Theology & Spirituality

Why Does God Tempt (then Abandon) Adam and Eve?

Transferring Responsibilities

Last time, I claimed that Genesis 2–3 extends the narrative trajectory of Genesis 1. But what is that trajectory?

There are three interconnected movements in the Creation Story. There is a movement from formlessness to form, a movement from emptiness to fullness, and a movement or transfer of responsibilities.

Throughout Genesis 1, God gradually delegates responsibility for forming and filling to various parts of Creation. To the Lights, God delegates the responsibility of structuring time and separating light and darkness (Genesis 1:14–16). To the earth and sea, God partially delegates the responsibility of “bringing forth” animals (1:20–21, 24–25). To the animals, God fully delegates the responsibility to create more animals through reproduction (e.g., 1:22).[1] To the humans, God delegates “dominion” over the earth, and the responsibility to create more humans as they step in—along with the animals—to take up the activity of filling the earth (1:22, 28).

There are two divine activities in Genesis 1 that God does not seem to delegate, however. God exercises the responsibility of naming in the first half of the week (vv. 5–10), but doesn’t appoint anyone to take over the activity in the second half. Similarly, God sees good in created things (vv. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) over and over, but appears not to invite anyone else to join in. Why delegate all God’s other responsibilities, but not these two?

The answer is that they are delegated. In Genesis 2, God transfers the responsibility of naming (2:19–20) while teaching the humans to see the good of partnering with a member of their own species. And once we realize that God is teaching the humans about partnerships, we also see that they are learning other lessons.

God the Teacher

The first thing the humans learn is what is good in the realm of food. God explicitly gives the humans instructions regarding what (and what not) to eat (Genesis 1:29–30 and 2:9, 16–17), and this is expressed in terms of what is “good for food” (2:9, 3:6, NRSV).

Since it is “not good that [humans] should be alone” (Genesis 2:18, NRSV) Adam next learns with whom it is good to partner (2:18–23). Eve is revealed as the correct answer, in contrast both with the animals and with God.2

Likewise, Eve and Adam learn what it is good to wear.3 Their “eyes” are first “opened” to the need for clothing (Genesis 3:7; cf. 2:25), and then God gives them clothing of a different and more durable type than they initially made for themselves (3:21).

In all of this, God is acting as teacher. God communicates directly with the humans about what is and is not to be eaten. God instigates the process whereby the man comes to recognize the woman as the right partner. And while God is clearly the one who reveals that some clothing is better than others, God also may be the one who sets the initial example for them of being clothed.4

God, the Source

Genesis 1, therefore, begins the narrative arc of responsibility-transfer, and Genesis 2 and 3 continue that arc by working on the two untransferred responsibilities. The second of these responsibilities is the intellectual or spiritual act of seeing good, and its transfer establishes a teacher–student relationship between God and the humans.

“Establishes,” however, is the wrong word. God had already established the relationship by creating humans in the divine image. Humans are likenesses, designed to function as God’s representatives—to be God’s followers and disciples. But how could they know this about their relationship to God? They’ll have to be taught.

Of all the lessons God is teaching the humans this is the most important; it is a lesson about their nature as representatives of the source of all life and goodness. A human’s being and activity flows from God’s being and activity, just like the being and activity of an image flows from that of which it is an image.5 To properly understand themselves, their mission, and the God who gave them both, they will have to learn to see the good of discipleship to the divine.

Why the Tree?

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is included to help the humans learn this most important of lessons. It is part of God’s “theme-and-foil” method of instruction.

To better understand the nature of a thing, we distinguish it from other things that might be confused with it.6 To teach students the concept “even number,” you contrast it with the concept “odd number.” To help students understand what a republic is, you contrast it with a pure democracy and an aristocracy. Adam comes to see that Eve is his equal and partner by first being shown how inadequate a lower partner (an animal) would be.

But who are these human partners and equals? They are images of God, and thus they must imitate and learn from God in order to be what they are.

But how will they understand this without grasping “the other option”? After all, they could take themselves as images of themselves—as their own teachers. So, how could God effectively warn them against doing so?

The answer: God could give them a concrete example of what would otherwise seem like an abstract mistake. God can tell them: “Here is a tree. You can see it and touch it and even eat from it. But if you take fruit from it, you will be acting out a mistake that you can’t see or touch or taste. You will be taking the knowledge of good for yourself. You’ll be acting as your own teacher. But you are not your own teacher (Matthew 23:10). You are intrinsically students of the divine, and it would kill you to act as students of yourselves.”

The tree, then, should help the humans to grasp what it would mean not to treat God as who God is, and themselves as who they are. And thus the tree should help them to grasp who God is and who they are. It is like a warning sign to help them avoid a fatal error—an error that would have been difficult to see, and hence difficult to avoid, without the tree.

Why Did God Leave Them Alone?

But why should the error be fatal? And if it would be fatal, why did God leave them alone with the serpent? Let’s answer the second question first.

If we begin reading with Genesis 2:4, God’s absence at the beginning of Chapter 3 makes no sense. However, if we begin with Genesis 1, we experience Genesis 2 as belonging with Day 6 of Genesis 1:24–31, and Genesis 3 (which is presented as a later episode) as belonging with Day 7 of Genesis 2:2–3. But Day 7 is the day on which God rests. So we experience God in Genesis 3 as leaving the humans alone—refraining from working with Creation—because God is taking the Sabbath rest described at the beginning of chapter 2.7

The reader who starts in Genesis 1, therefore, concludes that when the serpent shows up, God is modeling the Sabbath for the humans. God is teaching by refraining from activity, helping the humans learn to see goodness in work and rest.8 And readers who know the rest of the Old Testament will know both how seriously God takes the Sabbath, and how the Sabbath injunction (Exodus 20:8–11) is based on imitating God.

Only when the Sabbath is over and the evening has returned (Genesis 3:8), can God cease resting and return to work with the humans.  That is, as the first Sabbath day draws to a close and Day 8 begins, God ceases to teach passively and returns—through what we inaccurately call “the Curses”—to the work of active teaching.


So, why did God tempt and then abandon Adam and Eve? If we read chapters 2 and 3 as extending the narrative trajectory of Genesis 1, we see neither temptation nor abandonment. Instead, we see teaching. But we may never see that God is teaching unless—as we discussed in the first essay in this series—we read Genesis 1–3 as a continuous narrative.

So, what of our other question? Why should eating of the forbidden tree lead to death? We’ll deal with that issue next time.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

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