John Paul II - Theology of the Body

General Audience, June 18, 1980


1. The phenomenon of shame, which appeared in the first man together with original sin, is described with surprising precision in Genesis 3. Careful reflection on this text enables us to deduce from it that shame has a deeper dimension. This shame took the place of the absolute trust connected with the previous state of original innocence in the mutual relationship between man and woman. In this connection it is necessary to reread chapter 3 of Genesis to the end, and not limit ourselves to verse 7 or verses 10-11, which contain the testimony about the first experience of shame. After this narrative, the dialogue of God-Yahweh with the man and the woman breaks off and a monologue begins. Yahweh turns to the woman and speaks first of the pain of childbirth, which will accompany her from now on: "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children..." (Gn 3:16).

That is followed by the expression which characterizes the future relationship of both the man and the woman: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gn 3:16).

A particular "disability" of woman

2. These words, like those of Genesis 2:24, have a perspective character. The incisive formulation of 3:16 seems to regard the facts as a whole. They have already emerged, in a way, in the original experience of shame, and will subsequently be manifested in the entire interior experience of historical man. The history of consciences and of human hearts will continually confirm the words of Genesis 3:16. The words spoken at the beginning seem to refer to a particular "disability" of woman as compared with man. But there is no reason to understand it as a social disability or inequality. The expression: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" immediately indicates, on the other hand, another form of inequality. Woman will feel this as a lack of full unity precisely in the vast context of union with man, to which both were called according to Genesis 2:24.

A fundamental loss

3. The words of God-Yahweh: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you" (Gn 3:16), do not concern exclusively the moment of man and woman's union, when both unite in such a way as to become one flesh (cf. Gn 2:24). They refer to the ample context of relations, including indirect ones, of conjugal union as a whole. For the first time the man is defined here as "husband." In the whole context of the Yahwist narrative these words mean above all, a violation, a fundamental loss, of the original community-communion of persons. The latter should have made man and woman mutually happy by the pursuit of a simple and pure union in humanity, by a reciprocal offering of themselves. That is the experience of the gift of the person expressed with the soul and with the body, with masculinity and femininity ("flesh of my flesh"—Gn 2:23). Finally, it should have made them happy by the subordination of this union to the blessing of fertility with procreation.

Distorted by lust

4. It seems that in the words which God-Yahweh addressed to the woman, there is a deeper echo of the shame which the man and woman began to experience after breaking the original covenant with God. We find, moreover, a fuller motivation of this shame. In a very discreet way, which is still decipherable and expressive, Genesis 3:16 testifies how that original beatifying conjugal union of persons will be distorted in man's heart by lust. These words are addressed directly to woman, but they refer to man, or rather to both together.

Dominion over woman

5. The previous analysis of Genesis 3:7 showed that in the new situation, after breaking the original covenant with God, the man and the woman found themselves more divided. Instead of being united, they were even opposed because of their masculinity and femininity. The biblical narrative stresses the instinctive impulse that had driven them both to cover their bodies. It describes at the same time the situation in which man, as male or female—before it was rather male and female—feels more estranged from the body, as from the source of the original union in humanity ("flesh of my flesh"). They were more opposed to the other precisely on the basis of the body and sex. This opposition does not destroy or exclude conjugal union, willed by the Creator (cf. Gn 2:24), or its procreative effects. But it confers on the realization of this union another direction, which will be that of the man of lust. Genesis 3:16 speaks precisely of this.

The woman, whose "desire shall be for her husband" (cf. Gn 3:16), and the man who responds to this desire, as we read: "He shall rule over you," unquestionably form the same human couple. It was the same marriage as in Genesis 2:24, the same community of persons. However, they are now something different. They are no longer called only to union and unity, but are also threatened by the insatiability of that union and unity. It does not cease to attract man and woman precisely because they are persons, called from eternity to exist in communion. In the light of the biblical narrative, sexual shame has its deep meaning. It is connected with the failure to satisfy the aspiration to realize in the conjugal union of the body (cf. Gn 2:24) the mutual communion of persons.

Threefold lust

6. All that seems to confirm, from various aspects, that at the basis of shame, in which historical man has become a participant, there is the threefold lust spoken of in the First Letter of John. It is not only the lust of the flesh, but also "the lust of the eyes and the pride of life" (1 Jn 2:16). Does not the expression of Genesis 3:16 regarding "rule" ("He shall rule over you") indicate this last form of lust? Does not the rule over the other—of man over woman—change essentially the structure of communion in the interpersonal relationship? Does it not transpose into the dimension of this structure something that makes the human being an object, which can, in a way, be desired by the lust of the eyes?

These questions spring from reflection on the words of God-Yahweh according to Genesis 3:16. Delivered almost on the threshold of human history after original sin, those words reveal to us not only the exterior situation of man and woman, but enable us also to penetrate into the deep mysteries of their hearts.

Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 23 June 1980, page 1

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