Death Anxiety and the Curse of Genesis 3
In a previous post I shared some things I’ve been thinking about concerning sin and death. Specifically, scripture seems to suggest we have a death problem rather than a sin problem — though sin is inextricably bound to the death problem — and that in a post-fall world, our fear of death drives much of our sinful behavior.
Today, I want to tease that out a little more by looking at how our anxiety over death plays into the curses of Genesis 3. Genesis 3:16–19 serve as a poetic framework for understanding how the world changed when sin and death entered at the fall. In a later post, I want to go back and look at the first part of Genesis 3 and explore how it plays into this theme.
To set the stage, take a look at a familiar passage from Paul:
Just as through one human being sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to everyone, since everyone has sinned. (Romans 5:12)
Through one human, sin came into the world, opening the door for death. As such, death has now spread to everyone because we have all sinned. What I’m arguing here is simply that once death was set loose in the world by that first sin, our anxieties about death subsequently become the de facto drive behind many subsequent sins. This emphasis on anxiety seems to be present in the earliest descriptions of our broken world in the “curses” of Genesis 3.
Take a look at Genesis 3:16:
To the woman he said, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”
Let’s focus on the first part of the text. This is Hebrew poetry, and the two lines of the curse represent a synonymous parallelism, which means we read the second line as restating the first in synonymous terms. We should note a few things.
First, in Hebrew, the phrase very painful refers to the certainty of pain rather than the severity of pain. The English Standard Version picks up on this rendering the phrase “surely multiply your pain.”
Second, the word we translate painful (issabon) is a rare word, only used three times in the Old Testament (cf. Genesis 3:16, 17; 5:29), and taken by itself could refer to either physical or emotional pain.
Third, while the first reference to pain is ambiguous as to whether physical or emotional pain is in view, it’s parallel in the second line (eseb) more commonly refers to emotional pain or anxiety. Further, both words share the same root which is commonly used to refer to emotional distress or anxiety.
Fourth, as we will see, issabon is used in verse 17 in a context that more clearly refers to anxiety rather than physical pain. This is also the case in its only other use in Genesis 5:29.
On the whole it is more likely the curse refers to the introduction of anxiety or emotional distress into the experience of childbirth rather than physical pain. This provides a more coherent reading of the whole text. Eve and her daughters will now experience anxiety associated with the birth of their children. Why? Death has entered the world. Prior to this, one would not need to ask questions common to us:
“Is the baby all right?” “Is the mother all right?” “What kind of world have I brought my children into?”
There is a powerful counterpoint to this idea in Isaiah 65. If Genesis 3 describes the point at which everything falls apart, Isaiah 65 looks forward to the point when God will put everything back together. In the new heavens and new earth, mothers will no longer “bear children to a world of horrors.”
Sin has let death loose on the world and a mother’s anxiety at this possibility (or awareness of it’s inevitability) is the heart of the new reality she helped create.
A similar thing is happening in verses 17–19:
To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread — until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return.”
Again, there are several things to notice.
First, this curse is set against the backdrop of the abundance we find in Genesis 1–2. In God’s good creation, things thrive, and multiply, and fill the earth, skies, and sea. Adam and Eve have an abundance of food at hand. Therefore, the news that the earth will now fight back against humankind is about the introduction of scarcity. Now, Adam and Eve will have to tend to their next meal.
Second, within this context of scarcity, the curse is not that Adam will now have to work. It is not even necessarily the case that he will have to work harder — although that could be a part of it. Work was an integral part of the original human calling to bear God’s image. In Genesis 1, humans were called to bear dominion over God’s creation. In Genesis 2, this is expressed in terms of farming and taking care of the garden. Whatever the curse is about, it is not the introduction of work into human experience.
Third, we find the second instance of issabon in Genesis 3:17. Here, it is paralleled with an Ancient Near Eastern idiom for anxiety: “the sweat of your face.” The idea is not that Adam will suddenly start sweating for the first time. Rather, this expression is similar to saying someone “broke out in a sweat” when they became nervous, anxious, or fightened.
Fourth, notice the curse here is explicitly tied to death. You will experience this anxiety until you “return to the fertile land.”
The idea here seems to be sin has now introduced an element of scarcity which hits humanity at it’s most vulnerable — the table. As such, Adam will now work with an enduring anxiety about where the next meal will come from.
At first glance, we may seem far removed from this sort of anxiety in America. I would argue that it is not so far off, that we have gone to great lengths to assure “food security” and that we would go (and have gone) to greater lengths still to keep it. Nonetheless, millions around the world do have this experience on a daily basis.
Anxiety ushered in by death is right at the heart of this early description of what our broken world looks like. My contention is that from Genesis 3:16 onward this deeply rooted fear becomes the driving force behind much of our sinful behavior.