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Fig Leaves & Fur Coats (Adapting Genesis 1-4)

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Last week I began exploring how to adapt Genesis 1-4 by looking at just a few of the "What should I actually depict?" questions that a Bible Artist needs to answer before venturing into adaptation. This week, I'll continue looking at Genesis 1-4 with a new set of questions in mind that all revolve around significance.

Genesis 1-4 is, after all, one of the passages with the most rich and dense significance in the entire Bible. Need proof? Nearly every theme video from the Bible Project begins here and finds within it the seeds of an entire strain of biblical theology. Or just go browsing through the most recent and heated theological debates and note how many of these rely on a particular interpretation or reading of the primordial events. The plot of Genesis 1-4 may be relatively simple and straightforward, but a whole lot of meaning is built (or at least read) into it. And so, again, we'll only be able to explore a handful of issues:

The Image of God

The image of God has become one of the most popular doctrines over the course of the past couple decades. In large part, this is due to the relevance that this area of theology gives to the arts and other non-ecclesiastical vocations. If God's image is not merely some aspect of our human nature like rationality or a soul, but relates much more to ruling over the earth and subduing it through work and creativity, it suggests that all jobs - not just those that are part of a "ministry" - are indeed vocations, callings to reflect who God is and extend his beauty and peace throughout creation.

The question that Bible Artists have to ask is, "How do I convey any of this rich significance in a way that isn't boring?" Do you just have God repeat his speech from Genesis 1:26-30? But for those who don't have an Ancient Near Eastern understanding of images and their significance - and also how the concept of image of God and kingship were closely tied, how can you expect these words to have their full weight? And yet, showing the concept of God's image visually is hardly any easier, given that God is invisible. So let's consider a few approaches that Bible Artists can take:

  1. God Tells Us: Give God his speech (or maybe embellish it a little bit), but essentially communicate this concept to us verbally from within the story. This is the most straightforward approach and - if one isn't particularly interested in focusing on this particularly theological trajectory - probably the easiest. Not everyone will understand all that is packed into these meaningful words when they're just thrown out there, but that may be okay.

  2. The First Humans Discuss It: If imaging God wasn't a later idea that writers imposed on the Genesis narrative but rather a concept that God himself introduced to the first humans, then surely this must have been a topic of their conversation, both before and after the Fall. What exactly the process of discerning God's will and doing it would have looked like before the existence of Scripture and the presence of the Holy Spirit, I don't know, but Bible Artists could have a lot of fun exploring exactly that. Of course, this could come across hokey and preachy if Adam has put into his mouth a contemporary articulation of what it means to be God's image, and so it would be important to make all such discussions feel true to where humanity is at in its development.

  3. Showing Through Visual or Musical Echoes: Although God may be invisible, his work is not. If an adaptation depicts the creation in some form or other, a likeness between God's role as creator and the creative calling that he has given to the first humans could be suggested visually by echoing images or music from the creation scene in later scenes depicting the humans at work. Without telling us that they are reflecting who God is, we can still clearly see and understand that this is so.

  4. Showing or Telling Through a Frame Narrative: One of the routes I suggested for depicting creation was to not depict it directly but rather to have it come to us indirectly, through the narration of a character at a later time (e.g. Abraham or Moses). The bonus of creating a frame for the creation story is that it can be used for interrogating dense concepts like this. In a more didactic approach, viewers could join younger, less-informed, or skeptical POV characters as they hear (& we see) the creation story and then question the narrator. Or, just as scenes of the first humans can visually or musically echo the creation sequence, so too can scenes in a later frame narrative - the benefit being that we understand that the image is not just something given to the first humans but also to future generations.

The Fall

What exactly happened to Adam & Eve when they first sinned? And what effect did it have on their future progeny? The Fall has been a hotly debated topic in recent times, and, although an adaptation need not weigh in directly on every question, it will inevitably speak to some of them because of how integral the Fall is to the actual plot of Genesis. Here are just a few of the questions that Bible Artists should probably consider:

  • Before the Temptation: What is the character of Adam & Eve like before the Fall? Are they childlike and naive? Or are they mature, rational, and righteous? How much do they understand about God, ethics, and Satan? Do they have a formal covenant with God? Are they sexual? And what role (if any) do hierarchy and gender roles have in their marriage? Do they look essentially like us, just more perfect? Or is a greater degree of blessedness suggested visually? Is eating from the Tree of Life an ongoing, almost sacramental activity that sustains their immortality? Or is it a reward that God has set out for them to receive as a result of demonstrating obedience?

  • During the Temptation: Does Eve sin simply out of ignorance? Or is she deliberately culpable? Is Adam present with her as she is tempted? And, if so, why doesn't he intervene? When Eve misquotes God's command, is that a bad sign? And what exactly does it mean that the fruit looks desirable to make one wise?

  • After the Temptation: How does eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil affect Adam & Eve? Is the change in their characters "magical" or a matter of gradual development? What does it mean for their eyes to be opened? Why are they ashamed of their nakedness? What is their purpose in making clothes out of fig leaves? And do they actually think they can hide from God? How has their relationship with each other been affected? How about their relationship with creation? Do they lose anything else (e.g. visual blessedness)?

  • Judgment: When God pronounces judgment on Adam & Eve, is he describing to them the natural consequences of what they have done? Or is he adding additional punishments to them? Do his pronouncements about the futility of work have an effect on creation itself? What about the pronouncements about childbearing? In what sense is all of humanity judged or brought death through them?

  • Children: Are we given cues to see Cain and Abel as being born sinful? Are we prompted to see this as connected to the expulsion from Eden?

The Proto-Evangelion

Genesis 3 contains the seeds of both the conflict and resolution for the rest of the biblical story, but those seeds are contained within a poetic and elusive prophecy that God delivers to the first humans. An adaptation could allow the meaning of this prophecy just hang there, trusting the viewers to piece it together or understand what it means to begin with (if they're already well acquainted with biblical narrative). But if a Bible Artist wants to actually suggest the significance or meaning of the first promise of the Messiah, there are a few ways to do it:

  1. Discussion Among the First Humans: This could look like Adam and Eve pondering together what God may mean or relaying to Cain and Abel the promise of God and what they hope that it portends. If this approach is taken, it's important to not give them too much anachronistic knowledge of truths that Scripture suggests God revealed over time.

  2. Visual Nods: Most viewers will be acquainted enough with Christian imagery that the identity of the seed could be suggested to them through images or symbols juxtaposed to the prophecy itself (e.g. if God pronounces the judgment near one of the two trees and the tree has an appearance that suggests the cross).

  3. The Frame Narrative: As with the image of God, the significance of God's promise of a future seed could be elucidated through a frame that suggests the meaning of this phrase either through visual and musical echoes or through discussion between the narrator and other characters about the meaning of the story. Such an approach could give a more precise sense to how the promise will be fulfilled.

  4. Flash Forward Vision: In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve receive not only a promise but a visual tour of the entire biblical narrative that will flow out of it. While an adaptation need not give such an extensive preview of what's ahead, the first humans could have some kind of premonition either during God's pronouncement or some time after.

Adam and Eve Eating the Forbidden Fruit by Willem Vrelant; Getty Center [Public domain]

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