188. Creation: Sin, Guilt, and Shame

22 Then the Lord God said, “See, 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”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life. [Genesis 3:22-24, NRSV]


Left: Masaccio’s The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, c.1425.

Right: The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve, by Michelangelo Buonarroti, c.1510.

Consequences of the Fall

The fall (of man) is a traditional Christian term that describes the transition of the first man and woman from a state of pure, naïve and innocent obedience to God to a state of self-centred, corrupted and guilty disobedience. The doctrine of “the fall”, although not named as such in the Bible, comes from an interpretation of Scripture in Genesis chapter 3. Originally, Scripture envisaged, the first man and woman lived blissfully with God in the Garden of Eden, but an external (evil) disturbance symbolised by the serpent tempted them into eating the fruit from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil”, which God had forbidden (3:3-4). Thereupon, they lost their innocence. Narrating a series of actions on the part of Adam and Eve, the ancient inspired writer attempted to describe what would typically happen to human persons when they sin and fall from grace.

  • Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and sewed fig leaves to cover their “shame” (3:7).
  • No longer at one in spirit with God, they fall away from God: they experienced guilt; became “afraid” and thus estranged from Him; then they began hiding from Him (3:8-10).
  • Blissfully unaware of their nakedness, the man and woman commune with each other and become one-flesh. For the woman, the man would leave father and mother (2:23-25). After being estranged from God in vertical relationship, they sank into estrangement with each other in horizontal relationship. Adam – he who was made from “ashes”, thus symbolizing all of humanity – began to point the “blame” to Eve (3:12) who a few moments ago was jubilantly received by Adam from the hands of God as pure and glorious gift of “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. Implicitly, God was blamed, for it was “the woman” whom God gave him that caused this chain of events. From primordial time, the inspired writer suggests, before undertaking any serious self-examination, “fallen” humanity would blame everyone else, and finally God if necessary, for their personal woes and problems in society.
  • God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden to prevent them from proceeding further by eating from “the tree of life” and becoming immortal (3:22-24).
  • Human behaviour exemplified by the first man and woman is narrated in Genesis 3 as an archetype of the behaviour of “sinful and fallen” humanity. Thus, Scriptures attempt to explain the “suffering” state of human existence: great childbearing pains (3:16); the woman being ruled by the man (3:16); Adam having to toil, labour and till the ground for food (3:17-19,23), away from the conditions of a paradise that the Garden of Eden was.

The Drama of Shame

From the anthropological angle, the phenomenon and manifestation of shame is empirically universal – blushing face, cast down eyes, bowed heads, avoiding the public, and so on. Shame somehow inheres in Homo sapiens and is thus common in all human cultures.

From a sociological angle, from the moment of birth, the work of socialsation begins, as the child learns to live in and with society, even often against her innate nature. The child has to negotiate fear, shame, disgust, erotic affects, joy and sadness as part of the work of socialization. The critical factor for the social trigger of shame is “the eye of the other”, and that is the eye of the community. In other words, one is under the watchful eye of society, as one is constantly seen in whatever one is doing. So long as one carries out all activities according to the rules of society, one is not ashamed for the “eye” approves. However, when one does something that (one thinks) infringes the rules, one is conquered by the affect of shame.

In the ethical approach, the eye of society functions as a moral authority. Once a person infringes the social rules, guilt and shame set in. While the ethical sanction of the external authority is shame, the sanction of the internal authority forms the pangs of conscience. The combined effect of shame and ill-conscience create tormenting feelings and psychic pain. Before anything else, the person feels and suffers the “punishment”. One blushes, tries to hide, to cover up, to disappear from the public eye, to avoid society’s nasty “laughter”, accusing glances, and horrible judgments, to vanish from the face of the earth, to become invisible as a way of “saving face”.

Seen in psychological terms, one is shy and bashful while feeling uncomfortable in being constantly exposed to the regard of others. One believes, consciously or unconsciously, that one is falling short of the standard of the judgmental “eye”, the external authority. In any culture where showing one’s naked body is in itself an insult or sin, one hides one’s body, especially one’s genitals even in adulthood. Of course, one can “feel naked” even when one’s body is not naked. Men and women can feel “undressed and naked” in their souls and minds by the judgmental eye, just as women can “feel” undressed by men’s “dirty” glances. Shame-avoiding techniques include hiding one’s face, putting on a poker face, turning away, moving to another place, or even abandoning one’s community. These techniques do not do not just aim at counteracting the fear of disapproval and ridicule but, often more so, they attempt to protect oneself against transparency. In a word, they attempt to ward off the threat of the loss of the “self”.

