I. Review and Overview
We pick up this month where we left off in our last lesson: God had just finished creating the world.
He started out with nothing and six "days" later He had fashioned, through His Word ("Let there be…"), a virtual "Temple" in which He would dwell with all that He created. On the seventh day, He made a "covenant" with the world - binding Himself to His creation for all time.
Now, we turn back to concentrate on the crown jewel of God’s creation - the human race. In this lesson we’ll be learning about our ancestors, the founding father and mother of the human family.
We’ve all heard this story a thousand times. But this time we’re going to read it as the start of salvation history, the start of God’s relationship with the human family.
II. Man and Woman: The Original Image
A. God’s First-Born Son
God, we’re told, "created man in His image…in the divine image…male and female" (see Genesis 1:26-28).
What does it mean that God created man in "the divine image"? It means that the human person is a child of God.
How do we know that? Remember what we said in our last lesson: the way a Catholic reads the Bible is to interpret the Old Testament in light of the New Testament.
So, we turn to the Gospel of Luke. There you’ll find it explained that Adam is "the son of God" (Luke 3:38). We, see too, elsewhere in Genesis, that the phrase "image and likeness" is used to describe the birth of Seth, Adam’s son (see Genesis 5:3).
In the language of the Bible, to be born in someone’s "image and likeness," means to be that person’s child. So, when God creates man in His image, He creates Him to be His son.
From the very beginning, then, we see that God intended people to be His children, His divine offspring.
B. Father of a Priestly People
Adam is created as God’s first-born son. He’s also conceived as a priest.
In our last lesson, we saw how the world was fashioned as a Temple and the Garden of Eden was depicted as the sanctuary of the Temple - the holy place where God dwells.
Well, you can’t have a temple without a priest to guard it and keep it and to offer sacrifices. And that’s the task that God gives to Adam. It’s a "priestly" task. But you need to know a little Hebrew to understand it.
Adam is placed in the Garden "to cultivate and care for it" (see Genesis 2:15). Something important gets lost in the translation of those words.
In the original Hebrew text, the words used are ‘abodah and shamar. And they are words associated with priestly service.
In fact, the only other places in the Bible where you find those two words used together are in the Book of Numbers, where they are translated as "service," and "charge," and used to describe the duties of the Levites, the appointed priests of Israel (see Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6).
The Levites were in charge of protecting the sanctuary and the altar. And Adam was given the duty of protecting, of caring for, the Garden. All this will become very important when we study Adam’s disobedience and fall from grace.
For now, however, let’s just note that Adam is described in Genesis as a first-born priest. We also note that he’s given the command to "be fertile and multiply" (see Genesis 1:28). Adam is to be the first-born son of God and the father of a people. Since, he’s also a priest, it follows that his people are intended to be a priestly people.
What we find, then, in Genesis’ account of the creation of mankind is God’s original intent for the human race - it is to be a family of God and a priestly people.
If you try to "listen ahead," you’ll hear these echoes throughout the Old and New Testaments: Israel will be called God’s first-born son and a priestly people.
When Jesus comes, He will be called the Son of God and the "new Adam" and the "first-born of many brethren" and the High Priest. The Church will be referred to as a priestly people.
We’ll see all this in detail in future lessons in this class. But it all starts here with Adam, our father.
A. Figures and Riddles
How are we, sophisticated, 21st-century Catholics that we are, supposed to read the account of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in Genesis 3 - with its fable-like setting, its talking trickster snake, its gullible couple, oddly named trees, and forbidden fruit?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us some good advice here:
"The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents" (see no. 390).
What’s the Catechism getting at here? First, the story in Genesis 3 is written in "figurative language" - it’s more like poetry than journalism, more like a painting than a documentary film.
Nevertheless, the story "affirms" an actual event that indeed "took place" at the beginning of human history. What’s more, that event, "the original fault" of Adam and Eve, forever "marked" human history.
We can’t, then, read Genesis 3 like we’re reading a newspaper. But we can’t read it like it’s a myth or a fairy tale or a fable - as if it’s about something that never happened.
Scholars tell us that Genesis is best understood as an example of the ancient literary style know as mashal - "a riddle" or a "proverb" in which there are layers of double meaning.
And when we read Genesis 3 closely, we find the story turns on a number of tricky passages, and words filled with multiple meanings: life, death, wise, trees.
B. That Snake Adam Saw
Let’s back up a few paces. Let’s look at our characters. First, who’s this "serpent"?
We’re all used to the storybook Bible image of the long, thin snake slithering around the apple tree. But we might have to change our visual image of this scene.
The Hebrew word used to describe the "serpent," nahash, implies something much more deadly.
Throughout the Old Testament nahash is used to refer to powerful, even gigantic, evil creatures. Isaiah calls the nahash a sea dragon, the great Leviathan (see Isaiah 27:1). Job also uses nahash to depict terrible sea monsters (see Job 26:13).
