In an earlier column, I touched on the Lord’s pronouncement of punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve. I want to return to that here. It is a punishment – and a promise: the so-called protevangelion, the first good news of peace between God and sinful man.
This good news will unfold throughout Scripture, ever deepening in its import, ever more challenging to the human soul, and ever more glorious in the promise. “Behold,” says the repentant David, “I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.” That is the Fall, rendered personal: my name is Adam.
But the psalm does not end there: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” That is the promised reconciliation. As Saint Paul will say, they who are baptized in Christ, the new Adam, are a new creation. He is not speaking metaphorically.
Notice, then, that the serpent is punished first, and that nothing good is promised to it. The serpent will crawl on its belly and lick the dust. That creature, one long alimentary canal, will eat what stands as a sign of insubstantiality, of next-to-nothingness, of unformed being. The liar who said “you shall be as gods” will eat his words, will eat the emptiness.
The Lord adds, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” As I write these words from the loft of an old French Canadian church (Notre Dame de l’Assomption, Arichat), I’m looking at a painting on the ceiling, of Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise, with an angel bearing a flaming sword. But behind them all, hardly discernible from the blue of the sky and the white of the clouds, the shining form of Our Lady is standing on the globe.
To believe that God inspired the sacred author is to believe that his words may mean far more than he can understand. They are human words, but God’s words first, and God works through the events of history. So we rightly hear in these words the first prophecy of the Messiah.
Moreover, notice what awaits the serpent: enmity and futility. He is the enemy (Hebrew, Satan), who, because of his abasement, can bruise the heel of man, but whose head will be bruised in turn – or, if we consider what that implies for a snake, crushed.
The Lord’s words to Adam and Eve take quite a different form: a blessing within the curse. To Eve he says, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
The Glorification of the Virgin, Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1480)
The word multiply marks a disjunction between man and nature. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God said, blessing the animals, and then the human couple. What is multiplied now is sorrow, and, by implication, sin – but that is not all. Man is multiplied: Eve will bring forth children.
When we recall the warning, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die,” we see the surprise. Yes, Eve will die: she, like Adam, realizes the terrible reality: “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” But she does not now die. She will become a mother.
Hence it is that Adam names Eve immediately after the judgment: “And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.” An obtuse New American Bible note, that the verse was evidently misplaced, betrays a misunderstanding of the theological structure of the scene, and its core message of salvation.
What about Adam? The relations between men and women will be vexed, the man’s headship corrupted into a desire to dominate, and the woman’s desire being to him nevertheless. Yet the headship in itself is a good thing, as is the sexual desire.
Similarly, his relationship with the natural world is vexed. He will struggle for his life, tilling the soil, which will bear him thorns and thistles – but also herbs and grain: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,” says the Lord. He will sweat – but he will eat.
This is the first appearance of bread in Scripture: lehem, as in the birthplace of David and of Jesus, Beth-lehem, House of Bread.
No Hebrew could read those words without thinking of the place of bread in the history of the chosen people: the loaves of bread presented by Abraham to the three heralds of God; the unleavened bread of the Passover of the Lord; the showbread for the great feasts; the manna, bread from heaven, that fed them in the desert.
For us Christians, that bread is none other than Jesus himself: “This is my body.” After that last supper, he sweats drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane, putting to death the sin of Adam and lies of the serpent. “Not my will but thine be done,” says the obedient Son.
It’s all in Genesis 3: the ponderous gravity of sin, weighing us down toward nothingness; the holiness of God, whom no taint of sin can touch; the goodness of creation, and of man and woman, despite our inner disharmony; the love of God who blesses even when He rebukes; salvation not as escape from history, but in and through it.
And the last thing God does for Adam and Eve in Eden? He takes away the fig leaves, those feeble attempts to hide. He clothes them. What is important is not the clothing, but the one who clothes: God is faithful even when they are not. It’s the gospel in seed. “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet,” says the father, “for this my son was dead, and is alive again.”