The Serpent and the Trees: Trouble in the Garden of Eden

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Introduction (by Ted Davis)

Original sin and the Fall of Adam and Eve pose major challenges to proponents of Evolutionary Creation, both at the level of theology and also at the level of biblical interpretation. BioLogos does not endorse any one response to those challenges: our view is that the church deserves a serious, pluralistic conversation about evolution and original sin. In an effort to help foster that conversation, we already provide numerous resources, among them these:

Further resources are being developed by some recipients of The BioLogos Foundation’s Evolution & Christian Faith program.

This series offers yet another perspective, as we serialize a paper by philosopher Robin Collins, entitled “Evolution and Original Sin.” Where previous excerpts have focused on Paul’s epistle to the Romans, this excerpt presents part of Collins’ understanding of the opening chapters of Genesis— with the rest to follow in about two weeks.

Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve (1504), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Genesis 1 -4:

Before going into a more detailed discussion of Genesis 1-4, we will first present a cluster of internal textual reasons for why it should not be understood as literal history. [The scientific evidence against a literal reading will be reviewed in a future excerpt.] To begin with, Genesis 2 and 3 have the literary marks of a symbolic story. First, the serpent is clearly symbolic. The text says, “now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He [the serpent] said to the woman …” (Gen. 3:1). Clearly a literal serpent is not more crafty than a dog or a cat. (Just look at its brain size!) And serpents don’t talk. Of course, this would have been known by the authors, editors, and redactors responsible for Genesis, and hence they probably did not intend for it to be taken literally. There is no more reason to take the serpent in Genesis as a literal serpent, than there is to try to become literally as wise as a serpent. Indeed, it would make sense to use the serpent to represent the poisonous lie, or source of the poisonous lie, that led to Adam and Eve’s disobedience: snakes were strange creatures whose venomous bite was often deadly.

Other features of the story are also clearly symbolic: a tree of life, a tree of good and evil, and God, who presumably does not have a physical body, walking around in the garden. Further, if one does try to take the story literally, one runs into other well-known problems. Genesis 2:19 strongly implies (in the original Hebrew) that God formed the animals after creating Adam [Collins has a footnote here: The NIV translation implies that God formed the animals before Adam. The Hebrew scholars I have consulted, however, say that such a translation is “a real stretch.”] In Genesis 4:15 God puts a mark on Cain so others will not kill him, and in Genesis 4:17 Cain takes a wife, and later his sons take a wife—all indicating that there were groups of people living at the time. To fit this into a literal interpretation of Genesis, one would have to hypothesize that Adam and Eve had other sons and daughters before Cain slew Abel. Further, one would have to hypothesize that these sons and daughters produced enough progeny to populate the surrounding regions before Cain got his mark. This hypothesis of additional sons and daughters, however, seems to go strongly against the so-called “plain” reading of the text, the very thing a literal interpretation is purportedly trying to preserve. For instance, a “plain” reading of Genesis 4:25 suggests both that Seth was the next son in line after Abel and that he was born after Cain got his mark, implying that there were no other living human beings around to murder Cain or for Cain to marry.

Fernand CormonCain (1880), Musée d’Orsay, Paris. As Robin Collins notes, certain details in the story of Cain and Abel imply that lots of other people, none of them specifically mentioned in the Bible, already existed when Cain killed his brother—contrary to the “plain” reading of the text. For Collins, this constitutes further evidence that early Genesis should be interpreted symbolically.

How then are we to interpret Genesis 1-3? Much has been written about how to understand Genesis. Let me present what I believe to be a plausible reading. To begin, in interpreting Genesis we must consider the ancient Near Eastern context. Stories about the origin of the world were common in the ancient world. The purpose of these stories was primarily to establish a framework of meaning in which to understand the world and society, along with one’s place in them. Academics call stories that serve this function “myths,” whether or not those stories are true or false. One of the most common myths in the ancient world was one in which the universe began in a state of chaos, which was identified with evil. This chaos in turn was overcome by the imposition of order through some sort of primeval violence.

The ancient Babylonian epic of Enuma elish is a good and relevant example. In this story, Tiamat the primordial mother and Apsu the primordial father represent the chaotic primordial waters which are commingled and undisturbed. The younger gods, the offspring of the Tiamat and Apsu, disrupt this primordial peace, and because of this Apsu plots revenge against them. But, they kill Apsu before he can do anything, making Tiamat inflamed with rage. She therefore gives birth to monsters—a viper, dragon, great lion, mad dog, and scorpion-man—and prepares for battle against the gods. Eventually, Marduk who is her most able offspring, is able to kill Tiamat; Marduk produces the cosmos out of her divided corpse and creates human beings out of her blood. Thus, in this myth, evil is part of the fabric of creation. The production of the world arises out of a primordial conflict of vengeance.

Marduk destroys Tiamat, from a cylinder-seal in the British Museum.

This myth, along with the recognition that in the ancient world the various heavenly bodies were often considered deities, provides the basis for understanding the new theological framework of meaning that Genesis 1-3 is trying to establish. First, Genesis 1 establishes that the world has its origin in God, and hence is in essence good, not primordially evil or the result of violence as in the myths mentioned above. In fact, Genesis 1 says seven times that creation is good, ending with the words “very good” after the creation of human beings. This goodness, however, does not mean that creation is complete or perfect. As Romans 8:20-22 and other New Testament passages make clear, nature has yet to be redeemed from its “bondage to corruption.” Rather, I suggest, from a New Testament perspective, to say that nature is good means that the essential nature and calling of creation is to be a full participant in the divine life, in which case nature will become fully itself.

