Thursday, May 9, 2024

Is the Earth still Cursed?

In Gen 3:17 God tells Adam:

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 to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread…(RSV)

The "curse" on the ground is because of Adam's sin (his disobedience in eating the fruit of a particular tree in God's special Garden, Gen 2:17). The land is cursed and will bring forth "thorns and thistles," specifically for Adam and because of what he did. He must, as a consequence, laboriously work the land for its produce. In the Garden apparently the land did not require work; it simply produced (Gen 1:29-30; 3:23). There is a similar curse in Gen 4:11-12, as well: the land will not produce for Cain because he killed Abel. Apparently, God's curse of the ground for Adam was not a general curse for all humankind, since another curse was needed to register God's displeasure at Cain's egregious act. But this seems refuted by Gen 5:29, where Lamech claims that the birth of Noah "will bring us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands," which suggests that the cursing of the earth did apply to all flesh.

            Through a great flood God determines to destroy all flesh along with the earth, "for the earth is filled with violence through them" (Gen 6:11-13). Apparently, the earth is to be destroyed because it is corrupted by its association with all flesh (Gen 6:12). God is so delighted with Noah's sacrifice when the flood waters subsided, however, that he vowed never again to "curse the ground because of man" (Gen 8:21), but there is nothing said about the earlier curses being lifted, whether general or specific (Gen 8:20-22).

            The prophet Isaiah seems to share the idea that the earth is generally cursed (Isa 24:3-6). "Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt" (Isa 24:6). Why should the earth/ground/land suffer because of its association with "all flesh"? The reason seems to be that God formed Adam/humanity "from the ground" (Gen 2:7):

In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return." (Gen 3:19; cf. Job 34:15; Ps 103:14).

In biblical mythology Adam and the ground are the same kind of "stuff." The answer to my question seems to be that it is on the basis of the same principle (although in reverse) from which Paul argues in 1 Cor 15:21-22 (i.e., the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children, Deut 5:9-10).1 God appears to be holding the earth responsible for the sins of its progeny, for people are descended from "earth." In this case, the sins of the children are visited upon the father (earth).

            Is the cursing of the earth in Genesis the background for understanding Paul's "restoration" (Rom 8:21) of creation (ē ktsis) in Rom 8:19-22? Possibly. I know of one scholar (there are no doubt many others) who thought that to be the case: James Denny finds the need for the "restoration" of creation in Romans 8:19-22 to be the cursing of Adam in Gen 3:17, "where the ground is cursed for man's sake; he [Paul] conceives all creation as involved in the fortunes of humanity."2 Paul never clearly says that in so many words, so far as I know. Only in the rather obscure phrase at the beginning of Romans 8:20 is it possible to infer it when he writes, "the creation is subjected to futility (mataitēti, i.e., meaning its lack of value, or usefulness), which is the condition to which God's curse rendered it for Adam, requiring it to be laboriously worked.

            Colossians 1:19-20 seems to include "all creation" in its "all things on earth or in heaven" (note: Col 1:16, ta panta is everything). If this expression can be said to include all creation, then a Pauline disciple (the author of Colossians) includes even the insentient "stuff" of the universe of God's created works in the economy of redemption.

            The difficulty, however, is that the Bible doesn't speak generally of the restoration of an original creation. By far the more dramatic image in the Bible is the dissolution of the old creation, and the birthing of a new heavens and earth (Isa 65:17, 66:22; 2 Pet 3:7-13; Rev 21:1). Will there eventually be an old creation restored, as Paul seems to think, or the destruction of the original creation and the birth of a new heavens and earth, as "Peter" believes will happen? Who is right Peter or Paul?

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1For the Idea of blaming the children for their father's sins, see also Exod 20:5-6; 34:6-7. For a rejection of this idea, see Jer 31:29-30; Ezek 18:2-4.

2James Denny, "St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans" in W. R. Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament (5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 2.649.


  1. Charlie writes: "Will there eventually be an old creation restored, as Paul seems to think, or the destruction of the original creation and the birth of a new heavens and earth, as "Peter" believes will happen? Who is right Peter or Paul?"

    Although the cursing of the earth is a strong biblical theme, it falls, I think, among the antiquated interpretations of our universe. The creation is simply creation and has the characteristics which we experience. But what can be done then to change consciousness and its proclivity to identity differences between the self and the other as a threat to one's existence.

    Perhaps we need an AI effort to re-program our brains to perceive differences as positive potentials. Uh Oh, that would require authoritarianism. Better look for the answer somewhere else!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  2. Thanks Gene! Spoken like a true child of the 21st century! Our sun and earth (a garden of Eden in the universe--as far as we know) will eventually either disappear into a black hole and/or the earth will become uninhabitable due to intense cold of outer space when the sun sputters out, so the physical scientists tell us. But that will be a few million years away yet. Unless of course we make it uninhabitable on our own or kill ourselves off before that inevitable time in the distant future.