Larry Hunt's Bible Commentary


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Genesis 3

Chapter 3

v. 1: I wonder if Adam and Eve could speak with all the animals before sin and death came into the world.  Eve seems matter-of-fact about speaking with the serpent, as if speaking with animals were nothing unusual.

v. 3: In my notes on Romans chapters 7-8 I have thought a great deal about the nature of temptation.  They might make a useful supplement to the notes in this chapter of Genesis.

Vs:4-5: We may want to be (like) God in two ways: as Satan wants to be God (i.e., as a usurper), or as a child wants to be like his or her parents.  The former desire, which the woman had at this moment, is evil, whereas the latter desire is good and comes from God.  Satan wants to be God because of his pride.  He wants worshipers to rule over and dominate, and he hates God’s authority over him.  Children, when they are being good, want to be like their parents because they love their parents, not out of a desire to have other children to boss around or to be rid of their parents.

Notice that Satan does not lie entirely.  We do become like God (3:22).  From this we can infer that we should not trust Satan even when he tells the truth.

v. 6: What could have helped the humans to resist eating the fruit?  The love they had for God prompted them to obey him.  This could have helped so long as their love for God was never overwhelmed by their love for themselves.  But the love of self is a powerful thing.  In fact, I believe that God has made us in such a way that it is the one love we express that can never die as long as we live.[1] When the woman saw that the fruit “was pleasant to the eyes” and “desirable to make one wise” her love of self seems to have overwhelmed her love of God.  What can help us not to sin at that point?  A conscience could, knowledge of right and wrong, of good and evil.  Such knowledge would allow us to see how deadly poisonous sin is, how ugly it is and how ugly it can make us.  The humans, however, were tempted before they had eaten of the tree whose fruit brings the knowledge of good and evil, the moral sense of right and wrong behavior.  Does this mean that they had no sense of right or wrong behavior when the serpent tempted them?  I think it does.

One of the goals of this story is to deal with questions about why certain things are they way they are.  Why must everyone die? Why do women have pain in childbirth?   Why do serpents crawl on the ground?  The story answers these questions.  Everyone dies because we no longer have access to the tree of life.  Women have pain in childbirth because of Eve’s part in the fall of humanity.  Serpents crawl on the ground because the serpent in this story deceived Eve.  Another of these questions asks how humans came to understand the difference between good and evil.  In the context of the story, the clear answer to this question is that they got such knowledge by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Before they eat, they have no knowledge; after they eat, they do.  God’s own words emphatically declare this to be true.  After they eat the forbidden fruit, he says, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.”

“But,” someone might object, “are there not levels of knowledge?  Perhaps Adam and Eve had a certain amount of knowledge before they ate, but their knowledge increased to such a degree afterwards that it would seem like they had no knowledge beforehand by contrast.”  I do not deny that there are levels of knowledge of good and evil.  At a certain level, we humans can abstractly recognize a certain act as good or evil, and there is a higher level that makes even the thought of sinning so repugnant and painful as to prevent us (practically speaking) from doing it.  For purposes of clarity, I will label this latter, higher level “concrete knowledge” and the former level “abstract knowledge.”  Perhaps a brief digression on this point will be useful for answering the objection above.  Below is an example of the differences between these two types of knowledge.

A child is innocent.  He is good but has no understanding of the difference between good and evil.  This child will be taught certain moral precepts like “don’t talk back to your parents,” or “don’t bite your sister,” etc.  However, being taught these precepts does not mean that he has an understanding of good and evil.  He only understands the difference between good and evil when he first feels shame or guilt as a result of disobeying one of these precepts.  For instance, he may bite his sister one day and genuinely feel shame or guilt as a result.[2] If this is the first time he has ever felt such things, this is the moment in which he acquires the knowledge of good and evil.  He has concrete knowledge of good and evil and is not likely to bite his sister immediately after acquiring this knowledge.  However, with time this concrete knowledge will fade to abstract knowledge.  He will forget the painful lesson his concrete knowledge taught him and may bite his sister again.  Thus, abstract knowledge is not as powerful as concrete knowledge, and yet it can do something that concrete knowledge cannot.  Abstract knowledge of good and evil can be applied to a variety of sins we have not committed yet.  For instance, now that the boy understands evil through the shame he felt after biting his sister, he can apply that understanding abstractly to other sins, such as talking back to his parents.  He can understand that talking back is evil, just as biting his sister was evil.

