I recently reread my favourite book, Kokoro. It’s an excellent novel, though very little happens! Split into three parts, the relationship unfolds between a student and his sensei. With Natsume Sōseki’s subtle description of mood, you can easily miss a lot of detail the first time you read it. Rereading the book helped illuminate details I’d missed and recapture its brilliance.
I’ve read Genesis 3 on many occasions and taught it in a variety of contexts, but recently I’ve studied it in greater depth. As with the novel I reread, studying Genesis 3, and particularly the three curses, helped me to recapture some of its significance and highlighted details I hadn’t appreciated.
As God declares pronouncements upon the three characters involved in the fall, so they have three significant elements.
Three dealings with death
We begin with the snake and God’s pronouncement upon him. He will eat dust and crawl on his belly in the dust. While it’s not exactly a comment on the dietary habits of snakes, if you crawl around in the dust inevitably you’ll get it in your mouth! But dust itself is significant because God formed Adam from dust in chapter 2. I think the reason for that, is to signify human mortality – when a dead body is left to decompose, it turns back into a dust-like substance, so our essential makeup is mortal. The snake then is cursed by crawling among death and by feasting upon death.
The pronouncement upon the woman involves pain in childbearing and in giving birth, which likely spans the duration from conception to labour. The two words used for pain can mean raw emotional kinds of pain, such as anguish and sorrow. If that’s intended here, as I (and others) believe it is, then it indicates anxiety over whether this child in the womb will be brought safely into the world and sorrow when that is not the case. There is a dance with death in childbirth as a result of the fall.
For the man, his toil of the ground is affected by the curse upon it. The same word as for the woman is used for the man in his painful toil. Again that might include a sense of anxiety. For the community that relies on the harvesting of crops, there is an anxiety over whether those crops will come to fruition, or whether they’ll be blighted bringing famine resulting in death. What’s more, as he has come from the ground, so it will one day swallow him up in death, since he is of the dust of the earth.
The snake crawls among death, and the woman and the man have anxiety and sorrow about death in their roles in childrearing and providing. Even though we try and ignore it, death lingers among us in every situation like a bad odour we cannot eradicate.
Three points of conflict
It’s explicitly stated that there will be enmity between the snake and the woman. The resulting expectation is that the Devil will provoke ongoing conflict with humanity. As that is expanded, the offspring of the snake and the woman reach a moment of conflict where the offspring has their heel struck as the head of the snake’s offspring is struck. This, of course, is the great promise fulfilled in Jesus as he crushes the evil one underfoot as he is struck. It’s also a victory that his people will share in (Romans 16:20). Nevertheless, the conflict of evil with humans still significantly abounds.
The conflict for the woman with the man is a little more contentious, not least because of some ambiguity with the precise intention of the words. The desire of the woman for the man, and the rule of the husband over her, could be interpreted in positive tones. Nevertheless, given the other conflict points in the other curses, I would suggest that there is at least an element of negative conflict and strife in the relationship between men and women – husbands and wives – which is the result of the fall.
For the man, he has conflict with the soil. As he comes to cultivate the earth, so it fights back with thorns and thistles, resulting in difficult and demanding work. He must struggle against the earth just to receive life from it. This struggle is one which continues until that day when the ground claims his life again. The very source of his sustenance for life is the one that will one day reclaim him.
Pre-fall, chapter two is one of harmonious living – animals living with humans, humans living together and all that in a beautiful garden where all food is freely provided on the trees. Post-fall, out of the garden in chapter three and beyond, this harmony becomes a cacophony as conflict abounds between evil, humans and the earth.
Three obstacles to the commission
In chapter one, humans were given their commission to extend God’s loving rule by ruling over all the animals in the created order. Humans were supposed to have a caring dominance over all the fish, birds, domestic and wild animals. But as the curse is given to the snake, so this animal usurps that rule by seeking to dominate. The tables are turned, and humankind now finds it more difficult to exert that loving rule over the creatures.
The commission was also given to increase in number by having numerous children and grandchildren, and so filling the earth with the glory of God as those made in his image. But now, since death is a possibility in childbirth, so the capacity to multiply is inhibited by this new reality.
To help humans to fulfil God’s commission, God gave them the plants and fruit trees to supply their needs. They were freely given to enable humans to flourish in ruling, multiplying and filling. But now, such sources of food were not guaranteed. Not only would it be hard work bringing home the harvest, but also there was now no certainty.
God provided sustenance to rule and to fill the earth and so to take his kingdom as his image bearers into all the earth. But, in light of chapter three, we are significantly limited in our ability to do even the very first task we have been given, and so live for God.
The fall is enormously significant in understanding our desperate human condition. We are unable to do what God would have us do, we end up in a position of conflict with this world and with each other, and death lurks around every corner of our lives. Without Jesus, this is our hopeless condition – this is the condition of the world we inhabit. In revisiting Genesis 3, we are again made aware of the depth of our despair, which can but bring us to our knees in thankfulness that Jesus has come to reverse the fall, conquer evil and bring the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).