This is the first post of two from Dan Belnap. We greatly appreciate his contribution.
One of the most fascinating scenes in the scriptures is that detailing the actors and exchanges found in the Garden of Eden. From their creation to their expulsion the actions and conversations experienced by Adam and Eve, these events continue to provide those of us living millennia later insights and knowledge concerning who we are and how God sees us. Of particular interest, is the juxtaposition that is presented between nakedness and the state of being clothed. The relationship between these two opposing states and the symbolic nature of both the clothing and the act of clothing, especially exemplifies those questions concerning our nature, both as we appear and as we really are.
Nakedness and the Ancient World
In the ancient world nakedness was generally associated with shame, humiliation, and captivity. Isaiah 20 records that Isaiah is commanded to take off his shoes, loosen his loincloth and walk naked and barefoot for three years symbolizing the eventual captivity of Egypt by Assyria: “Like as my servant Isaiah hath walked naked and barefoot three years.., so shall the king of Assyria lead away the Egyptians prisoners, and the Ethiopians captives, young and old, naked and barefoot, even with buttocks uncovered to the shame of Egypt (v. 3-4).” Assyrian palace reliefs depict the capture of not only Egyptians, but also the citizens of Lachish and other conquered cities, as naked, bound figures. Egyptian palaces do the same. Voluntary nakedness reflected the same theme by demonstrating one’s subjugation and humiliation. Assurbanipal, an Assyrian king, records in one of his annals, “they [i.e. the king of Elam and family] fled from Indabigash and came to me in Nineveh, crawling naked on their bellies,” and by so doing symbolizing their abject subjugation to the Assyrian overlord. Elsewhere, the stripping of an individual of his or her raiment was considered punishment. In Middle Assyrian law codes, for crimes specifically associated with slaves nakedness was the consequence.1
In the Old Testament much of the same symbolic meaning for nakedness is expressed. In 2nd Samuel 10, David sends two messengers (reflecting an old Semitic tradition of two messengers) to the king of Ammon in order to renew their peaceful existence. The Ammonites take this gesture to be a clandestine spying operation, “Wherefore Hanun took David’s servants, and shaved off the one half of their beards, and cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks and sent them away.” These two actions symbolize the utter humiliation of both the servants and of David himself. That the experience was meant to create humiliation and shame is seen in the messenger’s return. While a report is sent to David concerning their trip, the messengers themselves do not see him personally, “because the men were greatly ashamed (v. 5).” David, aware of their discomfort and shame, allows them to remain in Jericho until the beards grow back. These acts eventually lead to war between Israel and Ammon, demonstrating the powerful, symbolic nature of nakedness.2 The scriptures also associated nakedness with mourning. In Micah 1:8 the author relates how he would “wail and howl” and go “stripped and naked” on account of the desolation that would result from the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem. Note that, like the punishment above, being stripped is part of the nakedness experience. Not only is the state of nakedness shameful, but the loss of control over oneself is also humiliating as reflected in the stripping process.
This is, of course, why Christ is also depicted as naked on the cross with the Romans gambling over his raiment. The individual’s nakedness was as much a part of the punishment as the actual crucifixion, demonstrating the abject, utter humiliation of the individual. In the Book of Mormon, the humiliating and shameful aspect of nakedness is depicted at least twice. In Alma 14, we read of the imprisonment of Alma and Amulek, who are spit upon, beaten, and made naked (v. 22) as a mark of shame. In Alma 20, some of the missionaries who went to the land of Nephi are discovered naked in the Lamanite prison. Thus, nakedness, as presented in the ancient Near East and the scriptures, is associated with shame, humiliation, captivity, slavery, and death. All of these themselves have a common theme, the loss of identity and power. Thus nakedness symbolizes the loss of identity or the lack of any self-definition. In all the above examples, those who are naked were also stripped of some form of self-identity.
In the Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs the identity of their captives as citizens of a particular nation, was stripped from them, like their clothing, leaving them naked in a strange land. The identity of David’s messengers as his messengers, and therefore of David himself, was not recognized and in fact stripped from them. Alma and Amulek are symbolically stripped of their social and religious standing. Christ is symbolically stripped of his identity as the Messiah and left ‘naked’ on the cross. Those that mourn are stripped of their identity with the dead and the young man in Galilee had lost his identity, being controlled by other beings. Note that in all cases, the individuals no longer have an identity and have no control of their own lives. This aspect finds its ultimate expression in the account of the young man possessed as recorded in Luke 8:27 and Mark 5. Here, the young man is found naked and possessed, the nakedness demonstrating that lack of self-definition reinforcing what the demonic beings themselves admit, that the young man’s identity is not in charge. He had lost power over himself and was completely subjugated to other beings, and thus was naked. Luckily the story has a happy ending. When the witnesses return the young man has been restored and in his “right mind” and therefore, significantly, clothed. We are left to assume that it was Christ himself who raised the individual from a ‘naked’ state to a ‘clothed’ one.