It is possible to tempt someone who has only the abstract level of knowledge, but the concrete level of knowledge makes temptation practically impossible.[3] Consider Judas.  He had enough abstract knowledge to know that betraying Christ was evil, but this knowledge was not enough to deter him from actually doing it.  After he actually betrayed Christ, however, he acquired a new level of knowledge: concrete knowledge.  I honestly believe that he would not have betrayed Christ in the first place if he had understood with this new level of knowledge beforehand.  The only difference between the Judas who betrays Christ and the Judas who kills himself in despair afterwards is the acquisition of this new knowledge.  In the end, he concretely understood the shameful, repulsive nature of the sin of betraying Christ.  He could not have been tempted to betray Christ a second time immediately after receiving this concrete knowledge.[4] And if his new-found knowledge had also encompassed the nature of suicide and despair, he could not have been tempted to kill himself, but rather he would have sought God’s forgiveness.

If we always had concrete knowledge of every sin, I suspect that we would never choose to sin.  But we cannot have this level of knowledge on such a large scale.  We cannot have it indefinitely even on a small scale.  According to Paul, God has established a law which requires us to be tempted.[5] Therefore, as time passes, our concrete knowledge fades once again to abstract knowledge, and we forget, on some very real level, just how deadly and ugly a particular sin is.  Obviously, the amount of time required for this forgetfulness (as well as the level of forgetfulness) will vary from person to person, but the principle applies to all humans.

Now to return to the hypothetical objection I mentioned at the beginning of this digression.  Metaphorically, when Judas betrayed Christ, he ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and saw with new eyes.  For him, this represents a transition from abstract to concrete knowledge.  But if anyone were to infer from this that Adam and Eve also had abstract knowledge of good and evil before eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, I would have to disagree.  For humans, concrete knowledge must come first, and, as things are,[6] this knowledge comes with the guilt of actually sinning.[7] One may abstract from this knowledge afterwards and apply it to other particulars, but the first knowledge of good and evil must be concrete, just as it was with Adam and Eve.[8] Logically, all sinners must have a first sin, and all those who have felt guilty for sin, must have had a first time that they felt guilty for sin.  That moment in time, whether we remember it or not, must be the moment we obtain the knowledge of good and evil.  In that moment, when we move from no knowledge to concrete knowledge, our situation is most analogous to that of Adam and Eve’s fall.  The analogy still fits when applied to subsequent moments when we move from abstract to concrete knowledge, but the fit is not as good.  Moving from abstract to concrete knowledge is like moving from no knowledge to concrete knowledge, but, of course, it is not exactly the same.

One may justifiably wonder why God held Adam and Eve accountable for their actions if they did not know the difference between right and wrong before they sinned.  Indeed, if they did not know right from wrong, was there anything at all to stop them from sinning once their love for God was overwhelmed by their love of self?  But the story has an answer to this question, and the answer is in Eve’s words.  When the serpent tempts her to eat from the tree, she says, “God has said, ‘You shall not eat of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die[9].’”  God had provided a means of protecting Adam and Eve from sin in the event that their love of self should ever overwhelm their love of God: the fear of death.  Even if their concept of death was relatively vague, (presumably, neither human had ever seen anything die) I believe God could have given them a sense of understanding that would have been sufficient to act as a reasonable deterrent without negating their free will.  Thus, I believe God was justified (even by human standards[10]) in holding Adam and Eve accountable for their sin.  He had given them sufficient tools for resisting the serpent’s temptation, even though one of those tools was not the knowledge of good and evil.

