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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Genesis 3

Verse 1

III.

(1) Now the serpent.—Literally, And. The Hebrew language, however, is very poor in particles, and the intended contrast would be made plainer by rendering “Now they were both naked (arumim) . . . but the serpent was subtil (arum), more than every beast of the field.” This quality of the serpent was in itself innocent, and even admirable, and accordingly the LXX. translate prudent; but it was made use of by the tempter to deceive Eve; for, it has been remarked, she would not be surprised on finding herself spoken to by so sagacious a creature. If this be so, it follows that Eve must have dwelt in Paradise long enough to have learnt something of the habits of the animals around her, though she had never studied them so earnestly as Adam, not having felt that want of a companion which had made even his state of happiness so dull.

And he said unto the woman.—The leading point of the narrative is that the temptation came upon man from without, and through the woman. Such questions, therefore, as whether it were a real serpent or Satan under a serpent-like form, whether it spake with a real voice, and whether the narrative describes a literal occurrence or is allegorical, are better left unanswered. God has given us the account of man’s temptation and fall, and the entry of sin into the world, in this actual form; and the more reverent course is to draw from the narrative the lessons it was evidently intended to teach us, and not enter upon too curious speculations. We are dealing with records of a vast and hoar antiquity, given to man when he was in a state of great simplicity, and with his intellect only partly developed, and we cannot expect to find them as easy to understand as the pages of modern history.

Yea, hath God said . . .?—There is a tone of surprise in these words, as if the tempter could not bring himself to believe that such a command had been given. Can it really be true, he asks, that Elohim has subjected you to such a prohibition? How unworthy and wrong of Him! Neither the serpent nor the woman use the title—common throughout this section—of Jehovah-Elohim, a sure sign that there was a thoughtful purpose in giving this appellation to the Deity. It is the impersonal God of creation to whom the tempter refers, and the woman follows his guidance, forgetting that it was Jehovah, the loving personal Being in covenant with them, who had really given them the command.

Verses 1-24

EXCURSUS C: ON THE DURATION OF THE PARADISIACAL STATE OF INNOCENCE.

The Bereshit Rabba argues that Adam and Eve remained in their original state of innocence for six hours only. Others have supposed that the events recorded in Genesis 2:4 to Genesis 3:24 took place in the course of twenty-four hours, and suppose that this is proved by what is said in Genesis 2:4, that the earth and heavens, with Adam and the garden, were all made in one day, before the end of which they suppose that he fell. This view, like that which in Genesis 1:0 interprets each creative day of a similar period, really amounts to this: that the narrative of Holy Scripture is to be forced to bend to an arbitrary meaning put upon a single word, and drawn not from its meaning in Hebrew, but from its ordinary use in English. More correctly, we might venture to say that the use of the word day in Genesis 2:4 is a Divine warning against so wilful a method of exposition.

Read intelligently, the progress of time is carefully marked. In Genesis 2:6 the earth is watered by a mist: in paradise there are mighty rivers. Now, mist would not produce rivers; and if there were mist in the morning, and rain in the afternoon, a long period of time would still be necessary before the falling rains would form for themselves definite channels. A vast space must have elapsed between the mist period and that in which the Tigris and Euphrates rolled along their mighty floods.

