Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 3:17–19

Genesis 3:17–19
17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.  18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field.  19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
 (NET Bible)

The Going Gets Tough

The difference between listening and hearing can be vast. Only listening leads to action.

But listening raises new questions. To whom will I listen? Why do I listen to some but ignore what I hear from others? Why am I responsible for what I hear? Whose voice will lead me where I need to go?

Remember that each message from God about sin’s consequences involves a life function and a relationship, as we have seen before. For the man the life function is work, and the relationship is his bond to the land.

As in Genesis 3:14, God’s statement purposely begins with the word “because” to emphasize the connection of consequences with sins. At bottom the issue is very simple: God said not to eat from one particular tree, but the man ate from it anyway. How did this take place?

When the man only had God in his personal, relational universe, life was simple. As soon as the woman enters the scene, the communication possibilities become far more complex. God had said do not eat, but the woman offers fruit from the forbidden tree. To whom will the man listen? The answer was not long in coming — he listens to the woman.

A very common Hebrew verb — it occurs almost 1200 times in the Old Testament—means (1) “hear,” and (2) “listen to.” The latter meaning essentially amounts to “obey.” The man had heard the voice of God commanding him, but the voice he obeys is the woman’s. Humanity’s very first act of obedience responded to the wrong voice. In obeying Eve, he disobeys God.

As a direct result of listening to the wrong voice, the arable ground is cursed. The ground which had been man’s origin (Gen. 2:7) and had been given to the man to care for (Gen. 2:15) now yields “painful toil” (Gen. 3:17) instead of bounty and fulfillment. Gordon Wenham rightly says: “Work itself is not a punishment for sin. Man was placed in the garden to cultivate it (2:15). Rather it was the hardship and frustration that attended work that constitutes the curse.”[1]

The NET Bible teaches us something about the pattern of divine judgment: “The curse focuses on eating in a ‘measure for measure’ justice. Because the man and the woman sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, God will forbid the ground to cooperate, and so it will be through painful toil that they will eat.”[2]

Genesis 3:18 gives a fuller description of how things change for Adam and his wife. In Genesis 2:9, God caused fruit-bearing trees to sprout for man’s enjoyment and sustenance; in Genesis 3:18 the land causes thorns and thistles to sprout instead. Of course, humanity will still eat: “you will eat the grain of the field” (Gen. 3:18). What is this “grain”? The standard lexicon says it is “herbage, weed,”[3] the non-perennial plants (including vegetables and cereal grains) that spring up after a rain. God had previously given this organic material to both humanity and the animals for food (Gen. 1:29–30).

Adam’s toil will end with his return to the ground (Gen. 3:19); a humbling end for one exalted to paradise by the creative hand of God. Wenham says: “It may be that the narrator avoids life-and-death language in this verse, because for him only life in the garden counts as life in the fullest sense. Outside the garden, man is distant from God and brought near to death.”[4]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 82.

[2] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 3:17.

[3] L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner and J. J. Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), translated and edited under the supervision of M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1994-2000) ‘eseb, herbage, q.v.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 83.

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