Conscience is the faculty for distinguishing between good and evil,[11] just as reason is the faculty for distinguishing between truth and falsehood.  Adam and Even had the faculty of reason but not of conscience.  Thus, they had the potential to judge propositions such as “I cannot eat this fruit and live” but not propositions such as “I should not eat this fruit because eating it would be evil” since they would not have understood the terms should or evil.  Perhaps a story from my childhood could illustrate the difference between conscience and reason better.  I loved fig newtons when I was little, and one time my momma accidentally left me in the company of an entire package of them while she was answering the phone.  Now, I knew I was only allowed one or two fig newtons per meal, but, seizing the opportunity, I began stuffing as many of them into my mouth as possible.  My haste signifies the operation of reason: I deduced that I needed to hurry because my momma would not approve of my eating so many and would stop me (and possibly punish me) if as she found out.  As it turned out, I was caught, but I believe I can truthfully say that if I had not been caught, I would not, at that age, have suffered the least pang of conscience at having disobeyed my momma.  This lack of shame on my part signals the absence or very immature development of my conscience, whereas the calculated haste signals the presence of an active faculty for reason.  Thus, in a child (as in Adam and Eve before the fall) the faculty of reason exists before the conscience.  (For all who are interested, my conscience has matured since then.  I would never steal a fig newton from my momma at this point.)

v. 7: Being naked in the presence of one’s spouse is not a shameful thing.  Why, then, did they feel shame?  The shame must have stemmed from their sin, and their sin was primarily against God.  Since their shame manifested itself in this desire to hide their sexual organs, which should be reserved for marriage, I believe they considered their sin to be adultery against God.  They were not primarily ashamed to be naked in one another’s presence but rather in God’s presence.  This also explains why they tried to hide themselves in v. 8.

v. 8: I think it is very significant that they still felt naked at this point, even after having made fig-clothes for themselves.  This must have been a result of their unforgiven guilt.  The making of these fig-clothes was humanity’s first attempt to heal itself of sin, to cover it up, to get rid of it.  Obviously, we failed miserably.  See v. 21.

v. 16: In saying that her desire shall be for her husband, and that he shall rule over her, God is announcing a change in the relationship between man and woman.  From now on the woman will be more dependent on the man than she has been.  I believe that, even before the fall, the man had authority over the woman, in keeping with the divine marriage analogy,[12] but that this authority was never abused and was nothing but a joy to both man and woman.  After sin enters the world, however, the potential for abuse arises, especially in light of the woman’s greater dependence on the man.  Hence their new relationship.  Christ, in his role as husband to the Church, is a reminder of the way marriage was before the fall.  See also note on Song of Solomon 7:10.

v. 20: When God first made man and woman, I believe he intended for that human relationship to be the best reflection of God’s ideal relationship with humanity as a whole.[13] After the fall, however, I believe the nature of our relationship with God changed.  To help us understand the nature of that change, God gave us a new human relationship, the parent-child relationship.  Now that we are so weak, being subject to sin and death, we are more like children than a wife to God.[14] Following this thesis, I do not believe Adam and Eve had children before the fall.  My strongest argument in favor of this theory is the fact that Adam gives his wife a new name here.  New names commemorate new events and redefine things to accommodate new knowledge of the named things.  Only now that the woman will bear children, does Adam call his wife “Eve,” which means “Mother of all living.”  If she had already been bearing children, and if the new thing requiring a new name were the pain she would experience in childbirth, then I would have expected the new name to be darker and to reflect the future pain she would experience in giving birth, not simply a name commemorating her as the mother of all living.  If she had already been bearing children, this would have been old news, nothing deserving a new name.   Another argument in favor of my thesis is the fact that children are a form of eternal life.  To me, this fact seems like a consolation for our loss of personal eternal life, and as such it seems more appropriate after the fall.[15]

The best argument against my thesis is the fact that God says, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing.”  Many people argue that this means Eve had already been experiencing some pain in childbirth, and hence, that she had already been giving birth before the fall.  After all, in order for something to be increased, it has to exist in some degree beforehand, but I believe my thesis could be harmonized with God’s statement.  First of all, it seems unlikely to me that Adam and Eve would have experienced pain in the garden before the fall.  It was paradise.  But leaving this aside, notice that God uses the future tense here, which could mean that she would experience the pain of childbirth when she bears her first child in the future, and that this pain would increase in her subsequent births as she grew older and farther removed from the ideal physical health she enjoyed in paradise.  Or perhaps the words could be paraphrased thus: “I will increase your suffering by having you bear children.”  Here, he could be saying that he will increase the general suffering she will experience in the future by means of the specific ordeal of childbirth.  Barnes seems to favor this reading.  He writes that the pain she will suffer is not “connected primarily with childbearing; although that is included.”  The King James version reads, “I will increase very greatly thy pain and thy conception,” concerning which Barnes writes, “The conjunction before ‘conception’ is to be taken in the sense of ‘and in particular.’”