And with this the narrative agrees. All is slow and gradual. God does not summon the Garden of Eden into existence by a sudden command, but He “planted” it, and “out of the ground He “made to grow” such trees as were most remarkable for beauty, and whose fruit was most suitable for human food. In some favoured spot, in soil fertile and fit for their development, God, by a special providence, caused such plants to germinate as would best supply the needs of a creature so feeble as man, until, by the aid of his reason, he has invented those aids and helps which the animals possess in their own bodily organisation. The creation of full-grown trees belongs to the region of magic. A book which gravely recorded such an act would justly be relegated to the Apocrypha; for the God of revelation works by law, and with such long ages of preparation that human eagerness is often tempted to cry, “How long?” and to pray that God would hasten His work.
And next, as regards Adam. Placed in a garden, two of the rivers of which—the Tigris and the Euphrates—seem to show that the earth at his creation had already settled down into nearly its present shape, he is commanded “to dress and keep it.” The inspired narrator would scarcely have spoken in this way if Adam’s continuance in the garden had been but a few hours or days. We find him living there so long that his solitude becomes wearisome to him, and the Creator at length affirms that it is not good for him to be alone. Meanwhile, Adam is himself searching for a partner, and in the hope of finding one, he studies all the animals around him, observes their ways, gives them names, discovers many valuable qualities in them, makes several of them useful to him, but still finds none among them that answers to his wants. But when we read that “Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowls of the air, and to every beast of the field,” we cannot but see that this careful study of the creatures round him must have continued through a long period before it could have resulted in their being thus generally classified and named in Adam’s mind. At length Eve is brought, and his words express the lively pleasure of one who, after repeated disappointments, had at length found that of which he was in search. “This,” he says, “this time is bone of my bone.”
How long Adam and Eve enjoyed their simple happiness after their marriage is left untold; but this naming of the animals at least suggests that some time elapsed before the fall. Though Adam had observed their habits, yet he would scarcely have given many of them names before he had a rational companion with whom to hold discourse. For some, indeed, he would have found names when trying to call them to him, but only for such as seemed fit for domestication. The rest he would pass by till there was some one to whom to describe them. Thus Eve seems to have known something of the sagacity of the serpent. She, too, as well as Adam, recognised the voice of Jehovah walking in the garden (chap. 3:8); and the girdles spoken of in Genesis 2:7 seem also to indicate, by their elaboration, that the guilty pair remained in Paradise some time after the fall. The indications of time are, however, less numerous and definite after the creation of Eve than before; but certainly Adam was for some considerable period a denizen of Paradise, and probably there was a longer time than is generally supposed spent in innocence by him and his wife, and also some delay between the fall and their expulsion from their happy home.

Verse 5

(5) Ye shall be as gods.—Rather, as God, as Elohim himself, in the particular quality of knowing good and evil. It was a high bait which the tempter offered; and Eve, who at first had answered rightly, and who as yet knew nothing of falsehood, dallied with the temptation, and was lost. But we must not comment too severely upon her conduct. It was no mean desire which led her astray: she longed for more know ledge and greater perfection; she wished even to rise above the level of her nature; but the means she used were in violation of God’s command, and so she fell. And, as usual, the tempter kept the promise to the ear. Eve knew good and evil, but only by feeling evil within herself. It was by moral degradation, and not by intellectual insight, that her ambitious wish was fulfilled.

Verse 6

(6) And when the woman saw . . . she took.—Heb., And the woman saw . . . and she took, &c. In this, the original form of the narrative, we see the progress of the temptation detailed in a far more lively manner than in our version. With awakened desire the woman gazes upon the tree. The fruit appears inviting to the eye, and possibly was really good for food. The whole aspect of the tree was beautiful; and, besides, there was the promise held out to her that it possessed the mysterious faculty of developing her intellectual powers. To this combined influence of her senses without and her ambition within she was unable to offer that resistance which would have been possible only by a living faith in the spoken word of God. She eats, therefore, and gives to her husband—so called here for the first time—and he eats with her. The demeanour of Adam throughout is extraordinary. It is the woman who is tempted—not as though Adam was not present, as Milton supposes, for she has not to seek him—but he shares with her at once the gathered fruit. Rather, she is pictured to us as more quick and observant, more open to impressions, more curious and full of longings than the man, whose passive behaviour is as striking as the woman’s eagerness and excitability.

Verse 7

(7) The eyes of them both were opened.—This consciousness of guilt came upon them as soon as they had broken God’s commandment by eating of the forbidden fruit; and it is evident from the narrative that they ate together; for otherwise Eve would have been guilty of leading Adam into sin after her understanding had been enlightened to perceive the consequences of her act. But manifestly her deed was not without his cognisance and approval, and he had shared, in his own way, her ambition of attaining to the God like. But how miserably was this proud desire dis appointed! Their increased knowledge brought only shame. Their minds were awakened and enlarged, but the price they paid for it was their innocence and peace.

