Many popular portrayals of the devil have him appearing in an overtly evil manner desiring to spread wickedness. Satan’s main goal, however, is to be God instead of God (Is. 14:14). To that end he manifests not as a red beast with horns but as an angel of light “seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8; 2 Cor. 11:14). Mankind does okay recognizing obvious wickedness, but is easily beguiled when it presents itself as something seemingly good, like in the Garden of Eden.
Genesis 3’s narrative of mankind’s fall provides a case study as to how the great deceiver operates. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Gen. 3:1). Seduction begins with a seemingly innocent question. But the question is flawed. God had said, “You shall surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat…” (Gen. 2:16-17). The Lord’s command was one of broad permission; the serpent’s question frames it as a confining directive. The intrigued woman engages the serpent in conversation: “And the woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the trees of the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Gen. 3:2). The woman amplified God’s actual instructions: “…of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Adding the “no touching” provision may just be a boundary to ensure compliance with the actual command. Regardless, the serpent had enticed the woman into participating in a conversation about the aim of God’s word.
James tells his readers to “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jms. 4:7). Because Satan uses advanced camouflage, his temptations are not always obvious. Eventually, however, he’ll remove his luminescent uniform and show himself for who he really is. When Satan directly contradicts God’s word it’s time to begin Operation: Resist! The woman did not. God had said, “you shall surely die.” “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil,” (Gen. 3:4-5). The serpent successfully allured the woman into disobeying God’s command and the man willingly followed her folly. And we’re dead because of it.
A superficial reading of the text suggests that because the name of the tree was “of the knowledge of good and evil,” it implies that one accessed knowledge through the consumption of the plant’s fruit. Corruptions of this story such as the “Pandora’s Box” myth echo this interpretation. Likewise Mormon theology celebrates Adam and Eve’s act because it enabled mankind to begin its journey of eternal progress (2 Nephi 2:25; cf Moses 5:10-11). From that tradition’s perspective, Adam’s act “wasn’t a sin.” I teach history and a popular take on the purpose of studying it comes from George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I, however, prefer Aldous Huxley’s take that the lesson of history is that mankind doesn’t learn anything from it, which is why, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes.
Those with an optimistic view of the study of history suggest that investigating it closely can yield valuable lessons so as to help others not repeat the mistakes of the past. Adam and Eve ate the fruit because they accepted the serpent’s conclusion that this was the only way to gain knowledge of good and evil; however, they had another option: obedience. Adam and Eve existed in a pre-fallen world. They had no internal bent towards sin. The serpent’s temptation, then, appears to have been a necessary step in order to test what the two humans would choose if given the opportunity. Had they obeyed, they would have come to the same knowledge of good and evil but from a preferred avenue. In resisting the serpent’s seduction they would have learned what evil is: contradiction of God’s word in all its overt and covert manifestations; and what good is: following the directions of the Lord Who created them.
God’s love, mercy and grace is greater than all the stupid mistakes we can make by trying to experience life on our own terms, but following that path is not the standard. History yields innumerable examples of how to magnify misery through further disobedience. I have no faith whatever that humankind will cease its foolish pursuits of attempting to attain peace, prosperity, justice and stability apart from God, because it wants to be God in place of the Creator, too. Similarly, I have very little faith in myself to choose the good as defined by God, but I know this: there will be opportunity! And by God’s grace I (and we, His children through faith in Christ) can be enabled by His Spirit to continue to grow in our knowledge of Him through obedience to His word.