The Shame of Original Sin (Gen 3)

Adam and Eve’s glorious and shame-free life did not last long. They sin, and shame enters the world.  (Previous posts on their honor at a creation – HERE and HERE.) After eating the fruit, Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves.  They do not want to be seen.  They feel unworthy and embarrassed.  Their disobedience to God’s commands creates shame.  Before they sinned, Adam and Eve “were both naked, and they felt no shame” (2:25), but now they are naked and ashamed. When God walks about the garden, they hide.  They sense something wrong with themselves, not just their actions.   

Auguste Rodin, Eve (late 1800's)
Auguste Rodin, Eve (late 1800’s)

Hiding and covering are primary indicators of shame.  In fact, the English word ‘shame’ originates from the Indo-European word “to hide or cover oneself” (kam meant hide or veil, and the ‘s’ is the reflexive ‘oneself’).  The sin of Adam and Eve makes them not only guilty for transgressing God’s command, but  also shameful before God. The shame Adam and Eve feel is not just private emotions, but also objective realities (Gen 3:16-19).

I occasionally read comments like, “guilt is before God, and shame is before people.”  This, I believe, reflects Western cultural bias more than biblical and human realities.  Both guilt and shame have objective and subjective dimensions.  Shame includes feeling ashamed internally and being disgraced externally.  

In Genesis 3,  Adam and Eve lose face and status before the rest of creation.  They are now cursed with pain, grueling labor, weakness, and dirtiness – indicators of low status.  At death, humans return back to dust.  As disloyal children who dishonored God, they lose honor themselves. Ultimately, Adam and Eve were driven from God’s original dwelling place in the Garden of Eden.  They were banished from God’s community, exiled from the presence of God.  The human family lost its face.  We are disgraceful in the eyes of mankind and God. For all peoples have sinned, and now lack God’s glory (Rom 3:23).  “To us, O LORD, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you (Dan 9:8).” The fall from original glory (Gen 2) to shame (Gen 3) was tragic and severe.

But, God provided animal skins for Adam and Eve’s nakedness (Gen 3:21).  The ESV Study Bible notes a common interpretation of this act – “many see a parallel here related to the system of animal sacrifices to atone for sin later instituted by God through the leadership of Moses in Israel” (ESV Study Bible note).  But, the  association of nakedness with honor/shame in Gen 2 and latter biblical teachings suggest divine clothes cover shame and confer status as well. In Rev 3:5, Jesus says to the church in Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels (Rev 3:5).”  To be clothed with garments means our ‘name’ is acceptable before God.  While Adam and Eve had to endure the consequences of their disloyalty, God, in his mercy, provided a temporary means of shame-covering with the garment.

THOUGHTS?  How does this reading of Genesis 3 reframe the problem of human sin? Does the message of the gospel take on a new dimension in light of Gen 3:21?

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13 Comments on “The Shame of Original Sin (Gen 3)

      • The reason given for their shame is not biblical. So why they felt shame?

        By His love, God created them naked. Only God had the knowledge of good and evil (kge). Man was not supposed to have it. This kge tells about what is good and what is evil. Under kge nakedness was evil & not allowed. Nakedness was acceptable in the absence of kge.

        But when they rejected the gift of nakedness given by God’s love, they lost that blessed state.

        After they rejected God’s love & chose kge, God had no choice but to clothe or else they will feel guilty and cannot relate to Him.

        Hope you understand.

  1. Werner, thanks for highlighting that. To really develop a theology/missiology that speaks into HS cultures, we’ll have to affirm exactly what you are saying.

  2. Sorry if this hijacks the focus of the post. I’m very ignorant of how honor shame works, so bear with me.

    Adam and Eve’s response to dealing with shame is hiding/covering in fig leaves. What are the factors in honor-shame cultures that predict how people will deal with shame? I’m thinking of stories I’ve heard in the news lately. Two recent tragedies in S. Korea result in the responsible party committing suicide (a school principal and an event organizer). Yet, I also hear of male relatives killing female relatives they’ve sexually abused in Muslim communities. Both seem like honor-killings to deal with shame, obviously played out in opposite ways. One tries to remove the source of shame, one runs from it (more akin to Adam and Eve). Are these two subsets of honor-shame cultures, or are they just different categories of shame? To bring it back to the Gen 3 theme, why did Adam hide instead of killing Eve (though he does seem to throw her under the “shame” bus when he’s found out)?


    • Josh,

      Great question! You connected several ideas (Gen 3, Korea, honor killings, etc.) in an insightful way. Here is what I would say:

      As you note, cultural expressions of honor and shame do appear contradictory at first glance. Middle Eastern/Mediterranean cultures aggressively compete for honor. Conflict is viewed as win-lose or lose-win…for me to ‘win’ honor, someone else has to ‘lose’ honor (or vice versa). So they tend to resort to violence (i.e., honor killings, terrorism) to avoid shame and restore honor.

