God punishes Adam and Eve, and the Serpent

This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

Two of the earliest legal proceedings in the Western canon—God’s biblical condemnation of Adam and Eve to a mortal life of suffering, and the trial of Socrates—raise questions of how ignorance should be punished that are still ripe for philosophical contemplation. In this article, however, a renowned legal scholar suggests that God’s condemnation of the Serpent in the story of Adam and Eve offers illuminating insight into the relationship between ignorance and guilt.

In 399 B.C., the Greek philosopher and teacher Socrates was convicted by a “jury” of 500 of his fellow citizens on charges of impiety and corrupting the youth of Athens. His recollections during the trial of the provocative consequences of his decadeslong efforts to remedy his ignorance (efforts that had always antagonized those Athenians reputed to be wise) could never be taken seriously by the men sitting in judgment on this occasion (women were prohibited from participating as jurors).

Much earlier than that, according to the Bible, Adam and Eve had been sentenced after being asked by God to account for eating the forbidden fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” As the story is depicted in the Book of Genesis, Adam blamed Eve, whom God had created from Adam’s rib: “She gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.” In turn, Eve readily blamed the Serpent for her action: “The Serpent deceived me, and I ate it.”

Thus, Socrates did offer a defense, as had Adam and Eve long before him. In effect, all three received death sentences—for Adam and Eve, they came in the form of mortal lives. Socrates carried out his own sentence by drinking a cup of poison hemlock.

It can be wondered, of course, whether Adam and Eve, unlike perhaps the Serpent, had truly known what they were doing when they ate the forbidden fruit. The Serpent was informed by God: “Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.”

We are not told what precisely the Serpent had thought in advance about God’s decrees. Nor are we told what the motives for his actions had been. Nor, it also seems, was he given an opportunity to make even the kind of lame excuses that were offered by Adam and Eve. Did God know that the Serpent’s arrogance (if not his “natural” malice) precluded any defense by him? We are left, then, with several mysteries: What had the wily Serpent expected would be done to him because of his exploitation of Eve’s imprudent curiosity? What did he personally hope to gain from thus corrupting human beings? Does his punishment suggest that the Serpent had surely known what he was doing? Should what happened to the Serpent help us better see what happened to Socrates as well as Adam and Eve?

A critical difference between the biblical and the Socratic approaches to serious misconduct should be noticed here. It is evident that the Serpent is treated by God as “someone” who deserved severe condemnation. Somehow, this did not seem to be an occasion for invoking any Socratic suggestions that misconduct is really the result of ignorance, a suggestion developed thereafter in the still-challenging argument by Aristotle that all acts of intelligent beings somehow aim at the good.

How, then, should the Serpent’s action—like the routine misconduct of the thoughtless among us—be understood, and what is the appropriate response by the thoughtful to such misconduct? May the deliberate punishment of the offending ignorant at least help instruct, and hence improve, everyone else who sees what has happened?

George Anastaplo is a professor at Loyola University School of Law in Chicago and a lecturer in the liberal arts at the University of Chicago. He discusses the issues raised by this article in further detail in two previous books: Human Being and Citizen (1975) and On Trial: From Adam & Eve to O.J. Simpson (2004). Those essays, and his unedited version of this article, are available at anastaplo.wordpress.com.

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