The History of Redemption: The God Who Extends Mercy

The very notion of mercy is difficult for many to comprehend, especially in our current cultural context. Few of us think of ourselves as bad enough to be in need of mercy from God or whomever else. But the reality is we really are that bad and do all sorts of bad things. What we all need is mercy from the consequences of our sins.

We continue with our reflections on the history of redemption with Genesis 3. This essay is divided into two larger sections. The first deals with how innocence was lost; how was it that the first human beings fell into sin? The second part focuses on the consequences of the first human beings’ sin and how the consequences of that first sin extend to us.

How Did the First Humans Fall into Sin?

We’ll look at two particular factors.

The Serpent Questioned the Character of God (Gen 3:1–5).

As we read Genesis 3, we are introduced to the serpent. He’s described as being “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Gen 3:1a). Two questions arise from this verse: (1) what’s the deal with the serpent; and (2) what does it mean for it to be “crafty”? Let’s take the first question.

What we have here is a talking snake. This is not normal. I don’t think it would have been normal to Adam and Eve either. Eve’s first reaction probably should have been, “What the heck, a talking snake! Hey Adam, you gotta see this!” But she doesn’t find it odd at all; in fact, she engages him in a conversation.[i]

So if it’s not normal to have a conversation with a talking snake, what are we to make of its ability to converse with Eve? If you take the time to consider other portions of Scripture, you quickly come to realize that the serpent is the devil himself. Both Revelation 12:9 and 20:2 refer to the devil as “that ancient serpent.” When we realize the “serpent” is Satan, it doesn’t seem quite as odd that he can converse with Eve.[ii]

Next, we read that the serpent was “crafty.” The Hebrew term we get our word “crafty” from isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Depending on the context it can have either a positive or negative connotation. For instance in the book of Proverbs the same Hebrew term (ārûm) is translated “prudent” (Prov 12:23; cf. 14:8), which is a positive quality. At other times it has a negative connotation as it does in Genesis 3:1a (cf. Job 5:12–13; 15:5).[iii] Here “crafty” is intended to emphasize the deceptiveness of the serpent. His desire is to lead Eve and Adam astray from what God has clearly instructed the two of them to do and not do.

As the conversation between the serpent and Eve unfolds, we find the serpent calling into question God’s authority, goodness, and trustworthiness. His first question seems innocent enough, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (Gen 3:1b). Maybe he’s only seeking to clarify what God actually said. However, the remainder of his questions proves this is not the case, and in fact he means to challenge the character of God. The “woman” responds rather well to the serpent’s first inquiry (3:2–3). He continues, “‘You will not surely die … For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (3:4–5). How then does he call into question God’s authority, goodness, and trustworthiness? First, the serpent supplants God’s authority. He becomes the expert on the consequences for eating from the forbidden tree. God is either lying or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Second, God’s goodness is maligned as the serpent implies that God is keeping something good from Eve. This tree will make her like God after all. Wouldn’t a good God want his image bearers to reflect his image even in this manner? Third, God’s trustworthiness is discredited since according to the serpent he has lied and can no longer be trusted.

They De-godded God (Gen 3:6).

We now come to what is one of the most distressing verses in all of Scripture: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Gen 3:6). What we have here is what D. A. Carson has called the “de-godding of God.” What he means is that the man and woman placed themselves in the place reserved only for God. They will decide what is right and wrong. They will even sit in judgment of God. They become the god they will follow and thus thumb their noses at their Creator.[iv]The same is true of us. Anytime we determine to do things our way, we de-god God. We are the masters of our own lives. We are the captains of our soul. When we displace God, the only one deserving of worship, we end up worshiping ourselves.

What Were the Consequences of Humanity’s Fall into Sin?

This first sin resulted in several consequences.

Shame (Gen 3:7)

The first consequence of the fall is shame. Previously, Adam and Eve were both naked and “they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25). However, this time, when the author mentions their nakedness, he indicates that Adam and Eve hid themselves. They fashioned coverings out of fig leaves (3:7). The only reason they did this is that with sin comes guilt and shame.[v] Innocence is gone. The innocence of Eden is lost in this lifetime.

