How Adam and Eve’s Fig Leaves Cover Up the Fall’s Real Meaning

Detail from “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach, the Elder, 1526

Today’s reflection is by Bondings 2.0 contributor Michaelangelo Allocca, whose brief bio can be found by clicking here.

Today’s liturgical readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent can be found here.

This Sunday’s liturgical readings start with a passage that became the platform for much of Christianity’s distorted genital obsession. I hope to shed some light on the genuine hope and even joy found in its real message, which culminates in the lesson of the gospel.

The Genesis account of the Fall tells a story of the struggle of humanity, caught between God and temptation. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, tells another version of the same struggle. What strikes me in the Genesis reading is its description of how God makes the garden for us, with trees “delightful to look at and good for food.” Notice: enjoyable, and not merely serviceable. A garden containing sustenance for the human couple is just good practical sense. But making it aesthetically pleasing (“delightful to look at”) also is just, well, gratuitous, as a friend once said about the graceful, fragile beauty of a heron we were watching. It is yet one more reminder, along with the more frequently remembered sharing of God’s own breath, of the intimate, loving relationship of joyful communion that God intended.

This emphasis on delight is even more striking if we remember the sharp contrast between our spiritual ancestors and the cultures around them. In the ancient Near East, the idea that all of creation was the deliberate act of a single God was shockingly unusual. Most of the Hebrews’ neighbors were polytheistic. These neighbors’ creation myths usually viewed our physical world as an accident, an afterthought, or the side-effect of a war between different groups of deities. None of these myths have a hint of actual love for humans coming from the creator god[s]. Instead, the purpose of humans was almost always to be slaves to the gods, and be punished severely if they flubbed the job.

But Genesis shows us as favored children of a God who wants us to enjoy the world in partnership with God. This enjoyment and relationship is ruptured, however, when “the serpent” tries to replace partnership with competition for power and control. The quote marks around “the serpent” are there to show that our ancestors knew to read a talking snake symbolically: the serpent is merely an outward physical manifestation of thoughts the humans already harbored. Eve sees that the tree is “good for food, [and] pleasing to the eyes,” a near-verbatim repeat of the description we heard earlier. Does this thought remind her of the tree’s Maker, and suggest that she should trust that Maker more than the serpent’s voice telling her “He’s lying”? No. And so sin begins as the humans shift from the loving communion of God’s plan towards a grasping for control and power.

And yet, too many in Christian history have read this story and did not see the lust for power, but just plain old lust, as the beginning of sin. From a foolish misreading of the story’s nakedness image, many conclude that this story is about sex, which is why I call it the source of the Church’s genital obsession. Nothing evil or obscene is said in the story about the genitals of the human couple. In fact, God did not think they needed to be covered up. The humans’ awareness of their nakedness was meant as nothing more than a poetic representation of the loss of innocence. (Animals and infants don’t “know that they are naked,” and so feel no shame about it.)

I suspect that the Christian (especially, but not exclusively, Catholic) conflation of sexuality with this first sin is the major source of the denigration both of women, and of all who may depart from “the norm” sexually speaking, most obviously queer or trans folks. If sex is bad and needs to be tightly controlled (e.g, it’s only ever permissible within a marriage of a man and a woman), anyone who challenges that control is by definition “objectively disordered.” That is why we must reclaim a proper reading of the Genesis account of “the fall.”

Did Genesis really mean that sin, at its root, is about grasping for a purely transactional, power-based relationship with God and with the rest of the world? Matthew’s temptation story in today’s gospel provides the answer. Satan tries to seduce Jesus (not with sex – almost as if that’s not really so big an issue) into … a purely transactional, power-based relationship with God and with the rest of the world.

Satan clearly knew scripture, but I think his real blunder was failing to realize that Jesus understood the Genesis story as a story of power. Satan tried precisely the same kind of temptation on Jesus he’d offered Adam and Eve, as if that story hadn’t been read and studied by Jesus’ people for generations. Command these stones to become bread (i.e., exert power over them). Trick God into commanding his angels to save you (i.e., use coercive/deceptive power to force God to use God’s power). Worship me, and I will give you (presumably to command them and exert power over them) all the kingdoms of the world.

