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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Adam and Eve’s Nakedness

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December 14, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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.

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Josh Mueller - #44458

December 20th 2010

Bryan,

Love is more than good intentions or general benevolence.  It entails seeing worth and value in the object of love that is independent of its performance or other qualities it may seek to enhance its value.  When we talk about “judging” in the context of the creation narrative, it simply jumps out at you that God “judges” / values everything He has created as good, including the nakedness of the first human beings.  This appears to be more than mere coincidence as this sudden shift in the view of nakedness as something not good that needs to be covered is the pivotal turning point and apparent effect of eating from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  If this “knowledge of good and evil” is a way of referring to our independent judging of good and evil versus God’s judging of every created thing as good, we have an important clue here why this particular “fruit” was the only exception in the otherwise “everything permissible” order of the garden.  When we try to judge on our own (including the judgment of ourselves and of God’s disposition towards us) we usually get it wrong.  Chaos and death is nothing but a consequence of the downward spiral that extends from this root problem.


James Goetz - #44459

December 20th 2010

Since I see Genesis 2-3 as a divinely inspired allegory, I don’t assume that the first humans with the image of God were always naked before the Fall.


Jon Garvey - #44469

December 20th 2010

@Bryan Hodge - #44419

Brian - I take the immortality question more simply: they were not forbidden the use of the tree of life as they were that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Presumably then, they ate from it and would have lived forever had access to the tree not been withdrawn by their exclusion from the garden - the place both of the tree and God’s presence.

Your point about immortality from dwelling in God’s presence then becomes just a more direct way of expressing the symbolism of the tree of life (which anyway rapidly acquires the character of God’s direct gift in Ezekiel and other places in both Testaments).

In other words, what brings eternal life for mere creatures of flesh is only covenant relationship with God - even so that doesn’t preclude its provision by some secondary means including an actual tree, but here is a point in the story where a mythic meaning seems more natural.

Having said that, eating from an actual forbidden tree of knowledge would embody, as well as symbolising, disobedience to God’s command. Just as in classic Calvinist theology the Eucharistic bread and wine not only symbolise, but procure, the spiritual blessings of the cross.


Jon Garvey - #44470

December 20th 2010

@James Goetz - #44459

James - quite so. Unless the story includes a fairly superfluous teleological tale of the origin of clothing, it cries out for symbolic interpretation. And given its Israelite background, the association of nakedness and shame seems inevitable, most likely in the context of the revealing of corruption (as in Ezekiel’s symbolism of the unfaithful harlot stripped bare.

More prosaically, if it’s not in the allegorical/mythic/mythic proto-history bunch of categories, then it would make literal sense in an ANE context, since clothing preceded that culture by many millennia.


Bryan Hodge - #44503

December 20th 2010

Josh,

I see. I’m still not sure how that works out with those God destroys, but I can see where you’re getting the ideas from the statement that all things are “good,” “very good,” and ‘knowing good and evil.” My take on those is that “good” here represents what is ordered and beneficial to preserve human life. On the other hand, the desire of the humans to have a “knowledge of good and evil” is not as plain in my mind as it is often read. The word yada’ in Genesis usually refers to an experience. This can be an experience in general or the idea of being “experienced” or having mastery over something (like Esau with his bow). I think there is a play on the word here in that the tree is one of gaining mastery over order and chaos within the world (tob as order, ra’ as chaos rather than moral good and evil). God’s pronouncement seems to be that they will indeed experience order and chaos, but it won’t be one of mastery since they will die, i.e., ultimately be overcome by chaos. The rest of the book seems to bear this out, and God is left by the end of the book as the only character who is capable of mastering both good and evil, order and chaos toward His own ends (50:20).

(cont.)


Bryan Hodge - #44505

December 20th 2010

Those who become chaotic agents, i.e. the serpent’s seed in the story, end up placing themselves as a part of the chaos that must be overcome and destroyed if order is to reign (hence, the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, etc.). This is why I asked you if you thought that chaotic agents are seen as good by God, since it would seem that they are in fact the very opposite of what God means by good. Note also the pronouncement before and after the flood (6:5-7; 8:21). I do think God grieves perhaps over what chaotic agents could have been and were made to be in one sense, but this is more of an extracontextual idea, as He is not presented as having a positive view of chaotic agents within the story.


Bryan Hodge - #44506

December 20th 2010

Jon,

I think you and I see eye to eye on that. Thanks.