Abdication of Responsibility (Gen 3:8–13)

The second consequence of the fall is the abdicating of personal responsibility. Both Adam and Eve play the blame game. When God questions Adam (Gen 3:11) he doesn’t answer his question, but instead blames God. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it” (3:12). Adam not only blames his wife, but also he neglected his God given responsibility as her husband to lovingly lead and protect Eve. He stands by and allows her to be seduced by the serpent (cf. 3:6).[vi] Next, God questions the woman, and she blames the serpent, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (3:13). In all of this sin, no one takes the responsibility to say I blew it; I sinned against you and your command. Elsewhere the Bible makes it perfectly clear that when we sin, we sin first and foremost against God. He is always the most offended party when we sin (cf. Ps 51:4).

The Verdict (Gen 3:14–19)

The third consequence of the first sin is the verdict God pronounces on each person involved in the rebellion. The first judgment is on the serpent (Gen 3:14–15).[vii] The most striking thing about the curse is found in verse 15, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”[viii] This text doesn’t claim that all the offspring of the woman (the rest of the human race) will be at enmity with the serpent and his offspring (the rest of the race of snakes). Not everyone is afraid of snakes. No, in the sweep of the entire biblical narrative, the “offspring” that ultimately defeats Satan is Jesus Christ (Heb 2:14; 1 John 3:8; cf. Matt 12:29; Mark 1:24; Luke 10:18; John 12:31; 16:11; 1 Cor 15:24; Col 2:15). This passage is sometimes called the protoevangelium, meaning “first gospel.” Jesus will crush the head of the serpent (Satan) on the cross; though the serpent will strike his heel (Jesus dies, but is raised).[ix] In fact, this reality is extended to all Christians. Paul writes in Romans, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (16:20). Jesus, we shall see, is God’s promised solution to remedy and forgive human sin.[x]

The next judgment God pronounces is upon the woman (Gen 3:16). God says that the woman will have pain in child bearing and delivering children. Her relationship with her husband (and all subsequent human marriages) will be characterized by infighting. Her “desire will be for [her] husband, and he will rule over [her]” (3:16).

What does it mean that the woman’s “desire will be for [her] husband”? The next time we come across the same Hebrew phrase is in Genesis 4:7. God tells Cain, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (emphasis added). Here, sin “desires” to have mastery over Cain. It seeks to control him. It would appear that the same usage is intended in 3:16. The woman will seek to control her husband and usurp his God given authority in their marriage.[xi] The husband on the other hand will be prone to heavy handedness and to oppress his wife (“he will rule over you”).[xii]

The final judgment is on Adam (3:17-19). Adam will now have difficulty in cultivating the soil and providing for himself and his family. The ground will not yield its produce easily. Farming is hard work because of sin. Adam is also reminded of his own mortality. He came from dust and one day to dust he will return. This is the reality for all of Adam’s children (cf. 3:22). We are appointed once to die and then the judgment (Heb 9:27).

Exiled from Eden (Gen 3:20–24)

As the narrative comes to a close we get a glimpse of the grace of God and additional consequences of sin. In verse 21 we read, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” God graciously gives Adam and Eve suitable clothes to cover them.[xiii] He gives them the fur of an animal. How do you suppose God got this clothing? An animal or two had to die. We are already on the way to see something that occurs again and again throughout Scripture. Someone or something must die for sin to be covered. It will happen in the old covenant through animal sacrifices.[xiv] However, these are insufficient to completely cover the sin of humanity. In fact they were never meant to. They are pointers to the one who will die for the sins of the world once and for all (cf. John 1:29).

The man and the woman are then forced out of the garden. Some angels, cherubim, and a flaming sword are put at the garden’s entrance to keep Adam and Eve and their offspring from returning to the garden and eating from the tree of life (Gen 3:24). Paradise is truly lost. We cannot go back to Eden. However, a day is coming when the offspring of the woman will return to gather his own and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness, and to dwell with God’s sons and daughters forever.

Theological Reflection & Application

Several additional implications may be drawn from our text.

