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17 And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,

and have eaten of the tree

about which I commanded you,

‘You shall not eat of it,’

cursed is the ground because of you;

in toil 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.


By the sweat of your face

you shall eat bread

until you return to the ground,

for out of it you were taken;

you are dust,

and to dust you shall return.”

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17. And unto Adam he said. In the first place, it is to be observed, that punishment was not inflicted upon the first of our race so as to rest on those two alone, but was extended generally to all their posterity, in order that we might know that the human race was cursed in their person; we next observe, that they were subjected only to temporal punishment, that, from the moderation of the divine anger, they might entertain hope of pardon. God, by adducing the reason why he thus punishes the man, cuts off from him the occasion of murmuring. For no excuse was left to him who had obeyed his wife rather than God; yea, had despised God for the sake of his wife, placing so much confidence in the fallacies of Satan, — whose messenger and servant she was, — that he did not hesitate perfidiously to deny his Maker. But, although God deals decisively and briefly with Adam, he yet refutes the pretext by which he had tried to escape, in order the more easily to lead him to repentance. After he has briefly spoken of Adam’s sin, he announces that the earth would be cursed for his sake. The ancient interpreter has translated it, ‘In thy work;’ 203203     “In opere tuo.” — Vulgate. The Septuagint makes the same mistake; Εν τοῖς ἕργοις σου. In thy works. but the reading is to be retained, in which all the Hebrew copies agree, namely, the earth was cursed on account of Adam. Now, as the blessing of the earth means, in the language of Scripture, that fertility which God infuses by his secret power, so the curse is nothing else than the opposite privation, when God withdraws his favor. Nor ought it to seem absurd, that, through the sin of man, punishment should overflow the earth, though innocent. For as the primum mobile204204     The primum mobile of ancient astronomy was held to be the ninth heaven, which surrounded those of the fixed stars, planets, and the atmosphere, and was regarded as the first mover of all the heavenly bodies. These bodies were at that time supposed to be carried round the earth by this powerful agent, while the earth itself remained as the center of the system. The Newtonian philosophy put all such theories to flight. — Ed. rolls all the celestial spheres along with it, so the ruin of man drives headlong all those creatures which were formed for his sake, and had been made subject to him. And we see how constantly the condition of the world itself varies with respect to men, according as God is angry with them, or shows them his favor. We may add, that, properly speaking, this whole punishment is exacted, not from the earth itself, but from man alone. For the earth does not bear fruit for itself, but in order that food may be supplied to us out of its bowels. The Lord, however, determined that his anger should like a deluge, overflow all parts of the earth, that wherever man might look, the atrocity of his sin should meet his eyes. Before the fall, the state of the world was a most fair and delightful mirror of the divine favor and paternal indulgence towards man. Now, in all the elements we perceive that we are cursed. And although (as David says) the earth is still full of the mercy of God, (Psalm 33:5,) yet, at the same time, appear manifest signs of his dreadful alienation from us, by which if we are unmoved, we betray our blindness and insensibility. Only, lest sadness and horror should overwhelm us, the Lord sprinkles everywhere the tokens of his goodness. Moreover although the blessing of God is never seen pure and transparent as it appeared to man in innocence yet, if what remains behind be considered in itself, David truly and properly exclaims, ‘The earth is full of the mercy of God.’

Again, by ‘eating of the earth,’ Moses means ‘eating of the fruits’ which proceed from it. The Hebrew word עצבון (itsabon,) which is rendered pain,205205     “Quod vertunt dolorem.” In Calvin’s own text it is, “In labore“; in the Vulgate, “In laboribus.” Gesenius renders the word “Saure Arbeit,” severe labor. — Ed. is also taken for trouble and fatigue. In this place, it stands in antithesis with the pleasant labor in which Adam previously so employed himself, that in a sense he might be said to play; for he was not formed for idleness, but for action. Therefore the Lord had placed him over a garden which was to be cultivated. But, whereas in that labor there had been sweet delight; now servile work is enjoined upon him, as if he were condemned to the mines. And yet the asperity of this punishment also is mitigated by the clemency of God, because something of enjoyment is blended with the labors of men, lest they should be altogether ungrateful, as I shall again declare under the next verse.

18. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth. He more largely treats of what he has already alluded to, namely, the participation of the fruits of the earth with labor and trouble. And he assigns as the reason, that the earth will not be the same as it was before, producing perfect fruits; for he declares that the earth would degenerate from its fertility, and bring forth briers and noxious plants. Therefore we may know, that whatsoever unwholesome things may be produced, are not natural fruits of the earth, but are corruptions which originate from sin. Yet it is not our part to expostulate with the earth for not answering to our wishes, and to the labors of its cultivators as if it were maliciously frustrating our purpose; but in its sterility let us mark the anger of Gods and mourn over our own sins. It here been falsely maintained by some that the earth is exhausted by the long succession of time, as if constant bringing forth had wearied it. They think more correctly who acknowledge that, by the increasing wickedness of men, the remaining blessing of God is gradually diminished and impaired; and certainly there is danger, unless the world repent, that a great part of men should shortly perish through hunger, and other dreadful miseries. The words immediately following, Thou shalt eat the herb of the field, are expounded too strictly (in my judgment) by those who think that Adam was thereby deprived of all the fruits which he had before been permitted to eat. God intends nothing more than that he should be to such an extent deprived of his former delicacies as to be compelled to use, in addition to them, the herbs which had been designed only for brute animals. For the mode of living at first appointed him, in that happy and delightful abundance, was far more delicate than it afterwards became. God, therefore, describes a part of this poverty by the word herbs, just as if a king should send away any one of his attendants from the upper table, to that which was plebeian and mean; or, as if a father should feed a son, who had offended him, with the coarse bread of servants; not that he interdicts man from all other food, but that he abates much of his accustomed liberality. This, however might be taken as added for the purpose of consolation, as if it had been said, ‘Although the earth, which ought to be the mother of good fruits only, be covered with thorns and briers, still it shall yield to thee sustenance whereby thou mayest be fed.’

19. In the sweat of thy face. Some indeed, translate it ‘labor;’ the translation, however, is forced. But by “sweat” is understood hard labor and full of fatigue and weariness, which, by its difficulty produces sweat. It is a repetition of the former sentence, where it was said, ‘Thou shalt eat it in labor.’ Under the cover of this passage, certain ignorant persons would rashly impel all men to manual labor; for God is not here teaching as a master or legislator, but only denouncing punishment as a judge. And, truly, if a law had been here prescribed, it would be necessary for all to become husband men, nor would any place be given to mechanical arts; we must go out of the world to seek for clothing and other necessary conveniences of life. What, then, does the passage mean? Truly God pronounces, as from his judgment-seat, that the life of man shall henceforth be miserable, because Adam had proved himself unworthy of that tranquil, happy and joyful state for which he had been created. Should any one object that there are many inactive and indolent persons, this does not prevent the curse from having spread over the whole human race. For I say that no one lies torpid in such a degree of sloth as not to be under the necessity of experiencing that this curse belongs to all. Some flee from troubles, and many more do all they can to grasp at immunity from them; but the Lord subjects all, without exception, to this yoke of imposed servitude. It is, nevertheless, to be, at the same time, maintained that labor is not imposed equally on each, but on some more, on others less. Therefore, the labor common to the whole body is here described; not that which belongs peculiarly to each member, except so far as it pleases the Lord to divide to each a certain measure from the common mass of evils. It is, however, to be observed, that they who meekly submit to their sufferings, present to God an acceptable obedience, if, indeed, there be joined with this bearing of the cross, that knowledge of sin which may teach them to be humble. Truly it is faith alone which can offer such a sacrifice to God; but the faithful the more they labor in procuring a livelihood, with the greater advantage are they stimulated to repentance, and accustom themselves to the mortification of the flesh; yet God often remits a portion of this curse to his own children, lest they should sink beneath the burden. To which purpose this passage is appropriate,

‘Some will rise early and go late to rest, they will eat the bread of carefulness, but the Lord will give to his beloved sleep,’
(Psalm 127:2.)

So far, truly, as those things which had been polluted in Adam are repaired by the grace of Christ, the pious feel more deeply that God is good, and enjoy the sweetness of his paternal indulgence. But because, even in the best, the flesh is to be subdued, it not infrequently happens that the pious themselves are worn down with hard labors and with hunger. There is, therefore, nothing better for us than that we, being admonished of the miseries of the present life, should weep over our sins, and seek that relief from the grace of Christ which may not only assuage the bitterness of grief, but mingle its own sweetness with it.206206     “Sed etiam dulci temperamento condiat.”
   “Laquelle non seulement appaise l’aigreur des douleurs, mais aussi leur donne saveur, meslant le sucre parmi le vinaigre.” — Which not only relieves the sourness of griefs, but also gives them savor, mixing sugar with the vinegar. — French Trans.
Moreover, Moses does not enumerate all the disadvantages in which man, by sin, has involved himself; for it appears that all the evils of the present life, which experience proves to be innumerable, have proceeded from the same fountain. The inclemency of the air, frost, thunders, unseasonable rains, drought, hail, and whatever is disorderly in the world, are the fruits of sin. Nor is there any other primary cause of diseases. This has been celebrated in poetical fables, and was doubtless handed down, by tradition, from the fathers. Hence that passage in Horace: —

“When from Heaven’s fane the furtive hand
Of man the sacred fire withdrew,
A countless host
at God’s command
To earth of fierce diseases flew;
And death
till now kept far away
Hastened his step to seize his prey.
   "Post ignem aetheria domo
Subductum, macies et nova febrium
Terris incubuit cohors;
Semotique prius tarda necessitas
Leti corripuit gradum
.” Hor. Carm. in. Lib. I.

