Analysis of Knowledge and of Procreation

At the General Audience in the Paul VI Hall on 5 March, the Holy Father gave the following address.

1. To the ensemble of our analyses, dedicated to the biblical "beginning", we wish to add another short passage, taken from chapter IV of the Book of Genesis. For this purpose, however, it is always necessary to refer first of all to the words spoken by Jesus Christ in the talk with the Pharisees (cf. Mt 19 and Mk 10) (1), in the compass of which our reflections take place. They concern the context of human existence, according to which death and the destruction of the body connected with it (according to the words: "to dust you shall return" of Gen 3:19) have become the common fate of man. Christ refers to "the beginning", to the original dimension of the mystery of creation, when this dimension had already been shattered by the mysterium iniquitatis, that is, by sin and, together with it, also by death: mysterium mortis.

Sin and death entered man's history, in a way, through the very heart of that unity which, from "the beginning", was formed by man and woman, created and called to become "one flesh" (Gen 2:24). Already at the beginning of our meditations we saw that Christ, referring to "the beginning", leads us, in a certain way, beyond the limit of man's hereditary sinfulness to his original innocence. He enables us, in this way, to find the continuity and the connection existing between these two situations, by means of which the drama of the origins was produced as well as the revelation of the mystery of man to historical man.

This, so to speak, authorizes us to pass, after the analyses concerning the state of original innocence, to the last of them, that is, to the analysis of "knowledge and of procreation". Thematically, it is closely bound up with the blessing of fertility, which is inserted in the first narrative of man's creation as male and female (Gen 1:27-28).  Historically, on the other hand, it is already inserted in that horizon of sin and death which, as the Book of Genesis teaches (Gen 3), has weighed on the consciousness of the meaning of the human body, together with the breaking of the first covenant with the Creator.

Union defined as knowledge

2. In Genesis 4, and therefore still within the scope of the Yahwist text, we read: ''Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, 'I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord'. And again, she bore his brother Abel" (Gen 4:1-2). If we connect with "knowledge" that first fact of the birth of a man on earth, we do so on the basis of the literal translation of the text, according to which the conjugal "union" is defined as "knowledge": "Adam knew Eve his wife", a translation of the Semitic term jªdªc (2).

We can see in this a sign of the poverty of the archaic language, which lacked varied expressions to define differentiated facts. Nevertheless, it is significant that the situation, in which husband and wife unite so closely as to become "one flesh", has been defined as "knowledge". In this way, in fact, from the very poverty of the language there seems to emerge a specific depth of meaning, which derives, precisely, from all the meanings hitherto analysed.

Becoming one

3. Evidently, this is also important as regards the "archetype" of our way of conceiving corporeal man, his masculinity and his femininity, and therefore his sex. In this way, in fact, through the term "knowledge" used in Gen 4:1-2 and often in the Bible, the conjugal relationship of man and woman, that is, the fact that they become, through the duality of sex, "one flesh", was raised and introduced into the specific dimension of persons. Genesis 4:1-2 speaks only of "knowledge" of the woman by the man, as if to stress above all the activity of the latter. It is also possible, however, to speak of the reciprocity of this "knowledge", in which man and woman participate by means of their body and their sex. Let us add that a series of subsequent biblical texts, as, moreover, the same chapter of Genesis (cf. for example Gen 4:17; 4:25), speak with the same language. And so up to the words spoken by Mary of Nazareth in the Annunciation: "How shall this be, since I know not man " (Lk 1:34).

Deepest reality

4. Thus, with that biblical "knew", which appears for the first time in Genesis 4:1-2, we find ourselves in the presence of, on the one hand, the direct expression of human intentionality (because it is characteristic of knowledge) and, on the other, of the whole reality of conjugal life and union, in which man and woman become "one flesh".

