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Cursed is the Ground because of You: Genesis 3

December 13, 2010

As we begin the fourth installment of our Genesis series it is important to remember that Genesis 3 is part of a larger section that begins in Genesis 2. While this story is familiar to most of us, it is often read out of context. The context is, of course, the larger themes of Genesis 2.

Genesis 3:1 gets right into the action. The first character to discuss is the serpent. Later in the Bible the serpent is identified as the devil but no such identification is made in Genesis 3. The word used, נחש (nachash), is used in reference to snakes and several mythological reptilian monsters. If it weren’t for the fact that the serpent talks, we would readily identify it as an ordinary snake. On the other hand, nobody in the story seems to think a talking snake needs explanation, and the author of the story doesn’t bother explaining it to his audience, either. Karl Barth is reputed to have answered a question about whether the serpent in Genesis spoke by saying, “Ma’am, it doesn’t matter whether the serpent spoke, it matters what the serpent said!” I concur. The meat of the story is in the dialog and the method by which this dialog takes place is of secondary importance and therefore not explained as much as we might like. In fact, the speaker’s identity is almost as unimportant. What is important is that the speaker is crafty and, it appears, inimical to God’s designs.

Given the strict way in which the story of the Fall is generally told, it’s worth pointing something out: sin is already in the world by the beginning of Genesis 3. The serpent is actively acting against God’s designs. This sin has not yet spread to humanity or polluted Eden but it is there. In fact, Eden itself appears to be something of an oasis in a nastier world. When, at the end of the story, judgment is rendered on the human couple it is expulsion from Eden. No more seems required.

The second character here is the woman. In medieval morality plays this was the moment that the evil woman Eve slipped away from male control and was tricked because she was foolish or morally suspect. She then brought the curse back to her husband, perhaps using her feminine wiles to seduce him to the dark side. In the Hebrew, though, the conversation is about plural “you” and a “we”. The woman may be speaking but she speaks for both herself and her husband. What’s more, the man is with her (verse 6). His silence may be odd but he is there as the conversation happens.

There are certainly people who will claim to explain why the man is quiet here. Those who embrace creational headship frequently claim to find great meaning here. Unfortunately, embracing this explanation requires us to embrace the complete garbage that is creational headship. Since the initial data for creational headship does not exist there is no foundation on which to build here. In fact, the passage may be simply affirming that in the pre-Fall world women might speak for the family as easily as men.

There’s at least one other thing to consider. In a patriarchal society where God or the gods dealt in services in this world and not salvation in the next it would be easy to assume that a man led his family in religious matters. For instance, if a man asked to be blessed and the gods favored him, they might bless him by blessing his whole family. This seems somewhat alien to us since Christianity has long asserted that each person is responsible for their own relationship with God. However, it’s worth considering that Genesis 3 may focus on the woman’s speech so that we know that the woman was cursed (to jump ahead in the story for a minute) for something she did and not because she’s an extension of her cursed husband. In the story as it stands, it’s easy to see that every party cursed did something wrong and that no party is cursed simply because they are associated with (or the property of) a sinful party.

The first part of the conversation between the woman and the serpent is simple enough. The serpent asks whether God has said that the humans could eat of the fruit of the garden and the woman repeats the instructions given to the man in Chapter 2. This is important: all the characters have demonstrated knowledge of what God said. Any actions they take contrary to these orders will be deliberate disobedience. The serpent’s response is also simple: he accuses God of lying for His own nefarious purposes. The humans, he says, will ascend to godhood if they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Further, he states that God has lied to them telling them they will die – in reality God doesn’t want competition. There are two small linguistic notes here: first, the serpent may have said “you will be like God” or “you will be like gods”. It’s impossible to tell from the actual word (כאלהים) because the word used is plural even when it refers to a singular deity. (At least, it is plural when it references a singular major deity. Its usage in regards to singular minor deities is not known to me.) Second, the phrase often translated “good and evil” is perhaps more akin to our “good and bad”. Evil is a moral category in English but bad is only sometimes a moral category. For instance, making a bad shot in basketball is not a moral failing. The Hebrew words used have a similarly large scope – there can be good and bad food as well as good and bad people.

