Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, Yes, has God said…
1. The probation.
(1) This assumed the form of a restriction upon their absolute right to do as they would with the place in which God had placed them.
(2) To some it has appeared as if there was something in this arrangement unworthy of the dignity of the parties involved in it, or unbecoming the wisdom and beneficence of Him to whom it is ascribed; and hence doubts have been cast on the historical integrity of this part of the Mosaic narrative.
1. And, first, there are some who seem to stumble at the littleness of the trial to which man was thus exposed, and on which such mighty results were made to depend. If so, they must be prepared to object to one of the most manifest of those laws under which this world is administered; for nothing can be more obvious and certain than that the mightiest and most permanent effects are constantly resulting from the most apparently trivial and transient causes. Or do they object to so feeble a test of man's obedience being imposed? If this be their meaning, it is obvious to reply that so much the more was the arrangement favourable to man, and therefore beneficent and gracious. The more insignificant the self-denial required in order to obedience, the easier the obedience and the more probable the success of the probationer. Never, we may say, was a moral experiment conducted under circumstances more favourable to the subject of it.
2. As others advance this objection, it assumes the shape of a protest against the dishonour which it is alleged is done to God by the representation of Him as a being who would make a condition of spiritual advantage dependent on an external act. A mere physical act as such has no moral character at all; and though it may be the index of a man's moral state or tendencies, it is not, nor ever can be, an adequate test of them. The test to which Adam and Eve were subjected was not so much whether they would eat or not eat this particular fruit, but whether they would respect and obey or neglect and transgress God's prohibition. It was not, therefore, on any mere external act that man's fate depended; it was on such an act as connected with, flowing from, and giving evidence of a particular state of mind. The hinge in Adam's testing turned really not so much on his eating or abstaining from this fruit or that, but on his obeying or transgressing God's commandment. Was such a test unfair to man? Was it unworthy of God?
3. Another form in which the objection to the Mosaic account of the trial of our first parents is presented is that in which stress is laid on the purely positive and apparently arbitrary character of the test by which their obedience was to be tried. This was the only arrangement possible; for how is the virtue of a sinless being to be tested but by means of some positive precept? In such a being moral truth is so perfectly a part of the inner life, that it is only when a positive duty is enjoined that the mind comes to a consciousness of objective law and extrinsic government so as to render obedience. But even supposing a moral test could have been proposed, was it not much more in Adam's favour that his obedience should have been tested by a positive enactment? What God required of him was thus clearly and unmistakably brought before him.
4. Some profound thinkers have started the doubt whether it be possible for a limited intelligence, left to the freedom of its own will, to avoid transgressing the boundaries of duty, and so falling into sin. Without entering at present into so difficult a speculation, we may admit that a limited intelligence is, from the very fact of its limitation, very likely to be exposed to a strong inducement from mere curiosity, not to speak of other motives, to pass beyond the limits within which it may be confined. What lies on the other side of this barrier which I am forbidden to pass? Why am I forbidden to pass it? What will be the result to me if I do pass it? These and such like questionings, working in the mind, are very likely to result in a daring attempt to remove the barrier, or to overleap it, and thereby, if it be a moral barrier, to plunge into sin. Obviously, therefore, the kindest and best arrangement for man in his state of primeval probation was one which should reduce the action of such provocative curiosity to the lowest possible form, which should hem him in by no vague, mystic, uncertain prohibition, but by one perfectly single and intelligible, and which should leave him in no doubt as to the certain misery into which he would bring himself if he suffered any motive to carry him beyond the limits which that prohibition prescribed. Such an arrangement the wisdom and the goodness of God instituted for our first parents in their probationary state; their continuance in happiness was made to depend on their submission to one simple and most intelligible restriction; they had but to refrain from the fruit of one tree, while of all the others they might freely eat; and they knew beforehand what the consequences would be of their violating this restriction.
(W. L. Alexander, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?