Giving Humans Garments of Skin

Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made garments of skin, and clothed them.  (Genesis 3:21)

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When God makes the “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve, it is generally assumed by modern readers that God is simply covering the nakedness of the first humans.  They had only become aware of their nudity after their sinning and tried to cover themselves with leaves.  Early Church commentators were not as convinced that the “garments of sin” were simply clothes made from animal skins.  For both Jewish and Christian commentators of the early centuries of Christianity tended to believe in their life with God in Paradise, God provided garments of glory for Eve and Adam.  They wouldn’t appear naked before God as that would have been disrespectful to the Lord.  They had glorious garments that enabled them to stand in God’s presence – but they lost those garments when they chose to sin.

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These early commentators tended to see the human predictament as the humans coming to realize how exposed they were to the risks and dangers in the world.  They were naked in the sense that they now had nothing to cover them or protect them.  Thus what God makes – creates for them – is far more than furs for them to wear.  Some have speculated that prior to this the humans were completely spiritual beings lacking any physicality, and that only at this point in history – after the Fall – does God provide Eve and Adam with bodily existence as God prepares to put them into the material world.  This idea was rejected by Orthodox Tradition.  In a footnote to  GREGORY OF NYSSA: THE LIFE OF MOSES, the translators comment:

“From these passages it is clear that the ‘garments of skin‘ are not bodily existence per se, for man had a body in Paradise, but animality or biological existence.  The garments include the passions, sexuality, and especially mortality, which are added to the human nature made in the image of God.  (p 160)

Thus what the first humans experience in the “garments of skin” is not physical bodies as such, but bodies that are just like the other animals – mere biological existence as the humans have cut themselves off from the Divine life.  The Patristic writers tend to see the humans as moving from spiritual beings to making our existence more merely biological and away from participation in the Divine life.  As such we needed much more to help us live in the world – including society, family life, politics and economics.  These helps are more than other animals enjoy, yet they are still limited in their benefits.  Only after the Fall do these things become a necessary part of our human existence.

“Panayiotis Nellas, one of the principal twentieth-century writers on Orthodox anthropology, expresses the point made above in terms of the ‘garments of skin‘ of Genesis 3:21.  According to St Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation, these ‘garments’ stand for mortality and all that goes with it, and that includes law, family life, political and economic life. All these things belong to the world of the Fall; but they are given within that world as a blessings and means of salvation, provided that God is the ultimate goal of our endeavors within these areas.  If, however, these ‘garments’ are treated as autonomous, they work to our harm. This provides Nellas with a clear framework for both affirming human engagement in ‘the world’ and keeping such activity in perspectiive.”  (Nonna Verna Harrison, ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, p 88)

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Thus society and social structures are a gift from God, albeit a gift given to us because of human sin.  They can help us in our relationship with God, but if we turn them into nothing more than a means of coping with the Fallen world, they lose their true purpose by not reconnecting us to God and in fact can work to trap us further in the fallen world, separated away from God.

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