Second, Genesis 1 establishes that the heavenly bodies are not divinities, but creations of God. Just as one might put profound insights into a form of a poem—since, among other things, a poem has more impact than prose and is easier to remember, repeat, and enact—the author or authors of Genesis put these insights into a poetic form structured around the sequential repetition of days.

Genesis 2 and 3 address more fully the origin of human beings and particularly the origin of evil. Contrary to other surrounding myths such as the Babylonian Enuma elish recounted above, evil is not portrayed as being primordial or essential to creation, but resulting from the contingent free choice of a first human couple, Adam and Eve, and thus not the way things are supposed to be. Thus not only is God distanced from evil, but the Genesis narrative involves a colossal shift in point of view from a perspective in which evil and violence are part of the fabric of creation and the primordial nature of things. Practically speaking, the yearly ritual reenactment of the Babylonian myth by the king, in which the king symbolically represents Marduk’s slaying of Tiamat, reifies violence as the way to establish order, in both creation and society. On the other hand, in the Genesis story human violence (as represented by the slaying of Abel by Cain) is portrayed as being the result of loss of fellowship with God through disobedience, not something primordial or essential to being human.

It is important to point out, however, that there is nothing in the Genesis story that indicates that inclinations towards evil and violence—or at least inclinations that can lead to evil and violence in certain circumstances—were not present from the beginning. Rather, the point of the Genesis story is that it is not part of our essentialnature (that is, what it is to be human) to be evil or violent toward one another; from a New Testament perspective, we will become fully human only when we become full participants in the life of God.

Indeed, two features of the story indicate such inclinations were already present. First, the fact that Adam and Eve so readily gave into the temptation to disobey God shows that they already had inclinations to “be like gods”; one cannot be tempted to do something for which one has absolutely no desire to do. As common experience shows, and as James 1:14 indicates, temptation always plays off some desire one already has.

Second, the figure of the serpent shows that things were not perfect in Eden. Although traditionally the serpent has been identified with Satan, neither the Genesis story nor any other Scripture actually makes this identification. (The closest Scripture comes to identifying the serpent as Satan is in Revelation 12:9 where Satan is referred to as “that ancient serpent”). Within the Genesis story, there are positive reasons not to identify the serpent with Satan. To begin with, the idea of Satan was a later development and thus was not part of the cultural vocabulary at the time Genesis was written. Moreover, the serpent is a natural creature, a “beast of the field” (Gen. 3:1), not some supernatural agency. Given this, I suggest that within the Genesis story the serpent itself can plausibly be thought of as representing those inclinations—such as selfishness, the need for control, and the like—that often tempt us to do evil. [Collins has a footnote here: Following Christian tradition, one could also postulate that within Scripture taken as a whole the serpent represents both these inclinations and Satan, since Satan is traditionally thought to tempt us through our own desires.] As Paul Ricoeur says, the serpent could be interpreted as “a part of ourselves that we do not recognize ... the seduction of ourselves by ourselves, projected onto the seductive object” (The Symbolism of Evil, p. 256). This fits in with the book of James, which says that “one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it” (1:14).

The particular inclination in the Genesis story is to be like God, knowing good and evil. Even though these temptations are based in our own desires and hence in some sense internal to ourselves, we often consider them as also in some sense external to ourselves. As Paul states in Romans 7:14-20, the “sin nature” often seems to be a force inside us pushing us to do that which our inner person does not really want to do, and thus is in a sense external to who we are.

Within an evolutionary framework, these inclinations that tempt us to evil can be seen as partly involving those inclinations toward self-preservation, self-interest, aggression, and kinship interest that result from natural selection. Such inclinations are not themselves evil since they can often lead to beneficial actions, such as keeping oneself alive. But they provide the temptation or basis for evil action. It is our choosing to follow these temptations over the good that often results in actual evil. Our evolutionary history and our kinship with the animals, however, does not provide the whole story here. Despite the popularity in certain circles of biological reductionism, human beings are more than the sum of their genes or instincts. We have self-consciousness, which opens up the possibility of radically new sorts of evils, such as self-idolization, self-centeredness, self-hatred and denigration, and the like; human wickedness and perversion, therefore, arises out of our more than just our primitive biological instincts.

Looking Ahead

We end here for now, but Collins has more to say about Genesis in the next column. After that, he’ll compare his “historical/ideal” view of original sin with four alternatives: plenty of good things yet to come!




Collins, Robin. "The Serpent and the Trees: Trouble in the Garden of Eden" N.p., 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 February 2019.


Collins, R. (2015, February 19). The Serpent and the Trees: Trouble in the Garden of Eden
Retrieved February 19, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/the-serpent-and-the-trees-trouble-in-the-garden-of-eden

References & Credits

Robin Collins’ chapter from Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, ed. Keith B. Miller (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), is reproduced by kind permission of the author and the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.

All Scripture quotations in this paper are from the NRSV translation.

About the Authors

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

Robin Collins

Professor Robin Collins, Ph.D., is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Department of Philosophy. He specializes in philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and philosophical theology. He is well-versed in issues relating to science and religion, with graduate-level training in theoretical physics. He has written almost forty substantial articles and book chapters in these areas with some of the leading academic presses, such as Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Blackwell, and Routledge. He has also spoken on issues relating to God and the cosmos at many colleges and universities (including Oxford University, Cambridge University, Yale University, and Stanford University) and has appeared in the popular Christian and secular media – for example, in Christianity Today, Lee Strobel’s Case for the Creator, and Robert Kuhn’s PBS series Closer to the Truth.

More posts by Robin Collins