Bryan Hodge - #44507

December 20th 2010

Oh, I did catch one thing, Jon. I’m not sure if the story wishes to present to us that they were eating from the tree of life. If the tree of life does what it does in Gilgamesh and even in Genesis 3:22. If the tree makes one live forever, it would seem that only one partaking is needed. So it may only be that the story presents to us that they had a practical immortality and were offered permanent immortality, but lost it, as Gilgamesh did, to the craftiness of the serpent.


Jon Garvey - #44543

December 21st 2010

@Bryan Hodge - #44507

That interpretation is quite possible - but I the news says eating fruit prevents cancer, or drinking soda makes children hyperacative, that doesn’t necessarily imply just one exposure.

Theologically, of course, eternal life cannot be lost because the covenant in Christ undertakes to maintain our relationship with God despite our weakness - that’s its main glory. However, were it possible to fall away from him, we would fall away from eternal life too.

All that seems to resonate with your concept of the garden as the place of God’s presence and blessing: it would have been inconceivable to take a cutting from the tree of life and expect it to grow outside the garden.


Stephen - #44626

December 22nd 2010

Doesn’t Eric Fromm best explain it, citing Kabbalistic notions, that this story is not about nakedness in a Victorian-values sense at all?  Rather, Adam and Eve did not previously recognise their differences from each other as different genders.  When they committed the sin and took the fruit, understood right from wrong, they became separated from nature.  Part of that realisation from mankind’s separation from each gender - resulting in many of the injustices we see historically and today, especially against women. 

As a matter of real history, this part of the myth describes another outcome of mankind evolving to the stage of ‘human’.  Whilst somewhat still an animal, mankind had become something much more.  Mankind, unlike any other animal we know of, understood his own mortality (‘on that day you will day’), knowing good from evil, becoming seperate and dominate nature (‘you will have dominion…by the sweat of your brow’) and separate from each other (i.e. the nakedness story). 
Whilst we have now ‘become like gods’, and in that sense the act was a good thing, we have paid a very big price in separation and loneliness we now all feel - being a loving God, that is why He warns Adam and Eve in the story.


Justin - #45397

December 30th 2010

Pete,

Is there a connection between Adam/Eve and their “nakedness” and Israel and her “nakedness” as seen in Ezekiel 16:6-8?


Jon - #46057

January 6th 2011

Pre consumption fruit of knowledge, A and E were naked, but didn’t know it.
Post fruit, they knew it and felt shame.
In view of God’s command for them to have children, then pre-fall sexual desire and fulfilment could reasonably be assumed.
How this could be worked out without some form of clothing and privacy once society got going?
This is another difficulty in reading this portion of scripture in a literal sense.


Adam Gonnerman - #46960

January 11th 2011

I’m having a difficult time making sense out of this article. The Genesis passage under consideration was likely written well before any of the “early Jewish interpreters” came along, and the redactors of Sacred Writ apparently had few qualms about including texts that were racy, scandalous or otherwise objectionable. What seemed to direct them was theological considerations, not what was convenient or acceptable to any particular culture.

Further, since the Genesis account is not concrete, factual history, there’s no reason to even ask if this says anything about our earliest ancestors. The theological point is made without reference to objective history.


kevin blumer - #49589

January 30th 2011

adam and eve where not perfect but were they supposed to be perfect we intepret that they were but you can allways view things for a diffrent mindset and diffrent point of view


John Bullock - #52156

February 21st 2011

Peter,

ThanX for the research on this.  Adam and Eve’s pre-fall attire (or lack-there-of) adds a unique dimension to the biography of the first family.  It’s one of those things that make you scratch your head and ask “what is going on here?”  I appreciate your quotations of the extra-canonical sources for they do shed light on the issue.  There is something to be said for the “clothed with glory” way of thinking.
However, please also include in the discussion the account of Noah’s nakedness found in Genesis 9:20-25.  The issue of being seen nude because of his drinking binge is an extremely sore spot to Noah.  It embarrassed him greatly.  Just look how he reacted to his son who talked about it openly.
So whatever the literary reason to emphasize the nakedness of Adam and Eve is, it has much in common with “Noah’s fall” too.  Both stories need to be understood under the same light.
Thanx again for the thought provoking conversation.
John B.


Andrea - #55762

March 26th 2011

2 examples:
The feminist pressures in society making us want to read Eve as less of a helper and more egalitarian.
 The pressure to trust modern “science” more than scripture and so force evolution into the creation account.


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