Although intended to hide the sex organs of Adam and Eve, those fig-leaf Fruit-of-the-Looms managed to focus attention on them. The only thing they covered up was the real meaning of the story. 

Rather than the clear message that the original sin was the introduction of power dynamics and competition into God’s delightful and harmonious garden, the fig leaves led some people to delude themselves into thinking the sin was sex–with destructive consequences, primarily for women and sexual minorities, for two millennia. 

This Lent, may Jesus lead us individually, and as a Church, away from the desire to command and control, and back towards the joyful communion God intended.

Michaelangelo Allocca, New Ways Ministry, February 26, 2023

10 replies
  1. Tim
    Tim says:

    Thanks Michaelangelo for your reflection on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent this year. A comment from Australia if I may. Interesting how ancient peoples and ourselves now see snakes – we fear them, they are lowly creatures who have to move on their bellies as they do not have legs. They are “serpents”.

    For Australia’s First Nations peoples – our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders – the snake is very different. Their fantastic stories of the Dreaming in a continuing culture that we now know is over 50,000 years old, venerate the snake as the one who lives in waterholes, created much of the valleys and hills, the curves in the landscape and who has power to bring rain.

    For our LGBT community there is another connection. The snake is often portrayed and referred to in Aboriginal culture as the rainbow serpent! The connection between snake and rainbow suggests the cycle of the seasons and the significance of them and water in human life. When a rainbow is seen in the sky, it is supposed to be the Rainbow Serpent traveling from one waterhole to another.
    Tim (Melbourne Australia and a member of Acceptance Melbourne)

  2. Rebecca White
    Rebecca White says:

    I love the way this post reminds me of the power dynamics of the Genesis story, that it’s not about genitalia. This is a reminder needed by so many of us who have glossed over the essentials of this story. Thank you!

  3. Ethelyn
    Ethelyn says:

    Wonderfully explained, a power grab against God! I always felt, the humans had so much, but they had to compete against God for even more- sometimes knowledge is not such a good thing.
    Jesus had all the power, all the gifts but He would not think of tempting God. He knew His place in His humanity- such an example for us mortals!
    Thank you, Michaelangelo, for deciphering the age-old tale, for me it is never truly Lent till we hear of our Brother Jesus dealing with His temptations and so heroically!

  4. Rev. James Sauer
    Rev. James Sauer says:

    Michaelangelo offers some wonderful insights into the Genesis story. May I suggest that these reflections be sent out the week before, or at least the previous Thursday so that possible thoughts may be shared in our homilies for that weekend? Thanks.

  5. Bob Hare
    Bob Hare says:

    Thank you for this perspective on the Genisis story. It is very helpful in focusing on the issues of power and control and not sexuality or even the genitals.

    This is from years ago and another cultural perspective. I shared an apartment with three other men when we were all studying spiritual direction. One of the men was of Asian descent. It was a multiculture adventure. Often the Asian man of Chinese background would bring back a small fish swimming in a plastic bag, I think for food. I am sure that little fish was some sort of treat.

    Then one day he said; “If Adam and Eve were Chinese, they would have eaten the serpent.”

  6. Rebecca White
    Rebecca White says:

    Bob Hare, I had to laugh when reading the last lines. Getting a multicultural perspective can help us not take ourselves so seriously!

  7. Thomas Deely
    Thomas Deely says:

    I have now been a Roman Catholic priest ,a straight Roman catholic priest, for about 60 years. When I was just in theology and my mother was in the hospital near our seminary we were studying the biblical account of Adam and eve. Since I met a lot of Jewish people in the hospital where my mother was recovering I asked some Jewish people what was their’ take ‘on the genesis storywas . What they told me has always stayed with me. They told me it was a learning experience for Adam and Eve. And I always have used this as a learning experience precisely what Michelangelo says about the use and abuse of power and I never got into the nakedness and the fig leaf thing.But I am very impressed with Michelangelo’s take on the story and I hope that it will help for a better understanding of gender and sexual teaching within a Roman Catholic Church


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