Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Adam and Eve’s Nakedness
After their disobedience in the Garden, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). They cover themselves with leaves, and after God pronounces the curses on them and the snake (3:14-19), he makes “garments of skin” for them (3:21) before casting them out of the Garden. The sequence seems crystal clear: the first couple was created naked and stayed that way until God provided clothing after they sinned.
This scenario, however, presented a bit of a problem for early Jewish interpreters. For one thing, early Jewish interpreters typically understood Eden to be holy ground—in fact it was the Holy of Holies before there was a tabernacle or temple. In that holy place, Adam was a priest figure, and it was assumed that he would be dressed like one. Exodus 28 emphasizes how priests were to be dressed properly in God’s presence. Would Adam be dressed any less appropriately?
To compound the problem, the conquests of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. introduced Greek influence to a Jewish world, which resulted in significant tensions. In the second century B.C. in particular, tensions escalated. The famous Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 B.C.) imposed anti-Jewish policies, which lead to the Maccabean revolt and eventual Jewish independence until the Roman conquest of 63 B.C.
One of these impositions was the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem (see 1 Maccabees 1:14 and 2 Maccabees 4:12). A gymnasium was a Greek cultural center where young men trained naked for athletic competition, which was offensive to ancient Jews.
During periods of cultural tension, where Jews were trying to maintain their own cultural identity, a naked Adam running around Eden came to be somewhat of a problem. The solution was an interpretive tradition where Adam and Eve were “clothed with glory” (or some similar phrase) from the very beginning—Adam and Eve were never really naked.
One text, History of the Rechabites, states the issue very clearly.
We [Blessed ones] are naked, but not as you suppose, for we are covered with a covering of glory…we do not show each other the private parts of our bodies. We are covered with a stole of glory which clothed Adam and Eve before they sinned (12:3).
Adam and Eve were clothed with “glory” before their sin. And according to some early Jewish interpreters, their disobedience stripped from them this garment of glory thus revealing their nakedness.
So what to do about Genesis 3:7, which says that “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked”? It seems pretty clear that eating of the tree of knowledge allowed them to see their naked state; this text says nothing about being stripped of any glorious clothing. Well, that was indeed a problem, but Jewish interpreters were intent on reading this verse not as the realization of their nakedness, but the beginning of their nakedness, for the reasons mentioned above.
Several early interpreters speak of Adam and Even being stripped of their clothing. For example, Ephraem (4th century Syrian theologian) says:
It is because of the glory with which they were clothed that they were not ashamed. When it was taken away from them—after they had violated the commandment—they were indeed ashamed, because they were now naked (Commentary on Genesis, 2:14).
Other examples include the following:
And I [Adam] wept and said, “Why have you done this to me, that I have been estranged from my glory with which I was clothed” (Apocalypse of Moses 20:2).
…just as Adam through this tree [of knowledge] was condemned and was stripped of the glory of God… (3 Baruch 4:16).
Here is the point for careful readers of the Bible today to consider. We see in this example that theological need and cultural pressures can lead to creative readings the creation story: Adam and Eve were clothed before their sin.
I would like to direct our comments this week by suggesting a topic. I would be very interested in hearing from you contemporary examples of where Christians may be reading things into the Garden story, perhaps due to theological “pressure” or for other reasons.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.