The Aesthetics of Sin: a commentary on Genesis 3

Eve_detail by Claudia Kunin

I’m reading through Genesis again, and I was struck anew by chapter 3, in particular, by the role of aesthetics in verses six and seven.

[6] When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. [7] Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

The forbidden tree, though forbidden, was still a part of God’s creation and thus “good.” As good, it shares in the aesthetics of God’s order and creativity. Eve rightly perceives the form of beauty given to the fruit (“pleasing to the eye”) and its benefit for sustenance (“good for food”). These two qualities are listed with the third quality given by the serpent: “desirable for gaining wisdom.” It is this third quality that exegetes and preachers typically emphasize, since it most clearly exhibits the motive behind Eve and Adam’s act of idolatry and subsequent Hebrew (and Gentile!) idolatry.

The significance of this tree is that it is not given by God for Eve and Adam’s benefit, while the rest of the garden was given for their benefit and, ultimately, for communion with Himself. The health and beauty that the couple enjoyed was supplied by God’s creation, and the pleasures of body and mind allowed for peaceful communion with each other and with God. Likewise, the innocence of their understanding was supplied by God and protected through ignorance of pride, sin, and evil. It is only with severance from God in an attempt at self-providence that evil and strife are known. Thus, by taking the fruit, Eve moves beyond the limits graciously given by God with an impossible attempt to “be like God” (v. 5).

That is the “wisdom” that was desired by Eve, though it is revealed as foolishness. However, its foolishness is masked by the aesthetic and beneficent justifications given. Every sin is justified by its beauty and its service to some supposed need. Examples are innumerable: the “healthy” sex life, the “culture” of learned society, the “expressions of authenticity” through fashion, et cetera, and the gratuitous acquisition of these goods. Their beauty is praised and their benefit endlessly proffered. Yet, it is not their beauty or benefit that is nefarious; indeed, they are beautiful and beneficial. The evil is present when their value is rendered as a service to the autonomy of the individual. When their benefit is praised because it serves the independence and self-sufficiency of the person, there is sin. When their benefit is praised because it facilitates communion with God and total dependence upon God, there is righteousness.

Once the fruit is taken in verse six, this evil potential for created beauty is the consideration of the very next verse. Eve and Adam immediately cover themselves. Their bodies, beautiful and good, are now subject to idolatry by the other person. This beauty is now necessarily masked in order to prevent its misuse in sin.  As such, the Christian stands in a tense relationship with the beauty of the world. Our depravity prevents us from receiving the world’s beauty without great temptation. Thus, we require a great diligence against using this beauty as a means for self-autonomy.



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