Saturday of week 5 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Gen 3:9-24

The man and the woman now experience the results of their disobedience to God.

It begins with a lovely but sad dialogue between God and the man and the woman. God is looking for them in the Garden. “Where are you?” God, of course, knows where they are but he needs to elicit the confession of their sin. The man says they are hiding because they are naked. Nakedness now fills them with a sense of shame and guilt. They can no longer face their God. Their original innocence is gone; from now on nakedness is linked to immorality and base desires.

“Who told you that you were naked?” God asks the Man, “Have you been eating of the tree you were not supposed to eat from?” God now interrogates the Man, who blames the Woman, who blames the serpent. God’s judgements, however, are pronounced in the reverse order. What follows provides explanations for the origin of some present-day realities – agriculture, prepared or cooked food, childbearing, family of husband and wife.

We now see a pathetic shifting of responsibility to someone else. First, the Man blames the woman, the “woman you put with me” – even God is being held partly to blame! “Yes, I ate the fruit but she made me do it.” She, in her turn, blames the serpent for putting temptation in her way. “He tricked me.” The Hebrew for this verb, hiss’iani, suggests the hissing of the snake.

All now pay the price of their wrongdoing.

First the serpent. He is condemned to crawl the earth for ever eating the earth with a hint that in the original creation the snake was once upright. He will be cursed for ever among all the animals.

From now on, a strange enmity will exist between the woman and the serpent, between her offspring and the serpent’s. “He will strike your head and you will strike his heel.”

Later theology would see here not just enmity between snakes and humans but the serpent is identified with Satan, whose eventual defeat seems implied in the contrast between ‘head’ and ‘heel’. Later generations saw in the passage the first promise of a Redeemer for sinful humanity. In that case, the Woman’s offspring is Jesus Christ.

The New Jerusalem Bible has the following comment:

The Hebrew text, by proclaiming that the offspring of the snake is henceforth at enmity with the woman’s descendants, opposes the human race to the devil and his ‘seed’, his posterity, and hints at ultimate victory. It is the first glimmer of salvation, the proto-evangelium or ‘pre-Gospel’.

 The Greek version has a masculine pronoun (‘he’, not ‘it’ will bruise. . .), thus ascribing the victory not to the woman’s descendants in general but to one Son in particular, and thus providing the basis for the messianic interpretation given by many of the Fathers. The Latin version has a feminine pronoun (‘she’ will bruise. . .) and since in the messianic interpretation of our text, the Messiah and his Mother appear together, the pronoun has been taken to refer to Mary. (edited)

The woman: She will experience great pain when giving birth. She will have a strong desire for her husband but will be dominated by him. Women’s historical subordination to the male is presented as a consequence of human events, not an ideal in its own right. Responsibilities of procreation will compromise the freedom of both genders. He will dominate her but he will need her to continue his family line.

The man: In the garden the Man had just to pick the fruit from the trees. Now the tilling of the unfriendly and infertile soil will become a laborious and painful task, resulting often in brambles and thistles. From now on his life will be one of hard physical labour until the day he goes back to the soil from which he was originally made. Agriculture was a major step in human evolution but one beset with difficulty and hard work. Unlike the abundant fruit just waiting to be picked, bread, for instance, requires many steps and much human cooperation in its preparation. And, at the end, he will return to the earth from which he came – the first clear indication of human mortality.

In a final touch, we are told that God made skins for the Man and his wife to wear to cover the shame of their nakedness. Some see in this a new alienation between humans and animals, which did not exist in the Garden. Animals now were being killed by humans for food, clothing and other purposes – and humans were often being killed and eaten by animals. Later, the prophet would dream of a day when the lion and the lamb could lie down peacefully together – Paradise Regained.

At the same time the Man and the Woman were now able, like God, “to know good and evil”. They now knew all the possible extremes, they knew about sex, mortality and moral distinctions of good and bad, right and wrong. There was a danger that they could reach out to the Tree of Life and win immortality. They must be removed from the Garden and sent back to the earth from which they had originally come. They will have to settle for the modified immortality of succeeding family generations – a human family tree.

To the east of the Garden in Eden, cherubim with a flaming sword were placed to keep the Man and the Woman out and away from the Tree of Life.

Lastly, the Man now gave his wife the name of Eve, which means “bearer of life”. She would be the mother of every person to be born in succeeding ages. This second naming of Woman reflects the couple’s new role as procreators. Much later, spiritual writers liked to take the Latin form of her name ‘Eva’ and turn it round to read ‘Ave’, the word of greeting used by the angel at the Annunciation to Mary, our new Mother.

Obviously, all of this is less a historical account than an explanation why things are the way they are. It is part of the answer to the question we raised earlier: If everything God created was so good, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Human pain and sorrows are not intended by God. Evil is the result of our misbehaviour.

Again, the New Jerusalem Bible comments:

The punishment is appropriate to the specific func­tions of each: the woman suffers as mother and wife, the man as bread-winner. The text does not imply that, without sin, woman would have given birth painlessly or that man would not have had to work with sweat on his brow, any more than that, before sin, snakes had feet [i.e. did not have to crawl on their bellies].

 Sin upsets the order willed by God: woman, instead of being man’s associate and equal, becomes his seductress, while he for his part reduces her to the role of child-bearer; man, instead of being God’s gardener in Eden, has to strug­gle against a now hostile environment. But the greatest punishment is the loss of intimacy with God. These penalties are hereditary. The doctrine of hereditary guilt is not clearly stated until Paul draws his comparison between the solidarity of all in the Saviour Christ and the solidarity of all in sinful Adam, Rom 5.

This is the “original sin”.

We should avoid a fundamentalist, literal understanding of all this, as if we were dealing with ‘real’ history. What is being said is that the human race, as far back as we can go, has been infected with sinful acts against truth, love and justice and, in consequence of its own choices, has suffered hardships of all kinds.

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