The Cursing of the Earth

This is a snippet from the book I’m writing:

To Adam God said,

Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’; Cursed is the ground because of you; In toil you will eat of it All the days of your life. 18 “Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; And you will eat the plants of the field; 19 By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return. – Genesis 3:17-19

There are several things of moment in this passage.  Firstly, the Lord tells Adam that he has listened to Eve in preference to God.  The problem stems from the authority of words.[1]  Let me say here as forcibly as I can that in the end everything boils down to the interpretation of words and the authority we lend them.  Adam gave less weight to God’s words than to those of Eve.  What were God’s words?  Let us remind ourselves what God said in Genesis 2:

 …from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die. – Genesis 2:17

This is summarized in the middle of 3:17

…have eaten from the tree about which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat from it.’

Hopefully you see that the Lord conflated the original prohibition but repeated it word for word?  If God had been taken at face value and His words were given the gravity they ought to have had all would have been well.  So we should never take our eyes off of what God is saying!

Another thing our passage reveals is that the “good earth” is cursed.  It is not just the dirt of the garden of Eden which is cursed, but the whole planet.  Again, this seems to give the lie to the theory of the world beyond the garden being a wilderness of lurking evil.  Such a view almost makes this curse on the ground superfluous; more especially if one goes along with the view that “thorns and thistles” already existed outside Eden.

But bypassing this question, I am more interested in the deeper issue of the curse on the ground.  By cursing the ground, from where everything grows and from which animals and men eat, the effects of the curse are inevitably transferred.  Not that sin is transferred that way, but the curse on the earth is.  And because our physiology often affects our emotional and bodily health, the cycle of detritus will continue until God acts to countermand it.

Moreover the passage is clear that the Lord cursed the ground because of (abur – ‘on account of’) the man.  This is fitting as the earth was made for man.  If man was to become the godless, lawless wretch that history portrays him to be, it would be quite strange if God had permitted him to live in a world unaffected by his sin and its consequences.  Just like the Resurrection of Jesus Christ seems out of context within this world[2], so sinners running around in an otherwise unspoiled tranquil earthly paradise would be decidedly non-contextual.

[1] One is reminded of the way Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27.

[2] What I mean by saying this is not of course that the Resurrection never took place.  Only that the reversal and then some of the human form to transcendent perfection befits another, higher, and better world than this one.

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8 comments

  1. It is interesting that the Septuagint does not agree with the Masoretic Text. The Septuagint version of Genesis 3:17 reads “cursed is the land in your works” (ἐπικατάρατος ἡ γῆ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις σου). It is possible that the original Hebrew was understood differently from the transliteration that the Masoretes settled on?

    1. There is no way of knowing for sure, unless we have some access to the Vorlage of the LXX MS. One has to reflect on Gen. 8:21 in reference to this text, even though the Hebrew root is different. The Septuagint sometimes appears to interpret rather then translate. Howbeit, “ev tois ergois sou” seems appropriate, if not completely satisfactory in view of Gen. 8.

      Good comment!

      P

  2. A good salesman would say, “You will have to wait and see what the book says…”, to these questions. Regardless, I’m looking forward to this book!

  3. I think there is a distinction between the ground (i.e. soil) being cursed and the planet being cursed, even though we use the same English word “earth” for both. The Septuagint points to the former and not the latter meaning, and this comes out in John Chrysostom’s exegesis of Genesis 3:17:

    “See the Lord’s loving kindness, how he punishes the serpent one way and this rational being a different way: to the former he says, ‘Accursed are you beyond the earth,’ whereas in this case he doesn’t speak in that way. What, then? ‘Accursed shall be the soil as you till it.’ Appropriately, too. You see, since the soil had been produced for the sake of the human being so that he might thus be able to enjoy what sprang from it, accordingly in turn he places a curse on it on account of the human being’s sin; because the curse on it impairs in turn the human being’s relaxation and tranquillity, he says, ‘Accursed shall be the soil as you till it.’
    (http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/anderson/commentaries/ChrGen.html#glossGen3:17,Gen3:18,Gen3:19)

    I am guessing there is is not so much a distinction in Hebrew: the Swanson Dictionary of Biblical Languages lists “soil” as the first meaning and “earth” (i.e. “the entire surface of the land on which mankind dwells”) as a second meaning for the Masoretic Text, אֲדָמָה. Based on the what the Alexandrian Jews though the proper Greek translation should be, it would seem that Genesis 3:17 refers to soil being cursed in the context of man’s working it, but not the whole planet earth as having been cursed. This seems to have been the early Christian interpretation as well, if Chrysostom is any indication.

    1. In truth I don’t see much difference here. The soil (and we must keep in mind the deliberate connection between it, however one translates ‘adama’, and the Adam), covers the surface of the earth upon which man is placed and from which he must eat. If one is going to claim that, e.g. trees are cursed or animals are cursed then yes, one must tread carefully. However, Rom. 8:22 should be allowed to inform our understanding of the curse – after our exegesis of Gen 3 is over. Also, Rev. 22:3, if the standard translation stands, is important. We must also recall that the original soil was churned over during the Flood, so that whatever topsoil man uses the curse pertains. For this reason i think the surface of the planet (at least) is under the curse.

      Thanks and God bless,

      P

      1. Thank you for paying attention to my comments!

        I see your points with the two verses you site. I ran across this commentary on Romans 8:22, from the late (Orthodox) Archbishop Dmitry Royster. Perhaps it is some additional useful material, supporting your points I think:

        “That the earth, the created, material world, is affected by the evils of men, we see in the Old Testament: The Lord ‘hath changed rivers into deserts, and streams of water into thirst; a fruitful land into brine, because of the evils of them that dwelt in it’ (Psalm 106/107:33-34 LXX). ‘How long shall the land mourn, and the herb of every field wither, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein?’ (Jeremiah 12:4). So, it is also known that the reason for the whole creation’s groaning and travailing in pain is the wickedness of men.

        What is interesting is that God never curses man. He curses everything around him, but never man himself. In fact, he give Adam several chances to come forward on his own and confess his transgression, but, alas, he does not.

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