The essential nature of God is love, and his punishment of the woman is full of ironic mercy.  It is an example of one of God’s beloved paradoxes.  She probably could not begin to imagine or appreciate just how wonderful a blessing this curse was.  It qualifies as a curse because God gives it to her as punishment for her part in the sin; childbirth is dangerous and filled with many types of fears and pains, but at the same time, it is the most miraculous blessing[16] commonly experienced by humans.[17] And only women can experience it.  It must give women the chance to internalize certain divine lessons about human nature and God’s love for us that men can only receive second hand from their testimony.

v. 21: I believe the death(s) of the animal(s) that provided these skins was/were the first actual, physical death(s) in the world.  It is a significant moment on many levels as a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of many other animals under the Hebrew law, which is itself a foreshadowing of the death of Christ, the only sacrifice truly capable of removing humanity’s guilt.  It is very significant that God (rather than the humans themselves) clothes them in these skins.  Before this, they had clothed themselves.  They used fig leaves, and they failed miserably.[18] Their attempts were like those of a child using Elmer’s glue to fix a piece of expensive equipment he has broken:  he does his best, working in the medium he knows, but his efforts are completely futile.  God’s gesture of clothing them with skins is one of mercy.  It is a pledge of forgiveness, a sign of future redemption, but it is also a rebuke and a harsh lesson.  It is their first lesson in death and a sign of what it will cost to truly cover up/heal their sin.  I am sure it never occurred to them to use the skin of their beloved animals as a covering for themselves.

I believe the writer also subtly draws attention to the fact that humans are not alone in suffering death.  Animals are now drawn into the curse of death and pain.  In fact, I believe that at this point in history a significant change came over all life on earth.  I believe that soon after the fall, the natures of all animals changed.  Some became predators and some became prey.  (This, by the way, is my answer to William Blake’s question to the Tiger:  “Did he who made the lamb make thee?”Predators and their prey, as such, could not have existed before death came into the world.  Notice that in Genesis 1:29, God says,

See I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth and every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.

Significantly, no mention is made of flesh being given for food.  After the fall, however, living creatures began to feed on the flesh of other living creatures as a symptom of the broken nature of the world.  After the fall, ticks began to drink blood, lions grew canines, and snakes not only crawled on their bellies in the dust[19], but some also became poisonous.  Likewise, the prey of these animals began to develop deadly or painful defenses, whence came the spines of the porcupine and the sting of the yellow jacket.[20] These qualities are not morally evil by any means, nor is it evil for us to eat the flesh of animals[21]; Christ himself ate meat.  But the fact that predators exist is not ideal.  God did not initially design the world thus, and heaven will not contain such creatures.  Rather, every individual creature will be transformed in heaven into that form and nature which it was originally intended to have.[22] In heaven, the sight of a tick crawling on my ankle will be as pleasant as that of a butterfly landing on my finger is now, and the lion will lie down with the lamb.[23]             

William Blake  The Tyger.


Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, The Library of Congress, The William Blake Archive.  Used with permission. 

v. 22: This is the first time (in this second account of the creation of humanity[24]) that God has said the humans have become like him.  In the context, one might argue that this is a reference to our being made in the image of God.  Before eating of the tree, each of the humans was a nephesh,[25] or “living soul,” which is the equivalent of saying that they were animals.  They, like all the other animals,[26] had the breath of life, a soul which animated their physical bodies.[27] After they obtain the knowledge of good and evil, however, God says they have become like him.  From this one might deduce that our creation in the image of God was complete only after we obtained the knowledge of good and evil.  After all, God says now the humans have become like him, which implies that before they had this knowledge they were not like him, at least not in the way that they were after obtaining the knowledge.  If, however, it is true that our creation in the image of God was complete only after we obtained the knowledge of good and evil, then one must deal with a slightly disturbing question:  if God intended for us to be made in his image, and if having the knowledge of good and evil is the final step in that process, did God intend for us to disobey his command and eat from the tree of knowledge?  Was that a part of his plan the whole time?  God is mysterious.  Nobody can plumb his thoughts to their infinite depth.  But it is out of character for God to intend for us to disobey him.  He does not want us to disobey.  Therefore, I do not believe he desired or intended for us to eat of the fruit when we did.[28] Nevertheless, I do believe he may have intended for us to eat from this tree at some point, when the time was right.  After all, having the knowledge of good and evil is not evil; God has it.  Only our disobedience was evil.

