The Fruit of the First Sin Was Shame

Dying You Shall Die

“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. Then the eyes of both of them were opened” (Gen. 3:6–7 NIV).

At first, it seemed as if the serpent had told the truth. As he claimed, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened, and they didn’t immediately die. Yet this is the seminal instance of things not being as they seem.

Ruptured Communion

For while their eyes were now opened, they saw nothing good. Seeing their nakedness, they scrambled to cover themselves.1 Eve had thought eating would bring pleasure and wisdom. She had sought to become shrewd only to discover that she was nude.2

Nakedness had crowned Eden’s perfection. Now it became an imperfection that later in Scripture is linked with exposure and shame (see Gen. 9:22–23; Rev. 3:18; 16:15). Sexual differences meant to unite now divided. What had prompted rejoicing now abashed. The serpent’s claim that they would become godlike in their knowledge became instead “the knowledge that they were no longer even like each other.”3 A world that had once been beautiful to see was now spoiled in the seeing (see Titus 1:15).

Give Me Understanding That I May Live

Mark Talbot

In volume 2 of the Suffering and the Christian Life series, Mark Talbot encourages readers to place their suffering within the arc of the full biblical story so that they will better understand their suffering and be able to take courage and find comfort in God.

How did Adam and Eve respond to this unexpected turn of events? They self-medicated by covering up (see Gen. 3:7). In other words, they sought to block each other’s gaze.

Was this because their disobedience produced shame? Blocher’s answer is typical: “The narrative does not take up the word ‘shame,’ but the deliberate contrast between 3:7 and 2:25 suggests it immediately, and it is confirmed by the couple’s behaviour. For what is shame, other than a feeling of embarrassment which makes us hide?”4 “Sin’s proper fruit,” Kidner states, “is shame.” Yet what their shame consisted in is puzzling. Perhaps, as Gerhard von Rad suggests, Adam and Eve began to experience “the loss of an inner unity, an unsurmountable contradiction at the basis of [their] existence.” Perhaps they felt “something like a rift that [could] be traced to the depths of their being[,] . . . a grievous disruption” that now “governs the whole being of [each of us] from the lowest level of [our] corporeality” to the highest levels of our spirits.5 We as their descendants know this to be true (see, e.g., Rom. 7:7–25). But Genesis remains remarkably restrained.

In any case, our first parents hid their most intimate parts. Their disobedience divided them from each other. We feel shame when some fault, imperfection, or vulnerability of ours conflicts with what we think we should be. Finding this shameful, we attempt to hide. We become uneasy in others’ presence. We avoid looking in each other’s eyes. Shame is interpersonal in the way it disrupts the kind of intimate and sympathetic face-to-face communion with other human beings that creates and sustains the personal life for which we have been made.

Yet the disruption ran much deeper. “Shame in the form of embarrassment and inhibition,” Wolff notes, “only penetrates the duality of man and woman as the result of their mistrust towards God and their disobedience towards his word.”6 While their transgression made them feel uneasy in each other’s presence, “they were much more ashamed vis-à-vis the One who had given them the commandment.”7 They became aware of their guilty accountability. “Before the fall,” as Herman Bavinck writes, “there was . . . no gap between what they were and what they knew they had to be. Being and self-consciousness were in harmony. But the fall produced separation,” driving them “away from God, not toward him.” Hearing him walking in the garden in the cool of the day, they hid from his presence among the garden’s trees (see Gen. 3:8). The Hebrew reads “the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God’s face.” “Shame over their nakedness and [an unhealthy] fear of God,” Bavinck observes, “are both rooted in their violation of the divine [command] and are proof that both their communion with each other and with God has been broken by sin.”

Emotions like shame and fear outlast mere beliefs. They are harder to ignore. They are “the incurable stigmata of the Fall.”8 Adam’s first words after eating the forbidden fruit—“I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid” (Gen. 3:10)—identify an emotion that even now stubbornly witnesses to the fact that in disobeying God we transgress the limits of true human being.

Living Deaths

“The first doctrine to be denied” in Scripture, Kidner notes, “is judgment.”9 The serpent denied it in telling Eve that if she ate from the forbidden tree she would not die.

Genesis 3:8–19 is primarily a judgment scene tempered by mercy.10 Adam’s and Eve’s replies to God’s questions emphasize how devious and accusatory their own relationship had already become. Open, caring communication was over. Blocher calls God’s warning in Genesis 2:17 “the protective clause of the first covenant.”11 Ironically, in disregarding it our first parents became self-protective—protecting themselves from each other and God. Their lives as healthy and whole persons in communion with other persons had come to an end.

God intends our suffering to prompt us to embrace his saving and sanctifying grace.

Yet face-to-face communion with God and other human beings is the very essence of abundant and fully personal life. Our first parents’ flight from God’s face showed that their spiritual lifeline was broken. From the moment they ate from the forbidden tree, they were dead in their transgression and sin (see Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:21–22; Eph. 2:1–3). Granted, they did not die immediately. Their lives as biological creatures were temporarily and imperfectly sustained by their continuing to eat their earthly fare. Nor did their accountability cease. Yet they could no longer do what God required. They could no longer conform to the God-given limits that constituted true personhood and true human life. “In the Bible,” Blocher writes, “death is the reverse of life—it is not the reverse of existence. To die does not mean to cease to be, but in biblical terms it means [to be] ‘cut off from the land of the living.’”12

And since dying is still existing, other changes in existence will, by extension, be able to bear the name of “death.” In all experiences of pain, discomfort, discord and separation, we can recognize a kind of funeral procession. . . . The narrative [of Genesis 3] shows us that the threat “You shall die” is fulfilled in a multiplicity of ways, by a whole succession of disastrous changes.

