1. An Introduction:
God doesn't leave man alone after his fall into sin. God knew what Adam had done, but He still comes to him in the midst of his fallen condition. It's not Adam and Eve that seek after God, it's God who draws near to them in grace.1 The Lord begins with searching questions (3:9,11,13), not because he doesn't know the answers, but in order to help Adam and Eve understand what they had done, in order to woo them back to Himself. The Lord comes to fallen man—not to curse him, but to restore and redeem him. Through His questions, the Lord is showing Adam and Eve their sin and the severity of their fallen condition—and He's doing it because that's the only way to real healing.
Then the Lord begins to address each party in order—first the serpent who deceived the woman; next the woman who was deceived; and finally Adam himself who disobeyed God's command.
One of the main things we learn here in Genesis 3:14-19 is that Adam's fall into sin would have massive consequences—not just moral and spiritual and eternal consequences (we've talked about those)—but physical consequences as well. Adam's fall would affect child-bearing; it would affect the marriage relationship between a man and his wife; and his fall into sin would even affect creation itself—Scripture teaches that from now on the earth itself would be cursed (3:17; cf. Romans 8:18-25).
But even though sin would have devastating physical consequences that would affect all of creation, we also see the Lord reaffirming the creational ordinances here in Genesis 3:14-19. Adam's fall into sin would have lasting effects on marriage, procreation, and work. But here in this passage the Lord, in His goodness, reaffirms the continuance of these original institutions. We see the creational ordinance of marriage and procreation reinforced in Genesis 3:16, and the creational ordinance of labor reinforced in verses 17-19. Man was now like a ruined castle—a tragic reminder of what he once was. But though the fall had greatly marred the image of God in man, the foundational pillars that God had established at creation (marriage, procreation, and labor) were still firmly in place.
2. God's Word to THE SERPENT (Genesis 3:14-15):
“Because you have done this, cursed are you more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life. . .” (3:14).
What is especially significant here is that the Lord curses the serpent: “cursed are you. . .” but the Lord does not curse Adam and Eve. Only Satan is cursed. Neither Adam nor Eve were cursed, though the land is cursed because of Adam's sin. God comes to fallen man and woman—but He doesn't come to curse them—rather He comes to curse the serpent. There would be consequences, massive consequences, for their sin. But the Lord didn't come to them to curse them—He came to them to redeem them. Sin merits the curse of God. But they were not cursed—why? Because a Redeemer would come to fallen man who would take their curse upon himself (Galatians 3:13-14).
So, the Lord begins by cursing the serpent, and this curse symbolizes the ultimate fate of Satan himself. What is Satan's fate? Banishment to the lake of fire. But know that the devil will not rule over the lake of fire2 (as many seem to think); rather, he himself will be thrown into the lake of fire: Jesus says in Matthew 25:41: “Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.' ” Again, Revelation 20:10 says: “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are also; and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”
We will come back later to look at verse 15 in depth.
3. God's Word to THE WOMAN (Genesis 3:16):
The Lord then said to the woman, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children; yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16).
There are two aspects to the Lord's words here to the woman:
A) First, there will be a great increase of pain in childbirth. The woman will still have children, but now it will be with great travail. Now, we have to understand that child-bearing and child-rearing are not the curse being spoken of here. We know this because Psalm 127:3-5, which was written well after the fall, says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. . .” Having children is a blessing (and raising children is a blessing). Children are a blessing. But because of the fall, there will now be pain and grief—both physical and emotional—in having (and raising) children that was not there before. Our children are conceived in sin, born with pain into a fallen world, and begin their march to death the minute they take their first breath; perhaps worst of all, some of them may in the end reject the Savior we've raised them to embrace.3
B) Second, the Lord tells the woman that her desire will be for her husband, yet he will rule over her. What is the desire spoken of here? The Hebrew word is the same word used in Genesis 4:7, where the Lord told Cain that sins' desire was for him, but he must master it. So the desire meant here is the desire of a woman to dominate her husband. In turn, he would “rule” over her. In other words, the wife will now desire to dominate her husband, and in return, he will behave harshly towards her, lording it over her. What we see here is the exact opposite of God's intended design for marriage. Ephesians 5 talks about wives wholeheartedly submitting to their husbands, and husbands unconditionally loving their wives. This is God's design for marriage. But because of the fall, our automatic sinful response is now to do the exact opposite.4 And so as believers we are called to fight against the sinful tendencies of our flesh in the context of our marital relationship. Wives are called to fight against their sinful tendencies and by the Spirit submit to their husbands as Christ submitted himself to His Father; and husbands are called to fight against their sinful tendencies and by the Spirit's power to love their wives sacrificially and unconditionally, just as Christ did the church.
