I am reading the Sibylline Oracles in my Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha. The Sibylline Oracles were female prophetesses at various points in history, and Jews and Christians produced editions of their prophecies. I am currently reading Book 1 of the Sibylline Oracles, and, according to John Collins’ discussion of its date, scholars have dated the Jewish stage of this book to the second-third centuries C.E. (while debating which century works better: the second or the third).
What stood out to me in my reading a couple of days ago was this book’s treatment of Genesis 3:3. In Genesis 3:3, Eve encounters the serpent, who will tempt her to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in violation of God’s command. In telling the serpent her understanding of what God’s command is, Eve states: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” (KJV). More than one reader has noted that what Eve says about God’s command does not match up identically with what God actually commanded Adam. God’s command to Adam appears in Genesis 2:16-17, and God says: “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (KJV). God told Adam that he was not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve, however, understood the command to be, not just that she could not eat the fruit from that tree, but also that she could not touch it.
I have heard various things about this point. My high school Bible literature teacher said that this was an example of a fence around the law. Jews, she said, did not want to get to the point where they were close to disobeying God’s commands, and so they set up a fence that would keep them a few steps removed from a tempting situation. Eve, in this case, could not eat from the tree, but she also felt that she could not touch it, and the prohibition on her touching the forbidden fruit would supposedly keep her from eating it.
Some people have had a negative reaction to Eve’s statement of “neither shall ye touch it.” These were evangelical Christians, and they accused Eve of adding to God’s command, with disastrous results. Her addition of “neither shall ye touch it” meant that she saw God and God’s command as overly strict. Moreover, by adding to God’s command, Eve was setting herself up to sin. She said that she would die if she touched the forbidden fruit? But she did touch it, and she did not die. She could then easily conclude that eating the fruit would not be fatal, since touching it apparently was not!
In Sibylline Oracles, Book 1, lines 38-39, we read: “To these [Adam and Eve] did God then address commands and instruct them not to touch the tree” (John Collins’ translation). According to this passage, Eve was not adding to God’s command when she said “neither shall ye touch it,” but rather was being faithful to God’s command, for God himself told Adam and Eve not to touch the forbidden fruit.
I decided to do a quick study of how various ancient interpreters have understood Genesis 3:3, specifically what they have thought about Eve’s statement of “neither shall ye touch it.” I looked at my Judaic Classics Library, and I also did a search on the Scripture index of Phillip Schaff’s compilation of the works of the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene church fathers. There are a lot more sources out there—-there are patristic sermons about Genesis that I cannot find online! But I worked with what I had. And, even then, there is more out there!
I looked at how Midrash Rabbah handled Genesis 3:3, and, essentially, it said the same thing that evangelical critics of Eve would say centuries later. In the Soncino English translation of Genesis Rabbah 19:3, we read: “SHALL NOT EAT OF IT, NEITHER SHALL YE TOUCH IT, LEST YE DIE (III, 3). Thus it is written, Add not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar (Prov. XXX, 6). R. Hiyya taught: That means that you must not make the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants. Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, had said, For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen. II,17); whereas she did not say thus, but, GOD HATH SAID: YE SHALL NOT EAT OF IT, NEITHER SHALL YE TOUCH IT; when he [the serpent] saw her thus lying, he took and thrust her against it. ‘ Have you then died? he said to her; just as you were not stricken through touching it, so will you not die when you eat it, but For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, etc. (ib. 5).”
According to this rabbinic passage, Eve was wrong to add to God’s command. The passage quotes Proverbs 30:6, which warns people against adding to God’s command, for then they may be found to be liars. In the case of Eve, Eve thought that she would die by touching the forbidden fruit, and so the serpent made her touch it and showed her that she was still alive. That made her more open to disobeying God’s actual prohibition on eating the fruit.
At the same time, Judaism does have a concept of establishing a fence around the law, which is stated in Mishnah Avot 1:1. That could mean protecting people from getting to the point where they are in danger of transgressing God’s commands, by adding additional rules. That may be the understanding of it in Genesis Rabbah 19:3, for the passage quotes R. Hiyya as saying that one should not make “the fence more than the principal thing, lest it fall and destroy the plants.” The passage accepts making a fence around the law, but it believes that there should be limits on that practice. There is an alternative understanding of making a fence around the law in rabbinic Judaism, however, and I talk about that in my post here. According to Louis Finkelstein, Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan believes that making a fence around the Torah is not adding regulations, but rather protecting the Torah itself from additional, non-Scriptural prohibitions. Finkelstein states that the Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan appeals to the story in Genesis 3 about Eve and the serpent to show the dangers of adding additional prohibitions to what God has already commanded.
So we have a Jewish version of the Sibylline Oracles that says that God actually forbade Adam and Eve to touch the forbidden fruit. And we have rabbinic passages that say that Eve (or Adam in telling Eve the command) was adding to God’s command, with disastrous results. Where do the patristic sources that I searched land on this issue?
I found only two places that address the issue explicitly. The first is Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 5.23, and the second is the section on Procilla in Methodius’ Banquet of the Ten Virgins. Irenaeus, who dates to the third century C.E., simply says that Eve was relaying God’s command to the serpent. There is no hint there that Irenaeus thought that Eve was adding to God’s command. Methodius, who dates to the third-fourth centuries C.E., says that Adam received the command not to touch the Tree of Knowledge. Irenaeus and Methodius, like that passage from the Sibylline Oracles, hold that the prohibition on touching the tree actually came from God, and, according to this interpretation, that would mean that Eve was not adding to God’s word.
I decided to search one more source. Over a decade ago, I read Gary Anderson’s The Genesis of Perfection. I had taken a couple of Gary Anderson’s classes at Harvard Divinity School and thought that I would enjoy this book, and I did enjoy it. I vaguely recall Anderson saying that, in some version of the Adam and Eve story, God gave the command both to Adam and to Eve at the same time, meaning that both heard God’s command from God himself: it was not like what we see in our Bibles, where God gives the command to Adam and then makes Eve, and then somehow Eve becomes aware of the prohibition (maybe from Adam).
I could not find that discussion on googlebooks, but I did find something else. Anderson refers to the view of the fourth century Christian Ephrem of Syria that Eden was a holy place, and so Adam and Eve needed to keep their distance, on some level. Anderson states:
“…Ephrem conceived of Eden as a mountain sanctuary. His interpretation was grounded in the second half of the command given to Adam and Eve: Don’t draw too close to the tree of knowledge. This warning, Ephrem reasoned, was modeled on the warnings given to priests.” (Anderson quotes Hymns on Paradise 3:16. Anderson’s discussion occurs on page 56 of his book. See here to read it.)
For Ephrem, apparently, God was the source of the prohibition on touching the tree, for God wanted Adam and Eve to keep their distance from the holy.
It is interesting to me that the rabbinic sources that I read were critical of Eve for adding to God’s commandment, whereas the ancient Christian sources that I read tended to say that Eve got God’s commandment right. A lot of the rabbis were for adding a fence around the law, yet rabbinic literature largely appears to disapprove of what Eve said to the serpent about God’s command. And evangelical critics of Eve, when they criticize Eve, are probably also taking a swipe at the Pharisees and rabbinic Judaism (at least by implication), making a point of “You see what happens when people add commands to God’s word and make God seem stricter than he truly is?” Yet, the rabbis were closer to their views on Eve than were some of the ancient Christians!
I’ll leave the comments open in case someone wants to add any information or insight. Please limit your comment to adding information or insight, though. Don’t criticize me for writing about this topic. Thank you.