This is clearly the image the Book of Revelation has in mind when it describes "a huge red dragon" in the heavens, "the huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world" (see Revelation 12:3,9).
The Church, of course, has always interpreted the serpent in Genesis 3 as Satan, the Devil in slithering form (see Catechism, nos. 391-395). So we know, as readers, something that Adam probably didn’t know - that this encounter with the serpent was a test against evil, a battle for the soul of mankind.
But we need to see what Adam saw. Once we appreciate that the serpent was a lot more than a little garden-variety snake, we begin to understand why Adam failed in his duties to "guard" his wife and Eden (see Genesis 2:15).
C. Scared Unto Death?
To put it bluntly: Adam was scared to death, scared of dying. He saw the serpent as a threat to his life.
We know that Adam understood what death was. How do we know that? Because God warned him that he if he ate the fruit he would die (see Genesis 2:17). If Adam didn’t know what death was, God’s warning wouldn’t have made any sense.
Adam was scared that if he didn’t do what the serpent wanted he would be made to suffer and die.
This story, this understanding of Adam’s failure, may be behind a passage we find in the Letter to the Hebrews. It says the Devil has "the power of death" and says also that "through fear of death," the human race had been held "subject to slavery" (see Hebrews 2:14-15).
That doesn’t mean Adam didn’t have any moral choice or responsibility in the matter.
He chose to save his life, but wound up losing it. He feared dying more than he feared disobeying the Father who loved him and gave him paradise. And in this he plunged the whole human race into slavery.
D. Left Holding the Fruit
Hold on, a minute. Why are we talking about Adam? Why is it his fault? Isn’t the whole story about Eve?
After all, the serpent first addresses "the woman." In fact, the phrase, "the woman" is used four times in six verses and the man doesn’t come into play until the very end, when it’s mentioned that "her husband" was also "with her."
Clearly, it would seem, Genesis wants us to know that it’s the woman’s fault: She did all the work, negotiating with the snake, weighing the pros and cons, and finally taking the fruit. The man just ate the fruit the woman gave to him.
But is that really the point? Why does St. Paul and the tradition of Church teaching after him, understand this episode as depicting the sin of Adam (see Romans 5:12-14; 1 Corinthians 15:22, 45)?
First, we need to stress what the story only tells us at the end - that Adam was with her all along (see Genesis 3:6).
In fact, in the Hebrew, every time the serpent says the word "you" he’s speaking in a tense that we don’t have in English - something like "second-person-plural." He’s saying, in effect, "you guys" or "y’all."
So Adam was on the scene the whole time. Why didn’t he speak up, why didn’t he take up the serpent’s challenge?
That seems to be the point. In his fear for his own skin, Adam left his wife hanging, left her to fend for herself. He was "her husband," the text emphasizes. Husbands are supposed to stand up for their wives - even lay down their lives for them. That’s what marital love is (see Ephesians 5:25).
IV. A Test of Love - Failed
A. Sacrifice and Selfishness
What’s going on here in the Garden? Adam failed a test of his love - not only of his love for Eve, but his love for God.
God gave Adam the responsibility of guarding the garden sanctuary, the dwelling place of God and man.
In the confrontation with the serpent, he failed in his duties. He didn’t protect the garden or his wife or himself.
Why did God test him like this? Because covenant love requires total self-giving. Self-sacrifice is essential to fulfilling the obligations of the human relationship with God.
Remember what we said in the last lesson: A covenant means that God "gives Himself" to His people and the people, in turn vow to "give themselves" to God.
In the Scriptures, each of the covenants requires the people to make a symbolic offering of themselves to God.
There is no covenant without sacrifice. The sacrifice is offered by the people to symbolize their offering of "themselves" to God. The sacrifice is a kind of token of their commitment to the covenant, their commitment to give all that they have and all that they are to God.
Noah makes a sacrifice from each of the animals he took with him in the ark. Abraham is asked to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The Israelites in the time of Moses are required to sacrifice an unblemished lamb in the place of their firstborn. And in the time of David’s son Solomon, sacrifices were offered daily in the Temple.
Each of the covenants foundered and was only partially successful. Why? Because of a failure of love, a failure of sacrifice. The people refused to give themselves completely.
Noah, Abraham and the rest all did great things. But they also did dumb and terribly wrong things: Abraham took a concubine. Noah became drunk. Moses lost his temper in the desert. Israel worshipped the golden calf. David committed adultery with Bathsheba. His son, Solomon, built a harem in addition to building the Temple.
We see in Adam’s failure the beginning of this pattern. In fact, because the human race was so weakened by Adam’s original sin that no one could give himself completely to God. And because of Adam’s sin, humanity lost its birthright - its divine inheritance, its membership in God’s family.
B. Death Threats
But before we move from Adam to Jesus, let’s look at the riddle of the story. God tells Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. "The moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die," he warns (see Genesis 2:17).
