The Temptation and the Fall, 1-7

Traditional and revisionist readings

I must admit that I’m not sure about where to place Genesis 3 on a scale between the two extremes of ‘literal history’ and ‘pure fiction’.  Here’s a summary of some the options:-

An historical account of a ‘Fall’

Traditionally, this account has been understood as a more or less literal description of an historical event in involving a ‘fall’ on the part of our first parents from a state of innocence.  According to Kreeft & Tacelli, for example, ‘there are three reasons why the Fall can’t be mere moral parable or fiction:-

First, if the Fall is not historical at all, then its effects—suffering and death—also are not historical. If sin is historical in its effects, it must be historical in its cause.
Second, if Adam’s fall didn’t really happen, then Christ’s salvation need not have really happened either. Paul deliberately juxtaposes and parallels these two in Romans 6, calling Christ the New Man or Second Adam. If “the first Adam” was not historical, why must the second Adam be? If the disease is merely mythic, not historical, then the cure can be merely mythic, not historical.
Finally, if the Fall didn’t really happen in history, then God rather than humanity is to blame for sin, for God must have created us as sinners rather than innocents. If there was never any real unfallen state, then we were sinners from the first moment of our creation, and God was wrong to declare everything he made “good.”’

Even if we do wish to stress the historical dimensions of this story, we should recognise various symbolic or paradigmatic elements: the names ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ are both personal and generic; universal themes such as marriage, childbirth and work are introduced; and, as Wenham notes, the garden is linked with later biblical accounts of the sanctuary.

A ‘Just-so’ story

However, various revisionist readings have been offered.  The notion that this is an aetiological story, explaining the hostility between snakes and humans (becoming a ‘Just-so’ tale about ‘How the Serpent lost its legs'( is advanced by Gunkel, von Rad, Sarna, and others.  However, does not begin to do justice to many aspects of the text itself (including the judgements meted out to the man and the woman).

A graduation story

For Harold Kushner (How Good Do We Have To Be?), writing from his background as a Rabbi, Gen 3 is not about rebellion, but evolution from animal to human existence. God’s prohibition against eating the fruit is a kindly warning about the difficulties ahead. Eve’s decision to eat is seen as a courageous step into the unknown. The latter part of the chapter is not so much about divine judgement as an indication of what it means to be human – that there is more to human life than eating and mating. After all, the Hebrew Bible never calls Eve’s act ‘sin’, and it is only in the hands of later thinkers such as Paul and Augustine that the story becomes an account of ‘original sin’. These later writers have misrepresented God as a cruel tyrant who makes people imperfect only to punishment as soon as their imperfection becomes apparent. In Kushner’s hands, then, Gen 3 becomes an account of a graduation ceremony. (See Richard Gibson’s review in The Briefing, 202, May 5 1998)

A non-essential addition

Paul Ricoeur maintains that ‘in every way the addition [of Adam] is belated and, in certain respects, non-essential…The Prophets ignore him…Jesus himself never refers to the Adamic story.’  And Paul’s contrast between Adam and Christ in Rom 5 is regarded by Ricoeur as an artificial device.  Blocher (Original Sin, p32f) regards these arguments as ‘paper tigers’.  He asserts that the Eden story is

‘no peripheral anecdote or marginal addition; it belongs decisively to the structure of Genesis and to that of the Torah.  It has a major aetiological intention, with the following chapters showing the results of the inaugural tragedy, and chapter 11 recounting a kind of socio-political deduplication of that tragedy after the flood (similarities in language between Gen 3 and the Babel story are striking).’

Moreover, allusions to the Eden story are quite plentiful in the OT, and the book of Ecclesiastes might indeed be seen as almost a commentary on Gen 1-3.  There are also echoes in the NT – both in the Gospels and in Paul (in addition to Rom 5).

A wisdom story

Peter Enns (The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins) has distinguished between the Augustinian view, which regards the story of the garden as the story of humankind’s fall into sin, and that of early theologians such as Theophilus of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons, according to whom

‘the garden story is not about a descent from a pristine, untainted original state of humanity (which is how the Adam story is popularly understood). Rather, it tells the story of naïveté and immaturity on the part of Adam and Eve and the loss of childlike innocence in an illicit move to grasp at a good thing, wisdom, represented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve are like children placed in a paradise, where they are to learn to serve God and grow in wisdom and maturity, to move toward spiritual perfection.’

This view, says Enns, continues to be advocated by the Orthodox Church.

Enns notes neither Genesis 3 nor the rest of the OT appears to make Adam responsible for human sin generally.  This connection will be made, much later, by Paul, who will be found reading back into Genesis meanings that were never there originally.

For Enns, the story has much in common with the wisdom literature of Proverbs.  This, he claims, makes good sense of the half-truth promised by the serpent – “You will become like God” (Gen 3:5).  Becoming like God in knowing good and evil is a good thing; ‘the problem is the illicit way in which Eve tries to attain wisdom—quickly, prematurely, impatiently.’  In Proverbs, too, godlikeness is seen as a good thing, but it is to be developed eventually, and through training, by means of ‘the fear of the Lord’, Prov 9:10.  In Proverbs, as in Genesis, wisdom leads to life; indeed, ‘wisdom is a tree of life’, Prov 3:18.  When Adam and Eve depart from the true path, they are barred from eating of the tree of life.

We have, suggests Enns, two complementary ways of reading the garden story: first, it reflects Israel’s story of leaving the true path of godliness and ending up in exile; second, it reflects Israel’s wisdom tradition which says that if God’s people do not follow God’s way then disastrous consequences will follow.  The story of Cain asks the same wisdom-related question: will you follow God’s way, or your own?  Will you choose wisdom, or folly?

The notion that Genesis does not teach an historic Fall receives support (suggests Enns) in the observation that subsequent sin (e.g. in the case of Cain) is not related back to the sin of Adam.  Furthermore Adam himself receives scant attention elsewhere in the OT: if his disobedience was as critical to the human race as is commonly thought, it might be supposed that this would referred to more often and more explicitly than is in fact the case.  As Enns fully recognises, this reading of Genesis has a significant knock-on effect regarding the teaching of Paul in Rom 5.  Enns agrees that Paul clearly teaches a doctrine of an historic Fall, and that the apostle believed that an historical Adam was responsible for this.  But, argues Enns, Paul felt free to read this meaning back into the text of Genesis, partly because, for him, everything must now be seen in the light of Christ and his achievement, partly because the ‘solution’ offered by the gospel requires a matching ‘plight’, and partly because such a way of interpreting the ancient Scriptures was within the accepted norms of his own day.

Paradigmatic and protohistorical

Wenham notes (apparently with a measure of agreement) the view that

‘under the guidance of the Spirit the author of these chapters identified the origin of the problems that beset all mankind—sin, death, suffering—with a primeval act of disobedience of the first human couple. Whereas a modern writer might have been happy to spell this out in abstract theological terminology—God created the world good, but man spoiled it by his disobedience—Genesis puts these truths in vivid and memorable form in an absorbing yet highly symbolic story. It is argued that such an understanding of the story’s composition can account for its use of mythological motifs from neighboring peoples and its points of connection with other parts of the OT, particularly the covenant and wisdom traditions. The validity of this hypothesis, like most critical suggestions, remains open to debate, but its validity or otherwise in no way impairs the inspired truth of the present narrative.’

Wenham concludes that, notwithstanding the symbolic elements within the story (many of which link it with the later sanctuary) there are others that point in an historical direction: the heading, ‘these are the generations of…’ (ch. 2); the genealogy linking Adam with Noah (ch. 5); and other factors.  Wenham therefore prefers to regard these chapters as both paradigmatic and protohistorical.


According to Calvin, ‘In this chapter, Moses explains, that man, after he had been deceived by Satan revolted from his Maker, became entirely changed and so degenerate, that the image of God, in which he had been formed, was obliterated.’  See also, however, Calvin’s comment recorded at Gen 9:6.

3:1 Now the serpent was more shrewd than any of the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?”

We left chapter 2 with the man and the woman in a state of innocence.  We now see their vulnerability.  There is an enemy in the garden.

The serpent

Shrewd – NIV = ‘crafty’.  The underlying word does not necessarily carry negative connotations.  Indeed, in Proverbs it is often translated ‘prudent’ (Prov 8:12; 12:16; 13:16; 14:8; 22:3; 27:12).  Wenham translates the word as ‘shrewd’.  However, in Ex 21:14; Job 5:12; 15:5; Psa 83:3 it is used in a negative sense, as in the present passage.  The writer is signalling to the reader that he or she should not take the serpent’s words at face value, as the woman did.

‘The devil is a great student in divinity, and makes no other use of his Scripture knowledge than may serve his turn by sophistry to do the Christian a mischief, either by drawing him into sin, or into despair for sinning.’

William Gurnall

‘Temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colours, saying, “I am your deadly enemy, and I want to ruin you for ever in hell.”  Oh, no! sin comes to us, like Judas, with a kiss; and like Joab, with an outstretched hand and flattering words.  The forbidden fruit seemed good and desirable to Eve; yet it cast her out of Eden.  The walking idly on his palace roof seemed harmless enough to David; yet it ended in adultery and murder.  Sin rarely seems sin at first beginnings.  Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation.’

(Ryle, Holiness, 7)’

More crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made

“Did God really say…?” – As in other matters, the narrative is silent on how the serpent knew what God had said.  What is clear is that he twists God’s word, and then casts doubt on it.  Many have done so since.

‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’ – This is almost a complete reversal of what God had actually said, and thus turns a generous invitation (Gen 2:16) into a blanket prohibition.  It is not only God’s word, but also his goodness that is called into question.  ‘Of the God who is generosity itself he sketches a portrait of miserliness’ (Blocher).  As Matthew Henry says, ‘the divine law cannot be reproached unless it be first misrepresented.’

We know the destiny, if not the origin, of evil

It is clear from this narrative that evil was present in the cosmos before our first ancestors sinned.  The narrative does not explain the origin of this enemy, although it does know its destiny (Gen 3:14f).  By the same token, it does not offer any account of the origin of evil.  ‘Genesis does not explain the origins of evil; rather, the biblical account, if anything, says where evil does not have its source. Evil was not inherent in man nor can it be said that sin was the consequence of divine entrapment.’ (Matthews)

Evil personified

According to Waltke and Fredricks, serpents symbolised various things in the ancient world: protection, evil, fecundity, renewal of life.  Although not explicitly identified as such here, it is an instrument of, symbol for or even an embodiment of Satan (so Calvin, Matthews, Waltke & Fredericks and others).  This was certainly the later Jewish view, and is supported by Rom 16:20 and Rev 12:9 (see also Jn 8:44).  Some scholars, however, argue that this is constitutes a reading back into the Genesis text a concept that the author and his original readers would not have recognised.  But, as Atkinson says, ‘an author who is at home in the world of cherubim with flaming swords would not have difficulty with the belief expressed much more clearly elsewhere in the Bible that there is a power of evil within the world which is at was with God.’  Atkinson adds: ‘If Satan is present in the story of Genesis 3, he is wearing a careful mask.’  Wenham regards the serpent as the archetypal enemy of God, noting that ‘within the world of OT animal symbolism a snake is an obvious candidate for an anti-God symbol, notwithstanding its creation by God.’

