Commentary on Genesis 3
Fall of Man
By: D. McManaman
Like the creation account, the story of
the Fall employs a type of allegory that acts as a vehicle which
communicates truths that are primarily of a theological nature.
In fact, this account of the Fall of Man is a continuation of the
account begun in chapter two. Taking the words literally tends to miss
a large portion of what is asserted in the text. Again, what
exactly happened and what were the actual circumstances in which it
happened are unknown to us. What this account makes known is that
the covenant established between God and humanity in the
creation of the world has been broken by man. It communicates the
answer to the question of the origin of evil.
Now, the snake was the most
subtle of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had made
The snake here is a symbol of an intelligent creature, in fact, the
most intelligent of creatures. The devil is a preternatural
being, an angel, who is an intellectual substance, not a material
substance, and who is always actually intelligent, unlike the human
intellect that is sometimes actually and sometimes potentially.
He is a subtle
liar who uses his superior intelligence to deceive and lead into
sin. By his own choosing, he has become hostile to God and an
enemy of the human race.
asked the woman, 'Did God really say you were not to eat from any of
the trees in the garden?'
Here the devil feigns ignorance. The mind of an angel is
inconceivably more brilliant than that of man. But he allows man
the feeling of superiority, at least momentarily, in order to deprive
him of the great blessings that are his. Evil is dangerously
inconspicuous. It is subtle, underhanded, and employs flattery in
order to manipulate and exercise dominion over others.
The woman answered the snake,
'We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the
of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, "You must not eat it,
nor touch it, under pain of death."'
Recall that eating is
symbolic of entering into communion with, or experiencing something,
thus coming to know it intimately. The precept here is not to
taste independence from God. Should they choose to make
themselves their own god, they will have chosen to pervert the original
relationship they had with God. They will have rejected their
status as 'children', dependent upon God and measured by something
larger than themselves. They will have brought a spiritual death
upon themselves through a pride that is unrealistic and thoroughly
the snake said to the woman, 'No! You will not die!'
The irony here is that the devil calls God a liar. This is a
further illustration of the perverted twist of the diabolical.
Evil always sows the idea that what is good is evil and what is evil
is good, and that those who love truth and stand on it are liars, while
those who never stand on the truth are to be trusted. Moreover,
characteristic of those who embrace evil to reject the limitations of
creaturliness. "You will not die" is a very positive bit of
news. But it is unrealistic. It betrays a loss of contact
with the natural limitations of human nature, which is perfected and
fulfilled in a return to God, and not by following
whatever inclination the will happens to have at the moment.
knows in fact that they day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you
will be like gods, knowing good from evil.
Strictly speaking, the devil is not lying. For it is true that
should they eat it, their eyes will be opened and they will be like
God in so far as they have chosen to be subject to no one. It is
also true that they will have acquired an
intimate knowledge of evil. But he deceives by lending an
interpretation. The lying is in the implication rather than in
the literal reading of the words. The devil can only interpret
the facts from the purview of his perverted
character, that is, within the darkness of his own envy: God is
jealous; He does not want to share with you; He does not
want to bring you into light, but wishes to keep you in the dark,
despite all the evidence to the contrary. In short, God lacks
generosity and lies.
The evil provide us with genuine insight into the rot of their
character by means of the way they perceive others. They cannot
help but project their own depravity onto them. They have no eyes
to behold what is truly good and holy. It is not possible for
them to know love because they have refused
to eat of its fruit and have settled instead for the fruit from the
tree of knowledge of good and evil (the fruit of independence from God,
who is Love).
woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and
that it was enticing for the wisdom that it could give.
There is something appealing in the thought of being one's own god,
for one can do as one pleases.
The evil here is in its complete lack of realism: man is not the
measure of what is true and good. To ignore his natural
limitations and live as if there were none--other than those imposed by
his own will--is for him to court disaster. He has no dominion
over being, that is, reality does not conform to his will.
