Relevant Verses: Genesis 3
Theme: Theme: A Fractured World
Leading Question: Was it really a question of picking and eating the wrong kind of fruit?
Genesis 3 is an exceptionally rich story, full of irony and ambiguity about a world of loss and pain and death, but also a story with the promise for a restored world at its very core.
First, it is important to note that the identification of Genesis 3 as the “fall of humanity” and “fall into sin” cannot be interpreted with terminology and concepts specific to sin. The word “sin” is not mentioned anywhere, neither the word “fall.” There are however other terms and negative descriptive images about life in the aftermath of eating from the forbidden tree. They are descriptions of the result of a different kind of nakedness from the one in experienced by the couple in the bliss of the garden. Nakedness in Genesis 3 seems closely related to the serpent and the consequences are fear, shame, and blame. These, according to Genesis 3, pervade and fracture all life.
Genesis 2 ended with a description of the couple’s mutual and blissful relationship: “And the two of them were naked/exposed (Hebrew ‘arom), the man and his woman, and they were not ashamed before each other” (v. 25; my translation).
Genesis 3 introduces the serpent with these words: “But the serpent was more cunning/exposing (Hebrew ‘arum) than all the animals of the field” (v. 1). The play on the Hebrew root ‘arom and ‘arum could not have been lost on the Hebrew speaking audience. After the couple listened to the serpent, “their eyes were opened and they knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7).
Question: What is different about being naked in Genesis 3 compared to the nakedness of the couple in Genesis 2?
Genesis 3 tells of three major characters whom God questions and addresses individually in Gen 3:9–19. These characters are the man, the woman, and the serpent. The structure of this section is a remarkable chiasm with the divine verdict, curse, and promise placed at the center:
A God questions the man; the man responds (3:9–12) B God questions the woman; the woman responds (3:13) X God speaks addresses the serpent (3:14–15) B’ God addresses the woman (3:16) A’ God addresses the man (3:17–19)
Much debate has focused on the identity of the serpent. In Genesis 3, the serpent is no supernatural being; he is simply identified as an animal of the field created by God. Nevertheless, the serpent is best understood as a living metaphor, representing an agent in God’s good creation who is not only able to facilitate options for human will and action but is ultimately identified as the culprit, the guilty one (Gen 3:14). Perhaps the Hebrew word for “serpent” (nachash) yields a clue for such a sinister character in its related verb form with the meaning, “to murmur an obscure incantation,” “to give omens,” “to be ominous.”
In the history of interpretation on Genesis 3, the association of the serpent with the “devil” begins already in the intertestamental Book of Wisdom, “By the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (2:24). The accounts of Jesus’ temptation (Matt 4:1–11; Mark 1:12-13; and Luke 4:1–13) tell of similar connotations. But it is in the Book of Revelation where one reads, “And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him” (Rev 12:9).
Question: Why is it not good for human beings to have the knowledge of good and evil?
With regard to the other two characters, the woman and the man, Christian interpretators have not contributed much to help clarify the story in Genesis 3. While reading the reference to the serpent figuratively and identifying the serpent as the devil or Satan, interpreters have not been consistent in reading the references to the woman and to the man in a similar way. The woman in Genesis 3 is most often recognized as the first woman created by God. God’s words to her in Gen 3:16 are taken as God’s curse for her life and for all women born on earth. The hermeneutical inconsistency of not applying a figurative interpretation similar to the serpent’s has resulted in millenia-long misogynistic readings of the text. Here are just a few of such examples from prominent Church Fathers and Reformers:
“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate to hell.” (Tertullian, c. 160–226)
“Woman does not possess the image of God in herself but only when taken together with the male who is her head, so that the whole substance is one image. But when she is assigned the role as helpmate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God. But as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God just as fully and completely as when he and the woman are joined together into one.” (Saint Augustine, 354-430)
“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” (Thomas Aquinas, 1225–1274)
“The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. Men have broad and large chests, and small narrow hips, and more understanding than women, who have but small and narrow breasts, and broad hips, to the end they should remain at home, sit still, keep house, and bear and bring up children.” (Martin Luther, 1483-1546)
“Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me. . . . Of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now? Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?” (John Wesley, 1703-1791, written in a letter to his wife on July 15, 1774)
Question: How would a consistent figurative interpretation for the woman (Gen 3:16) and the man (Gen 3:17–19) change the story of Genesis 3? How would it affect our way of thinking about women in church? What about men?
Note how the Bible uses “woman” as a figure for God’s people in numerous texts in the Old Testament: Hosea 2; Jer 2:1–11; 6:2; Lam 1:1–7; Mic 4:8–10; 7:1–18; Isa 40:1, 2; 54:4–6; 62:11; 32:9–15; Zeph 3:14; Zec 9:9; Song of Songs; Ezek 16. God’s people are referred to as:
- “daughter of Zion”
- “barren woman”
The prophet Isaiah contains a particularly poignant passage in Isa 54:1–6 (my emphasis):
“Shout for joy, o barren one …
Fear not, for you will not be put to shame;
And do not feel humiliated, for you will not be disgraced;
But you will forget the shame of your youth,
And the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your husband [ba‘al] is your Maker,
Whose name is the LORD of hosts;
And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel,
Who is called the God of all the earth.
For the LORD has called you,
Like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
Even like a wife of one’s youth when she is rejected.”
Note how the New Testament uses “woman” as a figure for God’s people in Eph 5:22–32; 2 John 1:1; Rev 12; 19:7–9; 21:1–9; 22:17 and speaks in the following images:
- “pregnant woman”
With regard to the “man” in Gen 3:17–19, the figurative interpretation in male imagery in the rest of the Old Testament is overwhelmingly present in expressions about Israel as God’s son or firstborn son in passages as, Exod 4:22; 13:1–2, 12–15; 22:29; 34:19–20; Num 3:12–13, 40–50; 8:16–18; Deut 14:1; 33:17; Jer 3:19; 31:20; Hosea 11:1.
The New Testament uses imagery in a variety of ways in an inclusive manner with Paul being the most explicit in his famous words, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
- Corporal: The Church as Body (Rom 12:4–5; 1 Cor 10:17; 12:12, 27; Eph 4:12; 5:23, 30; Col 1:24)
- Architectural: The Church as Building/Temple (1 Cor 3:11, 16–17; 6:19; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Tim 3:14–15; 1 Pet 2:5–7; Heb 3:6)
- Agricultural: The Church as Plant/Field/Vineyard/Vine (1 Cor 3:5–6; John 15:1–2)
- Familial and Marital: The Church as Family and Bride (Matt 12:49–50; 2 Cor 6:18; 11:12; Eph 2:19; 5:31–32; Gal 6:10; Rev 19:7–8; 21:9)
We may conclude that the Bible uses female and male imagery to speak of and describe God’s people or God’s church throughout the ages. Both the woman and the man in Genesis 3 may be read as symbolizing and embodying the church of God within His plan of salvation, and the serpent as the ultimate enemy of the church. Nevertheless, the “pregnant woman” of Revelation 12 does give birth to the Christ-child, who alone is the head of the entire body of the church (Col 1:18).
Question: How does the man react to God’s declaration, “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:19)?