The Fall of Man
Commentary on Genesis 3

Doug McManaman
July 5, 2005
Copyright 2005
Reproduced with Permission

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.

It 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 fruit 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 unreasonable.

Then 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, it is 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.

God 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).

The 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 things, 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, 6; 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 of the 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 readily deceive and manipulate others for his own ends; for if a person makes himself his own god, everyone else without exception becomes a means to his ends. Knowing how to manipulate another without the other becoming aware of the fact is the kind of "wisdom" that belongs to those who love darkness. This false wisdom affords a kind of power over others.

So 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 refusal to come 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.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked.

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 loneliness. In short, sin, which is vertical (against God), is at the same time horizontal (against neighbour), like a tree. Accordingly, it is fitting that it be conquered by the vertical and horizontal structure of a cross.

So they sewed fig-leaves together to make themselves loin-clothes.

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.

The 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 garden.

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).

But 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.

The 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.'

Then 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.

Then 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 lie, for 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:

I 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 offspring 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 god.

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).

To the woman he said: I shall give you intense pain in childbearing, and you will give 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 is 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 inclination to 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.

For 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 God for 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 not have 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 between good 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, one cannot 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.