I’m still thinking about why Genesis connects sexual desire and procreation only after the first disobedience. Both are mentioned before, but not explicitly connected.
There is no question that both belong to the goodness of creation. The divine blessing of procreation (“Be fruitful and multiply”) is spoken to the human male and female in Genesis 1:28, and Adam’s rapturous little poem naming woman and man in Genesis 2:23 (which I take to be the way Genesis 2 affirms that creation is “very good”) clearly aims at sexual union, as the man is to leave father and mother and cleave to his woman, becoming one flesh with her (Gen. 2:24). Yet sex and procreation are not mentioned together until after the first disobedience, when God speaks to the woman about the pain of childbirth and her desire for her husband (Gen. 3:16). Why?
The point is not that Adam and Eve didn’t have sex before they sinned. Some people are afraid this must be the conclusion to draw, and some theologians in the tradition have wanted to draw it, but I think the silence of the text on this point is both more ambiguous and more telling. Because it is so ambiguous, we make up all sorts of stories about sex or the lack of it in Eden (Augustine says one thing, Milton says another, and so on) but the important thing to realize is that we are making it up ourselves. The Bible does not help us here, and that is no accident.
I’m thinking that the silence of the text, rather than our attempts to make up for it, is the important thing. There is no story about sex before sin because our knowledge of how sex and procreation are connected can no longer be innocent, and Genesis does not want us to imagine otherwise. Whatever we might think happened in the garden, we have no way back to it: we will never know what sex, procreation and family life would be like in paradise.
Our problem is that the knowledge of good and evil that begins with the forbidden fruit is irreversible; it cannot be wished away, and it includes very importantly the knowledge of good and evil in one another, tied to issues of power and shame as well as desire. That is why the man and his wife both knew they were naked. “The eyes of both were opened” (Gen. 3:7) to see the open eyes of the other seeing them, each knowing for the first time that there was good and evil in the other. No wonder they wanted to hide (Gen. 3:8).
God connects sex and procreation in his words to the woman because he does not want to leave it at that. There’s no going back on the knowledge of good and evil, but there is going forward—even unto wisdom. What the knowledge of good and evil has added to their lives at first was primarily the knowledge of evil; sinning with the help of the other. Now God aims to teach them also to know again the good of the other.
He teaches the man by cursing the serpent, the liar and death-dealer, whose head will be crushed by the seed of the woman. Adam’s hope for life thus comes only through his wife. Not only that, but sex and procreation themselves have a new purpose: they are now the enemies of death, because there will be enmity between her seed and the seed of the serpent, who is the embodiment of death.
So the knowledge of good and evil, which started out on the wrong foot, starts to go in the right direction because of God’s word. Before he spoke to them, the two knew they were naked, and they were ashamed and afraid and hid themselves. Afterwards, Adam knows his wife Eve, and she conceives and bears a son (3:1). It is all the same verb in Hebrew: knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5, 22), knowing they are naked (Gen. 3:7), and Adam knowing Eve (Gen. 4:1). It is not an ordinary biblical term for sexual intercourse, which is usually described as a man “going in” to a woman or “lying with” her. It is an unusual term that is clearly meant to connect sex and procreation with the knowledge of good and evil. What God has done is turn it from evil to good, from the knowledge of evil that makes them afraid to the knowledge of good that gives them hope.
Thus after the word of God and its justice begin to set things right, Adam begins to know again the good in “the woman you gave to be with me,” whose seed will be at enmity with the seed of the serpent. And the woman knows from God’s word that she will have this seed only in connection with her desire for her man. As together they sinned, only together do they have the hope of new life, which is the good in their knowledge of good and evil.
So sex and procreation are not innocent after the first disobedience, but they are also full of a new hope that God has given them. They have an enemy to defeat and the promise that it will be defeated, its head crushed by the seed of the woman.
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