The value of a historical-critical study Bible does show itself from time to time. I was reading through the early chapters of Genesis, looking for more “once upon a time…” campfire stories, when I happened upon the study notes in my REB Study Bible for Genesis 3:1:
3.1: Serpent: an ancient extrabiblical story tells how a serpent stole the plant which would have given immortality to human beings. It was believed that when the snake shed its skin, it was rejuvenated. Cunning: there is a pun in the Heb. words for cunning and naked (v.7). Had made: a phrase deliberately used to show that the serpent was only one among God’s many creatures. The idea of the serpent as a primeval adversary of God, indeed, the Devil, arose much later (see Wisd. 2.24); so too the fixing of blame on the woman arose at a much later time (Ecclus. 25.24).
A virtually identical footnote appears in the NEB Study Bible, though with “crafty” instead of “cunning”, as that earlier translation has it. The verses in question are:
The serpent, which was the most cunning of all the creatures the Lord God had made, asked the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ (3:1)
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)
Leon Kass’ book, “The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis“, contains the following note on this text:
The word “cunning,” in Hebrew ‘arum, echoes and puns on ‘arumim, “naked,” […] The root sense of ‘erum, “naked,” is “smooth”: someone who is naked is hairless, clothesless, smooth of skin. But as the pun suggests, someone who is clever is also smooth, a facile thinker and talker whose surface speech is beguiling and flawless, hiding well his rough ulteriour purposes. (p.82)
With this in mind, we might think about how a “Literary Equivalent” English translation might convey a sense of this linguistic relationship in the original Hebrew:
The serpent was the smoothest operator of all the creatures the Lord God had made. He asked the woman, ‘Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?’ (3:1)
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that their naked skin was smooth; so they stitched fig-leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (3:7)
Now obviously “smooth operator” is a very constrained idiom or phrase to use in terms of its historical relevance and one must fight the temptation to begin humming Sade’s song of the same name, but the desired effect is there, drawing the connection between the cunning deceitfulness of the serpent and the nascent self-awareness of the sinful man and woman.