Nakedness as a Cultural Value
The above statement leads to an important aspect of nakedness, it is not necessary that the individual be physically nude to experience nakedness. It is important to understand that nakedness is a social standard which differs from culture to culture, not the description of an actual physical state. While we may consider a native Amazonian tribe naked, those tribes may consider themselves ‘clothed’ and not naked at all by their standards. Instead, perhaps lacking a certain type of jewelry or tattoo would constitute nakedness. This would mean that shame is also a cultural value, not necessarily a direct result of physical nudity. Again, the Amazon tribe feels no shame about what we consider to be nakedness, they only feel shame when their sense of nakedness is presented. Shame and nakedness reflect cultural values and their relationship with each other is cultural, artificial, not naturally connected.3 This is quite apparent to any parent. Shame as a result of nakedness does not exist naturally in children, it is learned. As the child becomes acquainted in society he or she learns what is acceptable and what is not; what gives honor and brings shame.
Therefore one could be clothed and still be naked. Christ, according to Talmage and others, was in fact wearing clothing, at least a loincloth, on the cross, even though he was viewed as naked. In Isaiah 20, Isaiah is also not completely naked, but the partial removal of some clothing represents the removal of all. David’s messengers do not appear completely clotheless, but again the symbolism of the act connotes complete nudity. Nor does there have to be large amounts of cloth ripped to carry the nakedness symbolism. In the ancient Near East documents have been found where the phrase “to cut off the hem” means that one’s personality is missing. Divorce was also effected by the cutting off of the hem of the spouse (primarily the wife’s hem). This understanding now makes sense of David’s apparent guilt for having cut off the hem of Saul’s robe as described in 1 Samuel 24:5, “And it came to pass afterward, that David’s heart smote him, because he cut off Saul’s skirt.” If the hem stands for the entire clothing set, and the clothing represents the power and authority, and thus the identity, of Saul, then David as symbolically made Saul naked, effectively cutting Saul off from his identification as leader, something that Saul seems quite aware of: “and now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king (v. 20).”
Nakedness and the Garden of Eden
It is precisely this point that makes the Garden of Eden’s depiction of the nakedness of Adam and Eve significant. In Genesis 2:25, we are told that Adam and Eve are both naked, but not ashamed. This is the only place where nakedness is not viewed negatively or requiring negative social consequences. Nor does this have to refer to physical nudity. As we have demonstrated above nakedness is a cultural trait that differs by definition from society to society. As stated above, what does define nakedness is the lack of some trait that any given culture deems as necessary, to the proper society place of the individual by which self-identification, or definition, is made possible. I repeat, nakedness is the lack of a cultural trait that provides an individual place within that society. Nakedness is the conscious knowledge that one is outside of a society, and therefore worthy of shame and humiliation. Yet in the Garden, Adam and Eve are naked, but not ashamed. This, of course, brings us to another understanding of nakedness.
In the Book of Mormon, two references mention that at judgment one will be presented with one’s nakedness. In 2 Nephi 9:14, nakedness is associated with the perfect knowledge of one’s guilt and uncleanness, while being clothed is associated with the perfect knowledge of one’s enjoyment and righteousness. In Mormon 9:5, we read that we “shall be brought to see [our] nakedness before God, also the glory of God, and the holiness of God.” That this event does not refer to physical nudity is attested in 2 Nephi 9:14 where the righteous are in fact clothed. Thus mention of Adam and Eve’s nakedness does not necessarily have to refer to their physical state, but instead to their cultural state, even their social relationship with God.4
Even if the Adam and Eve’s nakedness does refer to physical nudity, their lack of shame over this does refer to the cultural and social understanding of nakedness. Their lack of shame demonstrates their purity as they are clean to stand in the presence of God.5 As Mormon states, since all will be naked, “cry mightily unto the Father, in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, pure, fair, and white.” In other words, one will be naked before God, the choice is either naked in shame, or in confidence.6 It is not until Adam and Eve partake of the fruit, and transgressing the will of God that they realize they are now naked. They are now aware of their social separateness from God, or, to put it another way, they now define themselves as different beings from God. Elsewhere, we learn that this new definition of self separating themselves from God is strengthened by Satan who specifically points out their new state and suggests a way in which they can symbolize that difference.
