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Bible Commentaries

Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture

Genesis 3

 

 

Verses 1-15

Genesis

HOW SIN CAME IN

Genesis 3:1 - Genesis 3:15.

It is no part of my purpose to enter on the critical questions connected with the story of ‘the fall.’ Whether it is a legend, purified and elevated, or not, is of less consequence than what is its moral and religious significance, and that significance is unaffected by the answer to the former question. The story presupposes that primitive man was in a state of ignorant innocence, not of intellectual or moral perfection, and it tells how that ignorant innocence came to pass into conscious sin. What are the stages of the transition?

1. There is the presentation of inducement to evil. The law to which Adam is to be obedient is in the simplest form. There is restriction. ‘Thou shalt not’ is the first form of law, and it is a form congruous with the undeveloped, though as yet innocent, nature ascribed to him. The conception of duty is present, though in a very rudimentary shape. An innocent being may be aware of limitations, though as yet not ‘knowing good and evil.’ With deep truth the story represents the first suggestion of disobedience as presented from without. No doubt, it might have by degrees arisen from within, but the thought that it was imported from another sphere of being suggests that it is alien to true manhood, and that, if brought in from without, it may be cast out again. And the temptation had a personal source. There are beings who desire to draw men away from God. The serpent, by its poison and its loathly form, is the natural symbol of such an enemy of man. The insinuating slyness of the suggestions of evil is like the sinuous gliding of the snake, and truly represents the process by which temptation found its way into the hearts of the first pair, and of all their descendants. For it begins with casting a doubt on the reality of the prohibition. ‘Hath God said?’ is the first parallel opened by the besieger. The fascinations of the forbidden fruit are not dangled at first before Eve, but an apparently innocent doubt is filtered into her ear. And is not that the way in which we are still snared? The reality of moral distinctions, the essential wrongness of the sin, is obscured by a mist of sophistication. ‘There is no harm in it’ steals into some young man’s or woman’s mind about things that were forbidden at home, and they are half conquered before they know that they have been attacked. Then comes the next besieger’s trench, much nearer the wall-namely, denial of the fatal consequences of the sin: ‘Ye shall not surely die,’ and a base hint that the prohibition was meant, not as a parapet to keep from falling headlong into the abyss, but as a barrier to keep from rising to a great good; ‘for God doth know, that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods.’ These are still the two lies which wile us to sin: ‘It will do you no harm,’ and ‘You are cheating yourselves out of good by not doing it.’

2. Then comes the yielding to the tempter. As long as the prohibition was undoubted, and the fatal results certain, the fascinations of the forbidden thing were not felt. But as soon as these were tampered with, Eve saw ‘that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes.’ So it is still. Weaken the awe-inspiring sense of God’s command, and of the ruin that follows the breach of it, and the heart of man is like a city without walls, into which any enemy can march unhindered. So long as God’s ‘Thou shalt not, lest thou die’ rings in the ears, the eyes see little beauty in the sirens that sing and beckon. But once that awful voice is deadened, they charm, and allure to dally with them.

In the undeveloped condition of primitive man temptation could only assail him through the senses and appetites, and its assault would be the more irresistible because reflection and experience were not yet his. But the act of yielding was, as sin ever is, a deliberate choice to please self and disobey God. The woman’s more emotional, sensitive, compliant nature made her the first victim, and her greatest glory, her craving to share her good with him whom she loves, and her power to sway his will and acts, made her his temptress. ‘As the husband is, the wife is,’ says Tennyson; but the converse is even truer: As the wife is, the man is.

3. The fatal consequences came with a rush. There is a gulf between being tempted and sinning, but the results of the sin are closely knit to it. They come automatically, as surely as a stream from a fountain. The promise of knowing good and evil was indeed kept, but instead of its making the sinners ‘like gods,’ it showed them that they were like beasts, and brought the first sense of shame. To know evil was, no doubt, a forward step intellectually; but to know it by experience, and as part of themselves, necessarily changed their ignorant innocence into bitter knowledge, and conscience awoke to rebuke them. The first thing that their opened eyes saw was themselves, and the immediate result of the sight was the first blush of shame. Before, they had walked in innocent unconsciousness, like angels or infants; now they had knowledge of good and evil, because their sin had made evil a part of themselves, and the knowledge was bitter.

The second consequence of the fall is the disturbed relation with God, which is presented in the highly symbolical form fitting for early ages, and as true and impressive for the twentieth century as for them. Sin broke familiar communion with God, turned Him into a ‘fear and a dread,’ and sent the guilty pair into ambush. Is not that deeply and perpetually true? The sun seen through mists becomes a lurid ball of scowling fire. The impulse is to hide from God, or to get rid of thoughts of Him. And when He is felt to be near, it is as a questioner, bringing sin to mind. The shuffling excuses, which venture even to throw the blame of sin on God {‘the woman whom Thou gavest me’}, or which try to palliate it as a mistake {‘the serpent beguiled me’}, have to come at last, however reluctantly, to confess that ‘I’ did the sin. Each has to say, ‘I did eat.’ So shall we all have to do. We may throw the blame on circumstances, weakness of judgment, and the like, while here, but at God’s bar we shall have to say, ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa.’

