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.