There’s an idea afoot that God cursed Adam and Eve because they disobeyed him.
But that’s not what the Bible says.
The whole story unfolds in Genesis chapter 3.
God had said to Adam, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for on the day that you eat of it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2:16–17).
However, after God created Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, and the two of them became husband and wife, that crafty old serpent (really, just a glorified snake) got busy.
That’s where we pick up the story in Genesis 3.
Though Adam was in the garden with Eve, the serpent ignored him completely. Instead, he went to work on Eve: “Did God really say, ‘You may not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
Notice the not-so-subtle twisting of God’s words. God had really said, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden” . . . except one. The serpent ignored that completely, and focused Eve’s attention on that one tree as if it were the only tree in the garden.
Now, some people have complained that God told Adam, not Eve, not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yes, that’s true. But clearly Adam had told his wife: Eve was well aware of God’s prohibition. She replied to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You may not eat of it, nor may you touch it, or you will die” (Genesis 3:2–3). (Ahem! There’s a little trick here about which tree is in the middle of the garden!)
“You will certainly not die,” the serpent said, “for God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
And in fact, that tree did look mighty tempting to Eve. She ate some of its fruit. (The Bible says nothing about an apple!) Then she gave some to her husband, and he ate it too.
Just as the serpent said, their eyes were opened . . . and they realized with horror that they were naked.
Hold on! That’s not quite what the serpent advertised!
The consequences of disobedience
You see, the serpent was lying to them. Adam and Eve did die a very real death on the day they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It was the death of their innocence.
Being naked had never been a problem before. The very last verse of Genesis 2 says, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).
Does a baby feel ashamed when it is naked? No. In fact, as long as they’re in a warm and comfy place, babies and toddlers usually love to be naked! That’s because they are innocent.
The Bible speaks to us in metaphors. Adam and Eve represent humanity in its infancy. When God first created us, we were innocent of any disobedience or wrongdoing. That’s why Adam and Eve were originally naked as God created them, and were not ashamed.
However, as soon as they did something that they knew was wrong (the Biblical term for that is “sin”), they were no longer innocent, and the meaning of their nakedness changed. Now, conscious of their own wrongdoing, their nakedness became a matter of shame and embarrassment.
This was the first consequence of Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Their innocence died that day. Suddenly they knew, not just intellectually but through hard experience, the difference between good and evil.
Up to that point, they had innocently and sweetly trusted themselves to God’s care and direction, not questioning or resisting anything God said. They therefore lived a life of goodness and love, and God provided for all of their needs.
They already knew what good was. What the tree of the knowledge of good and evil added was the knowledge of evil. Now that they had eaten from it, they could no longer live the simple, innocent, and good life they had experienced up to that point. They would now experience sorrow, toil, and struggle.
Adam and Eve’s nakedness before they disobeyed God is akin to the innocent nakedness of babies, or of lovers with one another. After they disobeyed, it became more like the shameful, humiliating nakedness of being strip searched in jail or at airport security. They now had something to hide.
The guilty and embarrassed couple quickly sewed together some fig leaves and made loincloths for themselves (Genesis 3:7).
Adam and Eve’s “Come to Jesus” moment
Okay, Jesus hadn’t been born yet. But you know what I mean!
No sooner had they donned humanity’s very first clothes than they heard God walking along in the garden.
They found a tree to crouch behind, hoping God wouldn’t notice.
But God already knew what had happened. He called them out on it, using the classic ruse of asking questions whose answers he already knew.
Adam blamed Eve.
Eve blamed the serpent.
God wasn’t having any of it.
And this is where God gives the speech that is commonly, but erroneously, referred to as God cursing Adam and Eve.
Let’s take a closer look at what God actually did say. And let’s look at it from a deeper, more spiritual perspective. After all, these early poetic and mythical stories were never meant to be taken literally. They were composed by ancient sages who told tales that, like the parables of Jesus thousands of years later, contained deep spiritual and divine wisdom within the simple imagery of the stories they told and re-told to their eager, childlike audiences.