Speaking here of "knowledge", even though due to the poverty of the language, the Bible indicates the deepest essence of the reality of married life. This essence appears as an element and at the same time a result of those meanings, the trace of which we have been trying to follow from the beginning of our study; it is part, in fact, of the awareness of the meaning of one's own body. In Genesis 4:1, becoming "one flesh", the man and the woman experience in a particular way the meaning of their body. Together, they become, in this way, almost the one subject of that act and that experience, while remaining, in this unity, two really different subjects. In a way, this authorizes the statement that "the husband knows his wife" or that both "know" each other. Then they reveal themselves to each other, with that specific depth of their own human "self", which, precisely, is revealed also by means of their sex, their masculinity and femininity. And then, in a unique way, the woman "is given" to the man to be known, and he to her.

Uniqueness of person

5. If we are to maintain continuity with regard to the analyses made up to the present (particularly the last ones, which interpret man in the dimension of a gift), it should be pointed out that, according to the Book of Genesis, datum and donum are equivalent.

However, Genesis 4:1-2 stresses above all datum. In conjugal "knowledge", the woman "is given" to the man and he to her, since the body and sex directly enter the structure and the very content of this "knowledge". In this way, therefore, the reality of the conjugal union, in which the man and the woman become "one flesh", contains a new and, in a way, definitive discovery of the meaning of the human body in its masculinity and femininity. But, in connection with this discovery, is it right to speak only of "sexual life together"? It is necessary to take into consideration that each of them, man and woman, is not just a passive object, defined by his or her own body and sex, and in this way determined "by nature". On the contrary, precisely because of the fact that they are a man and a woman, each of them is "given" to the other as a unique and unrepeatable subject, as "self", as a person.

Sex decides not only the somatic individuality of man, but defines at the same time his personal identity and concreteness. Precisely in this personal identity and concreteness, as an unrepeatable female-male "self", man is "known" when the words of Genesis 2:24 come true: "A man... cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh". The "knowledge", of which Genesis 4:1-2 and all the following biblical texts speak, arrives at the deepest roots of this identity and concreteness, which man and woman owe to their sex. This concreteness means both the uniqueness and the unrepeatability of the person.

It was worth while, therefore, to reflect on the eloquence of the biblical text quoted and of the word "knew". In spite of the apparent lack of terminological precision, it allows us to dwell on the depth and dimension of a concept, of which our contemporary language, very precise though it is, often deprives us.


1) The fact must be kept in mind that, in the talk with the Pharisees (Mt 19:7-9; Mk 10:4-6), Christ takes up a position with  regard to the practice of the Mosaic law concerning the so-called "certificate of divorce". The words: "for your hardness of heart", spoken by Christ, reflect not only "the history of hearts", but also the whole complexity of the positive law of the Old Testament, which always sought a "human compromise" in this delicate field.

2) "To know" (jªdªc) in biblical language, does not mean only a purely intellectual knowledge, but also concrete knowledge, such as, for example, the experience of suffering (cf. Is 53:3), of sin (Wis 3:13), of war and peace (Judg 3:1; Is 59:8). From this experience there also springs moral judgment: "knowledge of good and evil" (Gen 2: 9-17).

"Knowledge" enters the field of interpersonal relations when it regards family solidarity (Deut 33:9) and especially conjugal relations. Precisely in reference to the conjugal act, the term stresses the paternity of illustrious characters and the origin of their offspring (cf. Gen 4:1, 25; 4:17; 1 Sam 1:19), as valid data for genealogy, to which the tradition of priests (hereditary in Israel) attached great importance.

"Knowledge", however, could also mean all other sexual relations, even illicit ones (cf. Num 31:17; Gen 19:5; Judg 19:22).

In the negative form, the verb denotes abstention from sexual relations, especially if it is a question of virgins (cf. for example 1 Kings 2:4; Judg 11:39). In this field, the New Testament uses two Hebraisms, speaking of Joseph (Mt 1:25) and of Mary (Lk 1:34).

The aspect of the existential relationship of "knowledge" takes on a special meaning when its subject or object is God himself (for example, Ps 139; Jer 31:34; Hos 2:22; and also Jn 14:7-9; 17:3).

L'Osservatore Romano March 10, 1980
Reprinted with permission