not know why he put the tree there. Its presence is not a perplexing mystery, only a convenient mystery. Its purpose is hidden only to those who desire to hide themselves. He made humans so close to himself that, if not for the tree, we might forget who created whom.
Of course, the reason this is important to consider today is not because the presence of the tree is now less obvious but because it is by far more ubiquitous. In the Garden there was only one way to die, but out here in the East there is only one way to live. In the Garden the tree of life defined all but one cursed tree; out here the tree of death defines all but one cursed tree (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). In the Garden there was only one talking serpent, out here the broods of vipers abound. And yet on both sides of the Garden gate the temptation is still the same.
“When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than God
and crowned them with glory and honor
[and] given him dominion…” (Ps. 8:3-6).
Only a “little lower”…that’s all, just as Zeus was only a ‘little lower’ than his father Cronus; a little lower, that is, until the temptation to become just a ‘little higher’ eventuated Cronus’s dethronement, not to mention his disembowelment. It is not those who are most easily tempted to kill the king that pose the greatest threat. The peasants and the outlaws conspire in vain. It is those who are least tempted. It is those who share in the glory, the royalty, and the dominion, who share everything but the throne itself, because of the position of being just a ‘little lower’ creates the illusion we can reach a ‘little higher.’
In even the most perfect paradise, so long as God creates ‘others’ with the capacity to think and will and love, to perceive and behold and enjoy beauty, the temptation of idolatry will always exist. It is not worshiping idols that tempts us. It is making them. It is not the glory of an idol that compels. It is the thought of crowning them with glory and honor and power, the thought that we of ourselves, of our own breath, can do with dust what God does with dust. The serpent can never tempt us to turn against God, but he may very well tempt us to turn our back to him, to come within a hair’s breadth from the center of his glory only to turn around and take our seat. The world may from here be shrouded in its most splendid radiance, but it will forever be stained with one dark, pitifully small, human shaped shadow. Idolatry can be quite sophisticated, because pride can be quite sophisticated.
“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul” (Jesus).