They sewed fig leaves together.—There is no reason for supposing that the leaves were those of the pisang (Musa paradisiaca), which grow ten feet long. Everywhere else the word signifies the common fig-tree (Ficus carica), one of the earliest plants subjected to man’s use. More remarkable is the word sewed. The Syriac translator felt the difficulty of supposing Eve acquainted with the art of needlework, and renders it, “they stuck leaves together.” But the word certainly implies something more elaborate than this. Probably some time elapsed between their sin and its punishment; and thus there was not merely that first hasty covering of themselves which has made commentators look about for a leaf large enough to encircle their bodies, but respite sufficient to allow of something more careful and ingenious; and Eve may have used her first advance in intellect for the adornment of her person. During this delay they would have time for reflection, and begin to understand the nature of the change that had taken place in their condition.

Aprons.—More correctly, girdles.

Verse 8

(8) And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden.—The matter-of-fact school of commentators understand by this that there was a thunderstorm, and the guilty pair hearing for the first time the uproar of nature, hid themselves in terror, and interpreted the mighty peals as meaning their condemnation. Really it is in admirable keeping with the whole narrative; and Jehovah appears here as the owner of the Paradise, and as taking in it His daily exercise; for the verb is in the reflexive conjugation, and means “walking for pleasure.” The time is “the cool (literally, the wind) of the day,” the hour in a hot climate when the evening breeze sets in, and men, rising from their noontide slumber, go forth for labour or recreation. In this description the primary lesson is that hitherto man had lived in close communication with God. His intellect was undeveloped; his mental powers still slumbered; but nevertheless there was a deep spiritual sympathy between him and his Maker. It is the nobler side of Adam’s relationship to God before the fall.

Hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God.—This does not imply a visible appearance, for the whole narrative is anthropomorphic. The Fathers, however, saw in these descriptions the proof of a previous incarnation of the Divine Son (see Note on Genesis 12:7). Next, we find in their conduct an attempt to escape from the further result of sin. The first result was shame, from which man endeavoured to free himself by covering his person; the second was fear, and this man would cure by departing still farther from God. But the voice of Jehovah reaches him, and with rebuke and punishment gives also healing and hope.

Verse 11

(11) Who told thee that thou wast naked?—Adam had given as his excuse that which was really the consequence of his sin; but by this question God awakens his conscience, and makes him feel that what he had described as a want or imperfection was really the result of his own act. And as long as a man feels sorrow only for the results of his actions there is no repentance, and no wish to return to the Divine presence. God, therefore, in order to win Adam back to better thoughts, carries his mind from the effect to the sin that had caused it.

Verses 12-13

(12, 13) She gave me . . . —There is again in Adam the same passiveness which we noticed on Genesis 3:6. He has little sense of responsibility, and no feeling that he had a duty towards Eve, and ought to have watched over her, and helped her when tempted. It is a mistake to suppose that he wished to shift the blame, first upon Eve, and then upon God, who had given her to him; rather, he recapitulates the history, as if, in his view, it was a matter of course that he should act as he had done (see on Genesis 3:20), and as if he had no sense that there was any blame whatever attaching to any one. His conscience still seems utterly unmoved. Far nobler is the woman’s answer. She acknowledges that she had been led astray, and, under the influence of the serpent’s deceit, had broken God’s commandment.

