Commentary on Genesis 3

Last updated: April 23, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 2And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. 5For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

8And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

14The LORD God said to the serpent,

Because you have done this,

cursed are you above all livestock

and above all beasts of the field;

on your belly you shall go,

and dust you shall eat

all the days of your life.

15I will put enmity between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and her offspring;

he shall bruise your head,

and you shall bruise his heel.”

16To the woman he said,

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;

in pain you shall bring forth children.

Your desire shall be for your husband,

and he shall rule over you.”

17And to Adam he said,

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife

and have eaten of the tree

of which I commanded you,

You shall not eat of it,’

cursed is the ground because of you;

in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

and you shall eat the plants of the field.

19By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

20The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

22Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Notes

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

The Hebrew word for “crafty” (arum) forms a pun with the Hebrew word for “naked” (arummim) in 2:25 and 3:71. Being crafty can be good2 or bad3 so the serpent’s character is initially ambiguous4. The serpent was made by God. This piece of information tells us that the snake is not divine and rules out dualistic ideas about the origin of good and evil. Throughout Genesis 2:4-3:24 the deity is called “the LORD God” but in their discussion the serpent and the woman call him only “God”. The serpent is dropping the covenant name and diverting the woman’s attention from the relationship God has established5. The serpent softens the severity of the prohibition by asking “Did God actually say” instead of “Did God actually command”. God had commanded the man not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but the serpent asks the woman whether she is forbidden from eating from any tree in the garden. The woman “cannot give a one word reply but is drawn into a conversation that forces her to focus upon the forbidden tree” that the serpent had not mentioned6.

Later Jewish and Christian tradition both identify the serpent as Satan7. A close reading of the text suggests the author is portraying the serpent as acting as a mouthpiece for a dark power: (1) the serpent’s wording in 3:4 reflects knowledge of 2:17; (2) in the Bible animals do not have the faculty of speech and only speak when the supernatural is present; and (3) the serpent’s evil purpose shows he is in opposition to God.

2-3 And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

The woman’s use of the word “we” indicates that she has appropriated the command through her husband8. In 2:16-17 God only prohibited eating from the tree, not touching the tree. The woman softens God’s declaration that they will surely die if they eat from the tree.

4-5 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The serpent contradicts God’s pronouncement from 2:17 and implies that God has unworthy motives in commanding the couple not to eat the fruit9. The serpent appeals to a human desire to be like God10. The serpent’s words come true but not in the sense the humans expect.

6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.

The woman has usurped God’s role in determining what is “good”. The man is said to be with the woman and the serpent has spoken with plural verbs suggesting that the man has been present at the dialogue between the serpent and the woman. He has not be deceived or seduced. He follows the woman’s example without hesitation11.

7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

The serpent was correct that their eyes would be opened (3:5) but ironically “the new insight they gain is only the consciousness of their own nakedness, and shame is the consequence”12. “The fig tree has unusually large and strong leaves. Incidentally, it is indigenous to the Land of Israel, where it was cultivated very early, but it was not known in Babylon; hence, this detail reflects a West Semitic, not a Mesopotamian, cultural background”13. The making of loincloths shows that their innocence is lost.

8 And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

The cool of the day” literally means “the wind of the day” and refers to the windy part of the day, which would be the middle to late afternoon14. The nuance of the Hebrew is that “they heard . . . and the man hid himself [along with his wife]“, spotlighting the man as the representative of his family and race15. The last time the phrase “man and his wife” occurred was in 2:25 where the two of them were naked and not ashamed. Things have changed drastically.

9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The mere fact that God asks a question does not imply that he is without knowledge (e.g., 4:9-10). In fact, since God is speaking to the man he must already know his location. This is a rhetorical question. The man appears to have understood the question as an invitation to come out of hiding.

10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

There is irony in the man’s response because the Hebrew idiom “to hear the voice of” means to obey, which is what the man did not do16.

Why did the man fear God because of nakedness? Public nakedness in the ancient Near East and in the Bible was a terrible disgrace. Here that shame is explained as the consequence of the guilt of sin. Before human disobedience there was no shame (2:25), but with sin the man’s self-consciousness had changed. His sense of humiliation impacts his covering up before the woman as well as before God. By this Adam admits his sense of shame, which has been motivated by his guilt.17

11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The first question implies that the man’s guilt was not the result of parental or social convention, but true guilt arising from a violated conscience18. The second question drives home the point that the man’s sense of shame arose because he disobeyed God’s command. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is here called the tree of which I commanded you not to eat.

12-13 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The man tries to shift the blame to his Creator, who gave him the woman (the man was quite happy with the woman in 2:22). The woman admits she has been deceived. The Hebrew for “deceived me” (hissi’ani) plays on the serpent’s hissing sound19. Note that the man tries to blame the woman and that the woman tries to blame the serpent. The judgments in verses 14-19 reverse this order and follow the order in which each participant sinned. The narrative does not address why God would allow the serpent’s ploy in the first place.

14-15 The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

This is the first divine curse of the Bible. “Cursed” (arur) is a wordplay on “crafty” (arum). Many scholars view the curse of the serpent as an explanation for why snakes go on their belly and eat dust20. But this passage is not speaking about just any snake, it is speaking about a snake that acts as the mouthpiece of an evil power. Also, it is doubtful that Israelites thought snakes ate dust as they could observe them eating animals. According to Victor P. Hamilton, no ancient writer thought snakes ate dust21. Rather “eat dust” and “on your belly you shall go” refer to humiliation and subjugation22.

