A longstanding question about Genesis 3:2–3 vis-à-vis Genesis 2:17 motivates the present work. Most writers in the history of biblical interpretation have thought the woman added (in Gen 3:3b) to what the Lord had said (in Gen 2:17b) when she told the serpent that she and her husband were forbidden not only from eating the fruit of the tree that stood in the middle of the garden but also from touching it. The present work proposes a different view: the woman did not add to what the Lord said, but rather she gave further information not supplied by the historian in the earlier, laconic account in Genesis 2.
A proposal that underlies this work is that one must understand faith if one is to understand sin. That is so because Paul has said, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23 NASB). If faith is amening God, as has been argued, then whatever does not amen God—whatever is not on the same page as God—is sin.
It would follow that the woman could not have been going adrift, zealously overstating God’s command, or overstating it out of a sense that she found his actual command too hard, and thus overstated its hardness, when she answered the serpent’s question. It is also impossible to prove that she misremembered what Adam had told her of God’s command and equally impossible to prove that Adam, for whatever reason, had misinformed her of God’s command. And since no amount of analysis can, unfortunately, reveal her state of mind when she answered the serpent, the interpreter is faced with a choice: either add one of the considerations just mentioned as an interpretive guess, or conclude that she was most likely adding information to an earlier laconic account of the Lord’s command (in Gen 2:17b) when she answered the serpent’s question (Gen 3:3b).
If one asks when the woman did sin, the Bible provides an obvious answer: “The woman … was deceived and became a sinner” (1 Tim 2:14b). The woman was ensnared by the deceptiveness of sin (Heb 3:13), and at that moment she became a sinner in her thoughts. Next, she took the fruit and ate it, and became a sinner in her act. This sequence of events has become all too human, and it is no doubt against this very thing that Paul affirms, with an implicit exhortation: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).
James also addresses this sequence, emphasizing sin as action that results from thought: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (Jas 1:14–15 ESV). James is not telling us that bad desires are not sin, however. Paul has affirmed that we take every thought captive to obey Christ. The same statement makes it clear that thoughts can disobey Christ, and such thoughts—which would include the sorts of desires James mentioned, and the sort of desire Adam’s wife conceived—are by definition sin since all sin is disobedience to God, also characterized as “lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). When the woman began to covet the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, she was already sinning in her heart and mind (cf. the Tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” etc., Exod 20:17, emphases added). Then, her sinful desire led to her sinful act.
The woman’s progress from innocence to sinfulness, as reported by Scripture, illustrates what has been said above. The first report of her thoughts (as contrasted to her words in Gen 3:2–3) portray the very transition from sin in her thoughts (i.e., desire) to sin in her act (i.e., taking and eating the fruit): “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (Gen 3:6, emphasis added). She drifted into sinful thought because of the mystery of deception: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (Gen 3:13).
One should be clear that when she thought the fruit was “desirable,” she was already sinning in her thoughts. A train of thought obedient to what the Lord commanded would not find the fruit desirable, because its desirability lay in its prospect of providing wisdom in a way God had forbidden (“desirable for gaining wisdom”). To an obedient way of thinking, nothing could be desirable about gaining wisdom in a way God had forbidden.
This post is adapted from When Did Eve Sin? The Fall and Biblical Historiography by Jeffrey J. Niehaus (Lexham Press, 2020).