4. God's Word to THE MAN (Genesis 3:17-19):
After addressing the woman, the Lord then says to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (3:17-19).
Notice again that Adam himself is not cursed, but the ground is now cursed on account of Adam's sin (v17). We've seen that work itself isn't a curse—it was instituted by God before the fall. It's rather the toil and pain that go along with work that the Lord is speaking of here. Adam had listened to the voice of his wife instead of the voice of the Lord (v17). And as a result, there will now be three ways in particular in which man's work will be radically affected: its nature, its result, and its duration:5
A) The NATURE of work: There will now be toil in work: “in toil you will eat of it. . .by the sweat of your face you will eat bread. . .” The word for toil is the same Hebrew word used for the woman’s pain. Just as the woman would have pain in bringing forth fruit from the womb; so too the man would now have pain in bringing forth fruit from the earth. Work will now be painful; it will be hard.
B) The RESULT of work: From now on, work wouldn't just be strenuous and toilsome for man, but “thorns and thistles” would be the result of his strenuous labor. In other words, man's work will now be impaired; there won't be the incredible fertility that there had been in Eden before the fall. As one writer put it: Before the fall, Adam ate to work; but from now on, he would work to eat.6
C) The DURATION of work: Man will labor until he returns to the ground (v19). In other words, there will be no earthly rest from the burden of work. It's the same truth we read of in Ecclesiastes 2:23, which says: “all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest.”7
5. God's Blessing IN CHRIST:
Jesus said in Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I am making all things new.” How does this relate to the judgments that came upon the world because of the fall? Well, first, it gives gospel HOPE to our marriages: It means that now, in Christ, believing husbands and wives don't have to give in to their inherent sinful tendencies—they can strive, through the power of the Spirit, to live out their marriages according to God's original design (Ephesians 5:22-33). And it gives gospel MEANING to our work: In Christ, we can find satisfaction and fulfillment in our work as we do it to the glory of God (Colossians 3:23-24). God commanded Adam to subdue the earth (the “creation mandate,” Genesis 1:28), and Christ has likewise commanded us to subdue the earth—to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations (the “missionary mandate”). Whatever our vocation may be, as believers, our work has now taken on eternal significance as we do it unto the Lord. So in Christ, even these curses that were pronounced after the fall are being redeemed and made new. Believers in Jesus are remade in God's image in order to bring the whole of God's creation in subjection to the Creator.8
But, there's also a sense in which we are living in a fallen world that won't fully be set free until Christ comes again and establishes the new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness reigns. This is what Paul was talking about in Romans 8:18-25, when he wrote: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” (Romans 8:22-25; cf. 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1-4).
1 The Runaway Bunny may be a fitting illustration here: God pursues us as the mother bunny pursues her “runaway bunny.”
2 It is actually the Lamb that rules over the lake of fire according to Revelation 14:10-11.
3 Insights gleaned from O Palmer Robertson audio lectures and Ligon Duncan's course on Covenant Theology. Matthew Henry says it this way: “The sorrows of childbearing are multiplied, for they include not only the travailing throws, but the indisposition before and the nursing toils and vexations afterwards. And after all if the children prove wicked and foolish, they are more than ever heaviness to her that bore them.”