The Garments of Skin: Dualism or Divinity?


Also for Adam and his wife the Lord God made tunics of skin, and clothed them. Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” – therefore the Lord God sent him out of the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken. So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:21-24)


The scriptural narrative of the Fall of humans from grace in Genesis 3, never mentions Satan. It is a talking serpent which entrances and deceives Eve and Adam. [Satan does not play much of a role in the Old Testament, his role is mostly to point out human faults to God. (see the book of Job which mentions Satan more than any other book in the Bible. Satan tries to show God that Job like all humans is not really all that good, but Satan fails in his effort.) In the New Testament, Satan is referenced most often in the book of Revelation, a notoriously difficult book to interpret. “The devil” is not mentioned in the Old Testament at all. No biblical book or author blames Satan or the devil for deceiving Eve (St Paul remains faithful to the Genesis text mentioning only that the serpent tempted Eve in 2 Corinthians 11: 3).]


However, through history, Satan eventually was identified with the talking serpent (who has no other role in Scripture after deceiving Eve and Adam). Satan is blamed for misleading the first humans in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Satan is first mentioned in the biblical text only in the Book of Job (thought to be written about the 6th Century BC). Once Satan gets identified as the culprit for misleading Adam and Eve, explanations are forthcoming in Patristic writings as to why Satan turned against God and why he tried to lead humans away from God. For example, St John Cassian writes:

He [Satan] relied on the power of his free will, believing that by it everything that pertained to the perfection of his virtue and to the continuance of his supreme blessedness would be supplied to him in abundance. This thought alone was his first downfall. Because of it he was abandoned by God, whom he did not believe that he needed.  (THE INSTITUTES, pp 256-257)


Cassian accepts the tradition that blames Satan’s own fall on his pride. Thinking that free will meant whatever he decided to do was good, Satan no longer saw a need to obey God. Satan abandon’s God’s will and way, believing himself to be an equal to God. Then God abandons Satan.  Cassian thinks this disease of Satan was then afflicted upon humanity which is why Eve and Adam turn away from God.  They too came to believe they did not need to rely on God.


One other aspect of the biblical story of the Fall which numerous Patristic writers noted was God’s continued concern and love for His human creatures, even after they sinned. God makes clothes for them to help them survive in the world of the Fall as noted in the Genesis quote above. While some Fathers saw this as a straightforward story to be read literally, others read into this narrative of the garment of skins as showing further the effects of the Fall on humans. St Gregory of Nyssa is particularly specific in reading into the scriptural narrative what he thought the garments of skin means:

… (when I hear ‘skins’ I interpret it as the form of the irrational nature which we have put on from our association with passion) . . .   These are the things which we have received from the irrational skin: sexual intercourse, conception, childbearing, dirt, lactation, nourishment, evacuation, gradual growth to maturity, the prime of life, old age, disease, and death.  (ON THE SOUL AND THE RESURRECTION, p 114)


Gregory sees the reference to God providing the first humans with garments of skins as an idea of the continued fall of humans from grace to life in this world.  For Gregory the garments of skin means anything associated with the physical body and the transitory life (specifically bodily functions). He apparently did not think bodily functions are a part of our human nature and so have no role in the life in the world to come. Here, it seems to me we see a Church Father using Hellenism to interpret the bible and perhaps accepting a dualistic notion of humans.  For Gregory, humans are created as spiritual beings who become merely physical beings in the Fall but will be made spiritual again in the resurrection. His idea seems to contradict what St Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:45-49, for he has it that we were physical beings first and then only later spiritual.


In any case, the Genesis account of the creation of humans and our fall from grace provided much fodder for biblical interpreters through history, trying to understand the biblical narrative of the creation and fall, assessing blame for the events, but also for understanding who Jesus is and how He brings about our salvation through His life, death and resurrection.