Body ImageSexTheology

What Really Happened in the Garden?

By April 9, 20125 Comments

I think there is some confusion among Christians about what happened in the Garden of Eden immediately following the Fall. The confusion is not universal, but over the last couple months I have noticed some troubling statements in blog comment sections about what the Fall and the curse mean for us today.

To be a little more specific, some Christians seem to believe that the events following Adam and Eve’s rebellion are indicative of a new reality that we should not only accept, but embrace. That is to say, Adam and Eve covered their bodies for a reason. They were right to feel ashamed and to hide themselves, and that is a behavior we should continue to this day. Likewise, I have also heard interpretations of Genesis 3:16 that believe “your husband will rule over you” is a Biblical model for male-female relationships.

The errant interpretations of Genesis 3:16-17, which contain God’s explicit curse against man and woman, are relatively easy to counter in my opinion. If we believed these curses were meant to be embraced, then we would have to do away with epidurals (since we MUST have pain in child-bearing) and we would also do away with any farming equipment that facilitates our working of the ground. Clearly, we don’t do those things. But more importantly, Jesus came to break the curse and restore Creation. While the curse is descriptive of reality, it is by no means prescriptive of our mission. We are to be about redemption of the curse, not submission to it.

But what about Genesis 3:7? In this verse, Adam and Eve have just tasted the forbidden fruit, after which, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”

This verse is, I suspect, more confusing for Christians because we are not given a reason for Adam and Eve’s actions. The assumption is that they covered themselves due to shame, but this reason is never stated explicitly.

As a result of this confusion, Christians have not only developed some funny interpretations of the verse, but some funny conclusions about what it means for the Christian life and the Christian body. Today, I want to help clear up some of that confusion.

One of the most helpful resources I found in researching this passage comes from Pope John Paul II. For my non-Catholic readers this may seem like a surprising source, but the Catholic tradition has an excellent theology of the body. It’s one of the reasons Catholics have a far more coherent pro-life stance than evangelicals.

In his work Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, John Paul interprets the actions of Adam and Eve as a sign of shame, but it is his explanation of the nature of this shame that I find most helpful. He refers to the shame we witness in Genesis 3:7 as a “cosmic shame,” because the shame of Adam and Eve manifests in a holistic, cosmic way.

For John Paul, this newly introduced shame has two key dimensions to it–an interior dimension and an exterior one. It impacts the basic human make-up, and it impacts the way humans relate to others.

First let’s look at the interior repercussions. As John Paul explains, prior to the Fall humans enjoyed a perfect unity between body and soul. Unlike our current state, in which we are prone to do that which we do not want to do (Romans 7:15), Adam and Eve experienced no such disunion within their beings before the Fall.

However sin broke that internal unity between the body and the spirit. As John Paul puts it, for the first time Adam’s “body has ceased drawing on the power of the spirit, which raised him to the level of the image of God.” He adds,

“Its shame bears within itself the signs of a specific humiliation mediated by the body. Hidden within it is the germ of that contradiction that was to accompany ‘historical’ man in this whole earthly journey, as St. Paul writes, ‘I joyfully agree with the law in my innermost being, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind.”

In other words, Adam experiences shame and fear because  a new dynamic has been introduced into his life. No longer would his body and soul work in perfect unity in obedience to God. Now that he has used his body to sin against God, his body bears the shame and brokenness of that sin and his entire being is fractured by it. It is this loss of spiritual unity between body and soul that compels Adam and Eve to cover themselves. Their bodies seem somehow foreign to them, so they respond by covering themselves.

Now let’s look at the exterior or relational dimension of their shame. Here John Paul looks at the broken relationship between man and woman, a relationship that was once pure, simple, open, and vulnerable, but can no longer be so. This shame has numerous expressions, one of which is sexual in nature. As John Paul sees it, Adam and Eve already perceive the broken manner in which they will be tempted to relate to one another sexually, and this causes them to hide themselves.

But the relational brokenness goes beyond the sexual aspect, as he writes,

“Almost unexpectedly, an insurmountable threshold appeared in their consciousness that limited the original ‘self-donation’ to the other with full trust in all that constituted one’s own identity and at the same time diversity, female on the one side, male on the other.”

The disunion caused by this “threshold” is then signified by the putting on of fig leaves, a meager barrier that symbolizes a cosmic one.

