by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Let’s be clear about one thing: Serpents don’t talk. They never have, and they never will. The inspired storytellers who were responsible for crafting the Genesis narrative that is Sunday’s first reading knew full well that serpents don’t talk, and the earliest hearers and readers of those words didn’t imagine that they could.
The story was never to be understood literally as a play-by-play of the beginnings of humankind. It is, instead, a profound meditation about who we human beings are in relation to our Creator, in relation to each other and in relation to the world.
Just before the serpent slithers onto the scene, the narrator explains that it was “the most cunning of all the animals that the Lord God had made,” an introduction that prepares us to hear its twisted question with less innocent ears than Eve’s: “Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Eve answers, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, lest you die.’”
The serpent’s reply directly contradicts the deity, telling the woman, “You certainly will not die! […] God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil.” Who is she to believe: the cunning creature’s tempting words, or the fearsome thou-shalt-not that she heard secondhand from her partner?
Decisions, decisions! “The woman saw that the tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes and desirable for gaining wisdom.” So “she took some of its fruit and ate it,” and unselfishly “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”
Despite what God said, they don’t die, at least not right away. What does happen is that their eyes are opened to their own vulnerability, “so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.”
That’s where Sunday’s reading ends, but the story goes on with the man and his wife trying to hide from God and then playing the blame game instead of honestly owning up to the bitter consequences of their disobedience. God said it, and they should have believed it, no matter how good the fruit may have looked, no matter how sweet it tasted.
Decisions, decisions! On this first Sunday of Lent, we are invited to understand this reading side by side with Matthew’s account of how Jesus himself stood up to temptation. Weakened and hungry after fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, the fully human Son of God seems like easy prey for the tempter’s wiles. Yet again and again Jesus resists, not by any strength of his own, but by relying on the power of God’s own word.
When the devil cites Scriptures for his own twisted purpose, Jesus pushes back, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Tempted with a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,” Jesus sends the devil packing: “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve’.”
The odds are pretty good that we will never find ourselves face-to-face with a talking serpent. As for temptation, that’s another story, because the devil is always on the prowl, never missing a chance to work his wiles against us. As our Lenten journey begins, let us resolve to listen ever more closely to the voice of God, to find our true strength not in passing things, but — as Jesus himself did — in the holy wisdom of God’s life-giving Word.
Readings for the First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 2: 7-9; 3:1-7
Psalm 51: 3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17
Romans 5: 12-19
Matthew 4: 1-11
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.