Rather, he must conform to what is, that is, to the real nature of
especially his own nature. Human nature will rebel against a will
which fails to respect the boundaries laid down by God Himself,
regardless of whose will it is.
The tree was enticing for the wisdom that it could give, but this
wisdom is by no means the wisdom spoken of elsewhere in the scriptures,
for example: "...were anyone perfect among the sons of men, if he
lacked the Wisdom that comes from you, he would still count for
nothing," or, "With you is Wisdom, she who knows your works, she
who was present when you made the world; she understands what is
pleasing in your eyes and what agrees with your commandments" (Wis 9,
9.9). The wisdom that draws the first parents is not the
wisdom that understands what is pleasing in the eyes of God and what
agrees with His commands. The woman is fully aware that she is
not to taste independence from God, and there is no wisdom in
sin. On the contrary, sin generates a counterfeit wisdom which is
more accurately designated as cunning or craft. It is the cunning
devil that attracts the woman, for he wishes to impart his own light, a
light that ultimately darkens the mind. It is a light in which a
person becomes adept at hiding himself, like a snake, in order to more
and manipulate others for his own ends; for if a person makes
his own god, everyone else without exception becomes a means to his
Knowing how to manipulate another without the other becoming aware of
fact is the
kind of "wisdom" that belongs to those who love darkness.
This false wisdom affords a kind of power over others.
she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some to her
husband who was with her, and he ate it.
The first parents of the human race chose to be their own god, the
measure of the good. "Her husband" who is with her was silent
throughout. Perhaps his sin is in his silence, in his cowardly
to her defense and protect his wife from the intimidation of
evil. His love for justice was not stronger than his love for
himself, and so he did not resist evil
the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were
Sin has driven a wedge between the two. They experience shame in
one another's presence. Their sin against God is at the same time
a sin against one another. Hence, their shame. He failed to
defend his wife with the truth of which he was in possession. He
failed to defend her from intimidation by one who has become an enemy
of God and man. The decision to be one's own god is necessarily
an affront against human beings, for it involves a refusal to accept
one's creaturely status as a being measured by divine law and reduces
everyone else to the status of a means to an
end. In this light, sin is essentially egotistical. It
involves an elevation of oneself above the rest of humanity, even above
one's own spouse. Thus, sin is alienating and begets
In short, sin, which is vertical (against God), is at the same time
(against neighbour), like a tree. Accordingly, it
is fitting that it be conquered by the vertical and horizontal
structure of a cross.
they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves
Sin is a deficiency of order that leaves a corresponding deficiency in
one's character. One who sins becomes unsightly in his own
eyes. That is why he experiences shame when, in all his
nakedness, he is exposed to the gaze of another. And so he will
either repent of his sin, or he will cover himself. If he chooses
the latter, he will hide
his nakedness behind a fabricated and false self, designed to win
acceptance and the feeling of being complete. Sin leaves such a
lacuna in the soul that the sinner needs to feel that he exists, for
evil is a kind of non-being, a nothingness, and to embrace evil is to
shrink a degree or so from being most fully. The person who gives
himself over to evil will need to see and experience proof of his own
existence through the approval and acceptance of others. After a
time, the only self he really knows is the reflected self, mirrored in
the behaviour of others, and the only self that these others know is
the fabricated self that covers the dilapidated and fractured self that
the sinner is too ashamed to expose. And so evil has a
narcissistic quality to it that is more or less intense, depending upon
the depths of depravity.
man and his wife heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in
the cool of the day, and they hid from Yahweh God among the trees of
The protoparents of the human race are no longer at ease in God's
presence. Sin has crippled their ability to leisure ("the cool of
the day"), the highest mode of which consists in the contemplation of
God. Elijah detected the presence of God in "a light murmuring
sound", which represents intimacy (1 Kg 19, 9ff). God converses
intimately with his chosen prophets. The ability to hear the
sound of Yahweh in the garden indicates that in the state of original
justice, the protoparents of the human race enjoyed an intimate and
infused knowledge of God. When we know a person intimately, we
know his sound, for the example, the sound of his approach, the speed
at which he walks, the tone of his steps, etc. After giving
themselves to sin, the "sound of Yahweh" is re-interpreted as a threat,
and their banishment from the garden represents the loss of this
intimacy and infused knowledge. They now suffer a dulling of the
intellect and an inability to see things from God's point of
view (a deficiency of wisdom).
