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Sex and Nakedness in Eden


Mentioned in Gen 2:4-3:24, the Garden of Eden is frequently considered the beginning of all things sex, sin, and shame. According to popular understanding, the story is as follows: God forms man and woman in Eden and, although the man and woman are originally innocent and unashamedly naked, the woman is tricked by the serpent and leads the man into sin, at which point they realize their nakedness and are ashamed.

However, the story of nakedness, sex, and sexuality in Eden is more complicated. Although many English language Bibles use “man” or the proper name “Adam” to refer to the first human being, the Hebrew literally reads “haadam,” “the adam,” from the adamah, the “ground” (Gen 2:7). Proper names for the humans do not appear until Gen 3:20 (Eve) and Gen 4:25 (Adam). These factors have led some scholars to suggest that the first human is better understood as an androgynous “earthling” rather than a biological male. That other places in the Hebrew Bible use “haadam” to refer to all humanity, men and women together, seems to support this reading (for example, Exod 9:9; Zeph 1:3; Ps 33:13).

Gen 2:22 changes the earthling’s status as God creates a woman (Hebrew ishah) from the rib of “the adam,” who then calls himself a “man” (Hebrew ish) (Gen 2:23). Now that there are two humans, the haadam has become a man, somehow different from the woman, as the etiology for the institution of marriage that follows indicates: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife…” (Gen 2:24).

Next, readers learn that the man and the woman were “both naked (arummim), and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25). Within the Hebrew Bible, nakedness is often portrayed negatively, alongside things like shame or poverty (for example, Gen 9:22-23; 1Sam 20:30; Lam 1:8; Isa 47:3). However, there is initially no such association in Eden. Rather, another wordplay is at work: As the serpent is introduced, it is said to be “more crafty [‘arum] than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (Gen 3:1). The wordplay between ‘arum (crafty, clever [see Prov 14:18]) and arummim (nakedness) illustrates the gap between the cunning, astute serpent and the innocent, naïve humans. This crafty serpent will soon change things for the humans, far beyond their state of undress.

When the man and woman eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, immediately “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen 3:7). Many interpreters assert that the humans suddenly know their sexual natures. After all, the Hebrew verb yada, “to know,” is sometimes used as a euphemism for sexual activity (for example, Gen 4:1). However, in other places yada refers to non-sexual knowledge, ranging from understanding the divine, other people, the world, or how to do certain things  (for example, Exod 1:8; Deut 29:16; Job 37:16; Jer 1:6). Therefore, some scholars think that the humans come to know what it means to be fully human, and in so doing, to have gained knowledge of more than simply their sexuality.

What is clear is that something significant has changed, and the first humans are kicked out of Eden because, as God asserts, “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (Gen 3:22). Knowledge of sexuality is not mentioned, nor is sin. According to this primeval story, the relationship between God and the humans is not fundamentally irreparable, for before casting them out “the LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). As the story of life post-Eden begins in the book of Genesis, the divine-human relationship is marked by loss, but also by the gift of clothing and by care.

  • murphy-kelly

    Kelly J. Murphy is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University. Her research focuses on the Hebrew Bible, including the construction of gender in the Bible, the functions and use of apocalyptic literature in both the ancient and contemporary worlds, and the afterlives of biblical narratives on wealth and poverty. She is coeditor of a volume entitled Apocalypses in Context: Apocalyptic Currents throughout the Ages (Fortress Press, 2016).