But Moses, who, according to his custom, studies a brevity adapted to the capacity of the common people, was content to touch upon what was most apparent, in order that, from one example, we may learn that the whole order of nature was subverted by the sin of man. Should any one again object, that no suffering was imposed on men which did not also belong to women: I answer, it was done designedly, to teach us, that from the sin of Adam, the curse flowed in common to both sexes; as Paul testifies, that ‘all are dead in Adam,’ (Romans 5:12.)

One question remains to be examined — ‘When God had before shown himself propitious to Adam and his wife, — having given them hope of pardon, — why does he begin anew to exact punishment from them? Certainly in that sentence, ‘the seed of the woman shall bruise the head of the serpent,’ the remission of sins and the grace of eternal salvation is contained. But it is absurd that God, after he has been reconciled, should actually prosecute his anger. To untie this knot, some have invented a distinction of a twofold remission, namely, a remission of the fault and a remission of the punishment, to which the figment of satisfactions was afterwards annexed. They have feigned that God, in absolving men from the fault, still retains the punishment; and that, according to the rigour of his justice, he will inflict at least a temporal punishment. But they who imagined that punishments are required as compensations, have been preposterous interpreters of the judgments of God. For God does not consider, in chastising the faithful, what they deserve; but what will be useful to them in future; and fulfils the office of a physician rather than of a judge.208208     “The punishments inflicted by God are the remedies and the restraints of our vitiated nature.” — Peter Martyr, in Genesis fol. 17. Therefore, the absolution which he imparts to his children is complete and not by halves. That he, nevertheless, punishes those who are received into favor, is to be regarded as a kind of chastisement which serves as medicine for future time, but ought not properly to be regarded as the vindictive punishment of sin committed. If we duly consider how great is the torpor of the human mind, then, how great its lasciviousness, how great its contumacy, how great its levity, and how quick its forgetfulness, we shall not wonder at God’s severity in subduing it. If he admonishes in words, he is not heard; if he adds stripes, it avails but little; when it happens that he is heard, the flesh nevertheless perversely spurns the admonition. That obstinate hardness which, with all its power opposes itself to God, is worse than lasciviousness. If any one is naturally endued with such a gentle disposition that he does not disown the duty of submission to God, yet, having escaped from the hand of God, after one allowed sin, he will soon relapse, unless he be drawn back as by force. Wherefore, this general axiom is to be maintained, that all the sufferings to which the life of men is subject and obnoxious, are necessary exercises, by which God partly invites us to repentance, partly instructs us in humility, and partly renders us more cautious and more attentive in guarding against the allurements of sin for the future.

Till thou return. He denounces that the termination of a miserable life shall be death; as if he would say, that Adam should at length come, through various and continued kinds of evil, to the last evil of all. Thus is fulfilled what we said before, that the death of Adam had commenced immediately from the day of his transgression. For this accursed life of man could be nothing else than the beginning of death. ‘But where then is the victory over the serpent, if death occupies the last place? For the words seem to have no other signification, than that man must be ultimately crushed by death. Therefore, since death leaves nothing to Adam, the promise recently given fails; to which may be added, that the hope of being restored to a state of salvation was most slender and obscure.’ Truly I do not doubt that these terrible words would grievously afflict minds already dejected, from other causes, by sorrow. But since, though astonished by their sudden calamity, they were yet not deeply affected with the knowledge of sin; it is not wonderful that God persisted the more in reminding them of their punishment, in order that he might beat them down, as with reiterated blows. Although the consolation offered be in itself obscure and feeble, God caused it to be sufficient for the support of their hope, lest the weight of their affliction should entirely overwhelm them. In the meantime, it was necessary that they should be weighed down by a mass of manifold evils, until God should have reduced them to true and serious repentance. Moreover, whereas death is here put as the final issue,209209     “Quasi ultima linea.” “Comme le bout.” — French Trans. this ought to be referred to man; because in Adam himself nothing but death will be found; yet, in this way, he is urged to seek a remedy in Christ.

For dust thou art. Since what God here declares belongs to man’s nature, not to his crime or fault, it might seem that death was not superadded as adventitious to him. And therefore some understand what was before said, ‘Thou shalt die,’ in a spiritual sense; thinking that, even if Adam had not sinned, his body must still have been separated from his soul. But, since the declaration of Paul is clear, that

‘all die in Adams as they shall rise again in Christ,’
(1 Corinthians 15:22,)

this wound also was inflicted by sin. Nor truly is the solution of the question difficult, — ‘Why God should pronounce, that he who was taken from the dust should return to it.’ For as soon as he had been raised to a dignity so great, that the glory of the Divine Image shone in him, the terrestrial origin of his body was almost obliterated. Now, however, after he had been despoiled of his divine and heavenly excellence, what remains but that by his very departure out of life, he should recognize himself to be earth? Hence it is that we dread death, because dissolution, which is contrary to nature, cannot naturally be desired. Truly the first man would have passed to a better life, had he remained upright; but there would have been no separation of the soul from the body, no corruption, no kind of destruction, and, in short, no violent change.