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Quote mining the voice of the serpent

Posted at 09:00 on 10 May 2021

Some young Earth creationists are gracious and understanding to those of us who, as Christians, do not share their position. Others ... not so much.

Those who take a more forceful approach often respond to critique by quoting from Genesis 3:1, citing the serpent's question, "Did God really say...?" as the first way that the devil attacked God's purposes on Earth. The insinuation being that by questioning them, you are questioning the Word of God, and thus "speaking with the voice of the serpent."

This is a quote mine.

It takes those words out of context, and in the process, over-generalises them in a way that is very, very dangerous.

Here is the full text of the verse:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?

And here is what God had actually said, in Genesis 2:16-17:

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Spot the difference? The serpent was not questioning what God had said directly, but a straw man cartoon caricature of it that in fact said the exact opposite. And doing so in order to portray God as unreasonable. The correct answer to the serpent's question was not "yes," but "no." The problem with the serpent's question was not in the words, "Did God really say..." themselves, but in what followed them.

Context is important. Clearly, just because a question begins with the words "Did God really say..." that does not mean there's anything wrong with asking it. In fact, I'm sure that every young Earth creationist would ask questions such as these in a heartbeat for starters:

  • "Did God really say that you should get a divorce?"
  • "Did God really say that you should have an abortion?"
  • "Did God really say that you should vote for that political party?"

Furthermore, there is one such question that the Bible commands us to ask. Specifically:

Did God really say what you are claiming that He said?

Take a look at 1 John 4:1 for starters:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Or 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21:

Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.

Or Acts 17:11:

Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.

Or what about Jeremiah 23:30-32?

“Therefore,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who steal from one another words supposedly from me. Yes,” declares the Lord, “I am against the prophets who wag their own tongues and yet declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ Indeed, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” declares the Lord. “They tell them and lead my people astray with their reckless lies, yet I did not send or appoint them. They do not benefit these people in the least,” declares the Lord.

The Bible commands us to test everything that we are told. Scepticism, when applied properly, is an important weapon in every Christian's armoury in the battle against deception. Not everybody who claims to be speaking the Word of God actually is speaking the Word of God. Quote mining Genesis 3:1 in that way to try to shut down critique and scrutiny is the exact polar opposite of what the Bible commands. There is no end to the number of cults and heresies that you could introduce in that way.

Featured image credit: I for Detail, Flickr