Genesis 3 – The Fall

The story of the Fall is set in the context of the second creation story. This passage is traditionally cited as being the place to look if we want to understand original sin and guilt. But let’s set that aside for a moment and endeavour to look at the passage through the lens of shame, with our eyes open to what the passage might say about the shame that sits at the core of our being.

Adam and Eve are living in a garden, a beautiful garden, full of all they need for food. It is a delightful place. They are at peace with each other, with God and with everything else in this garden. James Fowler cites Erik Erikson who, in his work on child development in the middle of the last century, noticed an amazing parallel between this story of the Fall and his work. Erikson found “in the account of Eden echoes of our personal and collective body memories of the time of flowing milk, loving and understanding eyes, responsive care, and un-conflicted cherishing that mark our utopias of pre-weaning infantile experience. He suggested that the biting of the fruit, represented as the occasion for expulsions from paradisal gardens in myths from many cultures, likely symbolizes the species’ collective memory of being separated from the provision of maternal breasts, which comes simultaneously – and seemingly punitively – with the exploding pain of emerging teeth. It can also represent the species memory of the loving, benign gaze of caretakers becoming “strange” with the imposition of necessary limits upon children and the responses they make to the violation of limits and the failure to meet expectations and standards.” (Fowler: p133, summarising Erikson’s discussion of this passage in “Childhood and Society.”)

Others have also pointed to this passage in this way and talk of it as the first introduction of shame to the scriptures. Timothy Tennent says that “the account emphasises guilt, shame, and fear as three of the consequences of the entrance of sin into the world, and all three can be traced throughout the scriptures.” (Tennent: p83.)

Following the traditional interpretation, Tennent is firm in his contention that the passge speaks of guilt and sin  and also introduces shame. I find it hard to see the traditional emphasis on guilt as I read the passage anew. If it is there it is as a concomitant to shame rather than being the dominant focus of the passage and appears as a state of having dome wrong rather than as a feeling.

Rather than guilt being present, we are presented with evidence of shame, and shame seems to be the main concern of the story. Before the fall “the man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Gen. 2:25). After the fall, they realised that “they were naked … and made coverings for themselves” (Gen. 3:7) and hid from God (Gen. 3:8). Adam and Eve’s overwhelming concern was their nakedness, not their sin (Gen. 3:10). These things are the dynamics of shame rather than guilt. It seems to me to be at least possible, that we see what we want to see in passages like this, and it may be that the traditional interpretation has as much to do with the prior assumptions made by early interpreters which were then strengthened by Reformation Theology.

As we noted above, Erikson suggested that the biting of the fruit relates well to our own experiences of development and their consequences. We like Adam and Eve are expelled from the comfort and safety of our mother’s breast and life, in many ways, mirrors the experience of Adam and Eve as we strive for our independence and find that there is then no going back to former securities. Could we see the story of the Fall as one of “our forebears … coming to first self-consciousness in the garden: They experienced ‘standing on their own two feet,’ accompanied with its first hints of autonomy and anxiety. They experienced seeing themselves mirrored in their mutual gazes of admiration and enjoyment. They are deeply curious about not only the forbidden and enticing fruit, but also their previously unreflective relation to their mysterious and powerful companion and limit-setting source of taboos, the one called God in the story. They felt rising interest-excitement in the new possibilities of god-like (adult) authority and power. Little wonder they found irresistible the promises and rationalizations that the tempter-serpent offered them as symbolized in the forbidden fruit.” (Fowler: p134.)

Fowler, to whom I am indebted for his discussion on the story of the Fall, continues: “In disobedience, they ate the fruit … [and] reflexively, shame turned their awareness from each other and their mutual bliss back upon their individual selves. In their strained faces, downcast eyes, lowered heads, and hunched necks and shoulders, they each felt separately the flood of shame. Framed in their separate experiences of diminishment and the involuntary covering of their genitals, their mutual mirroring now disclosed them, each to each, and to themselves, as ‘strange’, as pitiable, as vulnerable, and as exposed in their disobedience – to each other and the Other.” (Fowler: pp134-135.)

