original nakedness


We all know, or think we know, about “Victorian prudishness,” but even as we smile we should remember to distinguish the link between sex and sin from the link between nudity and shame. The former was not created by Augustine, but he is our primary source for it, and he forged that link so strongly that for many centuries it has been hard to see the nude Adam and Eve without thinking Augustinian thoughts. It might never occur to us that the miserable pair could be ashamed not of their organs’ connection with sex but rather with the elimination of waste. (In some cultures this is a far more private matter than sex.) But if we could purge all such Augustinian assumptions from our minds, we would still be left, I think, with some discomfort—or, the story suggests, that’s what we should feel. How do we experience the nakedness of our First Parents? To take an oddly echoing episode from later in Genesis that clearly has no sexual context: Are we like Ham, the son of Noah, who not only looked upon his father’s nakedness as the old man lay drunk in his tent but also told his brothers about it? Do we, like Ham, experience no sense that Noah’s nakedness was shameful, no desire to cover him and restore him to decency? Or would we be like Ham’s brothers, who turned their heads away as they covered Noah and thereby saved him from further shame? The text says that when Noah awoke he “knew what his youngest son had done to him.” We think, done to him? What have we done to Adam and Eve by looking upon their nakedness? Yet for his impudence Ham was cursed.

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