Twisting God’s word

‘The serpent begins by overemphasizing the strictness of the law (God had put only one tree out of bounds) and questioning God’s goodwill towards human beings (something the narrative in ch. 2 had put beyond doubt). Eve rebuts his suggestion, though inexactly (‘you must not touch it’ was not part of the original prohibition. (Gen 2:17) The serpent then challenged God’s judgment by claiming ‘you will not surely die’ and promised instead sophistication (that their eyes will be opened) and spiritual advancement (that they will be like God).’ (NBC)

A gradual approach

Gurnall remarks that it is a stratagem of Satan to make ‘gradual approaches to the soul. When he comes to tempt, he is modest, and asks but a little; he knows he may get that at many times, which he should be denied if he asked all at once. A few are let into a city, when an army coming in a body would be shut out.’  And Matthew Henry says: ‘Those that would be kept from harm must keep out of harm’s way.’


‘Sin came in through deception. Eve, the woman, was deceived. The narrative emphasises that the serpent was ‘more subtle’ than any other creature. (Gen 3:1) he sowed in Eve’s heart the suspicion that God was being very harsh: “Is it true that God has forbidden all the trees of the garden?” Her response reveals that she had caught the serpent’s spirit: ‘He said not to eat of the tree in the middle of the garden, or to touch it.’ God had said nothing about not touching it. The serpent then eroded her confidence in God’s threat, ‘You will not die’ (verse 4). But above all he said to her, ‘Look, God is holding you down. He knows that if you take this fruit you will be like God and you will know good and evil’ (verse 5). He has sown the seed of suspicion: all the trees? He has sown the seed of doubt: you will not die. And he has sown the seed of ambition: you will be like God. Poor Eve violated God’s law in this great confidence that thereby she was going to be like God. You see the marvellous anti-climax in verse 7. She had Satan’s promise, you will know good and evil! After the Fall, what did she know? That she was naked! That, surely, is the greatest anti-climax in history.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

A created being

Clearly, even though it has superhuman powers, the serpent is a created being himself.  There is no dualism, then: no cosmic struggle between two equal forces of good and evil.  Evil clearly comes from within God’s created order.  The chapter, however, refuses to speculate on the ultimate origin of evil.  But it does force us to take responsibility for our own share in humankind’s rebellion against God.

The devil’s strategies

As Kurt Strassner (Opening Up Genesis) says, the devil seeks to

(a) confuse us (“Are you sure that’s what God said?”);

(b) misrepresent God (“Has God said that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”);

(c) placate our consciences (“You will not surely die!”;

(d) make sin seem attractive (“Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God”).

3:2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit from the trees of the orchard; 3:3 but concerning the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the orchard God said, ‘You must not eat from it, and you must not touch it, or else you will die.’ ”

Selective hearing

In v2f, ‘Eve gradually yields to the serpent’s denials and half-truths by disparaging her privileges, adding to the prohibition, and minimizing the threat.’ (Waltke & Fredricks).  ‘In her very manner of citing the terms of the covenant, she shows that she is dwelling more on the single restriction, than on all the munificence of the general grant…Is not this the very spirit of Jonah, to whom it was nothing that Nineveh was given him as the reward of his faithful preaching, if the gourd that refreshed him was removed? Is it not the temper of Haman, who, amid all the riches and splendour of court favour, cried out in bitterness of soul;—“All this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate?”’ (Candlish)

Don’t reason with the devil

As Ryken says, many commentators have faulted Eve for adding the prohibition to ‘touch’ the fruit.  But ‘her real mistake was trying to reason with the devil’.  She has already conceded ground to him, by not quite accurately representing what God had said.  This opens the door to further, and more dangerous doubt.

3:4 The serpent said to the woman, “Surely you will not die, 3:5 for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.”

Among various interpretations of the ‘death’ that is referred to here, Wenham notes that just as in later Israel a person with leprosy would be expelled from the camp, and sentenced to a ‘living death’, so ‘in this sense they did die on the day they ate of the tree: they were no longer able to have daily conversation with God, enjoy his bounteous provision, and eat of the tree of life; instead they had to toil for food, suffer, and eventually return to the dust from which they were taken.’

The path to unbelief

‘Thus Satan endeavours to shake that which he cannot overthrow, and invalidates the force of divine threatenings by questioning the certainty of them; and, when once it is supposed possible that there may be falsehood or fallacy in any word of God, a door is then opened to downright infidelity. Satan teaches men first to doubt and then to deny; he makes them sceptics first, and so by degrees makes them atheists.’ (MHC)

Judgement denied

‘Satan was the first to deny the reality of divine judgement, and what great evil has come into the world because of it!’ (Ryken).  Indeed, we might see the attractive but pernicious belief in universalism as a modern version of this ancient lie: “You will not surely die.” (See Packer, ‘The Problems of Universalism’, Bib. Sac., Jan 1973)

When you eat of it your eyes will be opened – Some Jewish and Christian interpreters have understood the eating of the forbidden fruit as leading to sexual awareness and intercourse.  This has no foundation in the text: God had already commanded to couple to ‘be fruitful, and multiply’, Gen 1:28; 2:24.

Seductive half-truths

At first glance, the serpent’s reply seems absolutely true: the man and the woman did not die, until they had reached a very considerable old age; their eyes were opened.  So with plausibility the serpent can aver that the tree actually offers real advantage.  The serpents ‘shrewdness’ can be seen in this array half-truths, as it can also be seen in his not directly commanding them to eat the fruit (Gunkel).

“Like God” – What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods” – could set up on their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy. (C. S. Lewis)

The irony is, of course, that they were already ‘like God’, being made in his image (Ryken).

“Knowing good and evil” – ‘“Know” may be interpreted as “to have mastery over.” Thus humans were seeking to gain for themselves the prerogative of determining what was good and what was evil.  As humans have learned, gaining the freedom to determine what is good and evil has proven to be a heavy burden, because they must decide continually how they will use everything they have for good and not for evil. This burden is even heavier because the line of demarcation between good and evil is never sharp. This state of affairs explains why so many issues produce strong conflicts in society. When one group advocates a specific position out of concern for the greater good, it arouses resentment in another group at the potential hardship that position will cause the second group. Limited insight clouded by selfish interest leads humans to call good evil and evil good (Isa. 5:20). Whenever society defines an evil as good, a segment of that society suffers oppression.’ (Hartley).

‘The serpent makes God appear to be restricting them from full humanity.’ (Waltke & Fredricks)

Think the best of God, and the worst of sin

‘Thus still the devil draws people into his interest by suggesting to them hard thoughts of God, and false hopes of benefit and advantage by sin. Let us therefore, in opposition to him, always think well of God as the best good, and think ill of sin as the worst of evils: thus let us resist the devil, and he will flee from us.’ (MHC)

3:6 When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.
Her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat:
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost.

John Milton (1608-1674)

The fruit, says Ryken, was tempting in several ways.  It had physical appeal (‘good for food’), aesthetic appeal (‘pleasing to the eye’) and intellectual appeal (‘desirable for gaining wisdom’).  Cf. 1 Jn 2:16.

…that the fruit of the tree was good for food – Here, suggests Wenham, is an indication that the woman is usurping God’s prerogative (cf. Gen 1:31).

Just one little thing

‘Temptation,’ says Atkinson, ‘begins with trivia.  How can it be that so great a fall can begin with so small an incident?  One piece of forbidden fruit! – surely the whole world will not fall apart for such a trivial thing?  And yet so often our spiritual health and destiny does depend on the one thing in our lives which blocks our way to God…the serpent touches the woman at the one small, trivial point in her life where she was not ready to give everything over to God.  The serpent touches us at the one thing in our lives where we would rather God did not trouble us.  We will give him everything else, but we will hold this one part of life to ourselves.’

A sin of infirmity may admit apology; a sin of ignorance may find out excuse; but a sin of defiance can find no defence.

Sir Richard Baker

‘God can have everything, except this!’

Atkinson quotes Thielicke: ‘But that’s the way it is; that’s the way it really is – in your life and in mine.  The fact is that all of us have sectors in the territory of our life which we are quite content to leave to God.  But each of us also has a point which we will by no means let God approach.  This point may be my ambition whereby I am determined to beat my way to success in my career at any price.  It may be my sexuality to which I am determined to give rein no matter what happens and no matter what it costs.  It may be a bottomless hatred toward one of my fellow men which I literally nurse and which gives me a kid of sensuous pleasure which then comes between me and God and robs me of my peace.  God can have everything, but not this one thing!’

She took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband – The person who has given in to temptation becomes the source of temptation in others.

We must assume that Adam was there, but he said nothing, and did nothing.  ‘Throughout the Old Testament there are other examples of when men fail to act and lead. Judah failed to act on behalf of Tamar, so she took matters in her hands. Barak failed to lead as judge, so Deborah stepped up to lead the army against its foes.’ (Joey Cochran)

She saw…took…ate…gave – In this matter-of-fact way is summarised ‘the sum of human misery’ (Ryken).

A down-hill path

Sin makes an immediate bee-line from temptation to the deed itself.  Immediate pleasure is the goal.  It is the part of godly wisdom to pause, reflect, and to consider the consequences, before acting.  ‘Perhaps she did not intend, when she looked, to take, nor, when she took, to eat; but this was the result’ (MHC).  ‘The way of sin is downhill; a man cannot stop himself when he will. The beginning of it is as the breaking forth of water, to which it is hard to say, “Hitherto thou shalt come and no further.” Therefore it is our wisdom to suppress the first emotions of sin, and to leave it off before it be meddled with.’


‘The three areas of Eve’s self-deception are in the same categories of temptation as those found in 1 Jn 2:16. Eve was deceived; Adam ate knowingly. (cf. 1 Tim 2:14) Their sin was more than merely eating forbidden fruit; it was disobeying the revealed word of God, believing the lie of Satan, and placing their own wills above God’s. Sin, with all its dreadful consequences, now entered the human race and the world in general.’ (Ryrie)

Unanswered questions

Hartley points out that this passage by-passes many questions that we might have, such as, ‘What was the discussion between the couple? Did the man seek to dissuade the woman? Did the man encourage her to eat?’

Her husband, who was with her – As Hartley says, the man and the woman were in total accord: it was not a case of once putting undue pressure on the other.  The woman uses plural forms when speaking to the serpent, and the serpent when speaking to her.  All of this implies (although it does not prove) that the man was with the woman throughout her conversation with the serpent.

