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This is how John MacArthur eisegesis his Calvinistic ideas into the Bible text

Is Genesis 3 Really About God Sacrificing an Animal to Atone for Adam and Eve's Sins?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
8 minutes read

God made tunics of skin for Adam and Eve. (Genesis 3:21)

During Seinfeld’s second season, Jerry Seinfeld buys an outrageously expensive jacket before his dinner meeting with Elaine’s father, a war veteran and a famous writer. Before leaving the house, Jerry explains to his friend George:

When I leave the house in this jacket, it’s with a whole different confidence.
Like tonight, I might have been a little nervous.
But inside this jacket, I am composed, grounded, secure that I can meet any social challenge!

Jerry Seinfeld in his $1000 jacket

Something about how we dress tells others who we are and how we feel. For instance, consider two brothers. One is a teenager dressed in all black, while the other is in his twenties and wearing an army uniform. The way they dress gives us different impressions of them, their level of maturity, who they are, and what they represent.

Clothes are a kind of uniform.” Says Victor LaValle, “A nun’s habit, a surgeon’s scrubs, a cop’s uniform. People often say that when they put on a certain uniform, they actually think of themselves differently.”[i] Have you ever wondered what fashion was like in the Garden of Eden? You are about to find out! 

In Genesis 3:21, after Adam and Eve sinned, God dresses them in garments (or tunics, depending on your translation). Some Christian traditions teach this to be the first time in the Bible that an animal was killed as a sacrifice. And it was done by God himself, so they say. The argument is that since the tunics were made of skin, God allegedly offered a sacrifice (to himself?) by slaughtering an animal in front of their very eyes, teaching them to do so themselves. In a Church sermon titled “The First Sacrifice,” reformed pastor John MacArthur preached:

The sacrificial system was to picture the necessity of a substitute to take the place of sinners, to be killed, and to bear the wrath of God. And, of course, none of the sacrifices ever given in the past could do that, they just pictured the One that was to come, who was Christ. So here, for the first time in Genesis 3:21, we have a picture of the substitutionary atonement of Christ to come in the future, by which sinner’s shame and guilt will be covered. The gospel is there embedded in that very statement that God will — listen to this — provide the sacrifice.[ii]

(John F. MacArthur)

As we will soon see, the sacrificial system was not about the wrath of God killing sinners. But MacArthur reads Genesis 3:21, and he sees “killing,” “wrath of God,” “sinners,” and “substitutionary atonement.” None of these words appear in Genesis chapter three, yet for MacArthur, this verse is about God providing the sacrifice and then sacrificing it to himself.

Frankly, this is an awful lot to read into a single verse that says nothing other than the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. The death of an animal is never mentioned. Substitutionary atonement is not even inferred. There is also nothing about death, blood, killing, or wrath. The words “sacrifice” or “atonement” are also not mentioned in the text. MacArthur assumes a dead animal was involved. But was it?

Just as MacArthur speculated a dead animal was involved, others speculated that God made the tunics from the slough of an animal (molting). For example, an ancient Jewish commentary, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, explains that in Genesis 3:21, God made garments for Adam and Eve from the sloughing off of the serpent:

And the Lord God made to Adam and to his wife vestures of honour from the skin of the serpent, which he had cast from him, upon the skin of their flesh, instead of that adornment which had been cast away; and He clothed them.

Targum Jonathan on Gen. 3:21

Perhaps in the way of mocking him, as if saying, “I will use you to cover for them.”

So, just as MacArthur speculated, many other ideas can be speculated. It is easy to do so once we detach from the text and allow our imagination to fly. But there is a reason the text doesn’t say how the tunics were made, and it is because it wasn’t a relevant fact to the author of Genesis. And if it wasn’t relevant for the author, then who are we to build a doctrine on top of what the text doesn’t say? So, if not animal sacrifice, then what is Genesis 3:21 all about? Let’s allow the text to speak for itself.

Brent A. Strawn, a professor of the Old Testament at Duke Divinity School, points to the context of the creation story. Strawn argues that just as God made everything else out of thin air, so he made the tunics. And that it has nothing to do with atonement and sacrifices but with God being a provider. Just as God provided for mankind by creating, so he provided Adam and Eve by creating tunics for them:

Yhwh-God’s provision of clothing for the first humans in Gen 3:21 is often understood as a gracious act that nevertheless involves animal slaughter so as to produce the “garments of skin.” The present essay uncouples these two elements—the beneficence of the divine provision of clothing and the possible death of animals that may be implied—reexamining the latter in light of a neglected parallel found in Enūma Eliš, which demonstrates (perhaps with a cognate to the Hebrew verb used in Genesis) that the gods can summon things into existence, especially by speech. The power of divine creation, especially through utterance, is well attested in other ancient Near Eastern texts, and so Yhwh-God’s making (עשׂה) clothes need not indicate the destruction of animals. In the end, therefore, if Gen 3:21 is used in wider theological-ethical discussions, its significance lies with a theology of creation, not one of sacrifice or atonement.[iii]

Strawn is correct in pointing out that Genesis 3:21 uses the same Hebrew word, ASAH (made), that the text previously used to describe God’s creation. When we read the text carefully, we can see how it emphasizes time and again that God ASAH (made). For example, in Genesis 1:7, “God ASAH the vault.” In verse 16, “God ASAH two great lights.” In verse 25, “God ASAH the wild animals.” In the following chapter, we read again in verse 4, “the Lord God ASAH the earth and the heavens.” Verse 9, “The Lord God ASAH all kinds of trees.” In verse 22, “the Lord God ASAH a woman.” And in Genesis 3:21, “The Lord God ASAH garments of skin.” So, the Hebrew word, ASAH, is used throughout the creation story to describe how God creates things. This is great textual support for Strawn’s argument. In light of this, the point of Genesis 3:21 is that God creates things for mankind. The tunics, as suggested by the text, were gifts God provided to Adam and Eve.