Artistic Readings of the Text

Artists have a way of communicating the deep messages of Scriptures on a piece of canvas, particularly germane to the consequences of guilt and sin resulting from sin and disobedience. Two classical paintings in this regard offer excellent catechetical tools.

The first masterpiece is Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, c.1425, uplifted above, shown on the left.

  • Sinners, stripped nude, returned to their original state of being made from earth. Thus, nakedness may signify nothingness. Yet, they have not lost their dignity, for they are neither debased, nor degraded physically.
  • Yet, their expulsion from the company of God and the delightful garden caused them to experience deep, profound shame. Now, they know the pain of guilt, shame and distress.
  • In fact, the biblical account gives only one explicit reference to emotion: when the Lord calls Adam after the Fall, Adam replies, “I heard thy voice in paradise; and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself” (Genesis 3:10). Fear may be written on the face of Adam and Eve in some images of the Expulsion, but not in Masaccio’s rendition.
  • Adam and Eve seem absorbed in their own emotions, their shame seeming to isolate them even from one another. Is Masaccio alluding to the effects of internal estrangement after separation from God, including the lack of solidarity in human community (compare Genesis 3:12 with 2:23).
  • Above all, they appear to be grieving. And yet, their gestures are a great deal more than simply expressions of grief.
  • From “these gestures and their contrapuntal relationship to each other”, James Clifton sees clear indications that Masaccio has used them “to depict the primeval couple’s shame according to traditional gender stereotypes.” To mark the implication that both Adam and Eve experienced shame at their nakedness, Masaccio attends to the iconographic requisite of their nudity, but in gender-specific ways consistent with the Mediterranean concepts of honour and shame.
  • Thus, as Clifton puts it, “the man, as a primarily rational being, experiences intellectual (or spiritual) shame and covers his face (or head) as the seat of reason, whereas the woman, as a primarily carnal being, experiences sexual shame and thus covers her erogenous zones.” But, one must add, Eve’s covering gesture reflects the stock gestures of modesty common quite universally with the female gender throughout the different ages. Still, Eve’s gesture seems somewhat pathetic when applied to one who is walking.
  • What is more striking, however, is that, instead of hiding her face, Eve casts it upwards and appears to be wailing aloud in great distress. Psychiatrist Andrew Morrison has observed that “Masaccio’s Eve perfectly conveys the expression of shame: her entire body brings in apology for her very existence.” In any case, Masaccio’s evocation of Eve’s dramatic howling and deeply felt pain, easily expresses acute human suffering in the world. Is he even using Eve’s howling to symbolise women’s deep suffering, and even her justifiable protest against prejudice and oppression, in a male-dominated world?

The second masterpiece, shown above on the right, is Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion of Adam and Eve c.1510 on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Art experts have noted the composition’s three pilasters: the fallen pair to the left, the pair expelled from Paradise to the right, and the anthropomorphized tree of knowledge with the female tempter in the centre. Unlike other artistic representations of the Genesis text, Michelangelo’s masterpiece is a two-in-one presentation of the “before” and the “after”.

  • There is the profusion of the Garden of Eden surrounding the blissful couple to the left, sharply contrasting the total desolation surrounding the “fallen and disgraced” couple to the right. In the desert, humanity shall find its way back to God.
  • In parallel opposites, just as the tempter in the garden of plenty stretches out its hands of temptations, the cherub raising his sword points the way out to the desert of desolation.
  • Before the fall, Adam and Eve were a youthful couple, exuding confidence, mindlessly willing and ready to try everything and anything on offer, boldly “grabbing” the “forbidden fruit” regardless even of divine strictures.
  • After the fall, their confidence noticeably waned, they walk away from their expulsion considerably aged and visibly disturbed inside. Feelings of guilt and shame are displayed all over their entire demeanour.
  • Adam’s face is turned away from the site of shame, his guilt and shame being all but laid bare in the gestures of his two arms. On the left, his two arms were raised in greed to grab what he should leave alone; on the right, his two arms are stretched in defeat. God, who was previously near to him has, after the fall, become inaccessible and remote. Now, he knows, he is no longer worthy of the Garden God has built.
  • Guilt and shame are written all over the face of Eve who now, lacking in self-confidence, conspicuously crouches in anonymity under the shadow of Adam (“your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” Genesis 3:16b).

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, November 2017. All rights reserved.

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