And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.”
— Genesis 3:17-18 (ESV)
Suppose I were to tell you, “Sometimes it rains cats and dogs in St. Louis.” How would you interpret my statement? If you didn’t know English idioms very well, you might be quite confused by what I said, or come to the conclusion that I was—intentionally or unintentionally—speaking nonsense. Because you know it does not really ever rain cats and dogs, you probably would not take me as actually believing that cats and dogs fall from the sky.
Now suppose that the biblical account of Noah’s flood (Genesis 6-9) contained a verse that said, “And Noah looked out of the window of the ark and saw that it was raining cats and dogs.” How would we interpret this statement? The most natural way to interpret it would be to assume there was some sort of idiom or metaphor in use, and to interpret it as “it was raining very hard.” Unfortunately, we would not be able to look up “raining cats and dogs” in the 1400 BC edition of Hebrew Idioms for Dummies, so we might have to do some educated guesswork.
On the other hand, if we had little stomach for idioms or other literary devices as we read the Old Testament, we might come to the conclusion that the deluge was so cataclysmic that, in this instance, cats and dogs must have been sucked up from the watery surface by strong updrafts, and then hurled down upon the deep, as witnessed by Noah. This would be a reading that goes far beyond seeking the literal, or intended, meaning of the passage. This would be an example of what some call hyperliteralism; a reading of the text that allows for no figures of speech whatsoever.
Now Genesis does not contain the phrase “raining cats and dogs,” but it does contain examples of non-literal writing. Take for example the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” in Genesis 3:18. This is part of the curse God pronounced on the ground after Adam and Eve sinned. After humanity’s fall into sin, God pronounced a curse on the serpent, Satan; and spoke words of discipline and judgement (and promise) to Adam and Eve. Rather than experiencing the blessings of Eden, Eve would experience, among other things, pain in childbirth, and Adam would experience “thorns and thistles.”
What is the meaning of the phrase “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you?” One common interpretation of this passage is that it teaches that there were no thorns or thistles on the Earth until God made this pronouncement. In Eden, so the interpretation goes, there could not possibly have been things like thorns and thistles; not only do they cause pain and draw blood when they prick our skin, they are specifically mentioned as part of the curse on the ground here in Genesis 3. In other words, thorns and thistles did not exist until they became part of God’s curse on the ground.
Following this line of reasoning further, we have to consider the fact that the fossil record contains plants that have thorns and thistles. If one holds to the “literal” interpretation, then it is clear that these plant fossils could only have formed after Adam sinned. Therefore, the fossil record—and by correlation this would mean just about any rock of Phanerozoic (Cambrian and more recent) age—had to have formed after Adam. This is one of the supposed Biblical foundations for young-Earth creationist “flood geology.”
But is this the best way to understand God’s “thorns and thistles” curse? A better interpretation is that there is a figurative aspect to “thorns and thistles.” If so, the young-Earth interpretation is an example of hyperliteralism, an over-reading of the text caused by focusing on the literal words on the page rather than the main thrust of the section. A broader view of the text is that God was removing his blessing on mankind’s work. The intention at creation was that Adam and his descendants would be fruitful; not just in reproduction, but in their stewardship and dominion over the rest of creation. There would be shalom between man and his Creator, within each person, between man and wife, between individuals, and between humans and nature. This was all frustrated by Adam’s rebellion, and we have been living with the consequences ever since. Thorns and thistles may have existed before, but with the advent of sin they could now have dominion over humanity rather than humanity having dominion over them. All of our work is now frustrated to one degree or another by figurative thorns and thistles, whether it be the weeds in our garden, the broken relationships with coworkers and clients, mistakes we make in our work, or bugs in the latest software on our computers.
Genesis 3:18 is not about thorns and thistles any more than Genesis 3:14-15 is about how snakes lost their legs. Genesis 3:18 is about how our work in general is frustrated because of sin, and Genesis 3:14-15 is about the humiliation of Satan, grovelling in the dust just as defeated enemies of some Mesopotamian ruler would be forced to do. It is much better, in terms of the literary imagery of the passage, to take thorns and thistles as having a broader meaning in terms of our work and relationships rather than narrowing the meaning down to the appearance of weeds in Adam’s garden.
The undoing of the curse on our work is found in the work of Christ, who bore a crown of thorns as he suffered on our behalf. We live in confident hope that all of creation will one day come under the healing rule of Christ, and that our broken bodies will be resurrected whole. In the new (or renewed) Earth there will be gardens, and I won’t be at all surprised if we find roses growing there.
Grace and Peace
The Phrase Finder has an article about the origin of “raining cats and dogs.”
The ESV Study Bible comments:
Gen. 3:17–19 God’s punishment of the man involves his relationship with the very ground from which he was formed (see note on 2:5–7). Because he has eaten that which was prohibited to him, he will have to struggle to eat in the future. Given the abundance of food that God provided in the garden, this judgment reflects God’s disfavor. Adam will no longer enjoy the garden’s abundance but will have to work the ground from which he was taken (3:23; see note on 2:8–9). The punishment is not work itself (cf. 2:15), but rather the hardship and frustration (i.e., “pain,” itstsabon; cf. 3:16) that will accompany the man’s labor. To say that the ground is cursed (Hb. ’arar, v. 17) and will bring forth thorns and thistles (v. 18) indicates that the abundant productivity that was seen in Eden will no longer be the case. Underlying this judgment is a disruption of the harmonious relationship that originally existed between humans and nature.
Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Genesis (p. 72 of 1967 printing), writes,
Thorns… and thistles are eloquent signs of nature untamed and encroaching; in the Old Testament they mark the scenes of man’s self-defeat and God’s judgment, e.g. in the sluggard’s field (Pr. 24:31) and the ruined city (Is. 34:13). They need not be envisaged here as newly created, but as henceforth a perennial threat (as the unconquered Canaanites would be to Israel, Nu. 33:55); for man in his own disorder would never now ‘subdue’ the earth.
5 thoughts on “GeoScriptures — Genesis 3:17-18 — Thorns, thistles, cats, dogs, and hyperliteralism”
I agree with your final conclusion (that life will be more difficult for Adam and in his work) but not necessarily that this was a figure of speech. I believe Adam did experience more thorns and thistles when he was planting outside the garden of Eden. It would be acceptable to then take that specific curse and apply it more generally as a principle – that sin will make life and work more difficult for all of us. We do this all the time. The text in Genesis 24 indicates that Isaac was to find a wife that wasn’t in Canaan. But the general principle is that we should only marry believers. This may seem like a picky point but seems more true to the text. Note: I am old earth.
I was thinking about this after I posted this last night, and should have worded my post a little differently. I did not say that real physical thorns were not part of the curse on the ground, but I should have been a little more explicit and stated that real physical thorns were part of the curse. The thought was there: “Thorns and thistles may have existed before, but with the advent of sin they could now have dominion over humanity rather than humanity having dominion over them.”
But my main point was that it is a stretch to say that thorns and thistles did not exist before the curse.
Noah’s Flood: The Most Immoral Story Ever Told
I challenge you to watch this short but very provocative video clip regarding the morality of your God’s act of killing millions of little children in the Great Flood. After watching this film, if you can still claim that your God and your belief system are moral and good I will strongly and sincerely encourage you to seek help from a mental health professional.
Thanks for your comment, but I found the arguments in the video to be completely unconvincing. Your “God is a baby killer” approach seems to be similar to that taken by “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, whose “reasoning” makes many atheists embarrassed. Perhaps you did not know that.
I won’t pretend to have all of the answers to the problem of evil. But I do believe that evil objectively exists, and that is one reason why I am a theist instead of an atheist. You see, it is not the theist who has the greater problem with evil. As a Christian, I can say that killing babies is wrong. The woman who drowned her five babies: absolute, hideous, unspeakable evil. I know that you agree with me that this woman’s act was evil. But I have to ask you: does the universe give a hoot that this woman drowned her babies? Is there some physical, natural law that says that drowning one’s babies is an immoral act? The answer, of course, is “no.” The only way the atheist can call anything at all “evil” is either by making arbitrary but non-universal laws (whose laws? Stalin’s?), or by borrowing morality from another source.
Is God performing an act of evil when he judges sin? I can turn this question around: Would be God be good if he did not judge evil. If the society in Noah’s world was filled with evil without restraint—violence, human sacrifice, slavery, child prostitution, human trafficking—and God just smiled and did nothing, would God be good? God may delay his judgment, as is happening at present, but as a Christian I believe that judgement is a sure thing, and that judgment is a good thing.
Is God just in judging babies as well as adults? Christians believe that the basic problem with humanity is ingrained sin, and most Christians do not believe there is an age of accountability. I was born a sinner, and I am still a sinner. I didn’t have to be taught to be selfish, for example, loving myself more than I love others. Does my sin only become offensive once I become an adult?
Does God take responsibility for the evil in the world? As a Christian, I have to say that he does, and that is where Jesus fits in. Jesus was innocent, and did not deserve God’s wrath—and wrath is a moral response to the evil that objectively exists in our universe. Christ died not only to redeem humanity, but all of creation. So I have hope that one day evil will be extinguished. That does not mean that I don’t act now to reduce evil in the world when I can.
I hope this helps. I am concerned about atheists who suggest that Christians (or other believers) should be sent to “mental health professionals.” The Stalinists with their gulags were not hesitant to give psychotic drugs to believers to cure them of their supposed insanity. Was this an evil act?
Very good response to a theologically immature viewpoint, geo Christian. Unfortunately, these kinds of viewpoints are common not only in atheists but also in our own hearts at times, due to our wrestling with God using our own very limited perspective. I myself have struggled with this every day of my walk with Christ, carried over from the days when I was flirting with the idea of atheism. The problem of evil is most assuredly a difficult question to wrestle with as believers, and when the things we label as evil – namely, any suffering at all for any reason – are attributed to God, the struggle to understand intensifies. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways,” declares the Lord. He is so difficult to understand at times, but how could it be any different than this? How could the God of all, Who Is outside all space and time and constructs be easily understood and without controversy? God bless us in our struggles to seek Him, and may the “nonsupernaturalist” who posted here have his eyes opened to what is beyond his immediate understanding.
For an extremely insightful treatment of this very issue, readers may be interested in a podcast aptly named “Glory to God” from Ancient Faith Ministries. There are many episodes which touch on this, so I would suggest enjoying them all. However, one episode entitled “The Wrath of God” from January 31, 2009 is highly recommended. Thank you for this blog, and God bless you in all you do.