Did God forgive Adam and Eve for eating the forbidden fruit?

Q. I noticed in the Genesis account of the Fall that God didn’t clothe Adam and Eve with animal skins until they said, “I did eat the fruit.” This reminded me of what John wrote in his first letter: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Can we conclude that Adam and Eve repented, and that God forgave them?

To be honest, as least I read the account of the Fall and its aftermath, I don’t see Adam and Eve really making the kind of “confession” that John seems to be talking about. Rather, they each try to blame somebody else for what they did. God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” He replies, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Adam is practically blaming God for what he did!) And Eve, for her part, says, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” These are confessions of a sort, but they’re definitely trying to spread the blame around.

We would want to see people take much more responsibility for their own actions if they expected to be forgiven.* Nevertheless, after explaining what the consequences of their actions would be, God clothes Adam and Eve in animal skins. Many Christian interpreters note that this required the animals to be slaughtered, that is, sacrificed. They hold that this sacrifice, like others in the Old Testament, looked forward to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, which would have been the ultimate basis on which Adam and Eve were forgiven for their sin. But how could they be forgiven if they didn’t really repent and confess, but instead tried to blame somebody else?

I think there’s a clue in the passage. God had told them earlier, “You shall not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But they didn’t actually die on this same “day.”

Many interpreters account for this by explaining that the Hebrew phrase “in the day” can refer to a period of time beginning with a named event. For example, after Jacob returns safely to Canaan after twenty years of exile, he dedicates an altar at Bethel, where he encountered God as he was first fleeing. He wants to do this, he says, because God “answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went.” The “day of my distress” isn’t just the one day on which he had to flee; it’s the whole twenty years that began with that event, “the way which I went.” Similarly, for Adam and Eve, “the day that you eat of it” could mean “the period of time beginning with when you eat the fruit.” (Accordingly, some versions translate the command, “When you eat from it you will certainly die.”) Since part of Adam’s curse was that he would be expelled from the Garden of Eden and have to work himself to death just to survive, that could be the meaning.

However, there’s another possibility. God may simply have shown mercy to Adam and Eve by sparing their lives on this day. And the passage tells us that right after God announced the consequences of their disobedience without including immediate death as one of those consequences, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.” Previously he had named her ishshah, “wife,” and at the same time given himself a new name, ish, “husband,” when he recognized a new aspect of his own identity in relationship to her. But now, by giving her this proper name, Adam may be expressing the realization, “We’re not going to die—at least not right now—we’re going to live on! We’re even going to have many generations of descendants!”

In other words, Adam (and presumably Eve with him) was accepting God’s mercy, which ought to mean that he was also accepting the judgment that was tempered by this mercy, and thereby acknowledging his own fault. And right after this, the passage tells us, “The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” This would be forgiveness—what some traditions call “assurance of pardon”—on the basis of their repentance.

Now I admit that the passage doesn’t say this explicitly, and that other interpretations are possible. Celebrating receiving mercy may not always be the same thing as accepting the judgment that may come with that mercy. This may simply be a description of Adam and Eve being spared, rather than forgiven upon repentance and confession. Still, I think that all the specific details in the passage are important and potentially significant, and so I believe we do have a basis, in the naming and the clothing, on which we could conclude that Adam and Eve did repent and were forgiven—even if their verbal “confessions” were not all that one might hope for.

A medieval illustration of Adam and Eve dressed in animal skins as they are expelled from the Garden of Eden. The Latin text at the top is a paraphrase of the statement in Genesis that the first pair left the Garden, which was then guarded by an angel with a flaming sword.

*I’m speaking here of forgiveness in the sense of reconciliation, that is, the wrongdoer admitting fault and taking responsibility, so that it’s safe to begin rebuilding and restoring the relationship. However, as I explain in this post, it’s actually possible for someone to forgive another person internally, and so be set free from anger and bitterness, even if that person doesn’t admit their fault.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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