Genesis 3:17-21

And to Adam he said,

                “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18    thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

20 The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.[1]

When we began our study of Genesis, we noted that the book is primarily about the grace of the Covenant Creator God. We saw that the first eleven chapters give us the actual history of life, the universe, and everything in five stories (toledoths). Each story has the same four-part structure. The five stories are: the fall, Cain, the sons of God marrying the daughters of man, the flood, and the tower of Babel. And the four-part structure by which they are told is: 1) sin, breaching the Covenant of Works; 2) speech, as there is a speech by God announcing the penalty for sin; 3) grace, as God brings grace to the situation to mitigate the misery caused by sin; and 4) punishment, as God punishes sin.[2]

Grace and judgment are two separate and distinct things. They do not mix. But they do exist side by side because there can be no grace as the bible defines it without man having first earned judgment. Adam, as the union representative for all humanity to come, was under a simple system of government as God’s prophet-priest-king of the garden-temple in Eden – be perfect and live; think, do, or say ANYTHING imperfect and die. Adam failed to judge Satan’s heresy, failed to maintain perfect thoughts of his Covenant Creator God, failed to protect his wife. In short, Adam failed to love God with all his heart and soul and failed to love his wife as himself.

Satan, for his treachery, earned a direct curse from God. Yet, God’s curse of the serpent-dragon also contains the very first gospel announcement. God declared a holy war between the devil’s spiritual offspring and the spiritual offspring of the Promised Seed. The alliance Satan made with man, and with it his mastery over mankind, would not stand. God would overturn it, turning friendship into enmity. When Eve accused the serpent, her alliance with him had already begun to disintegrate. Satan’s very success in reproducing his likeness in his human allies spelled the failure of their covenant; Adam and Eve’s devil-like deceit and falsehood were the contradiction of the commitment and truth that are the essence of the Covenant of Works.[3]

Being objects still of God’s tender concerns and mercy, Adam and Eve are not sent immediately to hell. Yet they still experience the effects of sin participate in the common curse of God against sin.[4] They earned for themselves and all humanity to come the common curses of God’s Covenant of Works (COW). God’s judgment on Eve’s roles as wife and mother meant that nothing in life would satisfy her apart from God himself. “Far from being a reign of co-equals over the remainder of God’s creation, [their marriage] relationship now becomes a fierce dispute, with each party trying to rule the other.”[5]

This perpetual discomfort in life as part of the common curses of the COW left room for her to be driven by grace to seek after God as her only source of true satisfaction. This is one of the keystones of the bedrock theology of marriage. Satisfaction in your marriage can only flow out of your satisfaction in God because your greatest marriage problem is NOT your spouse. Your greatest marriage problem is inside of you, not outside of you.

The sinful condition into which you were born creates sinful patterns of relating to others just as it did when Adam and Eve hid from each other and from God. Those patterns begin in childhood and come so naturally to you that you will be the very last person to recognize them. Like Adam and Eve, you are utterly blind to the patterns of your own sin. So, you remain convinced that the problem is outside of you (this woman you gave me…; this serpent you made…). Only when you receive God’s grace can you even begin to contemplate your own sin and realize the solution is outside of you and comes through the Holy Spirit renewing your mind in God’s Word to begin breaking the patterns that drive your relationship struggles. But the woman’s struggle to rule her marriage and to experience all the pains of motherhood were not the only common curses of the COW.


In verses 17-29, God curses Adam’s work and his relationship with the earth from which he was formed. God explained to Adam why he was issuing curses, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground….”[6] To “listen to” in this context means to “obey.” Rather than exercise his right and duty as God’s prophet-priest-king to curse the serpent-dragon and banish him from God’s garden-temple, Adam listened to the devil’s sales pitch. He used Eve as a lab rat to see if she would drop dead. When she ate but didn’t die immediately, he decided the enemy’s lies were true and that God was a liar. So, Adam ate the forbidden fruit himself. Unlike Eve, Adam wasn’t fooled. He simply chose to believe his own observations as truth over God’s revelation of truth. The so-called post-modern philosophy that everybody has their own “truth” began when our first father chose his own version of “truth.”

The result of Adam’s choice was God’s curse of the ground and God’s promise Adam was returning the un-royal status of dust he had before God breathed into him image-bearing life. The serpent would “eat dust” and Adam was becoming dust. “The man’s sin was that he ate (3:6, 12). Again, God’s word of judgment matches the sin. In response to the man’s trespass of eating, God speaks no less than five times of eating in his word to the man (vv. 17 [3 times], 18, 19). Thus, the penalty on the man parallels the penalty on the serpent. To both God says a word about their eating.”[7] Similarly, God’s word to the man parallels his word to the woman, for in the experiences of both there will be anguish in their basic life duties.

Moses recounts Adam’s curses in the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. “cursed is the ground because of you; /in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; /18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; /and you shall eat the plants of the field. /19 By the sweat of your face /you shall eat bread, /till you return to the ground, /for out of it you were taken; /for you are dust, /and to dust you shall return.[8] The “pain” that verse 17 describes as Adam’s lot is the same word twice used for the woman’s “pain” in verse 16. It means physical and mental anguish. Both of them would experience perpetual anguish in the centers of their existence. Ironically, the very ground that had been such a source of joy when Adam cared for the garden now became the source of his ongoing pain. The earth became an enemy.[9]Painsweatand dust answer the fantasy ‘you will be like God’, and lead to the Preacher’s cry in Ecclesiastes that “all things are full of weariness” (Eccl. 1:8).[10]

God didn’t curse marriage and he didn’t curse work. Both of those were things he ordained and created before the fall as institutions that were good gifts from God for humanity. What he set out to Adam and Eve was that their sins would taint every area of their lives from marriage, to children, to earning a living. A consequence of Adam’s sin was that God cursed the ground in anticipation of Adam’s being cast out of the garden. Adam would have to battle against thorns and thistles to raise his own crops. Before the fall, Adam could work for the sheer joy of extending God’s garden temple across the planet. Now, Adam and Eve had lost their free meals and would have to toil to stay alive as long as they could.

Mankind was made for work, but sin has turned work into a struggle. God’s curse upon the ground is not simply a punishment to farmers and ranchers. The judgment on man’s rebellion makes not only man’s thinking abnormal, but the external world abnormal as well. The broader implication is that mankind will never be able to subdue the earth and his attempts to do so will always result in blessing mixed with curse. Man may find and mine precious minerals to enrich his life, but in doing so will leave a toxic wake of destruction behind. Man, as part of his creative nature, may research and develop new medications; but they will always have side effects.

Man can create new industries but doing so will cause other industries to die and workers to lose jobs. Man can theorize new economic-political systems that promise equality, but those systems will come with their own unintended consequences. Whenever man tries to get himself back to the garden, he will fail because the curse of the Covenant of Works follows him in every area of his life. This condition is internal to man, external in the world, and irrevocable. It is for “all the days of your life” (v. 17), “till you return to the ground” (v. 19). No repentance— nothing— will remove the curse on the ground. Only death can provide a respite. All men submit to the law of the dust.[11] As one scholar writes:

It is not that the ground had a natural claim on man that required his return to the dust. Man’s falling victim to death is not to be accounted for by his created nature; it is the wages of sin. The …reference to man’s physical nature simply indicates how… he can experience death…. The common character of this curse (experienced as it is by believers as well as others) is underscored by the recurrence of the statement “and he died” as a closing refrain in the treatment of the lives of even the long-lived patriarchs of the faith in the genealogy of Genesis 5 (Rom 5:14).[12]

Cursing the ground did not introduce new objects or laws of nature. The curse consisted in the earth’s dominating and victimizing royal man, even reclaiming him. Recoiling from this Sheol-function under the common curse, earth groans, longing for its resurrection deliverance (Rom 8:20ff.).[13]

The grace that exists alongside the judgments of imperfect work and physical death is that no person’s work will ever fully satisfy regardless of his or her accomplishments. Man’s dream of progress into his own Utopia will never be realized. Seeking significance and fulfillment in ANYTHING other than God is futile. Neither work nor long physical life can satisfy because you do not live in perfection in God’s garden-temple. That from which we seek fulfillment is a perpetual source of pain and frustration. The gift of work is good, but it is covered with thorns and thistles. As the preacher of Ecclesiastes said:

What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. [14]

And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. [15]

After Adam’s rebellion, both creation and the children of God groan as with birth pains for the dawning of a new day (Genesis 3:15, 16). And this groaning confirms the hope of God’s children. Final and full liberation for the children of Adam and Eve and creation will come in Christ at the end of the age (Rom. 8:19-22). Our groaning under the curse of the COW is the space into which grace flows to bring joy.