So God had not lied when he had declared, “When you eat from [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17 NIV). Things were not as they initially seemed.

The New Testament declares, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). This “corresponds to the . . . biblical theme of retribution: ‘For the Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full’ (Jer. 51:56 NIV).” The grammatical construction of the phrase, “he will repay in full” is the same as both the permissive and the warning clauses in Genesis 2:16–17. It is known as the infinitive absolute, which strengthens and intensifies the action. In Jeremiah 51 it may be rendered as “PAYING he will repay.” In Genesis 2:16–17, it can be rendered as “EATING you may eat” and “DYING you shall die” (NIV).13

The full implications of God’s warning that in the day Adam would eat of the forbidden tree, “DYING he would die” only “slowly unfold,” Kidner observes, “in the last pages of the New Testament.”14 There we learn what it has cost God to redeem human beings as well as how those who remain rebellious will finally be thrown in “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8). That will be the final death—the death that comes after the usually slow process of biological decay. It will exclude any hope of ever partaking of God’s saving mercy, of ever regaining communion with him. It will complete the process that began when our first parents ate the forbidden fruit.

From that initial act of rebellion onward, all human beings have been born spiritually dead, estranged from God’s life-giving presence (see, e.g., Eph. 2:1–10). We are now like zombies. Unless we have been born again (see John 3:3), we are just “animated corpses”—even though we continue to move about, we are just the “walking dead,” no matter how healthy we seem. We are no longer capable of fulfilling the purpose for which God created us.

So how is our suffering relevant to this? It is often only as suffering strikes us at a deeper, more fundamental level than mere thinking and daily living that we realize how desperate our condition is. God intends our suffering to prompt us to embrace his saving and sanctifying grace. As the apostle Paul said in a somewhat different context, “The kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation” (2 Cor. 7:10 NLT; cf. Deut. 4:30–31).


  1. “Though somewhat ineffective, these actions [sewing fig leaves together] suggest urgency and desperation; the innocent serenity of 2:25 is shattered.” Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 76.
  2. Wenham comments: “Now the snake was more shrewd than all the wild animals.” “Shrewd” [‘arum] is an ambiguous term. On the one hand it is a virtue the wise should cultivate (Prov 12:16; 13:16), but misused it becomes wiliness and guile (Job 5:12; 15:5; cf. Exod 21:14; Josh 9:4). The choice of the term “shrewd” [‘arum] here is one of the more obvious plays on words in the text; for the man and his wife have just been described as [‘arom] “nude” (2:25). They will seek themselves to be shrewd (cf. 3:6) but will discover that they are “nude” (3:7, 10). (Genesis 1–15, 72; emphasis added)
  3. John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 104. My next sentence echoes Kidner’s observation that “man saw the familiar world and spoilt it now in the seeing, projecting evil on to innocence (cf. Tit. 1:15) and reacting to good with shame and flight.” Kidner, Genesis, 69.
  4. Blocher, In the Beginning, 173. The quotation from Kidner that follows is from Genesis, 69.
  5. Von Rad, Genesis, 85, 91. In contrasting the sort of knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve would have experienced in not eating from the forbidden tree or in eating from it, John Murray writes: How diverse the states of consciousness! By the fall there invaded man’s consciousness elements that would never have crossed the threshold [if they had not eaten], the sense of guilt, of fear, of shame. There entered a new dispositional complex of desires, impulses, affections, motives, and purposes. We may never conceive of knowledge as a state of mind apart from the total condition of heart and will. (Collected Writings, 2:53).
  6. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, 172.
  7. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 198. The next quotation is from p. 173 (emphasis added), and the last one is from p. 198.
  8. Von Rad, Genesis, 91. Cf. Heb. 2:15, which states that we for “all our lives are held in slavery by the fear of death” (I am paraphrasing the NRSV).
  9. Kidner, Genesis, 68. He continues: “If modern denials of [judgment] are very differently motivated, they are equally at odds with revelation: Jesus fully affirmed the doctrine (e.g. Mt. 7:13–27).”
  10. “Guilt and shame reveal both God’s wrath and his grace, but the latter is shown especially when God seeks out Adam and Eve and interrogates them.” Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 193.
  11. Blocher, In the Beginning, 171.
  12. Blocher, In the Beginning, 171. The next quotation is from p. 172. Emphases in both quotations are added. The first nonbiblical quotation in the next paragraph is from p. 172. The emphasis of repay in the verse that completes that quotation is Blocher’s.
  13. For this way of rendering Hebrew’s infinitive absolute, see Blocher,In the Beginning, 172 and 121; and Hamilton, below. About the claims in Gen. 2:16–17, Blocher writes: What rigorous symmetry! Twice the same grammatical procedure is used, which in Hebrew allows the greatest force: the infinitive absolute. To the phrase ‘EATING you shall eat’ responds the phrase ‘DYING you shall die’. In the first case the tone must be that of the fullness of the permission: you shall eat freely, eat your fill without lacking any of the good things that I have created. Likewise, it is stipulated in the creational agreement: “you shall not eat”; otherwise “DYING you shall die.” That is the condition that is the basis and safeguard of the happiness of the human race. . . . The warning, “DYING you shall die” hammers home the absolute certainty: on the monstrous, unthinkable hypothesis of [disobedience], surely you will die; the consequence is inescapable. (121–22) Hamilton writes: “The last part of v. 17 reads literally ‘in the day of your eating from it dying you shall die,’ understanding the infinite absolute before the verb to strengthen the verbal idea.” Book of Genesis, 172.
  14. Kidner, Genesis, 64.

This article is adapted from Give Me Understanding That I May Live: Situating Our Suffering within God's Redemptive Plan by Mark Talbot.

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