  1. God knows good and evil because he is omniscient; he knows all things exhaustively. However, human beings only know evil by becoming evil themselves. It is similar to how a doctor knows cancer and someone with cancer knows it. A doctor can know everything there is to know about a particular form of cancer. However, the doctor does not know in the same way as the person who has it. That person, the one with cancer, experiences it, and so they know it.[xv]
  2. The first implication leads us to the second: God is not evil. He is utterly good. However, human beings are by their very nature evil. This is due to their first parents, who sinned and we all sinned in them.
  3. The second implication leads us to a third: while the entire human race sinned in Adam, we too do various kinds of sin, so that we are completely without excuse before a just and holy God.
  4. The death sentence promised for sinning against God is spiritual, physical, and eternal, apart from the saving work of Jesus applied to our hearts. As Augustine once said, “When, therefore, it is asked what death it was with which God threatened our first parents if they should transgress the commandment they had received from Him, and should fail to preserve their obedience,—whether it was the death of soul, or of body, or of the whole man, or that which is called second death,—we must answer, It is all.”[xvi]
  5. It is important to note that it is God who takes the initiative to restore the fellowship between himself and his image bearers.[xvii] He extends mercy alongside his judgment. He comes to Adam and Eve. He gives them better coverings. He does not destroy them right away, but is forbearing with them. He promises to dispense judgment upon Satan through the seed of the woman.

[i] Mathews notes, “There is no explanation for the serpent’s capacity to talk other than possibly that it was ‘crafty.’ It is assumed that the animal has this ability, and the fact that the woman did not find this alarming only heightens the suspicion that the serpent is representative of something or someone sinisterly powerful” (Genesis 1:1–11:26, 232).

[ii] See Mathews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 234–235.

[iii] Walton, Genesis, 203–204.

[iv] Sailhamer notes that God blessed Adam and Eve with immeasurable good, “but [they] wanted more—[they] wanted to be like God” (“Genesis,” 50).

[v] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 76.

[vi] Sailhamer notes that the husband was responsible for those vows his wife made in his hearing (Num 30:1–6) [The Pentateuch as Narrative, 105]. This not only indicates responsibility according to the law, but also proximity (he was able to hear his wife). See also Mathews who comes to the same conclusion, but grounds it upon the use of the plural pronoun “you” in 3:1-5 (Genesis 1:1–11:26, 238).

[vii] Sailhamer notes, “This curse does not necessarily suggest that the snake had previously walked with feet and legs … The emphasis lies in the snake’s ‘eating dust,’ an expression that elsewhere carries the meaning of ‘total defeat’ (cf. Isa 65:25; Mic 7:17)” (“Genesis,” 55).

[viii] The verbs translated in English “crush” and “strike” come from the same word in Hebrew (šûp). V. Hamilton argues that both occurrences of the word should be translated the same, thus his “strike at” (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 197–198). I’m speculating a guess, but I suppose the NIV translators chose to vary the translation for English stylistic reasons, and possibly because of the logical consequence of a heel striking the head of a snake—it would be crushed. Wenham comes to a similar conclusion (Genesis 1–15, 80). Walton, on the other hand, does not (Genesis, 226).

[ix] Revelation 12:9 identifies the “ancient serpent” as “the devil or Satan.”

[x] See Mathews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 247–248. Wenham believes the narrator of Genesis 3:15 has in mind a general defeat of evil (the serpent’s seed) by humanity (the seed of the woman) [Genesis 1–15, 81].

[xi] So also Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 81 and V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 201–202. Although they come to a similar understanding of the result from the fall, both differ regarding the relationship between husband and wife prior to it. Wenham notes the author “does not regard female submission to be a judgment on her.” She was to submit to her husband’s authority before the fall. Hamilton, on the other hand, understands the pre-fall relationship between husband and wife to be one of “co-equals” reigning over God’s creation (202).

[xii] Neither control on the part of the wife, nor oppression by the husband is mandated in this pronouncement. It’s just that, now, sin has disrupted and corrupted the God ordained pattern for husbands and wives. The pronouncement is descriptive rather than prescriptive. See also Mathews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 251–252.

[xiii] Wenham, sees God covering Adam and Eve “as a reminder of their sinfulness” (Genesis 1–15, 85). Walton, views the event “as an act of grace by God, preparing them for the more difficult environment he is sending them into and providing a remedy for their newly developed shame” (Genesis, 230).

[xiv] For various opinions on the extent to which one may infer a reference to animal sacrifices see in the following order: Mathews, Genesis 1:1–11:26, 255; Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative, 109; V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 207; and Walton, Genesis, 229.

[xv] I am indebted to D. A. Carson for this illustration.

[xvi] Augustine, “City of God,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series 1, Vol. 2, edited by Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1956), XIII.12.250.

[xvii] James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 78. V. Hamilton concludes similarly, “Adam and Eve are in need of a salvation that comes from without. God needs to do for them what they are unable to do for themselves” (The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1–17, 207).

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