What Do The Curses in Genesis 3 Mean?

In Genesis 3, God places a curse on the serpent, on Eve, and on Adam, as a result of the sin in the Garden of Eden. Here is the passage as provided in the King James Version:

14 And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Many Bible readers are confused as to the specific meaning of each of these curses. What do they each mean?

The Curse on the Serpent

According to Genesis, Satan approached Eve as a snake and tempted her to sin. In Genesis 3:14, God pronounces a judgment on the serpent, decreeing that, from that point forward, it would travel “on its belly.” This episode raises several questions, including whether it was “normal” for animals to talk in the Garden of Eden and how snakes traveled at the time. The Bible is silent on such questions, leaving us to speculate.

Since the Garden of Eden constituted an idyllic paradise on Earth personally designed and created by God, it’s certainly conceivable that Adam and Eve enjoyed some form of perfect communication with the animals. As for the snake’s travel habits, it’s hard to imagine serpents traveling any other way than what they do now, given their anatomy. However, it is possible that God’s original design for snakes was different. Obviously, we can’t say that for certain, nor would I even want to begin to speculate as to what such a possible design looked like. The only thing we can say is that the book of Genesis indicates that serpents moved differently in the Garden of Eden than what they do today.

Whatever the case was with serpents before the Fall, they have (since the Garden) been consigned to traveling the earth on their belly. And, lest there be any doubt as to the serpent’s identity in Genesis 3, God pronounces a prophetic judgment on Satan in Genesis 3:15. The sin of Adam and Eve spelled victory for Satan, but God tells the serpent that He will put “enmity” between Lucifer and the woman’s seed. In a sermon titled “The Curse on the Serpent,” Dr. John MacArthur explains: “This is the first indication of salvation. For the first time, we find that this enmity [between the human race and God, caused by the Fall in the Garden] won’t last. So the curse on Satan is that he’s going to fail. The curse on Satan is that he will not succeed in his effort to control all of humanity for his evil purpose.”

The Curse on Eve

After judging the serpent and Satan, God turned His attention to Eve. He pronounces judgment on Eve (and, by extension, all women) on two areas of her life: Men (specifically Husbands) and Children. With respect to children, God warns that there will be “sorrow” and “pain” in connection with child-bearing. While I’m Baptist (not Lutheran), I believe this Lutheran pastor’s wife sums up pretty well the impact of this part of God’s judgment on Eve:

In Genesis 2, God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to be fruitful and multiply. Having children was something inherently human, even before The Fall. It was integrally part of who we were, and what our purpose was.

Think of what that meant. Having children was an unadulterated blessing. Nothing tainted it. There was no fear of childbirth… no pain, no death, no destruction of figure, no bodily deterioration. Nursing didn’t hurt and wasn’t complicated or tainted with carnal implications and cultural negativity. Babies inherently trusted and that trust was not in jeopardy from parents who would be tempted to put their own needs first. Exhaustion would not exist. Our children would be without sin and our marriages would be peaceful. Punishment and discipline would not be issues. Fear of harm coming to our children or spouses…death was not in the picture.

Now, look at what the fall into sin meant….Pain, possibility of death in childbirth, infections. Loss of figure, physical problems, c-sections, infertility, etc. Babies crying for hours at a time because of colic, exhaustion, isolation, depression; husbands that weren’t supportive or worse yet, weren’t there. Breastfeeding problems, formula feeding, the terrible twos — the worse threes; adolescence. Bickering siblings, disobedience, punishment, frustration, harm, injury, handicaps; death.

John MacArthur explains that the situation isn’t much better, from the woman’s point of view, when it comes to men. In his sermon “The Curse on The Woman,” Dr. MacArthur explains that God’s original design for marriage provided for harmonious, blissful union and painless child-bearing, but the Fall in the Garden of Eden brought much hardship and difficulty on women. Explaining what God meant by a woman’s “desire” to the man (thus making her vulnerable) and man’s often cruel and harsh “rule” over the woman, Dr. MacArthur writes:

In general, men have throughout human history used women for sexual fulfillment, for domestic duties, to tend to the children. All over the world, women have been subjugated and humiliated. And until modern times, men actually held the power of life and death over women, and still do in some tribal regions. This harsh treatment of women, which is pretty much the general pattern of human history, was not the original design of God. Sin brought it in. And it, therefore, corrupted the original relationship between man and woman, between woman and her children, and made life very difficult. And while there is general suffering in the world that everybody goes through because of death, because of disease, because of disasters…there is a particular area of suffering that belongs only to women.

We live in a situation today where there are remnants of God’s original design, meaning that women can still find great fulfillment and joy in marriage and children, but (sadly) we also live in a fallen and sinful world that, even in the best of marriages and circumstances, results in sorrow and pain for women. Does this mean that a woman should avoid marriage and children? Certainly not. But it does mean that when a woman marries, she marries a sinner. And when she has children, she produces sinners. Because of sin, there is pain. That’s the harsh truth of living in our fallen, sinful world.

The Curse on Adam

In the Garden of Eden, there was no need for Adam to leave home in order to work. He and Eve worked alongside one another. And the work was pleasant and easy-going. After the Fall, that all changed. God drove Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden and He cursed the earth. Work was now hard, which meant that survival itself was now a challenge. It also meant that a man would have to venture out from the comforts of home in order to labor for his own survival and that of his family. This is not to suggest that women aren’t supposed to help with this labor or work outside the home. But it does mean that when a woman ventures into the work sphere, she enters into the same curse that God placed on Adam.

Were the Curses Fair?

Deep down, most people cringe at the harshness of these curses in Genesis, especially when they understand what they mean. Were these curses fair?  This is ultimately, of course, a question for God. Who are we to say whether God is “fair” or “unfair”? But it should be noted that Adam and Eve were the perfectly made, divinely optimized Homo Sapiens. They were in perfect health. They were in perfect harmony with “Nature.” They were blessed in every way. They had all their needs and pretty much all their wants. They were perfectly compatible for one another. God was their matchmaker, after all. They brought no “issues” into their marriage or into the Garden. They couldn’t claim a rough childhood or bad parents or anything like that. Adam and Eve were innocent, complete, and….without excuse. No other human being since (except for Jesus, who was God in the flesh) could make such a claim. Thus, it’s not unreasonable for God to ask that Adam and Eve love, follow, and obey Him.

Adam and Eve chose to go their own way. As a result, they unleashed terrible consequences on their offspring (including you and me). For those who say they wouldn’t have done the same, I should point out that if Adam and Eve (who were innocent and whole) could fall, so can (and so would) we. It does no good to get angry at Adam and Eve, nor to speculate that we could do better. (We wouldn’t do better than them). Instead, we must learn the lessons we need from the book of Genesis, and purpose to do our best to live our lives in conformity with God’s will. And when we exit this life and enter eternity with God, we will truly be at peace.

“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” –Romans 8:18, NIV

5 thoughts on “What Do The Curses in Genesis 3 Mean?

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  3. I’m studying Genesis and wanted to gain a better understanding of the word “curse.” I found your explanation here very helpful. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

  4. Thank you, very understandable. I have heard some Pastors speak of woman being also cursed with a desire to dominate man. How does this fit in? My KJV does not specifically state that as I read it.

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