In verses 20-21, the first the parts of the Sin, Speech, Grace, Punishment structure of the story are complete. In verse 20 grace flows in as Adam exhibits faith by renaming his wife.[16] In verse 20, Moses writes, “The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. 21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.[17]

Adam gives his wife a new name, Eve. The name is a word play that sounds much like the Hebrew word, “life-giver.” Adam gave Eve her name as a demonstration of the trust he had in God’s promise that her Seed would crush the head of the serpent-dragon (3:15). He knows that God’s curse of pain in childbearing meant that children were coming. Moses even uses the prophetic perfect tense (she was) though Eve has not yet conceived – emphasizing Adam’s trust. Can you see the change that took place in Adam? He has moved from believing God was a liar and a cheat when he took the forbidden fruit, to trusting again into God’s word. Adam’s sinful unbelief is replaced with a new heart of faith. Dead under the curse of the COW, Adam has had new life breathed into him through God’s new Covenant of Grace. Faith (trust) is a gift of the COG. The name Eve celebrates the survival of the human race and the ultimate victory over death.

Now, having lost their earned righteousness by their apostacy, God must demonstrate his saving grace by faith alone. “21 And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.[18] This is something Adam and Eve never would have thought to do, since it involved the killing of an innocent animal – something they had no reason to do before their rebellion. As long as they were performing the meritorious works of the COW, they had the innocent covering of their own righteousness and all the food they required. They had no need to kill a creature of earth.

The answer to man’s inability to clothe himself with righteousness and restore his relationship with God comes not from man’s shabby apron of fig leaves (self-righteous works) but from God. When God covers his born-again children, He does completely what they cannot do. God makes skins that cover over all of Adam and Eve. He is teaching them that the problem of sin goes FAR deeper and requires a FAR greater covering than they could ever imagine or even begin to fashion for themselves.

The gracious covering required blood and death. Imagine not EVER having seen something die! On this side of the curse life is cheap, and death is familiar. But Adam – having just celebrated life by giving Eve her new name as life-bringer – recognized death as the punishment for their sin. Adam learns this doctrine of bedrock theology: the death of the sinner cannot pay for sin. Adam could not atone for his sin by dying any more than he could atone for it by being sorry. Something innocent had to die in his place. Sin reaches beyond any individual’s life and person and no amount of sorrow over its consequences can atone for it. God must intervene. Once the COW is broken it cannot be mended by the works of any sinful man. Only the death of an innocent can postpone the death of the guilty Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve had to watch as God slew innocent creatures to provide a covering for their rebellion. After sin entered, DEATH reigned. The wages of sin is death. It is most likely that God performs the first sacrificial burnt offering here in the Garden of Eden to show man something of the role of the Promised Seed and the means by which He will crush the serpent’s head. Sacrificial offerings were made by Abel, and Abraham, and Job long before the Mosaic Law was introduced. Adam and Eve had but a dim understanding of how the Promised Seed would crush the serpent-dragon’s head.

After God republished the Covenant of Works to Israel, no Levitical priest could read this passage in Genesis 3 without making the connection to sacrificial atonement. Priests were given the skins of animal sacrifices for their personal use (Lev. 7:8). This covering from innocent creatures illustrated the method of grace in response to sin and its consequences. God covers sin and its squalor. The biblical picture of justification is the gift of the robe of righteousness (Zechariah 3:4ff.; Matthew 22:11; Luke 15:22). Believers are described as clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). In Revelation 3:18, Jesus prophesied to the Laodicean congregation, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen….”[19]

The ultimate, permanent covering for our condition of sin is not our attempts to do nice things for other people or for God. Those are shabby fig leaves.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

No human being born under the curse of sin can earn anything but damnation from God under God’s COW. Only the Promised Seed has kept the Covenant of Works perfectly. And he freely offers his perfection to us. Only Messiah Jesus, the perfectly innocent Promised Seed of the woman, could die sacrificially to atone for sin and prove us the white robe of rightness with God.

Revelation 7:13-14 shows the meaning of the robes of righteousness that God offers to us in Christ Jesus:

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. [20]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:17–21.

[2] Hughes, 91. Kindle Edition.

[3] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 132.

[4] Boice, 221.

[5] Hamilton, 202.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:17.

[7] Hamilton, op. cit.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:17–19.

[9] Hughes, 92-93. Kindle Edition.

[10] Kidner, 76.

[11] Hughes, 93.

[12] Kline, 135.

[13] Meredith G. Kline, Genesis: A New Commentary, ed. Jonathan G. Kline (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2016), 23.

[14] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eccl. 1:3–4.

[15] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Eccl. 2:10–11.

[16] Hughes, 94.

[17] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:20–21.

[18] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 3:21.

[19] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 3:18.

[20] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Re 7:13–14.