Yahweh God called to the man. 'Where are you?' he asked. 'I heard
the sound of you in the garden", he replied. "I was afraid
because I was naked, so I hid." 'Who told you that you were
naked?' he asked. 'Have you been eating from the tree I forbade
you to eat?'
God called to the man: "where are you?", not because His knowledge is
limited, but rather to indicate that man is lost. Humanity has
lost its way and will have to be shown the way back to
God. But who will show him the way? The answer is
forthcoming in this chapter of Genesis.
man replied, 'It was the woman you put with me; she gave me some fruit
from the tree and I ate it.'
Man refuses to face his sin and repent of it. Instead, he blames
God: 'It was the woman you
put with me.'
Yahweh God said to the woman, 'Why did you do that?' The woman
replied, 'The snake tempted me and I ate,'
Like the man, the woman blames someone other than herself. She
blames the one who tempted her. But she too is punished along
with the snake, and so she is not entirely free of guilt. She
freely chose to yield to temptation.
Yahweh God said to the snake, 'Because you have done this, accursed be
you of all animals wild and tame! On your belly you will go and
on dust you will freed as long as you live.
God punishes sin. If He did not, He would lack justice, which is
a perfection. Since God is perfect, He cannot lack justice.
A life of sin is an accursed life. The lure of sin is always a
sin promises wisdom, independence, and a unique identity, but it
leaves us dull of mind, a slave to disordered appetites, and deprived
of our true identity. Sin appears to be a kind of elevation,
but it is really a fall: "On your belly you will crawl." And the
wages of sin is death: "on dust you will freed as long as you
live." The devil assured the woman that she would not die, and
because she chose to believe his lie, he led her right into the heart
of his own death.
But unlike man's "justice", which is often hard and vindictive, God's
justice is always merciful. Unlike man's "mercy", which often
falls short of justice (leniency), betraying an indifference to
justice, God's mercy is always just. The snake's death is
forever, not because God is not merciful, but rather because its love
for evil is complete. As St. Thomas writes: "an angel has nothing
in him to retard his action, and with his whole might he is moved to
whatsoever he is moved, be it good or bad." (ST, I, q. 63, a.8, ad
3). An angel will not later discover a "reason" to repent of his
choice, because there is no "later", and his choice was fully
enlightened from the beginning.
But man's death is not forever, because there is a "later" in his
case. Thanks to the inferior nature that man is, there is time to
repent of past decisions, and it was not with his whole might that he
was moved to sin. There is
hope for him:
shall put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring
and hers; it will bruise your head and you will strike its heel.
The image of a foot crushing the head of the snake speaks of victory
over the death he has brought to the world. The woman in this
verse, however, cannot be "Eve"; for she listened to the snake.
She is a
man (created in the image and likeness of God), and man is lost.
She cannot find her way back to God on her own wits. She and her
will have to be given the way back. Nor is man able to undo the
effects of his own sin, because everything he does or every choice he
makes is made within the framework of his decision to be his own
The woman in this verse will be at enmity with the snake,
and so they will not be of like mind. Her offspring will bruise
the snake's head, while the snake will strike its heel. Man will
have victory over the snake through the offspring of a woman, who will
provide man with the way back to God. Christians believe
this woman is Mary, whose offspring is Jesus Christ, who when dying
referred to her as "woman", to indicate that she is the woman referred
to in this chapter of Genesis (Cf. Jn 19, 26-27).
the woman he
said: I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, and you will
birth to your children in pain. Your yearning will be for your
husband, and he will dominate you.