What I particularly appreciate about John Paul’s interpretation is that it draws a clear connection between the brokenness of the body and the brokenness of human relationships. When our bodies and souls are in a state of disunion, the immediate consequence is disunity with others. It explains the broken ways in which we relate to one another sexually (ie. when we become subject to our sexual desires, we mistreat others). It is also this loss of reciprocity between man and woman that leads to the later consequence of the curse, that the man will rule over the woman.

There is so much more of John Paul’s thinking that I wish I could expound upon here. His thoughts are marvelous! But since this post is getting long I will conclude with one final aspect of Genesis 3:7’s significance.

The shame of Adam and Eve is not only cosmic because it impacts their beings and their relationships, but because it impacts their relationship to God. In verse 8 their immediate response to God’s presence is to hide themselves, just as they sought to hide themselves from one another.

In all instances, Adam and Eve’s inclination to hide signifies shame about sin–sin against God, sin against one another, and sin against themselves. It is for this reason that God covers them with animal skins, not because He is ashamed of them and does not want to look at them, but because He has made the very first sacrifice on their behalf. The animal skins are not, in and of themselves, sufficient to “cover over” the sin and shame of humanity. Only the shed blood of a sacrifice can do that.

To close, I want to leave you with this: As a continuation of my thoughts on modesty and the body, it is important that we avoid using language of hiddenness to articulate the reason for modesty. Christ died on the cross so that we need not hide anymore–from ourselves, from one another, or from God. Our bodies and our souls are being restored, so any inclination to hide them out of shame is misplaced. That is not to say that covering the body doesn’t have its place, but hiddenness due to shame is not the proper reason. I’ll try to go into this more in later posts, but in the mean time suffice it to say that when we cover our bodies with modest clothing simply because we believe the body is shameful and should be kept out of sight, our modest clothes accomplish little more than fig leaves.


  • Chris Pappa says:

    I’ve always loved JP2. Shame we evangelicals ignore Catholicism so much.

    Intriguing thoughts (as always). I love the perspective throughout most of this, and bemoan with you the sloppy interpretations of the Fall that often pass as “Christian.”

    I wonder if we should be approaching “shame” in people on a case-by-case basis. Certainly using shame as a weapon to enforce modesty of dress is unfair and unbiblical. But are there not many Americans–men and women–who OUGHT to feel shame but don’t? As Christians, our shame has a redemptive answer. But I know that before I was a Christian, I was shameless in all the wrong ways. I needed God to reveal my true shame before He could do the restoring work of honoring me in Christ.

  • Sharon says:

    Chris, that’s a GREAT question. I’ve actually been researching that topic simultaneously with this one and I’ll write more about it later.

    One of the things I found in my research is that we English speakers are somewhat limited by our vocabulary when it comes to talking about shame. Whereas we have on word that encompasses a broad array of meanings, both Hebrew and Greek have a LOT of different words that we translate as “shame.” So while Scripture might speak of shame as condemnation in one context, it might speak of shame as conviction in anther context using a totally different word.

    Unfortunately English doesn’t make that distinction well, which is why we have good uses of shame and wrong uses of shame. Because of that dynamic, I think we DO need to be careful and intentional about what we are communicating when we employ the word “shame,” and you’re right that we can’t paint in broad brush strokes by dismissing “shame” altogether when Scripture, as we have translated it, does not.

  • Charis says:

    You might enjoy listening to Christopher West on the JP2 Theology of the Body (available on youtube).

    But my comment is about the “curse”. You said, “Genesis 3:16-17, which contain God’s explicit curse against man and woman

    Read the passage again. No matter how many times you have heard otherwise, the text simply does not say that God CURSED the man or the woman after the Fall. The only CURSES God pronounced were upon the serpent and upon the ground.

    This may seem like a trivial point, but for me, it was extremely significant, changing my entire view of the character of God.

  • Sharon says:

    Charis, that is REALLY interesting! It’s funny how an interpretation gets hammered into your head and you just read it into the text. Although I suppose one could argue that the context implies a curse on man and woman, you are so right that it’s definitely not stated explicitly. Wow!

  • Tim says:

    Sharon, I was just thinking about Genesis 3:7 yesterday and how it provides a great contrast to Luke 24:30-31. In Genesis they ate food that God had not blessed and their eyes were opened in one way. In Luke, two disciples walked with Jesus to Emmaeus (though they were unaware of who he was) and once there urged him to stay for dinner; they ended up eating food God blessed for them, which led to another kind of eye-opener entirely:

    When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

    It’s not that it’s impossible to learn stuff apart from God, but Adam and Eve’s experience is a good example of how the stuff we learn on our own is no good. When we allow God to open our eyes, though, we see him. Awesome.


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