Fear And Shame In The Garden of Eden

God then turns to Eve and asks her, “What is this you have done!” Eve replies, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.” 

Immediately after God fashions woman as a mate for man, from his rib as he lays sleeping… “The two of them were naked, the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame.” Their experience of ‘no shame’ occurs prior to the appearance of a serpent that soon tempts Eve to eat of a particular tree that God warned against doing. Eve informs the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the other trees of the garden. It is only about fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die’”. Her pronouncement of God’s decree implies that fear is restraining her. The serpent remains undeterred, and insists it is in Eve’s interest to have her “eyes opened like a divine being” through eating of the tree of wisdom. Compelled by temptation masked as rationale, “she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths”. Presumably, shame caused them to cover themselves. This then prompts God to first address Man, asking him “Where are you?” Adam sheepishly answers, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” His shame has not been averted by the use of a fig leaf. God then further asks, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” God then turns to Eve and asks her, “What is this you have done!” Eve replies, “The serpent duped me, and I ate.”

In further dis-assembling these events, we may observe that the entire series of actions begins with God observing that man was lonely without a mate. Averring this was not good, he fashions for him and out of him, a mate. Loneliness is the first documented human emotion ascribed TO man by God, even as he is in the midst of creation. As soon as God creates woman, we are told they “felt no shame”. Emphasis on what they felt not, seems to infer what we would otherwise expect. We are being primed to understand shame as an intrinsic experience of human nature, one that may quickly assert itself between individuals. Its nature is implied to be so overwhelming, that the only two naked human beings in the Garden of Eden succumb to it immediately. Shame makes its appearance as a readily activated, awe-inspiring, primal emotion.

Subsequent to the first revelation of shame, desire and fear arise as the serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree that God has warned against. The warning, “lest you die” evokes fear in Eve, though it is quickly eclipsed by her newly awakened desire. In response to a single moment, fear and desire are irrevocably entwined. At the discovery of Eve’s transgression, God becomes angry and turns to Adam for accountability. Adam’s fear registers as he recognizes God’s rhetorical question, “Where are you?” to be an implicit fall from grace in His eyes. Adam’s fear causes him to respond by casting blame, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate”. Now fear, desire, and blame are stirred together as one, diminishing our human capacity for self-awareness for all time. God finally turns to Eve and demands, “What have you done!” It seems her newly activated shame causes her also to deny responsibility, escaping her discomfort as she casts blame away from herself onto the serpent that she laments, has duped her.

Does Eve ever experience guilt, i.e. true regret over her actions, or is she merely stuck in her more primal shame response??

It is critical to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Sincere regret is the underlying experience of guilt. It can be affirmed by an authentic effort to recompense for a wrongful act. Shame is more difficult to allay, since it is an overwhelming sense of “being guilty” rather than feeling guilty over a particular self-limiting action. Being guilty has no beginning or end, as it resonates through to our core as being intrinsically flawed by nature. There is no easy remedy for this, thus a mixed sense of helplessness and grief readily follows. Eve makes no effort to repent for her misdeed, choosing blame instead. It seems that God’s anger at his most beloved creations evokes their shame rather than guilt, as it is inseparable from their very being. God, the Judge demonstrates his punitive character as He grants them little compassion for their wrongful act. He banishes them from His Garden (i.e. rejection), casts eternal pain through childbirth on (all) woman (dissociation), leaves (all) man to toil throughout their lives in order to eat (i.e. abandonment), and curses the very ground that supports and sustains humanity by bringing forth thorns (i.e. alienation).

The story of Genesis demonstrates that God’s punishment is meted out to the first man and woman for their first “misdeeds”; creating humankind’s earliest template for “action as inseparable from identity”, through the “incursion of shame”. More simply put, judgment causes shame.

Loneliness, desire, fear, anger, rejection, dissociation, alienation and abandonment morph together to evoke a deeply felt, intangible sense of shame. This cornucopia of emotions has become intimately infused into our human nature, inseparable from our truth since the story of Genesis.

The utter abhorrence we have always felt towards the experience of shame continues to mobilize our need to escape through self-denial. In running from the truth of our feelings, we forsake responsibility for our actions and seek blame elsewhere. The false security of denial is seductive. It is the fuel of all addiction. Our unacknowledged preference for internalized pain and suffering is reinforced, as the age-old template of shame perpetually erodes our spirit.

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