The Hebrew word for “offspring”, by itself, is ambiguous as to whether it refers to a specific offspring or to offspring in general. C. John Collins believes the pronouns “he” and “his” show that a specific offspring is in mind and that verse 15 means the evil power will be defeated by a male offspring of the woman. But John H. Walton notes that singular pronouns can be used even when “offspring” refers to offspring in general (e.g., 28:14)23. At the very least, this verse depicts a continued conflict between humans and the representatives of evil.

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

In 1:28 the verb “to multiply” was part of God’s blessing but now it associated with pain. In 4:7 it is clear that the desire for someone is the desire to rule over that person24. This verse depicts the woman wanting to rule over her husband but failing.

What is the nature of the man’s “rule”? “Rule,” as verb or derivative, is found seven additional times in Genesis, where it may indicate governance (1:16 [twice], 18; cf. Ps 136:7-9) and refers to exercising jurisdiction (24:2; 37:8; 45:8, 26). The temperament of “rule” in the Old Testament is dependent on the varying circumstances in which that power is exercised. The term is used too broadly to isolate its meaning in 3:16b lexically as either beneficent or tyrannical. Human jurisdiction over the lower orders, however, is expressed by the different verb “dominate” (rada, 1:28), suggesting that the man does not “rule” his wife in the sense that he subdues the animals. We cannot understand the divine word “he will rule over you” as a command to impose dominance any more than v. 16a is an exhortation for the woman to suffer as much as possible during childbirth. It is a distortion of the passage to find in it justification for male tyranny. On the contrary, ancient Israel provided safeguards for protecting women from unscrupulous men (e.g., Deut 24:1-4), and the New Testament takes steps to restrain domination. Paul admonished men and women to practice mutual submission (Eph 5:22-33) and cautioned husbands to exercise love and protection without harshness (Col 3:19). Because of the threat of harsh dominance, Paul commanded Christian charity toward women in the community of the home and the church.25

17-19 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

The ground is cursed because of the man’s sin. The same term (itsavon) that described the woman’s pain in childbearing is used to describe the man’s pain in physical labor. It is not physical labor that is the curse (2:15) but the hardship and frustration of the labor. Man’s return to dust recalls his creation from dust in 2:7. “Human beings had attempted to elevate themselves to the level of the divine. All they achieved was to condemn themselves to a ceaseless, brutal struggle for subsistence, with the consciousness of the fragility of life ever hanging over them”26.

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

The man’s naming of the woman highlights the new situation of the woman’s subordination to the man27. The Hebrew for “Eve” (hawwah) is the feminine form of the word for “life” (hayyah). “Interestingly, this Semitic root elsewhere can mean snake! Again, the story is replete with puns”28. This verse states that all humans are descended from Eve29 and not a mother goddess as was thought in some ancient Near Eastern mythology30.

21 And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.

The humans are banished from the garden and separated from the tree of life but they are not separated from God’s care31. “Hebrew kutonet was a kind of long- or short-sleeved shirt, generally made of linen or wool, that reached down to the knees or even the ankles. It became fashionable in the Late Bronze Age and standard dress in the Iron Age”32. This translation implies that the garments were made of animal skins but the Hebrew could also mean they were garments for the skin33. This is an act of grace from God before the act of judgment in the next verses.

22-23 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

In the Hebrew there is a play on words between “reach out his hand” and “sent him out”34. The man is sent back to the land from which he was created (2:7-8).

24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Cherubim are winged, composite beings associated with the presence of God. The entrance to the garden is on the east, like the entrance to the tabernacle and temple. The flaming sword “is a separate, protective instrument, not said to be in the hands of the cherubim. It too carries the definite article and so was also something well known to the Israelite imagination, even though it is not again mentioned in the Bible precisely in this form”35. Adam was once charged with guarding the garden (2:15) but now he is guarded from the garden.

Bibliography

CGLLTC: C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, 2006

FCT: Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001

HCBC: James L. Mays, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000

HCSB: Wayne A. Meeks, HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 1993

JPSTCGen: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 1989

NACGen1: Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26, 1996

NICOTGen1: Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 1990

NIVACGen: John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, 2001

NIVSB: Kenneth Barker, NIV Study Bible, 1995

NJBC: Raymond E. Brown, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990

WBCGen1: Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, 1987

1[NIVSB] 10; [NJBC] 12; [HCBC] 86; [HCSB] 9

2Proverbs 1:4; 8:5, 12; 12:16, 23; 13:16; 14:8, 15, 18; 22:3; 27:12

3Exodus 21:14; Job 5:12; 15:5

4[NACGen1] 232; [NICOTGen1] 187

5[CGLLTC] 171

6[JPSTCGen] 24

7Wisdom of Solomon 2:24; Sirach 21:2; 4 Maccabees 18:8; John 8:44; Romans 16:20; Revelation 12:9, 14-15; 20:2

8[CGLLTC] 151

9[NIVSB] 10

10[FCT] 21

11[FCT] 22; [NACGen1] 238

12[JPSTCGen] 25

13[JPSTCGen] 26

14[CGLLTC] 151-152

15[CGLLTC] 152

16[HCBC] 87

17[NACGen1] 240-241

18[NACGen1] 241

19[HCSB] 9

20[FCT] 23; [HCSB] 9

21[NICOTGen1] 196

22Micah 7:17; Psalm 72:9; Isaiah 49:23

23[NIVACGen] 225-226

24[CGLLTC] 159-160; [NACGen1] 251

25[NACGen1] 252

26[JPSTCGen] 29

27[HCBC] 87

28[FCT] 25

29[CGLLTC] 166-167

30[JPSTCGen] 29

31[HCBC] 87

32[JPSTCGen] 29

33[JPSTCGen] 29; [WBCGen1] 84

34[CGLLTC] 154

35[JPSTCGen] 30

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