Genesis 1-3 – Part III: Literal or Allegorical?


This article on Genesis 1-3 first appeared on Catholic Stand.

Part I and Part II of our series established a fundamental rule for interpreting the narratives of Genesis 1-3. God speaks to us in allegorical language, through images, symbols, and metaphors, in order to communicate His truth to us. The same applies to the story of Mankind’s Fall through the sin of Adam and Eve.

Genesis 3:1-6 – Satan successfully tempts Eve. Adam and Eve had everything in the Garden. They had grace and eternal life, both spiritual and physical. Adam and Eve lived in a garden designed for them and had dominion over creation. They had one another in a state of innocence and mutual cooperation. And God walked with them in the cool of the evening (3:8). Their souls governed their bodies. Their intellects governed their wills and their passions. In a word, they were perfect.

So, how did Satan tempt Eve? Satan appealed to her highest power, the place where we make sense of everything.  He appealed to her intellect. Notice the doubt he attempts to sow in 3:1 – “Did God say…?” And notice that Eve communicates her certainty about God’s command (3:2-3).

Then Satan tells her that God is a liar (3:4) and adds to the lie, saying, “God knows that when you eat of [the tree] your eyes will be opened (i.e., they will have “real” knowledge), and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God’s knowledge of good and evil is intimate due to His omniscience, but man must experience good and evil to know it intimately.

Eve saw “that the tree was desired to make one wise ….” Wisdom is good and the tree was good for food.  However, Eve sought wisdom by disobeying God. How many times do we seek shortcuts and quick fixes that end up creating bigger problems for us? Adam was apparently next to Eve when she ate of the fruit because she gave the fruit to him right after she ate it. Adam, who had primary responsibility, failed to execute his responsibilities with integrity. Therefore, Adam is primarily blamed for man’s downfall (1 Corinthians 15).

By eating from the tree, Adam and Eve wanted to be their own moral standard and chose to replace God’s moral order with their own. Thus, Adam and Eve desired to be “like God” in a way that was not proper to their nature. This is pride.

How many times have we rationalized or justified an immoral act knowing full well that the act was wrong? When we do this, are we not attempting to usurp God’s authority, thereby trying to become God? Think about this the next time you declare something to be morally licit that is objectively immoral (e.g., abortion, transgenderism, homosexual behavior, contraception, pornography, fornication, adultery, etc.).

Genesis 3:7 – Original Sin equals the loss of sanctifying grace. Adam and Eve could not pass down what they no longer possessed. Their eyes were opened (i.e., they lost original innocence). Consequently, man no longer has a right to grace. As the first human, Adam passed on his human nature to all human beings.

In the state of Original Justice, human nature had sanctifying grace and even had a right to it. However, when Adam and Eve lost grace, they lost the right to it and could no longer pass it on to other humans. The human nature passed down from Adam lacked something, namely, grace and the right to it, which was a supernatural gift meant to aid their human nature.

God gave them a nature in which they would have passed grace down to their progeny. They chose a nature in which they would have to repent to obtain grace. Then, they passed this nature to their children. Consequently, every individual must approach the One to whom grace properly belongs and ask Him for it.

Also, Adam and Eve sold themselves and the entire human race to death. Thus, man needs a redeemer, someone who has the power to buy him back from death, someone whose death has infinite value to cover the infinite chasm that sin places between God and man.

“They knew they were naked.” Adam and Eve knew they had rejected the clothing of grace. So, they clothed themselves with something of infinitely less quality.

Genesis 3:8 – “They heard the sound of the Lord God walking.” God does not have legs. This is another indication that the author is allegorically communicating a truth through a story. Also, this indicates that Satan might not have been a physical serpent but simply as subtle, cunning, and poisonous as one. Next, Adam and Eve “…hid themselves from the presence of God.” This directly resulted from their sin. By sinning, they disconnected, or hid, themselves from God.

Also, they became afraid of the loving Father who created them in His image and likeness. Although God designed them to be reflections, they made themselves distortions.

Genesis 3:9 – God asks, “Where are you?” God knows where they are, of course, but He is asking them why they spiritually separated themselves from Him and is offering them an opportunity to confess.

Genesis 3:12-13 – Adam confesses, but instead of expressing sorrow and seeking forgiveness, he blames Eve, and then he even blames God, saying, “The woman whom you gave to be with me ….” Eve subsequently blames Satan – the old “the devil made me do it” routine.

Genesis 3:14-15 – God curses Satan as the lowest of all creatures. Although created with a superior nature and intellect, Satan makes himself inferior to humans. The irony here is that Satan’s superior intellect actually causes his inferiority. The phrase, “On your belly you will crawl” indicates his newfound lowliness, one lower than the animals.

Genesis 3:15 – This verse is known as the Protoevangelium (the first good news): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal” (cf. Romans 16:20).

Although enmity between Satan and Adam/Eve was present before Satan tempted Eve, God places permanent enmity (division), a kind of perpetual struggle between them, not just a one-time encounter in the Garden. The upside for humans is that God lets us know He will overcome Satan: “he (the Savior) shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal.” Satan is no match for Jesus Christ.

Genesis 3:16-17 – God metes out punishment to Adam and Eve. Adam, by listening to Eve, put Eve and the tree’s fruit above God. Now, he will bow to the earth by way of toils and hardships. Before the Fall, man joyfully ordered his works upward to God. After the Fall, he must now struggle to order his works toward Him. Also, man incurs the punishment of death, spiritual and physical (2:17).

Genesis 3:21 – God made garments of animal skins for them. Thus, God did not stop caring for Adam and Eve.  He gave them what they needed. However, St. Augustine points out that they exchanged their souls’ dominion over their bodies for bodily dominion. Thus, they became more like animals, which is why God clothed them in animal skins.

Genesis 3:22 – “… man has become like one of us.” “Us” indicates the Trinity. By doing what is immoral, humans “presume to exercise lordship over the moral order and redefine good and evil in opposition to the Creator. Only in this disordered way has man’s transgression made him like God. Adam would have attained true godliness had he humbly obeyed the Father as Jesus did” (Truth and Life Study Bible commentary).

The idea of man “living forever” by way of eating occurs only two other times in Scripture (John 6:51 and 58), when Jesus says we must eat His flesh and drink His blood to “live forever.” The tree of life points to Jesus in the Eucharist, Whom we must eat to have eternal life.

St. Albert the Great (AD 1200 to 1280), Doctor of the Church, said of the Eucharist,

[Jesus] could not have commanded anything more beneficial, for this sacrament is the fruit of the tree of life. Anyone who receives this sacrament with the devotion of sincere faith will never taste death. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and blessed is he who holds it fast.  Nor could he have commanded anything which is more like eternal life. Eternal life flows from this sacrament because God with all sweetness pours himself out upon the blessed.

Genesis 3:23 – Finally, God banishes Adam and Eve from Eden symbolizing that we, their children, have no right to heaven. Without grace, man sends himself to a desolate spiritual reality in which he must toil with difficulty to be human in the proper sense, striving but unable to succeed without grace.

Genesis 3:24 – Adam and Eve will not enter the true Eden until the Christ redeems them and the rest of humanity.

Click here for my response to critics.