The curse pronounced on the serpent takes its habit and form as an emblem of the degradation of the personal tempter, and of the perennial antagonism between him and mankind, while even at that first hour of sin and retribution a gleam of hope, like the stray beam that steals through a gap in a thundercloud, promises that the conquered shall one day be the conqueror, and that the woman’s seed, though wounded in the struggle, shall one day crush the poison-bearing, flat head in the dust, and end forever his power to harm. ‘Known unto God are all his works from the beginning,’ and the Christ was promised ere the gates of Eden were shut on the exiles.


Verse 24

Genesis

EDEN LOST AND RESTORED

Genesis 3:24. - Revelation 22:14.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning.’ Eden was fair, but the heavenly city shall be fairer. The Paradise regained is an advance on the Paradise that was lost. These are the two ends of the history of man, separated by who knows how many millenniums. Heaven lay about him in his infancy, but as he journeyed westwards its morning blush faded into the light of common day-and only at eventide shall the sky glow again with glory and colour, and the western heaven at last outshine the eastern, with a light that shall never die. A fall, and a rise-a rise that reverses the fall, a rise that transcends the glory from which he fell,-that is the Bible’s notion of the history of the world, and I, for my part, believe it to be true, and feel it to be the one satisfactory explanation of what I see round about me and am conscious of within me.

1. Man had an Eden and lost it.

I take the Fall to be a historical fact. To all who accept the authority of Scripture, no words are needed beyond the simple statement before us, but we may just gather up the signs that there are on the wide field of the world’s history, and in the narrower experience of individuals, that such a fall has been.

Look at the condition of the world: its degradation, its savagery-all its pining myriads, all its untold millions who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. Will any man try to bring before him the actual state of the heathen world, and, retaining his belief in a God, profess that these men are what God meant men to be? It seems to me that the present condition of the world is not congruous with the idea that men are in their primitive state, and if this is what God meant men for, then I see not how the dark clouds which rest on His wisdom and His love are to be lifted off.

Then, again-if the world has not a Fall in its history, then we must take the lowest condition as the one from which all have come; and is that idea capable of defence? Do we see anywhere signs of an upward process going on now? Have we any experience of a tribe raising itself? Can you catch anywhere a race in the act of struggling up, outside of the pale of Christianity? Is not the history of all a history of decadence, except only where the Gospel has come in to reverse the process?

But passing from this: What mean the experiences of the individual-these longings; this hard toil; these sorrows?

How comes it that man alone on earth, manifestly meant to be leader, lord, etc., seems but cursed with a higher nature that he may know greater sorrows, and raised above the beasts in capacity that he may sink below them in woe, this capacity only leading to a more exquisite susceptibility, to a more various as well as more poignant misery?

Whence come the contrarieties and discordance in his nature?

It seems to me that all this is best explained as the Bible explains it by saying: {1} Sin has done it; {2} Sin is not part of God’s original design, but man has fallen; {3} Sin had a personal beginning. There have been men who were pure, able to stand but free to fall.

It seems to me that that explanation is more in harmony with the facts of the case, finds more response in the unsophisticated instinct of man, than any other. It seems to me that, though it leaves many dark and sorrowful mysteries all unsolved, yet that it alleviates the blackest of them, and flings some rays of hope on them all. It seems to me that it relieves the character and administration of God from the darkest dishonour; that it delivers man’s position and destiny from the most hopeless despair; that though it leaves the mystery of the origin of evil, it brings out into clearest relief the central truths that evil is evil, and sin and sorrow are not God’s will; that it vindicates as something better than fond imaginings the vague aspirations of the soul for a fair and holy state; that it establishes, as nothing else will, at once the love of God and the dignity of man; that it leaves open the possibility of the final overthrow of that Sin which it treats as an intrusion and stigmatises as a fall; that it therefore braces for more vigorous, hopeful conflict against it, and that while but for it the answer to the despairing question, Hast Thou made all men in vain? must be either the wailing echo ‘In vain,’ or the denial that He has made them at all, there is hope and there is power, and there is brightness thrown on the character of God and on the fate of man, by the old belief that God made man upright, and that man made himself a sinner.

2. Heaven restores the lost Eden.

‘God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He hath prepared them a city.’

The highest conception we can form of heaven is the reversal of all the evil of earth, and the completion of its incomplete good: the sinless purity-the blessed presence of God-the fulfilment of all desires-the service which is blessed, not toil-the changelessness which is progress, not stagnation.

3. Heaven surpasses the lost Eden.

{1} Garden-City.

The perfection of association-the nations of the saved. Here ‘we mortal millions live alone,’ even when united with dearest. Like Egyptian monks of old, each dwelling in his own cave, though all were a community.

{2} The richer experience.

The memory of past sorrows which are understood at last.

Heaven’s bliss in contrast with earthly joys.

Sinlessness of those who have been sinners will be more intensely lustrous for its dark background in the past. Redeemed men will be brighter than angels.

The impossibility of a fall.

Death behind us.

The former things shall no more come to mind, being lost in blaze of present transcendent experience, but yet shall be remembered as having led to that perfect state.

Christ not only repairs the ‘tabernacle which was fallen,’ but builds a fairer temple. He brings ‘a statelier Eden,’ and makes us dwell for ever in a Garden City.

 


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Bibliography Information
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Genesis 3:4". Alexander MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/mac/genesis-3.html.

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