Verses 14-15

(14, 15) Unto the serpent.—As the serpent had tempted our first parents purposely and consciously in order to lead them into sin, he stood there without excuse, and received a threefold penalty. The outward form of the condemnation is made suitable to the shape which the tempter had assumed; but the true force and meaning, especially in the last and most intense portion of the sentence, belong, not to the animal, but to Satan himself. The serpent is but the type: diabolic agency the reality. First, therefore, the serpent is condemned to crawl. As he is pronounced to be “cursed above (or rather, among) all cattle”—that is, the tame animals subjected to man’s service—and also “among all beasts of the field”—that is, the wild animals, but a term not applicable to reptiles—it has been supposed that the serpent was originally erect and beautiful, and that Adam had even tamed serpents, and had them in his household. But such a transformation belongs to the region of fable, and the meaning is that henceforward the serpent’s crawling motion is to be to it a mark of disgrace, and to Satan a sign of meanness and contempt. He won the victory over our guileless first parents, and still he winds in and out among men, ever bringing degradation with him, and ever sinking with his victims into deeper abysses of shame and infamy. Yet, even so, perpetually he suffers defeat, and has, secondly, to “lick the dust,” because his mean devices lead, as in this place, only to the manifestation of God’s glory. In the Paradise Lost Milton has made Satan a hero, though fallen; really he is a despicable and mean-spirited foe, whose strength lies in man’s moral feebleness. Finally, there is perpetual enmity between the serpent and man. The adder in the path bites man’s heel, and is crushed beneath his tramp. It has been noticed that in spite of the beauty and gracefulness of many of the species, man’s loathing of them is innate; while in hot countries they are his great enemy, the deaths in India, for instance, from snake-bites being many times more than those caused by the carnivora.

Her seed . . . shall bruise thy head.—We have here the sum of the whole matter, and the rest of the Bible does but explain the nature of this struggle, the persons who wage it, and the manner and consequences of the victory. Here, too, we learn the end and purpose for which the narrative is cast in its present form. It pictures to us man in a close and loving relation, not to an abstract deity, but to a personal and covenant Jehovah. This Being with tender care plants for him a garden, gathers into it whatever is most rare and beautiful in vegetation, and, having given it to him for his home, even deigns at eventide to walk with him there. In the care of this garden He provides for Adam pleasant employment, and watches the development of his intellect with such interest as a father feels in the mental growth of his child. Day by day He brings new animals within his view; and when, after studying their habits, he gives them names, the Deity shares man’s tranquil enjoyment. And when he still feels a void, and needs a companion who can hold with him rational discourse, Jehovah elaborately fashions for him, out of his own self, a second being, whose presence satisfies all his longings. Meanwhile, in accordance with the universal law that hand in hand with free-will goes responsibility, an easy and simple trial is provided for man’s obedience. He fails, and henceforward he must wage a sterner conflict, and attain to victory only by effort and suffering. In this struggle man is finally to prevail, but not unscathed. And his triumph is to be gained not by mere human strength, but by the coming of One who is “the Woman’s Seed;” and round this promised Deliverer the rest of Scripture groups itself. Leave out these words, and all the inspired teaching which follows would be an ever-widening river without a fountain-head. But necessarily with the fall came the promise of restoration. Grace is no after-thought, but enters the world side by side with sin. Upon this foundation the rest of Holy Scripture is built, till revelation at last reaches its corner-stone in Christ. The outward form of the narrative affords endless subjects for curious discussion; its inner meaning and true object being to lay the broad basis of all future revealed truth.

As regards the reading of the Vulgate and some of the Fathers, ipsa conteret, “she shall bruise,” not only is the pronoun masculine in the Hebrew, but also the verb. This too is the case in the Syriac, in which language also verbs have genders. Most probably a critical edition of the Vulgate would restore even there ipse conteret, “he shall bruise.”

Like a large proportion of the words used in Genesis, the verb is rare, being found only twice elsewhere in Scripture. In Job 9:17 the meaning seems plainly to be to break, but in Psalms 139:11, where, however, J the reading is uncertain, the sense required is to cover or veil, though Dr. Kay translates overwhelm. Some versions in this place translate it observe; and the Vulgate gives two renderings, namely, “She shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt lie in ambush for (his or her) heel” (gender not marked—calcaneo ejus). The translation of the Authorised Version may be depended upon as correct, in spite of its not being altogether applicable to the attack of a natural serpent upon a wayfarer’s heel.

