In our first article in this series on Union and Communion, we considered the state of peaceful integrity in which God created the human race, and in our last article we studied how that integrity was lost through our disobedience. Before going on to the consequences of our fractured integrity, I want to look at one detail in the Fall that is rarely, if ever, discussed.

When the serpent asked Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’” she replied, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”[1]

When we compare these verses with God’s command given in the previous chapter of Genesis, we note two slight differences. In chapter 2 we read, “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’”[2]

When we study Eve’s reply to the serpent, we notice that she does not directly quote God’s commandment to the man. God identified the tree from which they are to abstain by its essence: it is “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eve, however, identifies it by its location, “in the middle of the garden.” Does this mean that she doesn’t know or isn’t really interested in what it is? We do not know. It can be dangerous to speculate on someone else’s thoughts.

The other difference between the two statements, and the one that we want to consider here, is that Eve adds a directive that is not in God’s commandment. She says, correctly, that God told them not to eat of the fruit of the tree, but then she adds, “nor shall you touch it.” There is no indication of such a prohibition in God’s command. The inclusion of it in Eve’s report may have been a typo by some Biblical scribe passed down through the ages. Yet it is recognized that the copyists of the books of the Bible were very careful to copy exactly the sacred text. Still, there is occasionally a word or a phrase that doesn’t seem to fit quite correctly. However, typos are usually quite short, and the inclusion of this detail does not seem to fit that category.

If it is not a typo added in later ages, then possibly Eve is quoting an additional prohibition from God that was not included in the original commandment. This is rather questionable. First, she did not quote God’s identification of the tree, so it’s clear what she is saying is already a paraphrase. Secondly, the biblical authors showed great reverence for the actual words of God. We see this in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, where what are known as the Ten Commandments are called in Hebrew “the Ten Words”[3] or the Decalogue (from deca “ten”, and logos “word”). They are distinct from the Hebrew term for “commandments” (“mishnat”).

With such a reverence for God’s actual words, it is doubtful that the biblical author would have omitted a part of God’s commandment concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This leaves us with the conclusion that the phrase “nor shall you touch it” was an addition by Eve herself. After all, we have already noted that in her reply to the serpent, she was paraphrasing what God had said.

At first glance, Eve’s addition to the commandment makes sense. The admonition to “avoid the near occasion of sin” has long been part of Catholic teaching. If you have a weakness for alcohol, don’t go into a bar. If you have a tendency to gossip, don’t open your Facebook or X account. Better still, shut down your accounts on social media. It only makes sense to keep your distance from what can lead you astray or cause you to sin. The advice not to touch the forbidden fruit is wise.

What is less wise is to attribute to God a directive that does not come from God. God’s words have power. They affect what they say. Human words do not have such power. Human advice may be wise, but it remains on a human level. It does not bring about what God intends, though it may indicate a path toward that end.

To attribute to God what comes from ourselves is to attribute to ourselves the wisdom and power of God. We assume that our utterance is inspired and prophetic. If it is — if what we say is truly the work of the Holy Spirit — then the Holy Spirit will bring about what He causes us to say. If we speak in God’s name what God did not inspire us to say, then we are false prophets. At best our words will have no effect; at worst they will be destructive and lead ourselves (and others) astray.

All this scrutiny might seem to give to Eve’s words a weight beyond what they should bear —blowing a passing remark out of all proportion. But notice the suit: after adding an additional commandment to God’s directive, Eve succumbs to the serpent’s insinuations that God cannot be trusted. In attributing to God what God did not say, she is uttering a falsehood. Her intention may have been good, but she is nevertheless speaking an untruth. In speaking an untruth, she makes herself susceptible to believing an untruth. And that is precisely what she does. She believes that what God did in fact say — that they would die if they disobeyed — was not true. More importantly, she also believed that God’s statement that human beings were created in His image and likeness was not fully true. She believed the God had lied to them, and both she and Adam acted on that untrue belief.

Was Eve’s addition to the commandment unwise? Not at all. Was her suggestion to in fact avoid the occasion of sin imprudent? Far from it. It was a very good suggestion. Her only error was in presenting it as coming from God. This distorted her own perception, as we have seen. It is the first time in the Bible that a human suggestion is presented as being a divine ordinance, but it is far from the last. We have seen that the Decalogue is given as coming directly from God. By the 2nd century C.E., the Mishnah had established 613 commandments, all taken from the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.[4] These are presented as being given by God, while the Decalogue is presented as “categories or classifications” of commandments.[5] Jesus denounced the Scribes and Pharisees for “’teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”[6] And we Catholics, too, also run the risk of elevating our own precepts into divine commands, for St Paul admonishes the Corinthians not to go “beyond what is written.”[7] St. John said starkly, “Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God.”[8]

Jesus gave one commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[9] He created His Church with a clear hierarchy under the Successor to Peter to establish directives for putting that commandment into action. It is very tempting to add to the Church’s precepts our own directives to strengthen our resolve against sin. It is a temptation that has existed since Adam and Eve, and, as with Eve, it is a temptation that leaves us dangerously vulnerable to the serpent’s lies.


[1] Gen. 3  1-3

[2] Gen. 2, 16-17

[3] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/decalogue

[4] https://www.jewfaq.org/613_commandments

[5] https://www.jewfaq.org/10_commandments

[6] Mk 7, 7 and Matt. 15, 3-9

[7] 1 Cor. 4, 6

[8] 2 Jn 9

[9] Jn 13, 34

Image: By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70574471By Lucas Cranach the Elder – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70574471

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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