It is good for man to "multiply and fill the earth". It is
through the creation of family that man and woman imitate God.
But "intense pain in childbearing" signifies that holiness is now
difficult. What is humanly good to do is now toilsome. "He
will dominate you" reveals that the
domination of woman throughout history was not part of God's original
plan, but is an offspring of man's sin against God, for there is no
fellowship among men where sin separates him from God. The remedy
for this oppression and inequality is not legislation that permits her
to exercise an oppressive dominion over her offspring. All this
does is shift the very same injustice from one victim to another.
Rather, the solution is submission to God. For as the vertical
disorder generated a disorder of a horizontal kind, so too the
horizontal disorder can only be restored by repairing the vertical.
To the man he
said, 'Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate from the
tree of which I had forbidden you to eat, accursed be the soil because
of you! Painfully will you get your food from it as long as you
live. It will yield you brambles and thistles, as you eat the
produce of the land. By the sweat of your face will you earn your
food, until you return to the ground, as you were taken from it...'
We saw in chapter two of Genesis that work is holy. It is good
for man to
cultivate, produce, and share in the providence of God. But what
holy and humanly good to do is now difficult ("By the sweat of your
face..."). In other words, virtue is
difficult, while vice is easy. Man has a quasi-natural
sin. Traditionally, this has been called concupiscence. The
great deception of evil is that a life
of sin is a good life. It is easy in that one is not
committed to waging war against the inclination of one's wounded
nature. But it is not the good life. The truth is that a
life given over to sin is a life of
suffering and frustration. Indeed, virtue is difficult, but it
does not lead to suffering and frustration, but to eudaemonia, the experience of
integration and happiness.
dust you are and to dust you shall return.
Death entered the world through sin. The kind of death we undergo
as a result of sin is experienced not so much as a return to God, but
as a return to dust. In dying, we can't help but come face to
face with our
own powerlessness and the hard truth that we are dust (humous,
human). In himself, man is nothing. But sin refuses to
acknowledge this. And yet if we won't bring ourselves to face
this fundamental truth of
ourselves, death will. This descent into the darkness of the
unknown, this experience of our own disintegration should prompt us to
reach out in the dark and cry out to God. Only one whose heart
has been hardened
by the habit of sin can undergo death rebelliously, that is, without
calling out to
help. In this light, death is in many ways a mercy.
The three effects of Original Sin are death, a loss of intimacy with
God and the knowledge begotten from that original relationship (dulling
of the mind), and concupiscence, which is a tendency to sin.
These effects are really the loss of the preternatural gifts, which
include bodily immortality, an infused knowledge of God, and freedom
from concupiscence. Sin entered into the world through man.
But is is often argued that God does not exist because a good God would
allowed so much evil to exist in the world. But what this chapter
reveals is that it is man, not God, who is the origin of the evil in
the world. If
everyone were to submit themselves entirely to God's will, there would
be no evil to speak of. This world would be paradise.
Moreover, if God did not exist, one could not objectively distinguish
and evil. The very fact that one can recognize that evil
exists in the world is proof positive that God exists. Evil is a
falling short of a norm. Without an objective norm or standard,
say that something falls short of what it ought to be. But if God
does not exist, then the "good" is whatever man wills it to be.
Good is simply the expression of our will and is thus purely
subjective. And if this is the case, then one cannot say
that there is any objective evil in the world. This is something
that consistent atheists understand and accept. If God does not
exist, the only law that governs human behaviour is the law of raw
power, which can even take a democratic form (mob or majority
rule). This kind of democracy, though, is very different than the
democracy that is founded upon the understanding that the human person
has been created by God with certain inalienable rights and that these
rights do not have their origin in the state nor in human legislation,
but in God.
Copyright © 2005 by Douglas P. McManaman
All Rights Reserved