Verse 16

(16) Unto the woman he said.—The woman is not cursed as the serpent was, but punished as next in guilt; and the retribution is twofold. First, God greatly multiplies “her sorrow and her conception,” that is, her sorrow generally, but especially in connection with pregnancy, when with anguish and peril of life she wins the joy of bringing a man into the world. But also “thy desire shall be to thy husband.” In the sin she had been the prime actor, and the man had yielded her too ready an obedience. Henceforward she was to live in subjection to him; yet not unhappy, because her inferiority was to be tempered by a natural longing for the married state and by love towards her master.—Among the heathen the punishment was made very bitter by the degradation to which woman was reduced; among the Jews the wife, though she never sank so low, was nevertheless purchased of her father, was liable to divorce at the husband’s will, and was treated as in all respects his inferior. In Christ the whole penalty, as St. Paul teaches, has been abrogated (Galatians 3:28), and the Christian woman is no more inferior to the man than is the Gentile to the Jew, or the bondman to the free.

Verses 17-18

(17, 18) Unto Adam (without the article, and therefore a proper name) he said.—Lange thoughtfully remarks that while the woman was punished by the entrance of sorrow into the small subjective world of her womanly calling, man is punished by the derangement of the great objective world over which he was to have dominion. Instead of protecting his wife and shielding her from evil, he had passively followed her lead in disobeying God’s command; and therefore “the ground,” the adâmâh out of which Adam had been formed, instead of being as heretofore his friend and willing subject, becomes unfruitful, and must be forced by toil and labour to yield its produce. Left to itself, it will no longer bring forth choice trees laden with generous fruit, such as Adam found in the garden, but the natural tendency will be to degenerate, till “thorns” only “and thistles” usurp the ground. Even after his struggle with untoward nature man wins for himself no paradisiacal banquet, but must “eat the herb of the field” (Job 30:4); and the end of this weary struggle is decay and death. In the renewed earth the golden age of paradise will return, and the tendency of nature will no longer be to decay and degeneration, but to the substitution unceasingly of the nobler and the more beautiful in the place of that which was worthless and mean (Isaiah 55:13).

Verse 19

(19) Dust thou art . . . —It appears from this that death was man’s normal condition. A spiritual being is eternal by its own constitution, but the argument by which Bishop Butler proves the soul to be immortal equally proves the mortality of the body. Death, he says, is the division of a compound substance into its component parts; but as the soul is a simple substance, and incapable of division, it is per se incapable of death (Analogy, Part 1, Genesis 1:0). The body of Adam, composed of particles of earth, was capable of division, and our first parents in Paradise were assured of an unending existence by a special gift, typified by the tree of life. But now this gift was withdrawn, and henceforward the sweat of man’s brow was in itself proof that he was returning to his earth: for it told of exhaustion and waste. Even now labour is a blessing only when it is moderate, as when Adam kept a garden that spontaneously brought forth flowers and fruit. In excess it wears out the body and benumbs the soul, and by the pressure of earthly cares leaves neither time nor the wish for any such pursuits as are worthy of a being endowed with thought and reason and a soul.

Verse 20

(20) Adam called his wife’s name Eve.—Heb., Chavvah; in Greek, Zoë. It has been debated whether this name is a substantive, Life (LXX.), or a participle, Life-producer (Symm). Adam’s condition was now one of death, but his wife thereby attained a higher value in his sight. Through her alone could human life be continued, and the “woman’s seed” be obtained who was to raise up man from his fall. While, then, woman’s punishment consists in the multiplication of her “sorrow and conception,” she becomes thereby only more precious to man; and while “her desire is to her husband,” Adam turns from his own punishment to look upon her with more tender love. He has no word for her of reproach, and we thus see that the common interpretation of Genesis 3:12 is more than doubtful. Adam throws no blame either on Eve or on his Maker, because he does not feel himself to blame. He rather means, “How could I err in following one so noble, and in whom I recognise Thy best and choicest gift?” And with this agrees Genesis 3:6, where Adam partakes of the fruit without hesitation or thought of resistance. And so here he turns to her and calls her Chavvah, his life, his compensation for his loss, and the antidote for the sentence of death.

