We live in an age of anxiety. Yet few question why or where it comes from. I suggest the story of the Garden of Eden. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve heard God walking in the garden. Frightened, they hid behind some trees.
As we all know, hiding behind trees—or hiding anywhere—is a poor strategy for avoiding God, who called out. Adam replied, “I was naked, and when I heard you walking through the garden, I was frightened and hid!” (Genesis 3:10, CEV)
The fear that Adam and Eve experienced at this time is the first fear—the first recorded instance of anxiety. Its cause? Sexual shame.
In Genesis 2:25 we learn that “although the man and his wife were both naked, they were not ashamed.” At this point in human history there was no shame and no anxiety. Ten verses later, anxiety’s embedded in Adam and Eve’s psyche as an instinctive reaction—what we now understand as the fight-or-flight response.
Between Genesis 2:25 and 3:10 there’s just the small matter of eating an apple and the ensuing fall of humanity. Let’s unpick it psychologically.
In chapter 3 of Genesis, the snake convinces Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She, in turn, gives some to Adam. He also eats.
The effect is instant: “Right away they saw what they had done, and they realised they were naked. Then they sewed fig leaves together to make something to cover themselves.” (Genesis 3:7)
This crucial verse contains several notable points:
- Eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil induced a profound psychological change—a paradigm shift—from non-judgment (“They were not ashamed”) to judgment (“They realised they were naked”).
- This judgment applies most specifically to the sexual parts of the body. Their response is to sow together fig leaves to hide these newly shameful parts. We’ve been hiding our bodies and our sexuality, literally and psychologically, ever since.
- Our sexual parts are so shameful they can’t even be named. “To cover themselves” implies their entire bodies, yet that’s not what we take it to mean. Every illustration of Adam and Eve—such as Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve (c. 1528)—shows only the sexual parts being covered. This shows that not only is sexuality taboo, but also that discussing the taboo is taboo. The church has barely begun to confront this ‘taboo on the taboo’, let alone that which lies beneath it.
In fact, the paradigm shift that Adam and Eve experienced in the brief course of Genesis 3:7 took several thousand years to engulf humanity. The ancient Hebrew scribes who wrote the Bible had no means of conveying the scope and scale of what had occurred. Yet they knew for certain that humanity had fallen.
In The Fall, psychology lecturer Steve Taylor describes how, in the millennia preceding the Biblical era, humanity underwent “a sudden, massive regression—a dramatic shift from harmony to chaos, from peace to war, from life-affirmation to gloom, or from sanity to madness.”
Cultural historian Riane Eisler concurs: “Nothing in all we know of human cultural evolution is comparable in magnitude.” As geographer James DeMeo exhaustively documents in Saharasia, this shift centred on the equatorial belt running through the Sahara, the Middle East and into central Asia.
I’ve written about this in more detail on the ROCI21 home page. Long-term drought caused desertification—still spreading in Biblical times—leading to famine and fighting over resources. Warrior tribes overran egalitarian societies and went on to found the first patriarchies—the forerunners of global society.
All of these cultures—including the ancient Hebrews—were violently anti-feminine. Steve Taylor writes: “The same psychological conditions which made human beings unable to live in peace with one another gave rise to a hysterically negative attitude to women and to sex.”
Anything to do with the body and sexuality became charged with negative feelings, negative connotations and social taboos. In Genesis 3:7 we see the outcome. Eve is blamed for humanity’s fall—climate change was the actual cause—while body shame and anxiety are now institutionalised.
In Genesis 3:7 we see the outcome. Eve is blamed for humanity’s fall—climate change was the actual cause—while body shame and anxiety are now institutionalised.
That anxiety, that unconscious fear that our bodies are socially transgressive and that our sexuality will land us in trouble, is still with us today, handed down over countless generations through epigenetic inheritance.
Our anxiety may have other sources, closer to the surface of our lives. Yet the first fear, described in Genesis 3:10, is present in all of us. Whenever we experience anxiety, we’re feeling a faint echo of Adam and Eve’s sudden fear of nakedness in the Garden of Eden as well as our own anxiety in this lifetime, this body, this human heart.
We can never be free of anxiety until we can accept—at a profound psychological level—that God made us as sexual beings. Genesis 2:25 shows that God made us to be unashamed. The challenge is to return to return to that state.
Image: Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder – pl.pinterest.com (public domain)