God’s message to the serpent
Here is what God said to the serpent:
Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all creatures and all animals of the field; upon your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will strike your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:14–15)
Aha! God cursed the serpent!
Well . . . not exactly. He did say that the serpent was cursed. But the curse was self-inflicted. “Because you have done this, you are cursed.” God didn’t curse the serpent. The serpent cursed himself by his own evil and deceptive words and actions.
Even when it looks like God is cursing us and turning away from us, it is really we who are cursing ourselves and turning ourselves away from God. As the prophet Isaiah said:
Your offenses are causing a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you. (Isaiah 59:2).
These ancient spiritual stories are telling us about ourselves. All of the characters and events in them represent something about the human condition, and the spiritual changes we go through both as the human race and as individual human beings.
So what is the “serpent” in us?
From ancient times, serpents, or snakes, have been taken as symbols of pragmatic, even cunning shrewdness and watchfulness. That is why Jesus said to his disciples:
Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes, and as innocent as doves. (Matthew 10:16)
He meant that they should keep their wits about them and be careful and canny about the wiles and sharp dealings of the wolf-like people out there in the world, but they should not be guilty of deception and sharp dealing themselves.
So in a positive sense, we are engaging the “serpent” within us when we carefully pay attention to the people and events around us, and gain a realistic and pragmatic sense of what is really going on. We pay attention to see if someone is cheating us, or if the product is really as good as the ad says it is, or if the person who makes a big show of being “Christian” and “spiritual” is just covering for a sordid secret life of prostitutes and adultery.
It is good to have a clear and sharp eye for the realities of the world around us.
However, if we focus only on the world around us, and ignore the deeper, more spiritual messages coming from God and from the spiritual depths within us, then we are bringing the serpent’s curse upon ourselves.
For many people—and for almost all of us at least some of the time—the primary focus of life is to seek out and enjoy the pleasures this world has to offer. A huge-screen TV. A big honkin’ SUV. A bottle of wine that costs a week’s paycheck. A summer house on the waterfront. This world does offer many pleasures. And as far as they go, they’re not bad.
But if enjoying these outward, earthly pleasures becomes the primary focus of our lives, we have become like the self-cursed serpent:
- We are “among the animals and wild creatures,” meaning that our life is not all that different from an animal’s life.
- We “crawl on our bellies,” meaning that our life is all wrapped up in the lowest level of physical and earthly pleasures.
- We “eat dust” in the sense that our pleasures are purely physical, and we are missing the higher joys and beauties of human love, understanding, inspiration, and spiritual connection.
Another way of saying this is that the serpent is an image of our physical senses and how we use them. Our physical senses are meant to serve our higher self as a tool for accomplishing greater purposes in this world—and yes, for relaxation and pleasure when we have finished with our daily labors.
But if our whole life revolves around seeking and enjoying the pleasures of our physical senses, then we have brought the curse of the serpent upon ourselves. We have become little more than brute animals who have the ability to see and understand higher things, but have chosen not to use that ability.
God’s message to Eve
Here is what God said to Eve:
I will greatly increase your pain in childbearing; in pain you will bear children, yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)
God does not even use the word “curse” in talking to Eve. God does speak as if he is the one bringing this pain and sorrow upon her. Yet the same principle applies as with the serpent. Though it appears in the literal story as if God is giving pain to Eve, it is really Eve’s own actions in doing what she knew she should not have done that brings the pain and sorrow upon her.
Her ultimately self-inflicted punishment is traditionally and biologically female in its application. Whereas before her childbirth would have been easy and painless, it will now be difficult and painful.
What, spiritually, is childbirth?
Spiritual childbirth is when we bring forth into the world new ideas, new thoughts, new loves, new ways of showing compassion. Every time we “conceive” a new and higher idea of what life is all about, it leads to the “birth” of new and better ways of living. As a result, we ourselves become more loving, thoughtful, and spiritual people.
But when we insist upon doing things our own way rather than God’s way, it becomes much more difficult for these new births—or spiritual rebirths—to take place in our lives.
