Genesis 3 tells a story of woe in idyllic paradise. After the sneaky snake tempts the woman, both she and the man eat fruit from the tree that Yahweh God had forbidden to them. Consequently, the couple now find themselves with the stark realisation of their nakedness, and dread over what the deity will think of them. And so, when they hear his steps in the garden which they are supposed to tend, they hide in fear and shame.
After a quick interrogation, Yahweh God determines the guilt of all involved, and issues curses upon them—on the snake, the woman, and the man.
The curse on the man involves a curse on the ground:
“Damn the ground on your account!
With hardship will you eat of it
all the days of your life.
Both thorn and thistle will it sprout for you,
so that you must eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your nose will you eat bread,
until your return to the ground.
Since you were taken from it
—for dust is what you are—
then to dust will you return.”
— Genesis 3:17b–19 (my translation)
As a result of this curse, the man and the woman are expelled from the paradise garden they were tending, with its variety of fruit-bearing trees. They are sent out into a barren world (cf. Gen 2:5–6), in which the ground is their enemy. Their efforts at toiling no longer yield them the lush fruits of paradise, but the thorns and thistles of frustration. They are forced to work harder than they ever have before, with the sweat of their exertion pouring down their nose. Even then, they will collapse into the hostile ground, or earn the measliest of crusts that will send them foraging for any wild plant in the open field that they can find. And in the end they will die a miserable death.
This sorry situation explains why God found Cain’s offering of the “fruit of the ground” despicable (Gen 4:3–5). Cain could not cultivate anything meriting the status of an offering. He simply brings to the altar whatever he finds sprouting from the ground, rather than what he works to produce. Abel, on the other hand, evidently figures out a way to earn a crust while the curse is in effect: don’t eat the grass, but rather raise and eat the animals that eat the grass. And of these, he offers the firstborn of his flock—the most significant product of his personal work. For this entrepreneurial and respectful effort, he earns Yahweh’s favour.
Yet, the curse on the ground remains, and life for humanity is bitterly harsh. It is a wretched existence that, generations later, leads Noah’s parents to wish (or prophesy) of their son,
“May this one give us relief from our work,
from the hardship of our hands,
from the ground that Yahweh damned.”
—Genesis 5:29 (my translation)
I’ve often heard preachers say that we still live with the effects of this curse today. After all, the curse on the ground was just one of several that Yahweh pronounced. Snakes still slither along the ground, as the curse upon the snake stipulated; women give birth in the most horrendous pain, as the woman was cursed in the garden; and the grave is the destiny of us all, as the man’s curse promises. So the earth is also cursed, and the frustration and futility of work are reflective of this.
However, this is not quite right.
To think that the curse on the ground is indicative of our reality today is actually a mistake. For when we read on in Genesis, we find that Yahweh lifts the curse on the ground. After the “uncreation” of the flood, Noah emerges from the ark into a renewed, pristine world, and offers Yahweh a sumptuous sacrifice.
Noah now built an altar to Yahweh, and took some of all the clean animals and some of all the clean birds, and offered them as incinerations on the altar. Yahweh now smelled the appeasing aroma, and Yahweh said in his heart, “I no longer curse the ground on account of the man, even though the intent of the man’s heart be evil from his youth. And I no longer strike down all life as I have just done.”
— Genesis 8:20–21 (my translation)
The lifting of the curse on the ground means that the earth no longer functions as a source of utter frustration for humanity. On the contrary, the earth begins to respond to human cultivation as fruitfully as it did in Eden. Humanity’s agricultural pursuits no longer yield unpalatable brambles. Instead, with human endeavour, the ground can explode in fecundity, allowing humanity to continue the task for which Yahweh originally employed the man in the paradise garden: cultivating the ground. No longer are humans forced to forage for the odd wild plant. The hardship of the past is gone.
Just to underscore the point, with the curse now lifted, Noah decides to become a novice farmer. Evidently, the earth responds to his rookie efforts a little too well:
Noah now began to be a man of the ground. He planted a vineyard, drank some of the wine, and got drunk.
— Genesis 9:20–21a (my translation)
The wish of Noah’s parents, that he give them relief from the hardship of the curse, came true. Accordingly, from Noah onwards, humanity pursues agricultural farming and pastoral farming with great success.
From this, there are three implications I’d like to reflect on.
- The earth is not cursed. It is, rather, a source of wellbeing for humanity, and it is a human responsibility to care for it. The current environmental issues we face on the planet are not because of God, but because of our own irresponsibility.
- Work is not a curse. When Yahweh put the man in the paradise garden of Eden, he commissioned him to work it. There was no sense that the man simply had to snap his fingers to achieve his work goals. There was, rather, the expectation of hard work, but with commensurate reward. As the man cultivated the earth, so it would yield to him, and reward his efforts. The curse that God placed on the man was that the earth would no longer yield to him, making his work futile (“the sweat of your nose” could also be translated as “the sweat of your frustration”). But this situation was temporary, as the Noah narrative indicates. Work is part of God’s good intention for humanity, and decent reward for decent effort should be the way we operate. Indeed, as Abel’s example demonstrates, God is pleased when we work well and honour him.
- We need to stop preaching that the earth is cursed. This includes rethinking the meaning of passages like Romans 8:18–21:
For I think that the sufferings of our present time are not equal to the future glory that is to be revealed to us. For the expectation of creation is awaiting the revelation of the sons of God. For creation was subjected to aimlessness, not willingly, but by the one who subjected it, in the hope that that same creation will be liberated from its servitude to decay into the liberation of the glory of the children of God.
— Romans 8:18–21 (my translation)
This passage is often preached with reference to Genesis 3, and it’s not hard to see why. But if Paul knew his Bible (and he most certainly did—especially the early chapters of Genesis!), he was probably not arguing that the earth continued to be cursed into his own day. Perhaps Paul was specifically looking at the curse on the earth in a typological manner—a precedent, rather than an ongoing reality. Or perhaps Paul saw creation as having an inherent nature of aimlessness—cycles of life and decay, which imbue it with a metaphorical desire to break out of the cycle—to attain an eternal destiny that can only be achieved in God’s greater purposes in Christ. Perhaps there is another explanation. Either way, I don’t think it’s tenable to view Paul as arguing that the curse on the earth was ongoing.
All this is not to suggest that humanity and the world is not “fallen.” Once sin entered the world, it could not be taken back, and we continue to live with the consequences of sin—our own, as well as that of others. Rather, it’s simply to say that we should read the Bible more closely than we do, and base our theology on its entire witness, not just parts of it. As we read Genesis, we see God lift the curse on the ground, and so we should distinguish that curse from the evident tendency to death and decay that we (still) see in the world around us.