In the Hebrew there is a "double death" threat here - literally "You shall die die" or "die the death." Why the repetition of the word "die" Can you be more dead than dead?
The serpent directly contradicts God. He tells Adam and Eve: "You certainly will not die" (see Genesis 3:14). He says, too that they will be like "gods who know what is good and bad" (see Genesis 3:5).
And it’s true that when they eat the fruit, they don’t keel over and die. Instead, their eyes are opened just like the serpent said they would be (see Genesis 3:7). Even God has to admit, "See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil" (see Genesis 3:22).
Is the serpent right? Was God lying to the two? It certainly looks that way on the surface.
But of course it isn’t that way.
Adam and Eve do die the moment they eat the fruit - spiritually. The truth in Satan’s lie was this: Adam and Eve would not die a physical death once they ate the fruit. Adam and Eve lost something greater than natural life when they sinned; they lost supernatural life, the life of grace in their souls.
Seduced into trying to be like God without God, they died the death. Yes, they chose the fruit freely, like God they exercised free will. But their freedom only led them into slavery. Their eyes were indeed opened, and they discovered their nakedness and were ashamed.
We know that Satan has "the power of death" (see Hebrews 2:14-15). Adam and Eve should have listened to God, whose warning seems to echo in these words of Jesus: "And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna" (see Matthew 10:28).
V. The Second Coming of Adam and Eve
But even as His children have exiled themselves from paradise through
sin, God promises them redemption, a homecoming.
He promises that throughout human history there will be an "enmity" between the serpent, Satan, and the woman, "the mother of all the living," and between their offspring (see Genesis 3:15, 20).
The early Fathers of the Church called this the "First Gospel" (Proto-Evangelium).
God was promising, here in the first pages of the Bible, a new Adam and a new Eve, to undo the damage done by the first couple.
St. Paul called Jesus the "last Adam" or the New Adam (see 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 45-49; Romans 5:14). And the tradition of the Church has always seen Mary as the "new Eve" (see Catechism, nos. 410-411). ;
As Adam called Eve "woman," we see Jesus call Mary "woman" (compare Genesis 2:23 and John 2:4).
As Eve disregarded God’s commands, Mary offers herself freely to the will of God and says "Do whatever He tells you" (see Luke 1:38; John 2:5).
Finally, as Eve was the "mother of all the living," Mary is given by Jesus to be mother of the people of God (compare Genesis 3:20 and John 19:26).
Jesus enters the world as the new Adam - the One who does what Adam was supposed to do.
He comes, not to do His own will, but the will of the Father who sent Him. He comes to serve and to offer His life as a ransom for many (see Mark 10:45; John 15:13).
Jesus enters a garden and experiences the curses of Adam - the dread of death, falling to the dirt, sweating blood from his face in His agony (compare Genesis 3:17-19 and Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:44).
He is crowned in thorns and stripped naked (see Matthew 27:29, 31). And He is led to a "tree," the Cross - which the early Church saw as a symbol of the Tree of Life in the Garden (see Acts 5:30; Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
Yet on the Cross He was obedient, saying to God in prayer: "Not as I will, but as You will" (see Matthew 26:39).
He does not grasp at "equality with God" as Adam did (see Philippians 2:5-11), but lays down His own life in sacrifice for the sake of the "garden" - the world, for His bride, the Church.
Adam’s bride Eve was created from his side while he slept. The Church, the bride of Christ, was born from His side, which was opened by the soldier’s lance while he slept in death on the cross. His side issued forth blood and water, symbols of baptism and the Eucharist (see Genesis 2:21-22; John 19:34; Catechism, nos.766; 1067).
Finally, the resurrected Jesus appears in a garden ("in the place where he had been crucified") to a "woman" and is mistaken as a "gardener" - perhaps a reference to Adam’s task to be keeper of the garden of paradise (see John 19:41; 20:14-18).
All this God promises in the "first gospel."
But we have a long way to go before Jesus comes. We’ll pick up our the story where we leave off in the Garden in our next lesson.
VI. Study Questions
1. What does it mean to say that God created man and woman "in His own image"?
2. How is Adam both a firstborn son and a priest?
3. What does it mean that Genesis 3 is told in "figurative language"?
4. What does the Hebrew word nahash mean?
5. What was Adam’s sin?
6. Name 3 ways that Jesus is depicted in the New Testament as the "New Adam." Name 3 ways that Mary is depicted as the "New Eve."
7. For prayer and reflection: The Mass readings for the First Sunday of Lent (Cycle A) are Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14,17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11. Read the texts in order and pray for the Lord’s help in hearing the connections that the Church wants us to hear. Pray, too, this excerpt from the Opening Prayer for the Mass:
Lord our God,
You formed man from the clay of the earth
and breathed into him the Spirit of life,
but he turned from Your face and sinned….
Bring us back to You
and to the life Your Son won for us
by His death on the cross.