Hamilton: ‘The woman does not try to tempt the man. She simply gives and he takes. He neither challenges nor raises questions. . . . Hers is a sin of initiative. His is a sin of acquiescence.’  The woman leads, and the man follows, reversing God’s intended order.

3:7 Then the eyes of both of them opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

A keen sense of guilt immediately followed the act of sinning.  As Ryken puts it: ‘Even before they could wipe the juice from their chins, Adam and Eve knew that they were guilty sinners.’

They realised that they were naked – The serpent had promised Eve that she would be ‘like God, knowing good and evil’ (v5).  Instead, she knew that she wasn’t wearing any clothes.  What an anticlimax!  They had, of course, been naked all along, but now they felt ill at ease, ashamed, exposed.  The objective condition of moral guilt leads to the subjective experience of shame.  (Ryken)


They are no longer happy ‘in their own skin’.  ‘They dislike themselves, and perceive that others dislike them too.  They want to make aprons to cover themselves, and hide behind the trees of the garden to escape.  They are not comfortable just being them.  They are ashamed’ (Atkinson).  Atkinson adds that we should not link all experience of shame to specific personal sin.  The Book of Job reminds us that a person may be depressed, though righteous.  The NT informs us that suffering is not necessarily the outcome of a person’s own sins (Jn 9:1-3).  A lack of personal self-worth may be as much due to the sins of others as to our own.  Low self-esteem festers within broken and disordered families.  Nevertheless, personal shame due to personal sin remains a potent part of the total mix of human unhappiness.

The many sides of the one sin

Ryken says that the evil of the first sin may be described in various ways.  It was a transgression (the over-stepping of a boundary), an act of defiance, a perversion (the abuse of God’s good creation), an act of disobedience (to God’s clear command), the breaking of a covenant, a ‘fall’ (from a state of innocence), and so on.  According to Ryken, the Puritans taught that the Fall involved a breaking of all (or nearly all) of the Ten Commandments: ‘Taking the forbidden fruit obviously involved coveting and theft.  Eating the fruit was also a way of having another god, worshipping the idol of self.  The act was based on a lie about God’s character, and therefore involved both swearing false witness and taking God’s name in vain.  It resulted in death for all humanity, and therefore it was a kind of murder, and so forth.’

Robbing God of his glory

But central to the Fall was an attempt to rob God of his glory.  ‘Eve was not content to reflect God’s glory, she wanted to grab the glory for herself.  She wanted to become God rather than to glorify God.  This is our problem as well….At the heart of our sin is the perverse desire to live for self rather than to live for God, which is why we need to be saved.  We are sinners who will not, cannot, glorify God until he saves us.’ (Ryken)

Sin leads to a fourfold alienation:-

  1. Alienation within man himself, v7 – “They realized they were naked”
  2. Alienation between person and person, v12 – “The woman you put here with me…”
  3. Alienation between man and the environment, v17 – “Cursed is the ground”
  4. Alienation between man and God, v8 – “They hid from God”

Here is one effect of sin: ‘there is alienation within man himself: ‘they knew that they were naked’. (Gen 3:7) They were overwhelmed with a sense of shame, with a sense of the vulnerability of their own lives. They had to hide themselves from God. They had to cover up before God. They were divided within themselves. In conviction of sin the Christian experiences the divided-self in a unique way as he endorses God’s judgement upon his life. But it is very important to remember that, for believers, this sense of shame and self-abhorrence is taken away, or should be taken away, in Christ. God has accepted us, and we must learn to accept ourselves. We are told that we are precious to him and that we matter to him, and every redeemed child of God can begin to build a legitimate and God-given self-esteem on that knowledge. It is important, of course, to experience conviction of sin. But if there is an above-average prevalence of neuroses within some believing communities it is due to the neglecting of this other aspect, this voice from God that says, ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ Certainly we are sinners and we know our own spiritual nakedness. But in redemption God has given us back ourselves, put together again and re-integrated. Who among us does not need, along with the motivation of criticism and denunciation, the word of encouragement which says, ‘Look, you really matter’? Love, God’s love, accepts us as we are.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)


What a disaster has befallen the human race!  ‘Here was a stately building; man carved like a fair palace, but now lying in ashes: let us stand and look on the ruins, and drop a tear…Happy wast thou, O man! who was like unto thee? no pain nor sickness could affect thee, no death could approach thee, no sigh was heard from thee, till these bitter fruits were plucked from the forbidden tree.  Heaven shone upon thee, and earth smiled…But how low is he now laid, who was created for dominion, and made lord of the world!  “The crown is fallen from our head: woe unto us that we have sinned”…Alas! how are we fallen! how are we plunged into a gulf of misery!’ (Thomas Boston, quoted by Ryken)

But, as Ryken remarks, at least we now have a clear view of the problem to which the rest of the Bible will present and proclaim the solution.

They sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves


To their feeble attempt to hide from God they add this equally feeble attempt to cover up their bodies.  This, remarks Ryken, ‘was the world’s first cover-up!  It was also the world’s first attempt at salvation by works.  Like all cover-ups – and all attempts to achieve salvation by human effort – it was doomed to fail.  Summer foliage is hardly suitable to cover our bodies, let alone the sin of our souls.’

The Judgment Oracles of God at the Fall, 8-24

3:8 Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God moving about in the orchard at the breezy time of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the orchard. 3:9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 3:10 The man replied, “I heard you moving about in the orchard, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” 3:11 And the LORD God said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” 3:12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.”

He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day – lit. ‘in the wind [ruah] of the day’.

An alternative meaning is possible.  ‘Akkadian terminology has demonstrated that the word translated “day” also has the meaning “storm.” This meaning can be seen also for the Hebrew word in Zephaniah 2:2. It is often connected to the deity coming in a storm of judgement. If this is the correct rendering of the word in this passage, they heard the thunder (the word translated “sound” is often connected to thunder) of the Lord moving about in the garden in the wind of the storm. In this case it is quite understandable why they are hiding.’ (IVP Bible Background Commentary)

Intimacy destroyed

This verse is a reminder of the ‘wonderful intimacy Adam and Eve enjoyed with God before they sinned’ (Ryken).  We are perhaps meant to understand that they often met with God in this way, and that they would run to meet him.  But on this occasion they ‘waited miserably for his approach, dreading the sound of his footfall in Eden.’

They hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden

‘A more complete transformation could not be imagined. The trust of innocence is replaced by the fear of guilt. The trees that God created for man to look at (2:9) are now his hiding place to prevent God seeing him.’ (Wenham)

Their intimate fellowship with God was broken. ‘It was part of the sad deception that the man and woman who wanted so much to be “like God,” rather than obtaining the stature of deity, are afraid even to commune with him.’ (Matthews).  ‘Adam hides from God. He was made for God and yet now he is on the run from God. We have already seen that sin affects the intellect. This is brought out so clearly in the narrative in Genesis 3. This man who had been so clear-headed only moments before is now hiding from God under a tree! He thinks God cannot see him under a tree! His mind has gone, because of sin. Man is still in that same position: hiding from God behind fig-leaves and trees.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

‘Before they had sinned, if they had heard the voice of the Lord God coming towards them, they would have run to meet him, and with a humble joy welcomed his gracious visits. But, now that it was otherwise, God had become a terror to them, and then no marvel that they had become a terror to themselves, and were full of confusion. Their own consciences accused them, and set their sin before them in its proper colours. Their fig-leaves failed them, and would do them no service. God had come forth against them as an enemy, and the whole creation was at war with them; and as yet they knew not of any mediator between them and an angry God, so that nothing remained but a certain fearful looking for of judgment.’ (MHC)

Double alienation.  ‘The spiritual death of Adam and Eve is shown by their alienation from one another, symbolized by sewing fig leaves together for barriers, and their separation from God, symbolized by hiding among the trees.’ (Waltke & Fredricks)

Trying to hide.They ran into the woods in an attempt to hide from God.  ‘The trees which were meant as the context for their freedom (“You may freely eat of every tree”, Gen 2:16) are not the context of a cover-up’ (Atkinson).  Sin separates us from God; ‘sinners know instinctively that God is too holy to look upon their sin…We ourselves are sensible that transgression brings alienation every time we sin.  Our fellowship with God is hindered, and so we keep our distance, afraid to meet him face to face’ (Ryken).  See Col 1:21.

We try to hide, too.  ‘Like Adam and Eve, we hide ourselves among “trees.” The theologians and ministers hide themselves among the marble columns of the church; the activist, among the picket signs of causes.’ (Waltke & Fredricks).  Of course, it is impossible to hide from God (as Psa 139 testifies), but that does not stop us from making the attempt.

Interrogation.  Note the run of questions in vv9-13.  As Waltke & Fredricks remark: ‘God models justice. The just King will not pass sentence without careful investigation (cf. Gen 4:9–10; 18:21). Although omniscient, God questions them, inducing them to confess their guilt.’  Matthews says that ‘the effect is pedagogical and permits the guilty to witness against themselves by their own admissions.’

“Where are you?” – ‘God’s questions were designed to elicit confessions, not information; he knew perfectly well what they had done.’ (NBC)  The question was intended to call them to account.

The answer to God’s question is that Adam, ‘naked, rebellious, ashamed, guilty, shifting blame, afraid’ is ‘hiding behind the trees.’

‘Where is the man, God’s estate manager, his park keeper?  Where is the man with authority to name the animals?  Where is the delight in the sexual embrace as woman is introduced to man?  Where is the human being made to be the image of God?  Where is the human person made to share the joy and rest of the seventh day in the worship and adoration of his Creator?’ (Atkinson)

Hope.  But there is also invitation in God’s question.  By making the man face up to his guilt and shame, a way is opened up for a way out, for redemption.  The rest of the Bible will show how, and at what cost, this redemption is achieved.  ‘How good,’ writes Atkinson, ‘that we are told o someone who stands in the breach as a Mediator with a word of Good News.  The clothing of his righteousness, the acceptance, forgiveness, love and peace of his gospel, and the power of his resurrection, bring life back to the dead.  Through Christ, the second Adam, life can begin again.  Through him, the way can be opened again to the tree of life.  Through him we can know our Creator once more as our Father, and in the fellowship of his Body can begin again to be made whole.’

“The woman you put here with me” – Lit. ‘The woman you gave me’.

Blame-shifting.  Adam does not deny the fact of his disobedience, but his first instinct is to excuse himself and shift the blame – to God and the woman.  “It’s him!”  “It’s her!”  “It’s you!”  “It’s it!”  But it’s never me.  But we must all take responsibility for our own sin, as James 1:13 teaches.

