Whenever I thought of the devil of the Garden of Eden, or told the story to my children, I saw him as a small green fellow. First a lizard like the ones in my garden, and then a skinny grass snake with a sneaky smile – small, cunning, wheedling. Adam and Eve I imagined to be beguiled, talked into eating that apple the same way a slick used car salesman talks you into buying a lemon. Slimy and smarmy, and slick.
It was a dive into medieval art that turned my notions on their ear.
There are traditions, I learned, in which the serpent in the garden is not small, snake-like, and whispering lies. He’s very much a fearsome dragon, before he is cursed into legless mortification. He oppresses, threatens, and intimidates. He’s more Vito Corleone making Eve an offer she can’t refuse, then someone trying to sell her on a “good deal for today only.” In those traditions, Eve trembled in fear at Satan’s awesomeness rather than being simply seduced into disobedience, She bit into the fruit, hoping to avoid pain and even the unknown-until-now death, and the knowledge of Good and Evil was the carrot dangled in front of her fear.
The failure and sin of Adam, then, is not merely that he is morally weak and easily persuaded. His failure lies in his spinelessness, his cringing, his disobedience, and his refusal to protect not just his wife; but all of creation. The very same creation which had been designed for and entrusted to him by God, Adam wasn’t willing to chance his health and safety to defend.
In this tradition, Adam failed in the most basic task which had been given to him, to care for the gifts he had been given dominion over. It’s easy to skip past that part and rush on to the nakedness and the avenging angel, and yet in that truth lies his failure. Adam hadn’t been called to be a father figure wagging his finger as he scolded Eve for her transgressions. He was called to be a heroic figure willing to give everything, even his own life, in defense of all that is good. He had only to protect and defend, follow the rules God had placed upon him, and to care for all that had been given to him. It was his job to stand between all of creation and the Dragon.
I have often heard Jesus referred to as “The New Adam”. This always made sense to me in that creation began anew with Him. But, for me at least, the dragon-like snake completes the circle. In this other tradition, Christ steps into the role, not simply as the sacrificial victim he certainly was, but also as the hero Adam refused to be. He is the giant of courage to Adam’s cowardice. Where Adam cringes in the face of intimidation and loses paradise because of it, Jesus walks defiantly in the presence of that same evil when He meets it in a garden, stepping between the devil and the world, offering himself where Adam would not.
For me, it took the idea of the serpent as an oppressive and threatening force in order to see the image of Christ, not simply as a lamb heading willingly and obediently to slaughter, but as the defiant hero. It is in contrast to Adam’s weakness that He stands tall. It is then that his slow walk down the Via Dolarosa becomes the triumphant march of a warrior assured of victory, and through His defense that Paradise is restored to us.
image: Adam and Eve by Rembrandt
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