Why does the serpent in the Garden of Eden speak to the woman, not the man? Genesis gives us a very strong hint about this, which I explored in an earlier post : The great difference between the man and the woman at this point is that the man has heard the commandment of God first hand, before the woman was created (Gen. 2:17). We have to figure she has heard what God said from her husband. He is to be her teacher.
So the serpent asks about what God has said in order to probe how well he has taught and she has learned. These two are meant to be good for each other, the very crown of the goodness of creation, for they are the animal that has logos , capable of speaking and hearing, and therefore of teaching and learning the word of God.
The crucial fine point to bear in mind is something we learn a few verses after the serpent starts speaking: The man is there the whole time. When the woman decides to eat the fruit, she gives some to “her husband who was with her” (Gen. 3:6). So it’s not as if the serpent has waylaid the woman while her husband is away somewhere else. Teacher and student are both present when the serpent quizzes this student about what she’s learned.
So there is a great silence here: The man, who alone has heard the commandment directly from God, apparently plays no role in the conversation about what God has said. Why this silence?
And then there is a silence in the text itself where we know there must have been speech, because later God describes the man’s disobedience by saying, “you have listened to the voice of your wife” (Gen. 3:17). We do not know what the woman said when the man was listening to her voice. What we do know is that it led to his disobedience, and that she should have been listening to his voice instead, as he reminded her what God had said. But evidently his voice was silent, so there was nothing for her to listen to. At this decisive moment, there was no speaking and hearing of the word of God, and it was his fault. He listened to the voice of his wife instead of teaching her what he heard from God.
These are deafening silences, once we hear them. What we are hearing here is a kind of gap in the story that Meir Sternberg shows is characteristic of the poetics of biblical narrative . It is up to us to think about the shape of these silences and think carefully how to fill in the gap. The way I propose to do that is to turn to a similar silence elsewhere in Scripture, which will help fill in these gaps. In my next post I will turn to Ahab and Jezebel for another biblical example of a man and his wife failing together in the task of teaching and learning the word of the LORD.
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