In the Biblical story of the Fall in Genesis 3, the humans, tempted by the serpent, disobeyed God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the humans are found out and play the blame game, God responds with curses for the serpent and then for the humans. It’s been helpful for me to understand these curses as the consequences of disobeying God’s commands. Curses are the result of sin.
The curses don’t replace God’s commands, nor do they become God’s commands. The curses don’t describe how the world inherently works, nor do they describe how the world must work now that sin has entered the picture. The curses do indicate what disordered creation looks like; they suggest what kind of consequences we should try to avoid.
The Biblical text itself may be familiar, but I think it is often misread. For example, the curse to the woman “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” is a description of patriarchy (in the bad sense). It is NOT a prescription for what relationships should look like. By extension, every instance of inequality and injustice of one group (or individual) over another is an example of the curse, a consequence of sin. “From the beginning it was not so,” as Jesus says in Matthew 19:8 about inequality and brokenness within relationships and distortions to the institution of marriage. Even the most cursory analysis of data about domestic violence, divorce, racial or class inequality, psychological difficulties, or environmental degradation can demonstrate the curse’s pervasive reality. These are consequences we should avoid.
The curse to the woman of “multiplying your pain in childbearing; in pain [or sorrow] you shall bring forth children” extends beyond birth, since women experience childbirth differently. Children and parents cause each other grief in so many ways. We’ve all experienced this. And anyone who has struggled with infertility or miscarriage or otherwise been unable to have children knows this sorrow, too. But this should point us to ways that we might, for example, conceive of childbirth as pleasurable rather than painful or invest parental energy in other life-giving ways.
The curse extends to the ground, the earth that humanity comes from and is part of. (“Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain [or sorrow] you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”) God’s original commands to humanity were to fill the earth and master it, to cultivate the earth and preserve it. Now those tasks are tainted and fulfilling our role as God’s image bearers to the rest of creation will be fraught with suffering and horrendous mistakes. Humanity’s fear of the non-human and utter devastation of virtually every place on earth (again the data is staggering) is not God’s will but the consequences of our will being done instead. Wendell Berry expounds the implications of this in The Unsettling of America: “The growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work. We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from.”
In conversation with my wife around these texts, we’ve realized the ways we and others tend to inadvertently live out these curses, especially “Your desire shall be for your husband” and “By the sweat of your face shall you eat bread.” Some women (and some men, too) are tempted to draw too much identity from relationships, particularly in expecting their spouse or children to give them meaning and fulfillment. Some men (and some women, too) are tempted to draw too much identity from their work, particularly in expecting their careers to give them meaning and fulfillment. Of course, relationships and work are meaningful, but unhealthy relational expectations and unhealthy devotion to work result in a cycle of alienation, pain, and sorrow.
Today’s society has supposed answers to these curses: industrial agriculture and epidurals, painkillers and weedkillers, technology and toxins. But such “solutions” too often merely anesthetize us to the pain and sorrow, covering over symptoms instead of addressing the root problem. And more often than not, these modern methods simply perpetuate the conditions of the curse they purport to ameliorate or solve.
So what are we to do? We can’t go back to the original garden, where all was good and very good, now that we’ve eaten the fruit and know the direction of evil is also an option.
Instead we try to live outside the curse by lovingly serving God and each other through our relationships and work rather than living out the curse by slavishly serving the work or relationships themselves. Partially living outside the curse is an option. We can’t be rid of these consequences and tendencies, but we can work to be aware of them, and we can try hard to create conditions that don’t replicate the pain and sorrow of the curse.
I believe Jesus fully showed us the way to live outside the curse. And what’s more, Jesus took the totality of the curse onto himself on the cross to free us from its bondage. And, having risen, he now invites us to covenantally partner with God in working towards the full realization of God’s kingdom. To me, that means discerningly “living outside the curse” rather than piously or passively “living out the curse.” It means taking initiative for systemic change in anticipation of the great resurrection when all of us—indeed all things—will be perfectly changed.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”