Robin Stockitt refers to Genesis 2:25 (naked and yet no shame) and Genesis 3:10 (the desire to hide because of the sense of shame). He says that Adam and Eve’s shame “produced a turning in upon themselves, a hiding from the face of God. … The desire to hide, to withdraw and to obscure one’s true self is part of the experience of shame. The fear is that if one’s true nature is transparently clear for all to see, then one runs the risk of being scorned, humiliated and ultimately rejected.” (Stockitt: p116.)

Fowler goes on to say: “The hiding, the covering, the confusion, the blaming – all these features bear the marks of shame. Theirs is an experience that includes at least the following consequences of coming to shameful self-awareness: (1) painful self-consciousness; (2) the experience of self and others as separate and as ‘strangers’; (3) alienation from a former non-reflective bond of interpersonal harmony; (4) a disturbing sense of their otherness and estrangement from God; (5) darkened shadows across their world, suggesting dangers and restricted abundance; and (6) introverted self-consciousness, coupled with a sense of personal stain or fault, in relation to the now more distant and remote authority.” (Fowler: p 135.)

Shame is clearly a very important element in the story of the Fall. It seems to be considerably more evident than the theme of guilt. Adam and Eve show the classic symptoms of shame, their whole being is encompassed by their shame. It is not the biting of the fruit and the disobedience that entailed, that is their primary concern, rather it is their nakedness. However, what matters most is not to deny that the story is about guilt and original sin, the story may well be so. Rather what matters is that we recover the significant place in the story that shame plays in its own right and not as a concomitant to guilt.

And, if we are prepared to give shame the prime place in the narrative. If we are willing to “bring insights on the dynamics of shame into the interpretation of the Genesis 3 story of Eve, Adam, and ‘the Fall’ [we will] see our kinship with our forebears in new ways. To couch the story in terms of the issues of “autonomy versus shame and doubt” rather than those of “initiative versus guilt” (Erikson) places the encounter with the serpent, the forbidden fruit, and the awakening to nakedness and shame in a different frame. It [seems to alter] the meaning of disobedience.” (Fowler: p138.)

Fowler continues: “We are given [in Genesis 3] a story that recalls the first era of a person’s (or our species’) consciousness and awareness of being seen and evaluated by others. We are invited to recall the emergence of a division in us between … our living up to standards of which we are becoming aware and a resistance to the standards coupled with the experience of being exposed before we are ready. In short, the Genesis 3 narrative recalls for us our earliest months of consciousness and self-awareness brought about by the loss of an innocence that could not last – an innocence born of lack of reflective self-consciousness, limited mobility, inability to articulate our meanings and experiences, and a mutuality of dependence. Coming to stand on our own two feet … means to encounter the clash of our wills with others’. It means coming to terms with expectations and limits imposed by others. It means taking on the burdens of self-consciousness , … [and] embracing the risk of alienation from those we love most . … The story depicts the irreversible step toward self-responsibility and an elemental sense of costly liberation from the provisional paradise of our experience before language and before accountability.” (Fowler: pp138-139.)

I find Fowler and Erikson’s reading of Genesis 3 intriguing and enlightening. It seems an entirely fair reading of the text, particularly if we listen to Walter Brueggemann’s advice to allow the text to speak for itself. However, whether or not we accept Fowler’s understanding of the Fall, is not relevant for our purposes here. If we are willing engage with the text as it is written, if we allow ourselves to recover the place of shame in the story of the Fall, then our understanding of the text is broadened and strengthened. And, if this is true for this passage, then it is also true for the rest of the Old Testament.

People who lived in a culture with pivotal concerns for honour and shame will have brought those same concerns to the writing and reading of their scriptures.


Walter Brueggemann; “Redescribing Reality: What We Do When We Read the Bible;” SCM, London, 2009.

Erik Erikson; “Childhood and Society;” Collins, London, 1977 (originally Norton, New York, 1950).

James Fowler; “Faithful Change;” Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1996.

Robin Stockitt; “‘Love Bade Me Welcome; But My Soul Drew Back’ – Towards an Understanding of Shame“; in Anvil, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998.

Timothy Tennent; “Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology;” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2007.

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