Having said all that, however, let me go on to say that I do not believe our possession of the knowledge of good and evil is what defines us as being especially made in the image of God.  I believe we were already made especially in the image of God before we ate of the tree because we were already God’s wife at that point.  If (as seems likely to me) the first man and woman committed adultery by eating the forbidden fruit,[29] then one could assume that they were already married to God before they ate the fruit, for to break one’s marriage covenant one must first be married.  If they were the wife of God before they had the knowledge of good and evil, and if the essence of being human is to be the wife of God, then they were already humans, i.e., “made in the image of God,” before acquiring the knowledge of good and evil.[30] Thus, when God says, “Now they have become like one of us” he is not referring to their being made in his image, at least not in the special way that designates us as humans.  True, having the knowledge of good and evil is a quality which we share with God, but it is not what distinguishes us, in particular, as his wife, and, thus, it is not what distinguishes us, in particular, as being made in his image.  I may desire for my wife to enjoy certain gifts such as health and happiness, but these gifts, when she has them, are not unique to my wife, and, therefore, they do not explain specifically what it means to be my wife.  I love my wife with a special love that is bound to her by a unique covenant.  I share this with nobody but my wife.  By analogy, what makes us the wife of God is his special love for us and the unique covenant he has made with us.  He may desire for us to enjoy certain gifts such as eternal life, or even the knowledge of good and evil (see notes above), but these gifts, when we have them, do not explain specifically what it means to be the wife of God.[31]

v. 24: This image of the cherubim blocking our way back to the tree of life recurs throughout the Old and New Testaments in the symbolism of the tabernacle and temple.  From the fact that cherubim were only placed on the east side of Eden one can deduce that Eden had only one entrance, and that that was on its eastern side.  Similarly, the tabernacle’s only entrance faced eastward.[32] The tabernacle itself was divided into two sections, the innermost of which was called the Holy of Holies.  This innermost section was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, the symbolic throne (or Mercy Seat) of God himself.  Only the high priest, once a year, could enter the Holy of Holies, and that was dangerous even for him.  In that context, the ark represented our access to the source of life, God himself.  The tree of life represents this same quality in God.  In the tabernacle, a curtain divided the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, and on that curtain were painted cherubim (Exodus 26:31-34).  I believe this was an iconic reference to this scene described in Genesis 3:24.  One had to pass these cherubim in order to approach the Ark of the Covenant/tree of life.  The same details hold for the temple, which Solomon later built.  The entrance was eastward, there was a curtain dividing the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, and cherubim were painted on this curtain (2nd Chronicles 3:14).  This is the same curtain that was torn in two at the death of Christ[33] (Matthew 27:51), symbolizing the fact that our way back to the tree of life is now open as a result of Christ’s sacrifice.  The book of Revelation completes the symbolic imagery as John notes, “I saw no temple in it [the heavenly Jerusalem] for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Revelation 21:22).  Later, he writes, “He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and the Lamb.  In the middle of its street and on either side of the river was the tree of life…” (Revelation 22:1-2) to which we will then have unhindered access.


[1] See notes on Matthew 19:19.

[2] This is distinct from feeling the dread of punishment.

[3] If this is true, then it means that even Christ’s knowledge of good and evil was only “abstract” at times while he was a human; otherwise, he could not have been tempted (according to James’s use of the word in James 1:14).  He knew right from wrong, and (unlike us) always chose right, but the decision to sin was not so repugnant to him as to make it a practical impossibility.