Verse 21

(21) Coats of skins.—Animals, therefore, were killed even in Paradise; nor is it certain that man’s diet was until the flood entirely vegetarian (see Note on Genesis 1:29). Until sin entered the world no sacrifices could have been offered; and if, therefore, these were the skins of animals offered in sacrifice, as many suppose, Adam must in some way, immediately after the fall, have been taught that without shedding of blood is no remission of sin, but that God will accept a vicarious sacrifice. This is perhaps the most tenable view; and if, with Knobel, we see in this arrival at the idea of sacrifice a rapid development in Adam of thought and intellect, yet it may not have been entirely spontaneous, but the effect of divinely-inspired convictions rising up within his soul. It shows also that the innocence of our first parents was gone. In his happy state Adam had studied the animals, and tamed them and made them his friends; now a sense of guilt urges him to inflict upon them pain and suffering and death. But in the first sacrifice was laid the foundation of the whole Mosaical dispensation, as in Genesis 3:15 that of the Gospel. Moreover, from sacrificial worship there was alleviation for man’s bodily wants, and he went forth equipped with raiment suited for the harder lot that awaited him outside the garden; and, better far, there was peace for his soul, and the thought—even if still but faint and dim—of the possibility for him of an atonement.

Verse 22

(22) As one of us.—See Note on Genesis 1:26. By the fall man had sunk morally, but grown mentally. He had asserted his independence, had exercised the right of choosing for himself, and had attained to a knowledge without which his endowment of free-will would have remained in abeyance. There is something painful and humiliating in the idea of Chrysostom and other Fathers that the Deity was speaking ironically, or even with insult (Augustine). All those qualities which constitute man’s likeness to God—free-will, self-dependence, the exercise of reason and of choice—had been developed by the fall, and Adam was now a very different being from what he had been in the days of his simple innocency.

Lest he put forth his hand.—Adam had exercised the power of marring God’s work, and if an unending physical life were added to the gift of freewill now in revolt against God, his condition and that of mankind would become most miserable. Man is still to attain to immortality, but it must now be through struggle, sorrow, penitence, faith, and death. Hence a paradise is no fit home for him. The Divine mercy, therefore, commands Adam to quit it, in order that he may live under conditions better suited for his moral and spiritual good.

Verse 23

(23) To till the ground.—This is the same word as that rendered “dress” in Genesis 2:15. Adam’s task is the same, but the conditions are altered.

Verse 24

(24) So he drove out the man.—This implies displeasure and compulsion. Adam departed unwillingly from his happy home, and with the consciousness that he had incurred the Divine anger. It was the consequence of his sin, and was a punishment, even if necessary for his good under the changed circumstances produced by his disobedience. On the duration of Adam’s stay in Paradise, see Excursus at end of this book.

He placed.—Literally, caused to dwell. The return to Paradise was closed for ever.

At the east of the garden of Eden.—Adam still had his habitation in the land of Eden, and probably in the immediate neighbourhood of Paradise. (Comp. Genesis 4:16.)

Cherubims.—The cherub was a symbolical figure, representing strength and majesty. The ordinary derivation, from a root signifying to carve, grave, and especially to plough, compared with Exodus 25:20, suggests that the cherubim were winged bulls, probably with human heads, like those brought from Nineveh. We must not confound them with the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1:5), which are the “beasts” of the Revelation of St. John. The office of the cherub here is to guard the Paradise, lest man should try to force an entrance back; and so too the office of the cherubs upon the mercy-seat was to protect it, lest any one should impiously approach it, except the high-priest on the Day of Atonement. The four living creatures of the Apocalypse have a far different office and signification.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Genesis 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/genesis-3.html. 1905.