‘It’s as if the man was saying, “Remember the suitable helper you gave me? It’s all your fault! Obviously, she wasn’t so suitable after all! What was I supposed to do? Next time don’t make somebody who leads me into sin!” No response from God. No response necessary.’ (Kostenberger & Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman)

Alienation.  Sin leads to alienation between God and man and between person and person. ‘Adam and his wife fell into instant tension because of their sin: ‘The woman whom thou gavest to be with me…’ (verse 12). The whole relationship has fallen apart because sin has divided them. They thought they were going to be like God. They did this thing to make themselves ‘Godlike and divine’, and at once they showed how un-Godlike and un-divine they were by falling into discord and disharmony. But this is a mirror-image of redemption. God does not simply reconcile us to himself. He also reconciles us to one another. In Eph 2:14 the ‘middle wall of partition’ speaks of barriers between Jew and Gentile, between man and man, between group and group. God has taken those barriers down in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is of enormous importance that our churches should reflect this. If we want to evangelise the world effectively, we must ensure that our churches are places of reconciliation where people find acceptance and see harmony and accord.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

Confession.  ‘We glorify God by an ingenuous confession of sin. The thief on the cross had dishonoured God in his life, but at his death he brought glory to God by confession of sin. Lk 23:41. ‘We indeed suffer justly.’ He acknowledged he deserved not only crucifixion, but damnation. Jos 7:19. ‘My son, give, I pray thee, glory to God, and make confession unto him.’ A humble confession exalts God. How is God’s free grace magnified in crowning those who deserve to be condemned! The excusing and mincing of sin casts a reproach upon God. Adam denied not that he tasted the forbidden fruit, but, instead of a full confession, he taxed God. Gen 3:12. ‘The woman whom thou gavest me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat;’ if thou hadst not given me the woman to be a tempter, I had not sinned. Confession glorifies God, because it clears him; it acknowledges that he is holy and righteous, whatever he does. Nehemiah vindicates God’s righteousness; Neh 9:33. ‘Thou art just in all that is brought upon us.’ A confession is ingenuous when it is free, not forced. Lk 15:18. ‘I have sinned against heaven and before thee.’ The prodigal charged himself with sin before his father charged him with it.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

3:13 So the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman replied, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

Like her husband, Eve seeks to excuse herself by blaming someone else.

‘In other words, “Don’t blame me; blame the Serpent!” It’s almost as if the woman was saying, “What did you expect? Of course I ate from the forbidden tree! I practically had no choice!”’ (Kostenberger & Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman.

3:14 The LORD God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all the wild beasts
and all the living creatures of the field!
On your belly you will crawl
and dust you will eat all the days of your life.

Blessings reversed.  Now come words of judgement.  ‘The blessings are reversed.  The joyous dance of creation becomes a dirge, as a shadow falls over all things.’  Setting the narrative out in ‘scenes’, Wenham comments: ‘In scene 1 the garden was planted for man (Gen 2:8); he was allowed to eat of the tree of life (Gen 2:9, 16–17); and his job was to till and guard it (Gen 2:15). The writer expatiates on the rich lushness of the garden of Eden in leisurely detail, so as to emphasize that it was man’s perfect home, where he enjoyed peace with God. In comparison, in scene 7 man’s expulsion from the garden is described almost abruptly, as we learn that he will no longer have access to the tree of life; instead of man guarding the garden, armed cherubim will be stationed there to keep him out. Finally, he who was appointed to till the garden will till the land instead, thereby foreshadowing the fulfillment of the curse “until you return to the land from which you were taken, for you are dust and to dust you must return” (Gen 3:19).’

No interrogation of the serpent.  ‘God refused to dignify the serpent by allowing it to account for its involvement in this act of disobedience.’ (Hartley)  As Ryken says, God had no plan of salvation for the serpent, but only a plan to destroy him.

‘The entire animal kingdom was affected by man’s fall, (cf. Jer 12:4; Rom 8:20) but the serpent’s very form and movements were altered, and he was humbled (you will eat dust is a symbol of humiliation, not an item of diet; cf. Mic 7:17; Isa 65:25).’ (Ryrie)

‘Three major opinions about these words have been expressed. 1. Some hold that a complete transformation of all biological serpents took place at this time. But if a snake was the innocent vehicle of Satan, why is the snake (and all his kind) punished? Do snakes literally eat dust, or is this a metaphor? If a metaphor, could it not apply as easily to Satan himself as to snakes? 2. Others say that a new significance was given to the original status of the snake. Thus what had formerly been the mere result of nature became through this curse a kind of punishment, a symbol of the effect of sin. 3. Still others take “crawl on your belly” and “eat dust” in a figurative sense. Like the modern expression “bite the dust” the Hebrew expression “eat dust” is equivalent to being reduced to a demeaning and contemptible position. (cf. Mic 7:17; Isa 65:25) This former angelic being was now debased in relation to man, and even to the lowliest creatures God ever made (3:14).’ (OT Survey)

To eat dust is to be utterly humiliated.

3:15 And I will put hostility between you and the woman
and between your offspring and her offspring;
her offspring will attack your head,
and you will attack her offspring’s heel.”

It is interesting that the clearest word of promise in this chapter is addressed to the serpent (although the promise does not concern him, but rather the offspring of the woman).

Enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers – Here, in a nutshell, is the prospect of bitter warfare between Satan and the human race.

‘The seed of the serpent is not literal, as in little snakes, for it has already been established that the serpent is only a masquerade for a heavenly spirit. Neither is the seed demons, for such an interpretation does not fit the context and Satan does not father demons. Rather, the seed of the serpent refers to natural humanity whom he has led into rebellion against God.’ (Waltke & Fredricks).  See Jn 8:44; 1 Jn 3:11-15.

Commentators are divided as to whether ‘offspring’ (‘seed’) should be understood as referring to humanity as a whole, or to Christ.  The second of these is to be preferred, although with the qualification that Christ’s mission and people are to be included as well.

Hostility: on-going, but not endless

The desperate efforts by Satan to stop the mission of Christ in its tracks are seen in

  • the brutal attempt by Herod to kill all the baby boys who had been born in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, Mt 2:16.
  • the temptation of Jesus by the devil (where Adam failed in the garden, Jesus triumphed in the wilderness); but notice in Lk 4:13 that the devil continued to look out for another opportunity).
  • the repeated confrontations with demonised people (see, e.g., the extravagance of the demonic assault launched against Jesus, Lk 8:30).
  • the obstinacy of ‘the Jews’ (Jn 8:42-47).
  • the attempt by Peter to persuade Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and to the cross, Mk 8:32f.
  • the Satan-inspired betrayal of Jesus by Judas Lk 22:3; Jn 13:27.
  • the persecution of the young church, as recorded in Acts.

Rev 12 displays this in ‘technicolor’.

But the enmity is not endless.  As Jesus says in Jn 12:31f, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.’  Paul says (Rom 16:20): ‘The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.’  The curse is reversed: where Adam failed, Jesus triumphed.  He came “to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), to disarm “the rulers and authorities” (Col. 2:15), and to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14).

He will crush your head, and you will strike his heel – ‘Crush’ and ‘strike’ translate the same word in the original.  Wenham translates them as ‘batter’.

Superficially, this could look like an aetiology, explaining why snakes try to bite people, and why people try to kill snakes.  But there is so much more in this story that indicate a cosmic struggle between between good and evil, with the eventual triumph of ‘the offspring of the woman’.

Weeks, accepting the word ‘crush’ as a translation, notes that this would seem appropriate for what a man might do to a snake, but for what a snake would do to a man.  He suggests: ‘That problem is overcome if we realize that both injuries are delivered at the same time. The underlying picture is of a man delivering a mortal blow by stamping on the head of a snake. The very act causes a reciprocal injury, though since it is to the heel, not a mortal one.’

Temptation to be expected

‘Let it never surprise us, if we are tempted by the devil. Let us rather expect it, as a matter of course, if we are living members of Christ. The Master’s lot will be the lot of His disciples. That mighty spirit who did not fear to attack Jesus himself, is still going about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. That murderer and liar who vexed Job, and overthrew David and Peter, still lives, and is not yet bound. If he cannot rob us of heaven, he will at any rate make our journey there painful. If he cannot destroy our souls, he will at least bruise our heels. (Gen. 3:15.) Let us beware of despising him, or thinking lightly of his power. Let us rather put on the whole armor of God, and cry to the strong for strength. “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7.)’ (Ryle, on Lk 4:1-13)

Gospel promise

‘Though this was a judgement on the snake, it was at the same time a promise to man. It has, therefore, traditionally been seen by Jews and Christians, as the first hint of a saviour for mankind, and Gen 3:15 is often called the ‘protevangelion‘ the ‘first gospel’. Allusions to it in the NT include Rom 16:20; Heb 2:14; Rev 12. Within Genesis the promise to Abraham that ‘through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed’ (Gen 22:18) starts to make the vague promise of Gen 3:15 more specific. It is also notable that this first judgment on sin is tinged with hope, something that recurs throughout Scripture (cf. Gen 6:5-8), as God’s mercy outweighs his wrath.’ (cf. Ex 20:5-6) (NBC)

‘The first promise (Gen 3:15) is like the first small spring or head of a great river, which the farther it runs the bigger it grows by the accession of more waters to it. Or like the sun in the heavens, which the higher it mounts the more bright and glorious the day still grows.’ (Flavel)

Wenham cites Jewish writers from the third century B.C. who understand the serpent to be a symbol of Satan and who look forward to a Messianic victory over him.  Both the NT (Rom 16:20; Heb 2:14; Rev 12) and later Christian writers such as Justin and Irenaeus regard this verse as broadly Messianic.  Wenham concludes: ‘While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the light of subsequent revelation, a sensus plenior, it would perhaps be wrong to suggest this was the narrator’s own understanding.’

Born of a woman.  There is possibly a reference to the unique circumstances of Christ’s birth here. As James Orr says, ‘the promise to Abraham was that in his seed the families of the earth would be blessed; there the male is emphasised, but here it is the woman – the woman distinctively.’ (The Fundamentals, Vol 1, p11).  In Gal 4:4 and 1 Tim 2:15 allusions to Gen 3:15 are probable, and in Jn 2:4 and Jn 19:26 possible.  Consider also the title ‘Son of Man’.

The triumph of Christ’s kingdom.  ‘What is the meaning of the first promise that the Seed of the woman is to crush the head of the Serpent, if not that Christ is to establish a triumphant kingdom in the earth? Would that promise and prophecy be fulfilled if the gospel were never even to make an approach to universality?’ (Lorimer, in The Revival of Religion, 189)

‘Christ baffled Satan’s temptations, rescued souls out of his hands, cast him out of the bodies of people, dispossessed the strong man armed, and divided his spoil: by his death, he gave a fatal and incurable blow to the devil’s kingdom, a wound to the head of this beast, that can never be healed. As his gospel gets ground, Satan falls (Lk 10:18) and is bound, Rev 20:2. By his grace, he treads Satan under his people’s feet (Rom 16:20) and will shortly cast him into the lake of fire, Rev 20:10.’ (MHC)

Serpent seed theory.  ‘Many Pentecostal Oneness sects use this verse to promote the serpent seed theory. William Branham, a faith healing evangelist of the 1940s, taught that Eve’s sin in the garden was an illicit sexual affair with the serpent, resulting in her pregnancy. The serpent’s seed was Cain and his descendants. Scripture is clear that the first sin was not sexual but rather consisted of Adam’s disobedience to God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:16–17).’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

3:16 To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your labor pains;
with pain you will give birth to children.
You will want to control your husband,
but he will dominate you.”