Spiritual rebirth and growth is easy when we do it God’s way. That’s why Jesus said:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29–30)
But when we think we know better than God—as Eve and Adam did when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil contrary to God’s direct instructions—then it becomes difficult and painful to grow emotionally and spiritually. We stubbornly resist new, more thoughtful, more loving ways of doing things. We think we’re just fine the way we are. But we have to learn the hard way that there are serious flaws in the way we are.
These are the difficult spiritual births that we must now experience because we have chosen to do things our own way rather than God’s way. (For more on this, see my article, “Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?”)
And then there is the clincher. Even though childbirth will be so difficult, God says to Eve, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” This is precisely where the original equality between man and woman embodied in the first creation story (see Genesis 1:26–27) fully gives way to the inequality of man ruling over woman that has been the reality throughout nearly all of human history. It is a curse that we have still not put behind us right up to the present day.
But I’ll talk more about man, woman, and the first three chapters of the Bible in my next article.
Spiritually the pain and sorrow that Eve brought upon herself is the pain and sorrow we experience in the struggle to reform ourselves from the self-centered, thoughtless, pleasure-seeking creatures we tend to be on our own, into loving and thoughtful people who gain our greatest joy in giving joy to others. Further, all the inequality and dominance of one human being over another traces back to our faulty decision to do things our own way rather than God’s way.
God’s message to Adam
Here is what God said to Adam:
Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, saying, “You may not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it will bring forth for you; and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:17–19)
Notice that God does not curse Adam! Instead, he says that the ground is cursed because of what Adam has done. And it is cursed in a way very similar to what is said of Eve’s childbirth. In fact, in the original Hebrew the word here translated “toil” is the same as the word translated “pain” in God’s words to Eve.
For the man, this began the days of wearisome daily struggle for food.
Previously, Adam and Eve’s wants had been freely supplied. All they had to do was tend to the garden, and it would provide for them abundantly.
Now, the soil would resist the man’s efforts, producing inedible and painful thorns and thistles. Its edible yield would come about only through the hard labor of tilling, digging, weeding, harvesting, threshing, milling, and cooking the hard grains it produced.
The message for Adam is simply a different version of the message to Eve. Put in broad terms, because we humans have chosen to decide for ourselves what is right and wrong, good and bad, rather than listening to God and accepting what God has already told us is right and wrong, good and bad, we will have to struggle and learn things the hard way.
Did God curse Adam and Eve?
Even in the plain, literal words of the Bible, it does not say that God cursed Adam and Eve.
And though it is commonly said that God did curse the serpent and the ground, a careful reading of the text of Genesis 3 shows that even this is not the case.
Rather, the serpent brought a curse upon itself because of its lies and deception. And Adam and Eve brought pain, sorrow, struggle, and toil upon themselves, and a curse upon the ground, because instead of listening to God, they chose to learn what is good and evil their own way—through harsh experience in the school of hard knocks.
God did not curse Adam and Eve, nor did he curse the serpent or the ground. God simply provided an accurate description of the painful consequences of Adam and Eve’s wrongful actions.
And what God described is the same sorry state that we humans have been in ever since. A quick look at the latest headlines shows that there is an awful lot of pain and suffering in the world. And the saddest thing is that, like the early people symbolized by Adam and Eve, we bring almost all of that pain and suffering upon ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
God is still calling us to set aside our own short-sighted focus on gaining the pleasures and possessions of this world, and turn our lives toward higher, more humanitarian and more spiritual goals.
If we do this, we can still enjoy all of the pleasures this world has to offer. It’s just that they will no longer be our primary goals in life. As Jesus said to those who were busily worrying about what they would eat and drink and what they would wear:
Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)
This is one in a series of articles on the theme “The Bible Re-Viewed.” Each article takes a new look at a particular selection or story in the Bible, and explores how it relates to our lives today. For more on this spiritual way of interpreting the Bible, see “Can We Really Believe the Bible? Some Thoughts for Those who Wish they Could.”
- Which Tree is in the Middle of Your Garden?
- What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
- Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis
- “Wives, submit to your husbands.”
- The Cain and Abel Story: Does God Play Favorites?
- What is the Source of Human Fragility, Sickness, and Disease?