When humans attempted to oust God and decide good and evil for themselves, they could not have imagined the chain of conflict their rebellion would unleash. Genesis 3:9-19 is the transcript of the investigation of their crime. The sovereign’s words are presented in poetic form: it slows down the narration so we hear him.
By any measure, their sovereign is absurdly lenient with these rebels. His judgement is not so much a punishment as it is an explanation of the trouble (curse) they have brought on themselves. In each case, he explains what conflict/struggle they will face as a result of introducing rebellion into his realm:
- The snake’s attempt to gain a higher position among the animals has backfired: it will be regarded as the lowest of the low (3:14). Peace between humans and animals is gone. The snake’s power-grab has launched enduring and deadly hostility (3:15).
- Similarly, Queen Eve who agreed to the serpent’s request and initiated the coup will have pain in her relationships. If her pain in childbirth is not enough, her pain will be much greater as she sees how the conflict she introduced into the realm destroys her own son (Abel). And if that is not enough, the conflict she introduced will play out as a gender war—a struggle in which she will be much worse off. In general, women have less physical strength than men, so women have suffered terribly in a world dominated by males (3:16). Ironically some males have used 3:16 to claim power over women, whereas the context is that the sovereign is pointing out to Eve the trouble/struggle/conflict she introduced and how she will suffer the abuse of power. The gender war, like so many other conflicts, has its origin in humans trying to wrest power from God.
- King Adam joined the rebellion last, so the court transcript addresses him last. Just as he rebelled against the sovereign, the earth he ruled will rebel against him, resisting him with thorns and thistles. Life will be a pain, a struggle to survive. It is a struggle we ultimately lose. The human (ʾāḏā·m) falls back into the ground (ʾǎḏā·māh) (3:19).
No longer do they have access to the tree that symbolized their rejuvenation by God (3:22). In declaring independence, they cut themselves off from their life-source. Without God’s breath, they are only dust.
The sovereign is still their provider: he clothes his damaged subjects (3:21). The rebels are no longer trusted in the palace garden. The sovereign posts guards outside his dwelling to prevent any further attempt to take his power. The guards are cherubim, heavenly creatures entrusted with guarding his holy presence, now that evil in the form of conflict has permeated life on earth (3:24).
The world is still God’s kingdom, but it is seriously damaged—a kingdom in conflict, desperately needing restoration and reconciliation. Their children—in fact, all children—are born into a world of conflict and struggle. The hostility we all experience has its roots in the resistance against God’s authority to reign—our grasping at power that belongs in his hands.
What others are saying
Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 42–43 (emphasis original):
The temptation they face through the serpent is to assert their autonomy: to become a law unto themselves. Autonomy means choosing oneself as the source for determining what is right and wrong, rather than relying on God’s word for direction.
J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 53:
According to Genesis, when humans rebel against their God-given limits by transgressing the single prohibition that God gave in the garden (2:17; 3:6) this results in “curses” on the serpent and the ground (3:14, 17; 5:29). These curses stand in tension with the primordial “blessings” that God granted creatures at creation (1:22, 28; 2:3). As a result of the initial transgression, humans are exiled from the garden and prevented access to the tree of life (3:23–24). More specific consequences are that work now becomes painful toil (3:17–19) and childbirth will henceforth yield excessive pain (3:16a). We also find the origin of male power over women (3:16b), something that was not part of God’s original intent (in either Gen. 1 or Gen. 2). As a consequence of human sin, death has begun to invade and destroy God’s design for the flourishing of earthly life.
Read Genesis 3:15-24.