Disrupted roles.  ‘Adam and Eve’s rebellion came with great consequences. They lost their capacity to rightly enjoy God’s good gifts. Perfection was replaced with pain (3:16a). A joyful marriage became an unequal partnership (3:16b). Happy cultivation became sweaty toil (3:17). The beautiful garden became a briar patch (3:18). Once-imperishable bodies began slowly to decay and die (3:19). And they were thrust out of their garden home forever (3:22–24). Everything that was once so good was turned on its head. As we read on in the book of Genesis we find that murder, rape, disease, drunkenness, and death were further results of the sin of Adam and Eve. And the world in which we live today is mixed-up and messy because of their original sin.’ (Kurt Strassner, Opening Up Genesis)

For the woman, the focus of pain will be in childbearing.  For the man, it will be in labour.  ‘The two earlier commands, to be fruitful and to till the ground, are now both occasions for misery’ (Atkinson).  ‘The two great mandates, originally signs of pure blessing, became mixed with curse and pain—the earth could now be populated only through the woman’s birth pangs and could be subdued only by the man’s labor and perspiration (3:16–18)’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Adam’s Story’)


‘The negatives, the very real painful negatives, in this judgment should not obscure the positive. There will be pain and conflict, but childbirth and the male-female bond will endure. Therein is hope! A long dying allows other life to come into being. And the enemy will be destroyed by the seed of the woman.’ (Weeks)

“I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing”

The pain of childbirth

‘To be a joyful mother of children was the hope of every OT woman, (Gen 30:1; Ps 113:9) but the pain of childbirth was a constant reminder of the first mother’s sin. Furthermore, instead of marriage being a relationship of mutual care, tension was often to characterize it. Your desire may be a desire for sexual intercourse or for independence, but ultimately the husband’s headship will prevail. He will rule over you may indicate harsh domination, but it may simply be reaffirming the chain of authority (God-man-woman) established at creation but reversed at the fall (6).’ (NBC)

False deduction

It would be a false deduction to use this text to argue, as some did, against the use of analgesia in childbirth.  It would be as false as arguing from Gen 3:18 against the use of weedkillers in the battle against thorns and thistles.

“You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you” – 

'Your desire shall be for your husband'

Gen 3:16 To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”


The rare word translated ‘desire’ in many translations can have both positive and negative connotations.  Some (e.g. Walton, Giles, Steinmann) interpret the present verse in the light of Song 7:10, where the word refers to sexual desire.  Others (e.g. Sailhamer, Kostenberger & Kostenberger) interpret in the light of Gen 4:7 (“sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it”).

The latest (final?) edition of the ESV complicates matters further by rendering:

“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

In his 2019 commentary (TOTC), Steinmann interprets as follows:

‘despite the difficulty of labour, the woman will continue to desire the love, companionship and intimacy of marriage to her husband. In recent times some have understood this desire to be a desire of the woman to dominate her husband, based on the use of the same word at 4:7. However, 4:7 contains very difficult Hebrew and is not a reliable guide to understanding this term.’

Kevin Giles (What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women) claims that until about 1980 ‘all commentators’ understood this ‘desire’ to be a desire for sexual intimacy with her husband.  The idea that it refers to a ‘desire’ to control her husband, dates only as far back as 1975, in an article by Susan Foh.

In the light of this rather bold claim, here is a sampling from older commentators:

Calvin: ‘This form of speech, “Your desire shall be for your husband,” is of the same force as if he had said that she would not be free and at her own command, but subject to her husband’s authority and dependent upon his will—as if he had said, “You shall desire nothing but what your husband wishes,” even as Genesis 4:7 reads, “Its desire shall be for you.” Thus the woman, who had recklessly exceeded her proper bounds, is brought back into line. To be sure, she was previously subject to her husband, but that was a gentle and honorable subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.’
Matthew Poole (about 1685) says that the expressions that ‘thy desires shall be referred or submitted to thy husband’s will and pleasure to grant or deny them, as he sees fit. Which sense is confirmed from Genesis 4:7, where the same phrase is used in the same sense.’
Keil & Delitzsch (1866): ‘[The woman] was punished with a desire bordering upon disease (תּשׁוּקה from שׁוּק to run, to have a violent craving for a thing), and with subjection to the man. “And he shall rule over thee.”‘
R.S. Candlish (1868): ‘She is to be subject to her husband; for such is the import of the phrase, “Unto him shall be thy desire, and he shall rule over thee” (ver. 16); it denotes the dependence of affection or of helplessness on the one hand, and the assertion of authority and power on the other.’
James Murphy (Barnes’ Notes, 1873): ‘“Desire” does not refer to sexual desire in particular. (Gen. 4:7). It means, in general, turn, determination of the will. “The determination of thy will shall be yielded to thy husband, and accordingly he shall rule over thee.”’
Skinner (ICC, 1910) ‘It is not…implied that the woman’s sexual desire is stronger than the man’s; the point rather is that by the instincts of her nature she shall be bound to the hard conditions of her lot, both the ever-recurring pains of child-bearing, and subjection to the man. —while he (on his part) shall rule over thee. The idea of tyrannous exercise of power does not lie in the vb.; but it means that the woman is wholly subject to the man, and so liable to the arbitrary treatment sanctioned by the marriage customs of the East.’
H.E. Ryle (1921, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges) ‘Doubtless, there is a reference to the never ending romance of daily life, presented by the passionate attachment of a wife to her husband, however domineering, unsympathetic, or selfish he may be. But the primary reference will be to the condition of subservience which woman occupied, and still occupies, in the East; and to the position of man, as head of the family, and carrying the responsibility, as well as the authority, of “rule.”’
Kidner (1967): ‘The phrase your desire shall be for your husband (RSV), with the reciprocating he shall rule over you, portrays a marriage relation in which control has slipped from the fully personal realm to that of instinctive urges passive and active. ‘To love and to cherish’ becomes ‘To desire and to dominate’. While even pagan marriage can rise far above this, the pull of sin is always towards it.’

Giles, having dismissed the view of the Kostenbergers as ‘novel’, seems to favour the conclusion of Janson Condren, in a 2017 JETS paper.  Giles writes:

Until the rise of the complementarian movement all commentators took the “desire” of the woman for her husband mentioned in Gen 3:16b to be a desire for intimacy and/or a sexual relationship with her husband. The Köstenbergers adopt a post-1970s novel complementarian interpretation of this word. They take the Hebrew teshuqah (“desire”) to be speaking of a “desire to control.” They thus interpret Gen 3:16 to be teaching that following the fall the woman will “desire” to control her husband and as a consequence the husband and the wife will be caught up in a never-ending struggle. The pernicious logic of this argument is that all or most conflict in marriages arises because women will not submit to the godly rule of their husbands; they struggle against it as sinners. This novel understanding of the woman’s desire, so popular among complementarians, has had many critics and recently suffered a death blow. Janson Condren, an Australian evangelical Old Testament scholar, in a compelling journal article, shows that this argument is “fundamentally misguided.” It is his conclusion that the Hebrew word teshuqah should not be translated as “desire.” It speaks rather of “a returning to.” Genesis 3:16 is saying, despite the man’s rule over her and the pain of childbirth, the woman wants to return to her husband, seeking the perfect intimacy she enjoyed with him before the fall.

Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible) thinks that the words translated ‘desire’ and ‘will rule’ have been the subject of ‘a most amazing translation history’.  He asks,

‘Is it true that due to the Fall women naturally exhibit overpowering sexual desires for their husbands? And if this is so, did God simultaneously order husbands to exercise authority over their wives?’

According to Kaiser, in the ancient versions (including the LXX and the Vulgate) the word teshuqah, in all three instances in which it occurs in the OT, was usually translated, not as ‘desire’, but as ‘turning’.  The same applies to the church fathers (Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome), and also Philo.  The Latin rendering was ‘conversio and the Greek was apostrophē or epistrophē, words all meaning “a turning.”’

So how did the word ‘desire’ intrude?  Drawing on the research of Katherine C. Bushnell, this translation can be traced back to an Italian monk named Pagnino, whose translation of the OT appeared in Lyons in 1528.

‘Now except for Wycliffe’s 1380 English version and the Douay Bible of 1609, both of which were made from the Latin Vulgate, every English version from the time of Pagnino up to the present day has adopted Pagnino’s rendering for Genesis 3:16.’

But, according to Bushnell, the only place where the meaning of ‘sexual desire’ can be found is in the “Ten Curses of Eve” in the Talmud.

Beth Allison Barr (The Making of Biblical Womanhood) summarises Bushnell’s view:

‘Katharine Bushnell, a female missionary to China at the turn of the twentieth century, held a similar view. She cautioned about the danger of patriarchy for women. Instead of “desire,” she preferred to translate the word in Genesis 3:16 as “turning.” As she translated the verse, “Thou art turning away to thy husband, and he will rule over thee.” Before the fall, both Adam and Eve submitted to God’s authority. After the fall, because of sin, women would now turn first to their husbands, and their husbands, in the place of God, would rule over them.’

Barr continues:

‘I love how historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez describes Bushnell’s interpretation as a “theological coup” that “upended Victorian understandings of womanhood.” As Du Mez explains, “For Bushnell, male authority over women contradicted God’s will and perpetuated man’s original rebellion against God.” Women thus “continued to commit the sin of Eve when they submitted to men, rather than to God.” Patriarchy, for Bushnell, was not just a result of the curse; it was embedded in the fall itself. Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.’

For Kaiser, too, the literal meaning is, “You are turning away [from God!] to your husband, and [as a result] he will rule over you [take advantage of you].”  In other words, ‘the sense of Genesis 3:16 is simply this: As a result of her sin, Eve would turn away from her sole dependence on God and turn now to her husband. The results would not at all be pleasant, warned God, as he announced this curse.’

Kaiser adds that there is no sense of any command that husbands ought to rule over their wives.  The verb contains ‘a simple statement of futurity.’

Kaiser says that the rather similar text in Gen 4:17 does not imply a command, but rather is in the form of a question, ‘Will you be its master?’  And when Paul says in 1 Cor 14:34 that women must be in subjection ‘as the law says’ he is quoting from the Corinthians themselves (not stating his own view) and ‘the law’ referred to must be the Talmud and the Mishnah, for no command for women to be silent can be found in the OT.

Kaiser concludes: ‘Later on in God’s revelation, our Lord will affirm a job subordination within the marriage relationship, and the husband will be answerable to God for the well-being of his wife and family. However, Genesis 3:16 does not carry any of those meanings.’