[4] Of course, there is a time limit to this practical invulnerability to sin.  Concrete knowledge tends to fade to abstract knowledge over time, causing us to forget a particular sin’s ugliness to some degree.

[5] See Paul’s first law in the notes on Romans 7:14.

[6] God can do all things; therefore, I imagine things could have been otherwise.  For instance, he may have given us this knowledge without our having to sin if we had only endured the temptation of the serpent.  After all, he himself has this knowledge but has never sinned.

[7] This is why I do not believe the fruit alone imparted this knowledge to the eaters.  Perhaps the fruit itself did contribute something, but I think the actual experience of sinning is the most significant cause of their new-found knowledge of good and evil.  Many believe that eating the fruit is an allegory of some other act.  Maybe so.  However, even if they are correct, the substance of the story remains the same.  The humans still engage in a concrete act of disobedience.

[8] No human (except Christ) who has never felt guilty for his own sin has the knowledge of good and evil.

[9] Italics mine.

[10] Of course, one cannot always judge God’s actions by human standards.  But God is love, and even those acts of his which seem unfair by our standards will certainly work out for our good.  If, in some paradoxical way, God intentionally placed Adam and Eve in a situation where their sin was inevitable because they did not have the knowledge of good and evil, then I believe God also planned for them to be saved, and that the whole process of falling and being redeemed would accomplish some good thing for them that could not have been accomplished otherwise.

[11] We cannot hear God speak to us of good and evil without our conscience, just as we cannot hear our friend speak to us without our ears.

[12] See notes on 2:18.

[13] See note on 2:18.

[14] I also believe, however, that the sacrifice of Christ will eventually restore us to the position of Wife of God.  This is why the Church is described as the Bride of Christ.

[15] The birth of children to Eve also meant that one of her daughters would bear the Messiah, who would return even our personal eternal life to us.

[16] See 1:28.

[17] For more on God’s love of paradox, see notes on 1:31.

[18] See note on vs. 7-8.

[19] Genesis 3:14

[20] If anyone finds it difficult to believe that creatures would literally morph their shapes and natures in this way, he should consider that the theory of evolution makes the same claim, although many evolutionists believe in an impersonal cause for the changes and assume longer periods of time in which the changes take place.  The length of time it takes to make such changes, however, is another matter, distinct from the possibility of the changes themselves; it concerns the cause of the changes more than the possibility of the changes.  If one believes God is the cause of the changes, then the length of time is irrelevant.  But leaving this aside, there are other examples of living beings dramatically morphing their shapes and natures in a relatively short length of time, examples which both the theist and atheist must accept.  Consider, for instance, the changes a human zygote undergoes in the few short months it takes to become a newborn.

[21] See note on 9:2-4.

[22] See notes on 2:7.

[23] Isaiah 11:6-9, and 65:25.

[24] For notes on the two creation accounts see 1:28.

[25] Entry 5315 in Strong’s Hebrew dictionary.

[26] The word “animal” itself has the same denotation: It is derived from the Latin anima, which means spirit, breath, life, living being, or soul.

[27] See notes on 2:7.

[28] See notes on 3:6,where I consider how God could have provided us with defenses against disobedience before we had a conscience.

[29] See note on 3:7.

[30] See notes on 1:26 and 2:18.

[31] The angels, presumably, have both of these gifts, but they are not the wife of God.

[32] The tabernacle was movable, unlike the temple, but the proper entrance for it was eastward.  Note Exodus 26:22, which calls the west side “the far side.”

[33] Of course, the temple built by Solomon had been destroyed by this time.  The temple Christ worshiped in had been built by the Hebrew exiles returning from Babylon (and later by Herod, who added significantly to it) but I am assuming the basic structure of both temples was the same.


6 Responses to “Genesis 3”

  1. […] also notes on Genesis 3:21 and 2:7, and […]

  2. […] also notes on Genesis 3:21 and 2:7, and […]

  3. […] [1] See note on Genesis 3:16,20. […]

  4. […] [7] See notes on Genesis 2:7 and 3:21. […]

  5. […] [7] See notes on Genesis 2:7 and 3:21. […]

  6. […] [2] See notes there. […]

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