Being naked in front of someone else is the most vulnerable a person could ever be. No barriers, no shield, no interface, no pretence. And no weapons, either. It's no wonder we are so afraid of it. Nakedness exposes us to every potential danger that we know: from cold and pain to assault, criticism and rejection. When we are naked, we have nothing to help us deflect or absorb the injury - we must bear it all, physically and emotionally.
When an animal senses danger, it responds instinctively by preparing to fight or to flee. It is aware only of the danger - it simply responds to stimuli. What humans have acquired in addition to this same physical response is a knowledge or awareness of our own vulnerability - an awareness of ourselves interacting with life. By knowing ourselves to be participating in each interaction, we have the capacity to respond differently to stimuli than other animals do: we can apply change to ourselves. This is different to a chameleon who changes colour to hide from predators. If we hide our nakedness with fig leaves, for instance, we have already begun learning to interact with life in a way that changes how life interacts with us. And even though it has so many other, much more productive applications, we mostly apply this 'gift' to try and protect our vulnerable, naked selves from potential danger.
But a few fig leaves cannot hide this new sense of vulnerability from God. So when they hear His voice in the garden, Adam and Eve try to hide themselves completely.
"I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." (Genesis 3:10)
So we see by Adam's own words that it wasn't shame that caused Adam to hide from God, but fear. What was Adam afraid of? With the fig leaves it couldn't have been his modesty that he was referring to when he says 'because I was naked'. It was this new awareness of his vulnerability in the presence of God, even with the fig leaves, that made him afraid.
But in Genesis 2:25 the author used the word 'ashamed'. So how does this adjective relate to Adam being afraid after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?
'Ashamed' and its association with fear
The word 'ashamed' has two meanings, both of which are used in the bible.
In the OT there are many calls from prophets for the people of Israel or Jerusalem to be ashamed of their actions, and then to fear God.
Those who are called to be ashamed are told to be embarrassed or guilty because of their actions, characteristics or associations.
Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel! (Ezekiel
Those who admit to being ashamed show a reluctance to do something due to fear of embarrassment or humiliation.
'I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us
from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious
hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger
is against all who forsake him.”' (NIV Ezra 8:22)
"I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you,
because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached
to the heavens." (NIV Ezra 9:6)
In most instances, the persons who are 'ashamed' are described taking steps to avoid confrontation, as if they are afraid to face the consequences. They seek to change how life interacts with them in order to protect themselves from potential danger.
But God regularly greets his people throughout the OT with "Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged." (Genesis 15:1, 26:24; Joshua 8:1, 10:25; Judges 6:23; Isaiah 44:2,8, 54:4)
To fear something is to acknowledge the power it has to do us harm. The only people called to be ashamed are those who refuse to acknowledge that God is the only fear they should have, and then only if they don't live as He has instructed.
The Lord is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to
me? (NIV Psalms 118:6)
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who
does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of
truth. (NIV 2 Timothy 2:15)
In the NT, both Paul and Jesus encourage their listeners to not be ashamed of the gospel, even in the face of persecution, but to have courage instead.
Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed
of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and
of the holy angels. (NIV Luke 9:26)
So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his
prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the
power of God. (NIV 2 Timothy 1:8)
Paul suggests that people were denying the gospel because they were afraid of the consequences of being associated with Jesus who was persecuted or with Paul who was imprisoned, and were taking steps to protect themselves from a similar fate. He urges his followers instead to not be afraid of suffering persecution for the sake of the gospel.
So being ashamed is being afraid of humiliation, punishment or harm brought about by our own actions, characteristics or associations. While Adam acknowledges only his fear at this stage, as readers we cannot separate this fear from his actions in eating the fruit, which brought him, and all humanity, to this new, fearful awareness. It's a bit like the chicken and the egg - without this awareness he would not be afraid of the potential for harm that this characteristic of being human, this knowledge that he is participating in the interaction of life, brings him. He would not be ashamed.
But now we, too, cannot deny that how we interact with life affects how life interacts with us. It is a sense of responsibility we cannot un-know, as much as we might feign the bliss of ignorance and create barriers, shields, interfaces, pretence....and weapons to turn that awareness against others.
It is in our nakedness that we feel this most profoundly. We persecute those who uncover our nakedness, our vulnerability, as if they are to blame for reminding us that beneath the barriers of clothing, walls and ideology, hiding behind the interfaces, pretence and weapons we are all just as vulnerable as everyone else to humiliation, punishment and harm. We are all just as afraid.