Janson Condren (in the JETS article referenced above) considers Kaiser’s own translation of ‘turning away’ as ‘turning away [from God] to your husband, and [as a result] he will rule over you [take advantage of you]’ to be ‘less than satisfactory.  Condren argues that there is no hint in the Hebrew word of turning away from.  For him, this is ‘ best viewed as only the culminating aspect of her return for the relational harmony and naked vulnerability forfeited
by disobedience (3:1–6).’

The Lexham Research Commentary: ‘Given the limited usage of teshuqah elsewhere, its precise meaning in Gen 3:16 is uncertain. Some understand it to mean sexual desire. In this understanding, the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” could mean that women will desire childbearing despite the pain they will experience. Others point to Gen 4:7 and note that the phrase “you must rule (mashal) over it” corresponds with “and he shall rule (mashal) over you” in Gen 3:16. They argue that the parallel use of teshuqah and mashal indicates that teshuqah in Gen 3:16 refers to a struggle for control.’

Walke & Fredriks: ‘The chiastic structure of the phrase pairs the terms “desire” and “rule over,” suggesting that her desire will be to dominate. This interpretation of an ambiguous passage is validated by the same pairing in the unambiguous context of Gen 4:7.’

Mathews: ‘The “desire” of the woman is her attempt to control her husband, but she will fail because God has ordained that the man exercise his leadership function.’

Ryken agrees that this phrase, together with the next, ‘is a prophecy about the battle of the sexes and the struggle for power in all human relationships.’

‘The loving harmony that prevailed before the fall will be replaced by a pattern of struggle in which the woman will seek to exert control over her husband (interpreting “desire” as “desire for control,” cf. Gen. 4: 7), who will respond by asserting his authority. In failing to exercise his God-given leadership role, he might exhibit passivity, as he did when Satan tempted the woman in the garden and he failed to protect her. Or the man might harshly dominate his wife. In either event, following the fall the male-female relationship is mired in a perennial struggle for control.’ (Kostenberger & Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman)

‘The Lord’s pronouncement predicts the future rivalry between the sexes for dominance, a rivalry resulting from the sinful condition of the man and woman. These words are not an exhortation directed to the man to dominate his wife. Hebrew law recognized the vulnerability of women and required special deference to them (Ex 22:22; Dt 25:5–10). The NT explicitly commands husbands to love and honor their wives (Eph 5:25; Col 3:19; 1 Pt 3:7), and Christian husbands and wives observe their spiritual equality (Gl 3:28) while carrying out their respective God-given roles.’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

This verse ‘indicates that there will be an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man for leadership in the marriage relationship. . . . Eve will have the sinful ‘desire’ to oppose Adam and assert leadership over him.’ (Alexander, ESV Study Bible)

Descriptive, rather than prescriptive

Presumably, these words do not express God’s will for the woman, but rather announce another aspect of the cursed existence of men and woman because of the Fall. If so, then a restricted place for women in society, and the domination of women by men, is not a divine purpose but an expression of human sin.

“He will rule over you” – Mathews: ‘but he will rule’ (not ‘and he will rule’).

‘The majority of commentators recognize that “he shall rule over you” is no divine proscription [sic] but a tragic predication of sin’s effects on the human race. The Hebrew verb for “rule” found in Gen 3:16 (mashal) is the same term found in Gen 4:7 of Cain’s need to harshly dominate or master that which would harm him, namely sin. This lexical observation, along with the context of Gen 3:16 that gives several unfortunate, negative consequences of the Fall, leads me to conclude that “he shall rule over you” reflects not God’s desire, but a realistic prediction of the results of sinful depravity on males who will routinely seek to abuse their power. Thus Victor Hamilton argues that this phrase means: “the sinful husband will try to be a tyrant over his wife”’ (Steven R. Tracy, ‘Patriarchy and Domestic Violence: Challenging Common Misconceptions‘, JETS 50/3 (September 2007) 573–94)

Roger Nicole emphasises that this statement is descriptive, and not prescriptive:

‘ it is important to recognize that God’s judgment on Eve and her daughters (“and he [the man] shall rule over you [the woman]”, Gen 3:16) is not a prescriptive mandate that men ought to observe in order to do God’s will. Rather, the phrase is a description of what was going to occur in human history, a prophecy fulfilled millions of times in the oppression of women throughout the world. Likewise, it is certainly appropriate to seek to ease the pain of childbirth and to lighten the burden of male labor, which are also part of God’s judgment on Adam and Eve’s sin (Gen 3:17–19).’ (Discovering Biblical Hierarchy, chapter 20)

The sense here, according the Ryken, is that ‘the man rules over the woman, not as a servant leader, but as a harsh taskmaster.’  Kidner states that ‘”To love and to cherish” becomes “To desire and to dominate”’.  Stott notes that ‘the domination of woman by man is due to the fall, not to the creation.’ (Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed., p330)

Some find in this verse the beginning of patriarchy:

‘It is in Genesis 3:16 (God speaking to the woman) where we first see hierarchy in human relationships. . . . Hierarchy was not God’s will for the first pair, but it was imposed when they chose to disregard his command and eat the forbidden fruit. . . . Adam would now be subject to his source (the ground), even as Eve was now subject to her source (Adam). This was the moment of the birth of patriarchy. As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was now master over the man, contrary to God’s original intention in creation.’ (Alice Mathews, quoted by Beth Allison Barr in The Making of Biblical Womanhood)

Description, not prescription

Once again, this does not express God’s will, but rather how things will now be, as a consequence of sin.  ‘this is not a divine prescription of what should be, but a description in the fallen world of what will be.’ (Atkinson)

In his autobiography, Ghandi notes that ‘a Hindu husband regards himself as lord and master of his wife, who must forever dance attendance upon him’

Sura 4 of the Koran teaches that ‘men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other…As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them.’

Raymond de Coccola, who spend 12 years among the Canadian Eskimos, says: ‘Trained to do all manner of mean tasks, the Eskimo woman is used to enduring the weaknesses and appetites of men.  But I still could not get used to what appeared to be a master-and-slave relationship between the hunter and his wife.’

Stott, who cites the preceding examples, adds that of pornography, ‘a major symbol of Western decadence, in which women are made the objects of male abuse and violence.’

In the OT, although the husband is clearly the patriarch of his clan, womenfolk were not to be despised or ill-treated.  They were regarded as an integral part of the covenant community, with men, women and children assembling together for worship and the public reading of the Torah, Deut 31:12.  Marriage was held in high honour, modelled as it was on the Lord’s covenant love to Israel, sexual love was celebrated (as in the Song of Songs), the abilities of a good wife were praised (Prob 31), and godly and enterprising women, such as Hannah, Abigail, Naomi, Ruth and Esther were held up for admiration.  Moreover, the prophets looked forward to the days of the new covenant, in which the equality of the sexes would be re-established, with God pouring out his Spirit on all flesh, including sons and daughters, manservants and maidservants.

Those verse sums up the alienation between one person and another that runs so deeply through all of our existence.  ‘Wives criticize their husbands and husbands respond in anger.  Children disobey their parents, while parents in turn exasperate their children.  The elderly are killed off in the name of mercy, while the unborn never see the light of day.’  To these personal alienations we must add societal ones, with endless battles of the sexes (often to the disadvantage of women), oppression and rebellion in the workplace, conflict within the churches, and of course, armed conflict around the globe. (Ryken)

Atkinson remarks that ‘the gospel of Christ shows its revolutionary perspectives nowhere more clearly than in Jesus’ treatment of women.  In his relationships with his mother, Mary Magdalene, with the sisters at Bethany, and with others, there is a tenderness and an acceptance which upholds the dignity, equality and respect which sin all too often discards.’  See also Paul’s teaching in Eph 5.

But not cursed

Neither the man nor the woman are cursed: only the serpent and the ground.  Indeed, as Luther pointed out: ‘For Adam and Eve not only do not hear themselves cursed like the serpent; but they even hear themselves drawn up, as it were, in battle line against their condemned enemy, and this with the hope of help from the Son of God, the Seed of the woman. Forgiveness of sins and full reception into grace are here pointed out to Adam and Eve. Their guilt has been forgiven; they have been won back from death and have already been set free from hell and from those fears by which they were all but slain when God appeared.’ (Reformation Commentary on Scripture)

Male headship before the Fall

Egalitarian writers often claim that male headship did not come about until after the Fall, and is, accordingly, a consequence of the Fall.

This view goes back at least as far as Chrysostom, who represents God as addressing the woman thus:

‘In the beginning I created you equal in esteem to your husband, and my intention was that in everything you would share with him as an equal, and as I entrusted control of everything to your husband, so did I to you; but you abused your equality of status. Hence I subject you to your husband.’ (Homilies on Genesis)

Gilbert Bilezikian (Beyond Sexual Roles) writes of Adam and Eve:

Instead of meeting her desire and providing a mutually supportive and nurturing family environment, he will rule over her.… The clearest implication of this statement [Gen. 3:16], conferring rulership to Adam as a result of the fall, is that he was not Eve’s ruler prior to the fall.

And Rebecca Groothuis says:

In fact, there is no mention of either spouse ruling over the other—until after their fall into sin, when God declares to the woman that “he will rule over you” (3:16). This is stated by God not as a command, but as a consequence of their sin.

Goldingay (Old Testament for Everyone) offers his view:

‘The two creation stories contained no pointers toward male “headship” in the sense that men or husbands are supposed to exercise authority or leadership over women or wives. But the audience of Genesis knew that patriarchy was a reality of life. Genesis here tells them how this came to be. Male authority or domination was not God’s design but a consequence of a breakdown in relationship between humanity and God, between humanity and the animal world, and between human beings and one another. From now on, the Bible will assume the reality of patriarchy and of male headship, but it begins by noting that this came about only as a result of those various breakdowns of relationship.’

It should be noted that Kevin Giles (What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women) argues at length against such ‘inferences’.  (His target is not Grudem directly, but the Kostenbergers, God’s Design for Man and Woman).  Giles urges that Genesis 1 ‘unambiguously’ teaches that man and woman ‘have the same status, dignity, and authority’, and that there is nothing in chapter 2 that would contradict this.  In my view, Giles’ work is characterised by misrepresentation of the work of those he opposes, and of misplaced confidence in his own interpretations.

In her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos Press, 2021), Beth Allison Barr maintains that male headship dates back only as far as the Fall, and is therefore itself a sinful human invention, rather than a divine institution.

Alice Mathews is quoted as saying:

‘It is in Genesis 3:16 (God speaking to the woman) where we first see hierarchy in human relationships. . . . Hierarchy was not God’s will for the first pair, but it was imposed when they chose to disregard his command and eat the forbidden fruit. . . . Adam would now be subject to his source (the ground), even as Eve was now subject to her source (Adam). This was the moment of the birth of patriarchy. As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was now master over the man, contrary to God’s original intention in creation.’