In fact, the woman immediately sees that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil produces good fruit and so she eats some of the fruit and gives some to the man who eats it as well. At this point both of them realize they are naked. This is a big deal and so we need to take a moment and discuss this. Nakedness is an obvious symbol of defenselessness. This is perhaps best reflected in a statement Joseph makes much later in Genesis when he accuses his brothers of being spies. “You have come,” he says in Genesis 42:9, “to see the nakedness of the land.” Nakedness in this case clearly does not mean a lack of clothes. In fact, his brothers are not really being accused of being spies so much as of being scouts for a potential invading army. They are (in Joseph’s claim) looking for weak points in Egypt’s defenses. What this has to do with Genesis 3 is not immediately clear but early Genesis has already mentioned nakedness. At the end of Chapter 2 we were told that the man and the woman were naked but felt no shame. Here, suddenly, their nakedness worries them. I suggest that it worries them because they are suddenly aware of evil. Being defenseless in a world in which you cannot imagine anyone trying to harm you is not a problem; being defenseless in a world in which people might do horrible things to you is a problem. The man and the woman suddenly realize that being naked is being vulnerable, something of which they had no concept before. Their leaf loincloths are an attempt to cover themselves from hostile eyes.

At this point the story engages in some odd anthropomorphizing. God shows up and walks around in the garden. As I’ve said repeatedly, there are some weird things that happen in Genesis without explanation and these things serve to advance the plot. God’s walking around is not important. What is important is that the human couple tries to hide but is found out. When questioned, the man quickly passes the blame to his wife (“the woman that you put here with me”) who passes the blame to the serpent. God then announces curses starting with the serpent and working back up the chain of blame. There’s fertile ground to ask whether these are curses in the sense that they would not have happened had they not been announced or if they are announcements of the things that would inevitably occur but Genesis 3 does not address this with any directness. However, the fittingness of the curses suggests that they are, in some sense, inevitable consequences – something I will address as we discuss each curse.

The first curse is perhaps the least interesting because the object of the curse is the serpent. The serpent is cursed to crawl on the ground (despite the fact that any prior method of movement has not been mentioned) and to be in conflict with humanity. The oft-cited “and he will crush your head” is applied to Jesus in the New Testament but it also fits the passage (which is not a denial that it may have another purpose). Snakes strike at human feet with their heads and human feet crush snake heads. In fact, the word used for the hostile actions of both parties is the same (שוף). More importantly, humanity is represented by the woman. Because the serpent has deceived the woman directly, hostility is placed between her and the serpent and between the serpent’s children and the woman’s children. This concept both marks the important place of the woman in this story and is part of what makes this a fitting curse. The snake has betrayed the woman and so the inevitable outcome is that the relationship between the woman and the snake has turned sour.

Next God curses the woman. She will find childbirth painful (and, in fact, many women who heard this story in ancient Israel would go on to die in childbirth) and she will desire her husband who will rule over her. This is actually the first point where we could discuss creational headship although we might have to term it “fallen headship”. There have been lots of attempts to reinterpret this passage but it seems fairly straightforward. The whole curse is about childbirth and marriage. Women will find pain in childbirth and, though they want to find a man to love will often find a harsh ruler instead. This may seem odd until you consider how historically recently laws against things like domestic violence were created – and how they actually apply to so little of the globe. The peace between men and women is broken in this curse and women will find themselves the victims of men who are usually both bigger and stronger. Again, this is a fitting curse. As with the serpent the woman is involved in the man’s downfall (although to a lesser extent – she did not lie to him as the serpent did to her) and their relationship is damaged.

The man receives a long curse. I think the first verse of the curse establishes the man’s guilt, in part. God reminds him that he knew what he was doing was wrong. While the man has passed blame off on his wife God sees fit to remind him that he could have chosen otherwise.

The rest of the curse makes sense, too. In Genesis 2 we learned that there were no plants because, in part, there were no people to tend them. The man has always been an agriculturalist in this story and so, fittingly, his curse is agricultural. What was once an extension or at least maintenance of God’s own creative work is now hard labor. And, in the famous last words of the curse, someday the ground that struggles against him will win.

Genesis 3 ends with three important actions. Firstly, the man names his wife. Previously he has named the animals and named his wife only “woman”, identifying her as one of his species. I tend to believe that this is the beginning of Eve’s curse. Adam has begun to rule over her as he does the animals. Secondly, God makes garments for the human couple. While He is about to exile them He still cares for them. And, finally, God exiles Adam and Eve from Eden, sentencing them to a life of hard labor, and places a guard on the gate. The human couple will have no chance at the tree of life or the life of bliss in Eden. They will not live forever. Instead, Adam will work the cursed ground until it at last reclaims him.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 16, 2010 2:54 pm

    Glad you’re in Genesis too! Just posted last night finally. I’m looking at 27, the episode of the stolen blessing. It still confuses me to this day, and just about all the commentary I can find is based on a flawed KJV which totally changes Esau’s blessing. Comment if you have any insight on this one!


  1. Some interesting things elsewhere | Brambonius' blog in english

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