Genesis 3:14-15

These verses transition into what became, in the text’s Christian afterlife, one of the most important passages of Genesis: the curses and consequences. But to begin with, let’s look at them apart from their Pauline afterlife and see what they have to say on their own.

The curses are rendered in verse, as was Adam’s rhapsody on the creation of the woman.  Here the Lord is not rhapsodizing but cursing; nevertheless the verse form has the effect of setting apart, lending emphasis to what follows. It moves the Lord’s voice into a new register, to take up again the notion of heteroglossia. Yahweh’s voice has always been authoritative, but heretofore it has been an oddly improvisatory, limited, negotiated authority: Yahweh failed comically in his early attempts at creating a companion for the human, his instructions are flouted by his own creatures, and the limits of his knowledge are highlighted by his questioning of Adam and Eve.

At the beginning of verse 14, however, Yahweh begins to speak with a new formality, gravity and design, qualities lent to his discourse by the verse form.  The absent King has returned to restore order to a world upside down, but true to the logic of carnival the re-ordered world is changed and enriched by the powerful creative chaos that temporarily reigned. The trickster serpent introduced figurative speech, dialogue, dramatic irony and trope into the garden, and this new richness and energy of language is incorporated into Yahweh’s discourse, even as it reasserts authority. In his lines directed at the serpent we find metaphor (“dust shall you eat,” “seed”), metonymy (“boot” and “heel,” in Alter’s translation), contrast, image – a new richness of language and expression.

What of the curse itself? There appear to be two parts: the serpent will now move on his belly, debased in relation to other creatures and despised by them; and there will be special enmity set between the serpent and the woman. Why does Yahweh specify that the woman will be particularly alienated from the serpent? It was the woman who engaged verbally with the serpent, who was open to dialogue and persuasion, who learned from the serpent desire and possession. So perhaps the curse recognizes and condemns that particular connection between the serpent and the woman.

But perhaps this curse also finalizes and formalizes humanity’s definitive split from the animal world.  (What follows owes a lot to Alter’s note on this point.) Until this point, the woman was a sibling of the serpent and all the other beasts, who were after all created in the attempt to make a suitable companion for the man. The woman was just the last, best attempt.  I’m reminded again of cave paintings and myths that depict strange human-animal hybrids, as if early hominids could sense evolution occurring as they split off and differentiated from the beasts.  Here, in Yahweh’s curse, we see at last a definitive boundary between “civilized” humans — who use technologies, wear clothing, experience self-consciousness and shame – and beasts. I suppose this is the primal moment of “Othering”, the first instance of humanity’s alienation from “nature.”

It should be noted that this text is key in Paul’s formulation of Christianity. (I’m assuming so, anyway – I’m not an expert in this. Help in the comments would be appreciated.) I understand “it [the serpent] shall bruise thy head, and thou [humanity, or the seed of Eve, or Christ] shalt bruise his heel” to have been interpreted as a type of Jesus’s victory over Satan, death and sin. As we’ve talked about before, that interpretation isn’t privileged by the text itself, but it has undeniably been centrally formative to historical Christianity.

Let’s jump into discussion.

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4 Responses to Genesis 3:14-15

  1. Jim F. says:

    I’m not so sure that God curses Woman and Man. He doesn’t use the word or a curse format when speaking to them, though he does use them when speaking to the serpent.

  2. juliemariesmith says:

    I’m interested in the idea that the serpent is cursed by having the woman’s seed hate it and bruise it. What kind of seed does the serpent have?

  3. Adam Miller says:

    Rosalynde, the “carnival” reading of these episodes continues, I think, to be really productive. Are you drawing on Bakhtin in general, here, or is there a specific place where he offers a reading of his own of these sections?

    A couple of thoughts:

    1. Does this curse not only distinguish humans from animals but the serpent from animals? If so, how does it position the serpent differently from humans in relation to animals? Is the structure triadic here? There is now clearly the animal, the knowing-animal, and this third thing that the serpent is (not an animal or knowing-animal but a cursed-animal)?

    2. Does this curse position God as the self-identified source and originator of “enmity” in the world? If so, what do we make of that?

    3. The serpent is cursed to eat “dust” all the days of his life. Does this move “dust” into a different register for us? Out of the register of creation-material and into the register of curse-material? Might this signal a broader shift in relation to dust/flesh/body? Bodies now appearing as the naked-thing, as the shame-thing, as the fear-generating-thing?

    In thisi vein, does the initial revelation bestowed by the tree of knowledge (nakedness) amount to a revelation about their embodiment? Knowledge of good/evil amounting (at least initially) to knowledge of one’s embodiment?

  4. Candice says:

    I appreciate these comments on how God’s reappearance here is like the return of a King or Lord after the chaos and reordering of a carnival period. Energy is heightened, individuals are stirred up, and things will never be the same, whatever order he regains.

    It’s curious to me that Satan/the serpent is cursed as an animal in relation to other animals. This seems to reaffirm what Rosalynde is saying about Eve being distinguished as a human being in these imposed consequences. I like the Everett Fox translation of this section: “damned be you from all the animals and from all the living-things of the field; upon your belly shall you walk and dust shall you eat, all the days of your life.” Satan is cursed as if he is an animal with a body. The serpent in essence goes to the very bottom of the food chain here and is not even fit to be around and socialize with other animals, or to eat any other animals. Perhaps we can make sense of this in light of Satan’s status as a spirit whose rebellion prevents him from gaining a body. It is as if he is barred from enjoying any of the physical benefits of life and having a body, even in any sub-human form. And/or as if he has driven himself even further from God’s kind of being, into something that is perhaps even less human than animal life in nature.

    I appreciate how you question the common teaching that the seed of the woman is intended to mean Christ. We could understand the seed of the woman to be literally all of Eve’s seed, all humanity. It seems clear that in any case, Eve is being very markedly separated from Satan.

    I agree with Jim, I don’t see these as curses, except to Satan. Perhaps the enmity is actually a blessing on Eve. God will fill Eve with strength and discernment that will inevitably cause all kinds of disagreement and conflict with Satan. After the incident with the fruit, perhaps this is what she needs most.

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