Astonishingly, Barr claims that…

‘Everyone already knew that patriarchy was a result of the fall.’

…adding that,

‘Stanley Gundry, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, states this matter-of-factly in a 2010 essay.’

Well, Stanley Gundry is not exactly ‘everyone’!  What Gundry actually states in his essay (available here) is that patriarchy is, in his own judgement,

‘mere accommodation to the reality of the times and culture; it is not a reflection of the divine ideal for humanity. …patriarchy is not the divine ideal, and that restoration of what originally was is coming once again.’

This is a far cry from a claim for, or evidence of, the notion that ‘everyone already knew that patriarchy was a result of the fall.’

Here are a few voices that demonstrate the absurdity of Barr’s claim.

Martin Luther clearly believed that male headship existed before the Fall:

‘If Eve had persisted in the truth, she would not only not have been subjected to the rule of her husband, but she herself would also have been a partner in the rule which is now entirely the concern of males.’ (Lectures on Genesis)

So celebrated a commentator as John Calvin could write:

‘This form of speech, “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband,” is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, ‘Thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes.’ As it is declared afterwards, Unto thee shall be his desire, (Gen_4:7.) Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.‘ (Emphasis added)

Andrew Willett (1608):

‘The woman should have been obedient to man before, but out of a loving society, so as to be made partaker of all his counsels, not of an urging necessity as now: whereby the woman, in respect of her weakness, depends on her husband not only with her will for her direction and for the provision of things necessary, but she also often endures against her will the hard yoke of an unequal commander.’

Richard Steele, Puritan:

‘The effects of a husband’s love to his wife are to be seen in his behaviour towards her; that is, in the mild use of his authority.—This God hath, in his wisdom, invested him withal at his creation, (Gen. 2:23,) and not divested him at his fall. (Gen. 3:16.) The light of nature gives it to him; (Esther 1:22;) and the gospel hath nowhere repealed, but confirmed, the same. (1 Cor. 11:3.) And none but proud and ignorant women will ever dispute it.’ (Puritan Sermons, Volume 2)

The 19th-century commentators Jamieson, Fausset and Brown:

‘The husband, as the head, is naturally invested with superior right and authority, for “the woman was created for the man,” as an helpmate, and consequently dependent on him (1 Cor. 11:9). But these have been greatly increased since the fall, and the propriety or equity of this penalty to which woman was subjected consisted in this, that as it was while acting independently and apart from Adam she attempted to shake off her allegiance to God, she was, besides being bound by the primary law of obedience to God, brought also under the additional law of submission to the yoke of her husband. In every age of the world’s history woman has been found in a state of subjection; in all heathen countries she has been the slave of man, as throughout the East at the present day she is his property—his possession by purchase. Man exercises a lordship over the weaker sex, and although in Christian nations, where the sexes are more generally restored to their just and proper relations, a wife is raised to a position of greater dignity or honourable equality in rank and privilege, yet even there women are often doomed to bear much from the will, temper, or caprice of imperious husbands; and while the spirit of Christianity is wholly averse to lordly authority, the Gospel rule still is, so long as sin remains in the hearts of believers, “Let the wife see that she reverence her husband,” “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands as unto the Lord.”’

Recent commentators Waltke and Fredriks:

‘Male leadership, not male dominance, had been assumed in the ideal, pre-Fall situation.’

Another recent commentator, Gordon Wenham (WBC), refers to the pre-Fall situation and asserts:

‘In that woman was made from man to be his helper and is twice named by man (Gen 2:23; 3:20) indicates his authority over her.’

Distinguished Bible scholar Craig Blomberg appears to allow for both views:

‘For those who see hierarchy in Genesis 2, what was intended to be fully harmonious will now deteriorate into seduction and tyranny. For others, here is where relationships of authority and submission first appear. “To love and to cherish” has degenerated into “to desire and to dominate.”’ (EDBT, art. ‘Woman’)

Kenneth Mathews can go so far as to affirm that the idea that male headship pre-dated the Fall is the traditional view, while the opposing interpretation is more recent:

‘Whereas traditionally the woman’s submission to her husband was accepted as an ordinance of creation that was corrupted by the fall and which can only be restored through the Christian gospel, new voices propose that Eve’s submission was an altogether new state resulting from sin.’

The idea that male headship pre-dates the Fall cannot therefore be regarded as a theological outlier, as Barr appears to think.

As to substance, it is Wayne Grudem who offers the most detailed rationale for pre-Fall headship that I have seen.  He draws our attention to:

  1. The order: Adam was created first, then Eve (note the sequence in Genesis 2:7 and 2:18-23; 1 Timothy 2:13).
  2. The representation: Adam, not Eve, had a special role in representing the human race (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49; Romans 5:12-21).
  3. The naming of woman: Adam named Eve; Eve did not name Adam (Genesis 2:23).
  4. The naming of the human race: God named the human race “Man,” not “Woman” (Genesis 5:2).
  5. The primary accountability: God called Adam to account first after the Fall (Genesis 3:9).
  6. The purpose: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve (Genesis 2:18; 1 Corinthians 11:9).
  7. The conflict: The curse brought a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles (Genesis 3:16).
  8. The restoration: Salvation in Christ in the New Testament reaffirms the creation order (Colossians 3:18-19).
  9. The mystery: Marriage from the beginning of creation was a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32-33).
  10. The parallel with the Trinity: The equality, differences, and unity between men and women reflect the equality, differences, and unity in the Trinity (1 Corinthians 11:3).

Grudem, Wayne. Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism (p. 72). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

3:17 But to Adam he said,
“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
3:18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
3:19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

The original sin was to ‘eat’ the forbidden fruit.  ‘Now in everything they eat, they will have this reminder of the result of their sin.’ (Atkinson)

‘The irony of Adam’s curse is that a life of contentment had been promised under set boundaries, but the life he chose apart from those boundaries was thorns, thistles and labor.’ (ACCS, summarising the teaching of Cyril of Alexandria & Chrysostom)

Cursed…ground is land that is prone to weeds, drought, and infertility.

Cursed ground

‘The man taken from the dust of the ground…now finds himself at odds with it.’ (Atkinson)  Creation groans, partly in response to human sin, and partly in the birth pangs of a new age.  ‘The man’s natural relationship to the ground—to rule over it—is reversed; instead of submitting to him, it resists and eventually swallows him (see Gen. 2:7; Rom. 8:20–22).’ (Waltke & Fredricks)

Work is not a curse

‘What has been called “the orthodox view” of work (or so I have read in a secular book on the social psychology of industry), and has been the basis of industrial psychology and managerial practice (or so I am assured in the same book) is “the Old Testament belief that physical labor is a curse imposed on man as a punishment for his sins.” The author goes on to write that this view has recently been modified. But even so it is a serious distortion of Scripture. The fall certainly turned work into drudgery, because the ground was cursed with thorns and thistles, and cultivation became possible only by the sweat of the brow. But work is a consequence of creation, not the fall; the fall has aggravated its problems without destroying its joys.’

(Stott, Christ the Cornerstone, Collected Essays of John Stott)

Work becomes toilsome

Because of the Fall, work tends to become a hardship, Gen 3:17-19. The worker tends to become selfish, lazy, disobedient, dishonest, 2 Thess 3:6-12. Play tends to become perverted from its original purpose: (a) it may become commercialised and over-competitive; (a) it may become destructive of work, education, physical health, family life or spiritual well-being.

‘God then decreed that the man must suffer frustration in his work (gardeners and farmers face a running battle with weeds to produce food). Hard work would enable him to live, but eventually he would die. This is a hint that he was about to be expelled from Eden and deprived of access to the tree of life.’ (NBC)

‘Because the man sinned at the point of eating, now he will be judged by having difficulty in producing food. His work is now turned into back-breaking toil.’ (Gow, DOT:P)

‘Man is condemned to exhausting labor in order to make a living, because of a curse on the ground. (Adam worked before his fall.)’ (Ryrie)

‘Because the man sinned at the point of eating, now he will be judged by having difficulty in producing food. His work is now turned into back-breaking toil.’ (Fretheim, quoted by Gow)

‘To be under God’s curse is to have to bear his judgement.  It does not, however, put us beyond his reach’ (Atkinson).  See Gal 3:13.

Blessings and burdens

The creation mandate remains in force.  Eve would still give birth.  Adam would still work the ground.  These would remain blessings.  But they would also become burdens.  The woman will experience various trials connected with childbearing – not only the pain of childbirth itself, but also ‘all the frustrations of womanhood, including not getting married, not having children, and all the heartaches that come with raising and sometimes losing children’ (Ryken).  As for the man, he continues to work the ground, ‘but now his work becomes toilsome.  The ground will yield its fruit only at the cost of sweaty labour, for the creation itself is frustrated by sin’ (Ryken, cf. Rom 8:20).

‘Ironically, transgressing the divinely ordered boundaries does not bring the man and the woman the elevated lives they had hoped for but instead brings them chaos and death. Physical death is both bane and boon. It renders all activity vain but delivers mortals from eternal consignment to the curse and opens the way to eternal salvation that outlasts the grave.’ (Waltke & Fredricks)

Distinctive roles

God’s command to humankind in Gen 1:28 was ‘Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.’

Now we see how that mandate works out after the Fall in relation to the distinctive roles of the man and the woman.

To the woman, God says (Gen 3:16):

“I will greatly increase your labor pains;
with pain you will give birth to children.
You will want to control your husband,
but he will dominate you.”

‘Thus [God] speaks of her pain in childbirth (i.e. while seeking to be fruitful) and the struggles…that will surface in the husband/wife relationship…In short, God speaks about what is unique to her as a woman, namely, being a mother and a wife.’

And to the man he says (Gen 3:17-19):

“Because you obeyed your wife
and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,
‘You must not eat from it,’
cursed is the ground thanks to you;
in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
but you will eat the grain of the field.
By the sweat of your brow you will eat food
until you return to the ground.”

‘Thus [God] delineates what is the main calling for man, namely, the responsibility of breadwinner and provider for his wife and family.’

Therefore it is important in marriage and the family for a man to realize his responsibility as the primary breadwinner and to assume that responsibility willingly and gladly. It is equally important for a woman to realize her responsibility as the primary one to care for the children and the home, as these verses indicate, and as Proverbs 31 (see below) also indicates. This will provide the security and necessary time and energy for the woman to bear children but also to be with the children in their formative years when they are very dependent on their mother and need her presence. It is in this spirit that the Apostle Paul encourages young widows “to get married, bear children, keep house” (1 Timothy 5:14, NASB). Christ’s apostle exalts the home and women’s duties in it and encourages women to be “busy at home” (Titus 2:5).

(Knight, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p347)

What sort of death?