      But far Eastern cultures, such as Japan and Korea, prioritize communal/relational harmony. Conflict is a win-win or lose-lose game…if I have shame, then I bring down everyone with me, we all lose together. So East Asians respond to shame by withdrawing from the group or even committing suicide (scholars actually label this ‘honor suicide’). Though the outward expressions contrast, both cultural blocs are deeply rooted in shame-honor values. Note the basic response is the same in both instances — to cover/remove the shame. But cultures differ on who is responsible for hiding/removing the shame (the shamed person, or people connected to the shamed person) and the appropriate means for hiding the shame (a fig leaf, suicide, murder, lots of Facebook friends).

      As for how to predict how people will deal with shame…I’m not sure there is a reliable global diagnostic for that. It looks different from culture to culture. Human efforts to avoid shame and construct honor are remarkably contextual and adaptive. As you live in a particular culture long enough, you will notice common responses to shame for that group. The next post on Gen 4-11 explores the various ways Adam’s descendants responded to shame.

      Hopefully those thoughts help, you are on the right track in your observation of recent news events!!

  3. Yes, yes, and yes. I never heard this crucial side to the Genesis story until I took a professor (With a Honor/Shame Background) for a Genesis class. It really placed a vivid lens in my heart for reading the rest of scripture. One precious insight I would add is that Adam and Eve tried to cover their shame with an ephemeral solution, which characterizes the human plight for self-salvation through self-honor. But God covered their nakedness by slaying an innocent animal, a permanent fix compared to figs and leaves. This slaying doesn’t characterize the latter animal sacrifices as much as it reflects the future Messiah who has and will cover our nakedness and recover our honor as an eternal advocate. This symbolic event in Genesis rings a very true reality that “You will try to cover your nakedness and regain your honor by your own hand, but to no avail. Only through Christ and his sacrificial covering can you be restored to the honorable position of the Imago Dei”. Genesis 3:21 is one of the best images we have for the Gospel and it can only be understood through a Honor/Shame reality. Praise Jesus!

  4. How much success are you having with your approach with evangelising to shame: honor cultures with this method? Becasue I still can’t see how you could be successful unless you are attempting to change the mindset to guilt:innocence. Jesus brought with him the idea that something is intrinsically wrong, no matter how you feel about it, nor how anyone else perceives it (Matthew 5-7). In shame cultures, a thing is not wrong if you are not found out.

    Nabeel Qureshi explains this in his book: Seeking Allah:Finding Jesus. He gives a few examples from his own relatives, ie lying on insurance claims. There is no guilt at all, because lying is only wrong if you get into trouble: it is not intrinsically wrong. There is no guilt in killing a daughter or sister in Muslim culture, if she has been sexually violated. This act restores honor: there is no discussion about the intrinsic wrongness of murder, especially of a sister, that Jesus would claim to be so. I can also recall a Muslim friend being angry at a documentary that showed some unsavory treatment of women in his culture, but that anger was not against the treatment of the women, but at the director who made the doc that was showing his culture to be less than perfect. Another example was how the parents of a female suicide bomber in Israel reacted: they were not upset that she had killed people, or even that she was dead, but that her body parts had mixed with Jewish body parts. Right now, German police are seeking a Tunisian whose asylum bid failed and who has a long criminal history. To avoid the shame, he has engaged in jihad to gain honor for himself (killing infidels while being killed himself). The examples are very numerous, but they all point to the problem that people of Islamic honor:shame cultures do not have the same idea of right and wrong imprinted into their worldview.

    So, how will they ever understand Christianity if their worldview remains at the shame: honor – extrinsic right and wrong – level?

    • PM, Wow, great question! This is a major question that many people ask—considering the “morality of violence” in honor-shame cultures, how can moral change happen? A few comments.

      Basically, the aim is not to transition people from shame to guilt morality, that is simply effective. The problem is not honor and shame itself, but a “warped” sense of honor and shame. So the solution is to change and transform people’s notion of what is honorable and what is shameful. And BTW, you can have a sense of “intristic right-wrong” in an honor-shame culture—it is the the glory/honor of God. And don’t forget, the Bible was written and the church was birthed with an honor-shame context, so it there is a precedent.

      On a different note, I would actually flip the question: Is it possible to be a Christian in a Western, guilt-based culture devoid of a sense of shame, communal identity, or relational obligation?

      For more, we have dealt with this various issue in the final two chapters of Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures (
      ). A summary can be found this blog post:

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