‘Naked Shall I Return’: Eden, Job, & the Hidden Meaning of Baptism

One of the first effects of the Fall is Adam and Eve’s realization that they are naked.

There are a lot of ways to interpret this. A common interpretation is that now that they had been corrupted by concupiscence they felt a need to cover themselves to avoid sexual temptation. This is certainly valid. But, in addition to this perspective, there could be further significance to their nakedness and their need to conceal it.

The beginning of the Book of Job sheds light on the account in Eden. After disaster strikes, Job also has a heightened awareness of his nakedness:

Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I go back there.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21).

Job has lost everything—his children, his livestock, and other sources of his wealth. In this context, his nakedness takes on a different meaning. Rather than conceal it, Job embraces it. He recognizes that all his wealth and possessions were much like the cloak he was wearing—they are not part of who he is. They are not things he came into this world with and he will not take them with him when he leaves it. This isn’t despair, it is realism and verse 22 makes that clear, by stating that, “In all this Job did not sin.”

In other words, for Job, nakedness symbolizes his true existential poverty and corresponding dependence on God. After sinning, Adam and Eve realized their true state as well. Suddenly estranged from God, their naked emptiness was too much to bear. That God later fashioned clothing for them was a redemptive act that transformed the meaning of what they had originally done.

The clothing reminded Adam and Eve that they still needed God. Of course, their new state was less than ideal. In a way, the whole story of Scripture is the story of how man, through God, is being led back to that original paradisiacal state. And that means also getting back to that original state of ‘nakedness’—not literally, of course, but metaphorically.

The New Testament outlines several pathways to doing that—we call them sacraments. And one sacrament in particular is associated with this state of original nakedness—baptism. Listen to how Nicodemus describes baptism in John 3:4,

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?”

This language should sound familiar. Go back to Job’s words—“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there.” This is what the original Hebrew actually says. However, often womb is interpreted metaphorically as referring to the earth.

But, read in light of the New Testament’s teachings on baptism, we can understand Job’s words in a new way. They highlight an essential aspect of baptism: to the extent that baptism means being ‘born again’ it also brings up back to that original state of vulnerability signified by nakedness. Baptism brings us back, spiritually, to our original state of dependence. In our first birth, it was dependence on our mother and father. In our new birth, it is dependence on God our Father and our Mother in heaven, Mary.

Of course, given that baptism is a sacrament, there is a corresponding material reality. In fact, in the early Church, adult catechumens were baptized in state of undress or actual nudity, depending on how you interpret the early sources (see these sources here and here).

As always, Christ set the example for us, in being stripped and crucified. Truly, Jesus demonstrated renunciation of the world and absolute reliance on the Father in his cry of abandonment on the cross. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote,

Having stripped yourselves, ye were naked; in this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness put off from Himself the principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree.

In fact, Cyril goes on to compare the baptized Christian to Adam, saying he has become like Adam just after he had been formed, “who was naked in the garden, and was not ashamed.” Of course, on this side of the Fall, we may experience some trepidation over being ‘naked’ before God. However, we can take comfort that He will ‘clothe’ us just as He did Adam and Eve.

image: Scenes from the Book of Job in The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana manuscripts by Sailko / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY).

By

Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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