‘The consequences of his actions are both physical—toil, pain, and death—and spiritual—alienation from God. The spiritual consequences follow the act of disobedience immediately, but the physical penalties—pain, suffering, and death—may take longer to become evident’ (Wenham).  Andrew Willet follows Augustine in maintaining that this was death in all its forms: ‘the temporal death of the soul, when it is for a time separated from God by sin; the eternal death of the soul, when it is separated from the body; the temporal death of the body, when it is separated from the soul; and the eternal death of the body in hell. So Adam first died in his soul, by losing his innocency; he died in body, returning to dust; and he was also subject to everlasting death both of body and soul—but from that he was redeemed by Christ.’  Additionally, says, Willet, ‘under the name of death are comprehended all other miseries, calamities and sorrows, which are the forerunners of death: so that we may aptly compare death with the center, and all other miseries with the circle or circumference around the center.’ (Reformation Commentary on Scripture)

3:20 The man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all the living. 3:21 The LORD God made garments from skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them. 3:22 And the LORD God said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil, he must not be allowed to stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

The man named his wife Eve

‘It is Adam who gives Eve her name, and as we mentioned earlier, this implies a particular significance or authority in the one who does the naming. … This leadership of Adam in relationship with Eve, and her corresponding commitment to him, does not mean that their equality is undermined, for Eve and Adam are like the Trinity in which there is a headship of the Father over the Son, and yet there is also a full equality of Godhead (1 Corinthians 11:3; Colossians 1:19; 2:9).’ (Jerram Barrs, cited here)

A hint of grace…  There may be a hint of God’s grace in providing for Adam and Eve – a covering for their nakedness and shame – what they could not provide for themselves (cf. v7).  The temporary and inadequate covering that they had attempted is replaced by a God-given covering that was more durable and effective.  Moreover, it is a covering that required an animal sacrifice.

…or reminder of sinfulness?  Wenham, however, thinks that ‘God’s provision of clothes appears not so much an act of grace, as often asserted, but as a reminder of their sinfulness (cf. Calvin, 1:182). Just as man may not enjoy a direct vision of God, so God should not be approached by man unclothed.’

“Us” – According the Waltke & Fredricks, this is probably a reference to the heavenly court.

“Like one of us, knowing good and evil” – The snake’s promise, v5, has at least in part come true.  The expression cannot mean ‘knowing about good and evil’ (for it would be a mere truism to say that God ‘knows about’ good and evil).  Nor can it mean ‘practising good and evil’, for God only does that which is good.  We are, perhaps, to understand this to mean that the man has now become an arbiter of good and evil.  It refers, in other words, to moral autonomy (Blocher) or to ‘wisdom’ (but divorced from ‘the fear of the Lord’, Prov 1:7) [Wenham].

“He must not…take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever” – This possibly means that God did not wish man to eat from the tree of life in his present fallen state.  He provides, rather, an opportunity for grace and renewal.

3:23 So the LORD God expelled him from the orchard in Eden to cultivate the ground from which he had been taken. 3:24 When he drove the man out, he placed on the eastern side of the orchard in Eden angelic sentries who used the flame of a whirling sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

The Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden

The cost of sin.  ‘Expulsion from the garden proved the hollowness of the serpent’s promise that they would not die (4). For though Adam and Eve continued some sort of life outside the garden, it was a shadow of the fulness of life inside Eden, where they had enjoyed intimate fellowship with God. Now the full cost of sin is apparent. It is not just an unquiet conscience (7-8), squabbles with one’s dearest spouse (12), pain (16) or the drudgery of daily toil (17-19) but separation from the presence of God and ultimately physical death. (Rom 6:23) Cherubim later decorated the ark, tabernacle and temple (Ex 25:18-22; 26:31; 1 King 6:23-28) and were winged lions with human heads.’ (Eze 41:18) (NBC)

This banishment is the present predicament of all who are ‘without hope and without God in the world’ (Eph 2:12).  It is the glorious work of Christ to bring us back into fellowship with God, and with one another (Eph 2:11-18).

Death.  Moreover, this banishment helps us to characterise the ‘death’ that they experienced: it included the a change from ‘the blessing, freedom, vitality and fellowship of the Garden, to curse, bondage, toil and alienation outside the gate on the East of the Garden, with our way back barred by cherubim and a flaming sword.’ (Atkinson)  It is this very predicament from which our Lord came to deliver us, Heb 2:14f; 1 Cor 15:54.

‘Satan gives Adam an apple, and takes away Paradise. Therefore in all temptations let us consider not what he offers, but what we shall lose.’ (Sibbes)

Masaccio – The Expulsion from the Garden of Ed'The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden', by Masaccio, circa 1425.

Drove – A strong word, also used to describe God’s exile of Cain, Gen 4:14, and Sarah’s desire for Abraham to ‘get rid of’ the slavegirl Hagar.  It is, Matthews explains, the language of divorce and dispossession: ‘Adam and Eve are “out in the cold,” and only by the grace of God does this disowned, homeless pair find refuge.’

Cherubim – these are represented as a class of winged angels who functioned primarily as guards (Gen 3:24) or attendants. (Eze 10:3-22)

The east side of the Garden of Eden – Adam and Eve had found themselves east of Eden. Cain moves further east, Gen 4:16. In Gen 11:2 people are moving still further east, to the plain of Shinar, where they erect the tower of Babel in defiance of God. ‘The geography of humanity’s early movements highlights their distance from God. In every sense, we are a long way from walking with God in the garden.’ See Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer, 27-38.

Longman and Dillard (An Introduction to the Old Testament) observe that ‘Genesis 3–11 presents story after story that emphasizes the sin and rebellion of God’s creatures. Furthermore, these episodes narrate the rapid moral decline of humankind as time moves on. While sin spreads and increases, God reveals himself to be longsuffering and patient with his creation. Westermann (1948) has vividly shown this movement by noting the structure of the five principle stories of Genesis 3 through 11. He notes that there is a pattern of sin, followed by a judgment speech, and then the execution of God’s judgment. Men and women deserved death; however, from the time of their first sin (Gen. 2:17), God always reached out to them in a gracious way to mitigate the punishment.’

Simple and profound.  Wenham remarks: ‘The exquisite charm with which the tale unfolds serves only to deepen the tragedy that is related, while the apparent naïveté of the style disguises a richness of theological reflection that philosophers and theologians have not exhausted.’

Results of the fall.  ‘Humankind after the fall suffers extensive spiritual deprivation. Although the image of God in man survives (Gen. 9:6), reason has lost its soundness (2 Cor. 4:4), the will no longer is free to choose God and the good (John 8:34), and sinners are spiritually blind (1 Cor. 2:14) and dead (Eph. 2:1, 5). Once able not to sin (posse non peccare), the unregenerate now are incapable of not sinning (non posse non peccare, Jer. 13:23; 2 Pet. 2:14). Paul outlines humankind’s grim life of sin following the fall in Romans 1:21–32 and 3:9–18. In response to sinners’ deliberate love for and practice of sin, God “gave them over” to the painful consequences of their rebellion (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28).’  (Demarest, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, art. ‘Fall of the Human Race’)

Curse & reverse.  Atkinson summarises the dreadful losses incurred because of the Fall: blessing becomes curse, complementarity becomes subordination, work becomes toil, fellowship becomes banishment, and life becomes death.  But now, in Christ, ‘we are no longer banished, but accepted.  In him there is freedom from the bondage of sin, from the condemnation and guilt of the law, from the shame of self-reproach, and from the overpowering rule of death.’  See Rev 21:3f; 22:1ff.

Representative.  ‘Adam acts as his descendants’ representative head. Paul in the New Testament also presents Adam as the representative head of everyone in his choice to disobey God (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–22). By contrast, Jesus Christ is the representative head of all who believe in him, in his active obedience to God, and in his resurrection from the dead.’ (Waltke & Fredricks)

The human situation.  Although this chapter raises many questions that we struggle to answer, it does provide us with profound insight into our human situation: it ‘informs humans why death is inevitable. It also teaches us why humans have no one to blame for the hardships of life and for death save themselves. It explains why humans are at odds with the animal world, are estranged from God, and find tensions even in the closest family relationships.’ (Hartley)

Broken relationships.  This chapter tells of broken relationships between God and his human creatures, between on person and another, and within the individual.

Shattered beauty.  ‘If we did not have Gen 2:4–25, we would have no idea how much was lost in Adam’s bite of the fruit’ (Matthews).  Atkinson comments on how the pristine beauty of chapter 2 is shattered in chapter 3.  ‘Everything is ambiguous; nothing is any more “very good”.  By showing us how Genesis 2 and 3 belong inseparably together, the author is exposing and exploring this ambiguity: the wonder of human life, and yet its tragedy; the richness of its life, and yet its death; the joy of human fellowship but always covered by shame; and the word of the Creator God now heard as cursing instead of blessing.’

Depravity.  Although this passage does not spell out the link between the original disobedience and subsequent human sin, the following chapters (and, indeed, the rest of the Bible) will show that things will never be the same again.  The ways of humankind will be characterised by depravity.  As Waltke & Fredricks remark, ‘If Adam before the Fall proved unfaithful in Paradise, how much more will Israel fail in the land when surrounded by the depraved Canaanites (cf. Deut. 31:20; Josh. 24:19)?…In contrast to much sociological thinking, namely, that the way to improve humans is to improve their environment, humanity at its best rebels in the perfect environment. Sodom and Gomorrah, where humanity sunk to the lowest levels of violence and sex, was at the time like the “garden of the LORD” (Gen. 13:10). Our modern world is no better.’  Theologians may debate how the one sins leads to the many, but the fact is undeniable.  Walke & Fredricks again: ‘Sin pollutes Cain and his descendants (Gen. 4), and death, sin’s consequence, has the final word among righteous Seth’s descendants as well (Gen. 5). Even after the Flood, humanity is not purged. God says that “every inclination of [the human] heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21; see also 1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 58:3; 130:3; 143:2; Prov. 20:9; Eccl. 7:20; Jer. 17:9; John 3:3; Rom. 3:23; 8:7; Eph. 2:3; 4:17–19; Titus 1:15–16; James 3:2).’

Everyman.  Ryken, while staunchly upholding the historicity of the original fall, nevertheless agrees that this is ‘not simply a story about what happened, but also a story about what happens.  The pattern of temptation, sin and shame that we witness in the Garden of Eden is repeated every time a human being disobeys God.’  This, he says, is part of what the doctrine of original sin actually means.

Second Adam.  ‘Humanity must return to the garden without sin and without death. That will require the second Adam, who by clothing us in his righteousness will take us into the garden. The first Adam, representing all people, fails and brings death upon all. The active obedience of the last Adam satisfies God’s demands and gives the faithful eternal life (Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:45–49). The story of paradise regained is true only through Christ. The coming heavenly Adam, who bears the curse of toil, sweat, thorns, conflict, death on a tree, and descent into dust, will regain the garden, tearing apart the veil of the temple on which the cherubim were sewn (Ex. 26:1; Matt. 27:51; Heb. 6:19; 9:3; Rev. 22:1–3, 14).’ (Waltke & Fredricks)