Finally, there is another figure who is associated with nakedness in the garden. The serpent is described as the most “subtle” of all the animals. In the Hebrew this word is spelled almost exactly the same as the word translated as ‘naked’, meaning that we have a pun. The serpent the most subtle is actually the one most naked. This becomes especially clear when one sees the serpent’s curse, “ . . . upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat.” This curse represents the social effects of nakedness as explained above. The naked roll on the ground, the naked crawl in subjugation. It is the serpent who will experience the shame, humiliation, and captivity associated with nakedness. Moreover, we see a reverse of the serpent’s earlier action. If it the serpent who taught Adam and Eve that they were different and lesser than God, then the curse now reveals who really will be shamed and humbled. Isaiah mentions when this will happen, “They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee (lit. consider or think about you), and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms (14:16)?” How will this be done? By men seeing things as they really are, not as they seem to be.7
1. If a female slave wore a veil, she was to be taken to the magistrate and stripped of her clothing, if one did not report this, but knew of it, then that person was to be stripped of their clothing.-Middle Assyrian Law Code
2. John T. Greene. The Role of the Messenger and Message in the Ancient Near East, Brown Judaic Studies 169 (Atanta, Ga: Scholars Press, 1989), 91: “Since the messenger-envoys were an extension of David’s person and power, the shaving off of half their beards and the cutting off “their garments in the middle of their hips” represented a personal affront and insult to David. One understands further that not only were the envoys ashamed, David was also ashamed!” Interestingly, this act of nakedness is directly connected with David’s downfall which is itself tied into nakedness. While his army is destroying the Ammonites for their act of making naked David’s messengers and therefore David himself, David witnesses Bathsheba’s nakedness, which will also lead to his shame and humiliation.
3. A modern example of this is the Abu Graib scandal. To many in the U.S. making the prisoners naked does not equate as torture in their minds, especially if no physical harm resulted. But as we’ve seen, in the Semitic world nakedness is associated with total humiliation and shame. Thus, the actions, in the eyes of the Arabs, is in fact torture.
4. This may be reflected in the long-standing tradition that Adam and Eve were clothed in glory and/or light prior to their partaking of the fruit, reflecting the same nature as God’s clothing. See Gary A. Anderson, „The Garments of Skin in Apocryphal Narrative and Biblical Commentary,“ Studies in Ancient Midrash, 2001, 101-43, 119: „As God’s physical form was conceived to be that of a fiery effulgence, so was that of Adam. Indeed, one form of the tradition it is said that the luminosity of the heel of Adam was so great that only the Shekinah could overcome it. This topos recalls the mythopeic descriptions of the Kebod-YHWH in the Bible and suggests that Adam’s garments are somehow akin to the covering of the deity.“ Note the similarity in Psalm 104:1-2 describing God’s clothing (Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God thou art very great; thou art clothed with honor and majesty. Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment).
5. A Coptic text reads, „His disciples said: When will you be revealed to us and when will we see you? Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves without being ashamed.“ Logion 37, P. Labib, Coptic Gnostic Papyri (Cairo: 1956). I, pl. 87, 27-88, 1.
6. Alma says the same thing: “1 say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you in that day: Come unto me ye blessed.., or do ye imagine to yourselves that ye can lie unto the Lord in that day (Alma 5:16-7). In verse 22, Alma demonstrates that one may be dressed while standing naked before God: “And now 1 ask of you, my brethren, how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and filthiness? Behold, what will these things testify against you?” Note that it is the clothing that is the sign of one’s worthiness. In verse 24, the righteous all wear garments that are cleansed, spotless, pure, and white. Alma explains how one may gain clean garments by becoming naked: “That your garments have been cleansed and made white through the blood of Christ… are ye stripped of pride?.., stripped of envy?.., will ye still persist in the wearing of costly apparel (v. 27, 29, 53)?”
7. In the apocryphal work the Discourse on Abbaton, we read an interesting passage concerning the loss of clothing leading to a loss of power and authority on the part of Satan: “And when Adam had risen up he cast himself down before Father, saying, “My Lord and my God! Thou hast made me to come into being [from a state in which] I did not exist.” Thereupon My Father set him upon a great throne, and He placed on his head a crown of glory, and He put a royal scepter [in his hand], and My Father made every order [of angels] in the heavens to come and worship him, whether angel or archangel . . . and My Father said unto him (i.e., their chief), “Come, thou thyself shalt worship my image and likeness.” And he, being of great pride, drew himself up in a shameless manner, and said, “It is meet that this should come and worship me, for I existed before he came into being.” And when My Father saw his great pride, and that his wickedness and his evil-doing were complete, He commanded all the armies of heaven, saying, “Remove the writing [which is] in the hand of the proud one, strip ye off his armor, and cast ye him down upon the earth, for his time hath come. . . and all the angels gathered together to him, and they did not wish to remove the writing from his hand. And My Father commanded them to bring a sharp reaping-knife, and to stab him therewith on this side and that, right through his body to the vertebrae of his shoulders.” Nibley changes this translation slightly by placing “token” there instead of “writing” and “panoply” instead of “armor”. Moreover, he notes that the cutting is at breast level with a sickle shaped instrument. For the purposes of this paper, note his humiliation and loss of social status through the symbolic loss of clothing (his armor).