Consider the interesting parallelism between God dressing Adam and Eve and their attempt to dress themselves. Only a few verses earlier, Adam and Eve covered themselves with something basic, delicate, and temporary – fig leaves. People often relate this to their sin, being ashamed because of their sin. But the text says something else. They were ashamed because “they were naked.” They had realized their nakedness due to their eyes being opened. Eyes being open symbolizes understanding and maturity. It’s like saying, “they woke up to reality.” Animals don’t mind being naked, but humans do. Their nakedness was not a sin, and definitely not nakedness between the Garden’s majestic couple. So, it was something else they had realized.

Strawn said that Genesis 3:21 is about “Yhwh-God’s provision of clothing for the first humans.” But God did not only provide them with covering. Adam and Eve’s simple fig leaves could also do the job of hiding their nakedness. Yet God did more – he made tunics of skin. The people of Israel, reading this story knew that kings and priests wear tunics of skins. Even modern-day clothing made of leather is considered more extravagant, fancy, and luxurious.

Clothes are important as they reflect who we are, what we do, our titles, and what we believe ourselves to be. This is why the authority of doctors, soldiers, judges, conductors, kings, and priests is recognizable by the uniforms they wear. Animals don’t dress up, but people do, with much creativity to reflect various situations and roles. Humans were also given the role of subduing animals. We are superior to them. This is why we are the ones who visit them at the zoo, and we do it dressed. Just like judges and kings wear a gown, the priests of Israel wear a tunic, as explained by one scholar:

The phrase “to clothe with tunics”(לבשׁ hiphal + כתנת) in Genesis 3:21 is only used elsewhere in the Pentateuch to describe garments for the priests (Exod 29:5, 8; 40:14; 8:13; Lev. 8:7, 13; 16:4).[iv]

An Israelite reading Genesis would have known that tunics were the uniforms of the priests. So, when they heard or read Genesis chapter three, they knew that God symbolically ordained Adam and Eve as priests over creation by dressing them in tunics. This role goes hand in hand with God’s commandment for Adam and Eve to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). They were anointed to rule as priests over creation.

Just as no one would honor a judge if they removed their robe and put on denim shorts, nor would they respect a police officer wearing a rainbow t-shirt and flip-flops, or trust a doctor wearing snug shiny latex pants and a red clown nose. For the same principle, God replaced the perishable fig leaves with permanent and majestic tunics. Fig leaves failed to represent who they were as priests over God’s creation. Even though Adam and Eve had just rebelled against God, He still declared them CEOs over His creation. Their sin did not change His mind. That is a beautiful reminder, not of God’s wrath, but of God’s grace. Later, in the book of Revelation, we see this motif of tunics/garments appear again. This time, it is believers in Christ who wear the garments:

The one who overcomes will be clothed the same way, in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Revelation 3:5)

If my interpretation did not resonate with you, then more interpretations (and speculations) are available. Still, the fact is that the text of Genesis 3 says nothing about God killing an animal, about blood, wrath, or sacrifice and atonement. Therefore, one treads on dangerous ground if they claim that Genesis 3:21 contains the first sacrifice in scripture, as this is simply not even implied by the text.

Only if one forcefully injects into the text (a practice known as “eisegesis”[1]) that sacrifice and atonement can be found in Genesis 3:21. Otherwise, it is hard to imagine how mentioning garments (or tunics) was the author’s attempt to develop a doctrine about atonement. If that was indeed the author’s point, they would mention an animal and use terms like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘atonement.’ Or at least mention ‘death’ and ‘blood.’

In addition, the New Testament, which speaks volumes about sacrifice and atonement by quoting the Old Testament, not once refers to Genesis 3:21 in the context of sacrifices and atonement.

One last thing to ponder before moving to Genesis chapter four: animals don’t understand grace, but we do. However, how else would it be possible for Adam and Eve to understand and experience the full depth and extension of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness if it weren’t for their sinning in rebellion?

This article is based on my new book, ‘The “Gospel” of Divine Abuse,’ available on this Amazon page.
free sample is available here.

[1] Eisegesis is interpretation of text by reading into it one’s own ideas.

[i] Victor LaValle, Big Machine, Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

[ii] John MacArthur, The First Sacrifice, Nov 11, 2012.

[iii] Brent A. Strawn, “Must Animals Die? Genesis 3:21, Enūma ElišIV, and the Power of Divine Creation”, 16 June 2021. Vetus Testamentum.

[iv] “Adam as Israel – Genesis 1–3 as the Introduction to the Torah and Tanakh”. Pickwick, 2011. Pg 113.

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Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist