Eve: A Reinterpretation of Gen. 2-3

August 30, 2006 at 1:31 am 10 comments

Feminist Interpretations of Genesis. 

 Blake_Adam_and_Eve.jpg

   

Genesis 2-3, Eve and the story of the Garden of Eden is a highly  controversial example of a creation story that has vast implication for social order. Genesis 2-3, as with the rest of the bible, is a text that has to be interpreted.  Traditional interpretations have been distorted by the patriarchal and misogynistic societies from which they were written in.  These reading have been highly influential towards Christian and secular considerations of women in the western world.  Due to this, feminist scholars have approached the text and attempted re-readings through close attention to narrative and linguistics.  However, as I will demonstrate, feminist readings that fail to re-interpret the theological meaning of Genesis 2-3 as a ‘fall’, or a gaining of ‘wrong knowledge’, will inevitably not be able to escape the necessary patriarchy of the text.  Therefore, I will consider radical re-readings of Genesis 2-3 that regard Genesis to represent an ascent into divine knowledge. 

Genesis 2-3 and the figure of Eve, have been used throughout Christian and Jewish history as a justification for the subordination of women.[1]  Indeed, according to the traditional interpretation, all women are the daughters of Eve, and are therefore responsible for bringing evil and death into this world.  The first premise that is used to justify the ‘natural’ subordination of women is the order of creation: notably, that man was created first and then the woman.  The writer of the pseudo-Pauline text, Timothy states: “I permit no women to teach or to have authority over men; she is to be kept silent.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”[2]  This passage clearly relates the religious and secular authority of men.  The superior position of man in both the social and religious hierarchy is supported further from the creation of woman as man’s “helper”: “it is not good that man be alone; I will make a helper fit for him,” states Genesis for the rationale behind the creation of woman.[3]   This statement has been widely interpreted as a guideline for the appropriate relationship between men and women: that is it the woman’s role to serve man.  Paul notes in Corinthians: “Neither was man created for woman, but woman was created for man.”[4] Thus, Genesis 2-3 has established theologically that women is firstly inferior to man, and was further to this, created for servitude. 

The exact type of ‘help’ that woman was to provide man with was a point of deliberation for early Christian interpreters.  Augustine provides an exploration of this problematic term:

in what was she to help him?  She was not to till the earth…and he same could be said of the comfort of another’s presence…consequentially, I do not see what sense the woman was made a helper for the man, if not for the sake of bearing children.[5]

Finally, I would like to consider how traditional interpreters have read the act of eating the fruit of knowing good and evil.  For Christian theologians, this is of central importance, for it is the eating of the fruit by Eve that renders the coming of Christ necessary. The choice of the woman by the serpent is considered in two different, but connected viewpoints: it is perceived to reflect her ‘natural’ weaker nature, or to be an indication of her inclination to rebel against God.  The notion of women as the weaker or more easily deceived of the two sexes in Christian thought can be seen in the writings of John Chrysostom: “while this wild woman he (Satan) employed like some convenient instrument so as to be able to set the bait for his own deception and thus upset the woman first of all, being ever more readily susceptible of deception.”[6]  This notion became deeply embedded into Christian discourse.  Indeed, it can be clearly read in the writings of Martin Luther, some 1100 years later: “Satan’s cleverness is perceived also in this, that he attacks the weak part of the human nature , Eve the woman, not Adam the man.”[7] 

Augustine perceives in the exchange between the woman and the serpent not weakness, but a natural predisposition to move away from God.  Indeed, for Augustine the words of the serpent were not the point of divergence, but rather,  “there…was already in her heart a love of her own independence and a proud presumption of self which through that temptation was destined to be found and cast down!”[8]  In conclusion, it is sumly to consider the (in)famous exegesis of Tertullian.  Here, Tertullian explicitly links the above statements to the female gender as a whole:

And do you not know that you are each an Eve?…you are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that tree: you  are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily, God’s image man.[9]

These statements are prime examples of classic misogynism that utilised Genesis 2-3 as sacred justification.  While they may seem to be antiquated interpretations, these exegesis’s are still highly influential in both terms of biblical interpretation[10] and Christian considerations of women’s secular and religious positions.[11] 

Feminist studies of the bible attempt re-interpretations through a return to the text, either by focusing on character and narrative, or a closer semantic criticism.  It is possible to distinguish two major trends in feminist criticisms of Genesis 2-3: those that remain within the dominant theological interpretation of the text as a fall or descent, and those that radically break away from this reading.   Despite remaining in the existent theological framework, the first approach generally perceives Eve as the heroine of the text.  These authors recognise in Eve an independent, aggressive actor who is discerning and intelligent.  Of cental focus in these considerations is the approach of the serpent to the woman, clearly due to the traditional use of this segment.  Feminists have considered the choice of the woman by the serpent as a sign of the woman’s superior intelligence.[12]  A consideration of the interaction between the woman and the serpent displays the woman playing an active role in the resistance to the serpent, in contrast to the passive role of the man.  Furthermore, for some, this interaction represents the first instance of theological interpretation.[13]  As Phyllis Trible notes, the woman discourses with the serpent, and then proceeds to consider the physical attributes of the tree.   Rather than accepting the words of the serpent on their own accord, the woman clearly assesses the situation for herself.  She then, in an act independent of her husband, proceeds to eat of the fruit and share it with her husband who accepts her gift without resistance. For Trible and others, this is an example of a woman acting independently, creatively and with a level of prominence over her husband in a patriarchal text. 

However, the predominance of the woman over that of the man is the exact problem of the text for some patriarchal interpreters.  In 1577 a Jewish commentator noted:

And she gave him the apple…Adam, poor thing…did not want to eat of the apple.  So she took a tree branch in her hand and beat him until he also ate of the apple…and because…Adam let his wife beat him.  God…cursed him, for he should not let his wife beat him, but he should have beaten her.[14]

Clearly, the weakness of this approach is that it fails to consider previous patriarchal interpretations that consider Eve’s dominance as a transgression which is rectified by her eternal subordinance.  Furthermore, considering the ‘silence’ of Adam in the exchange with the serpent as evidence of his inferiority is doubly problematic.  Firstly, it assumes a sexist stance: simply reversing a patriarchal interpretation for that of a matriarchal is not an attempt at equality!  Secondly, by emphasising the woman’s dominance and failing to address the silence of the text, allows for the insertion of patriarchal interpretations as demonstrated above.[15]

The semantic approach by feminists who remain within the dominant framework can also be considered problematic.  Phyllis Trible considers the importance of the interpretation of the Hebrew term ‘adham’.  Adham, she contends, is a generic term for human kind, rather than just for man.  The text supports this: as is it to adham that God commands not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil, which is later repeated by the woman.[16]  If adham is taken to mean ‘man’ only, it would be difficult to account for the woman’s knowledge of the command.  Through interpreting adham as humankind, Trible also rejects the notion of woman being created second.  Rather, man and woman are created simultaneously, through a separation of humankind into opposites.[17]  Trible also takes challenge to the traditional interpretations of woman being created as a ‘helper’.  The Hebrew term for ‘helper’ – ‘ezer’, maintains Trible does not necessarily denote inferiority or servitude, and indeed that God is described as a helper throughout the Old Testament.[18]  Jean Higgins supports this interpretation, consider the term ‘helper’ to denote superior strength: “a helper must be the stronger one, in no way needing help.”[19] 

However, what type of ‘helper’ was the woman meant to be?  Critics of Trible have pointed out that there was no task required of the woman to help the man in, beside that of procreation.[20]  In further support of this, the ‘punishments’ handed down to the man and woman can be seen to be in relation to their occupational purpose.  The man shall return to the ground, while the woman shall return to the man for the purpose of procreation.  Thus, the woman, even if no longer considered as a servant of the man, is still defined by her procreative abilities in a strikingly similar manner to the traditional interpretations.  This connection nullifies Trible’s assertion that adham is a generic term for humankind, rather than just the male species.  Furthermore, these approaches still retain the notion of a fall from divinity or a concept that ‘wrong knowledge’ was gained through the eating of the apple.   This interpretation essentially makes it impossible to remove the patriarchal and misogynistic aspects of the text; if the apple is considered to produce a ‘fall’ from God, it is the woman who had an active role in its consumption.  Clearly, as Deborah Sawyer has noted, if one chooses to remain in the traditional framework and interprets Genesis 2-3 as a fall, the text is beyond redemption for feminist purposes.[21]

As is evidenced above, in terms of a gendered reading, the crux of Genesis 2-3 is the ‘fall’.  However, the situation of the woman in the text is dramatically relativised if the notion of a ‘fall’ is rejected.  Radical interpretations have chosen to consider the placement of man and woman in the garden as a temporary condition; the garden is seen to act as a womb-like incubation for humankind in its infancy.[22]  Mary Korsak demonstrates that this is clearly evidenced in the text.  Firstly, notes Korsak, adham is made prior to the garden, thus the garden is clearly made for adham.  Adham’s creation is to till the soil, however, there is no mention of the need to work the soil in the text.  Thus, we are forced to consider that adham must eventually move out of the garden to perform the occupation for which she was created.  Furthermore, Korsak maintains that this is supported through an “in-out movement that characterises the groundling’s stay in the garden.”[23]  This is demonstrated through the existence of the river, which flows out into other lands, which contain, “pure gold, rare perfumes and precious stones.”[24]  As Korsak aptly notes, the river sequence demonstrates that life is possible outside of
Eden, and indeed, that there are beautiful treasures to be found there!  For Korsak, God originally intended for the man and woman to leave
Eden, after their ‘eyes have been opened’ and they had been given the necessary knowledge to live in the world.
[25]  Korsak considers the statement of God in relation to the tree of knowing good and evil to statement of motherly concern, rather than a threat.  According to Korsak, this statement can be read as the mother within God dreading the coming of knowledge which will entail her children leaving her direct influence.

Other radical readings, following Korsak in the notion that placement in
Eden was a temporary location, also reconsider the meaning of the tree.  In modern theological discourse the fruit of the tree results in: “the knowledge of…opposites, judgements and separation…precisely the knowledge that children do not have.”
[26]  The author here, lamenting over the painful nature of this knowledge, forgets that the ability to separate into opposites is precisely the skill that God utilises in the creation of the universe in Genesis 1.  Recognising this connection, radical readings have chosen to identify the tree as providing wisdom or Sophia. 

The identification of Sophia is based on a number of different aspects.  Firstly, there is a clear indication that the serpent is imbued with a position of divinity and knowledge.  On a linguistic level, the description of the serpent as “arum” (often translated as ‘cunning’) is in fact used frequently in wisdom literature as ‘prudent’.[27]  Furthermore, in the Ancient Near East, serpents were widely considered to be representative of wisdom.[28]  This is taken into the Christian tradition, as evidenced in Matthew: “Be wise as serpents.”[29]  This can also be seen implicitly in text: the serpent is aware of knowledge in the text that is privy only to God.[30]  Thus, the wider setting of the text provides the serpent with a position of divinity and an association with wisdom.  While modern dominant theological though discredits the wisdom gained through consuming the apple as false and dichotomous, Genesis tells us that this wisdom is clearly divine: “These people now know the difference between right and wrong, just as we do.[31]

In this reading, the reason for the choice of the woman by the serpent is also considered.  In the Old Testament, wisdom is often personified as a woman.[32]  Indeed God’s agent of Wisdom, Sophia, is a female character.  Many commentators on Genesis 2-3 consider the serpent to be an extension of Eve, rather than an independent character.[33]  Although traditionally, this has resulted in the serpent’s cunning being the woman’s cunning, for such radical interpreters this results in the woman becoming a divine agent of God.[34]  Judith McKinlay finds in Genesis evidence that wisdom, through the woman, was clearly a gift from God.  Mckinlay considers the man’s charge that it was God who gave him the woman who gave him the fruit. This, for McKinlay relates, “the gift of the God given woman and the Godly fruit.”[35]   Furthermore, McKinlay considers that God in Genesis2-3 is perhaps playing the role of the divine trickster and that the eating of the fruit was always the divine intention.  Therefore, God placed the woman in
Eden to play the role of giving Wisdom to the man. 

McKinlay’s placement of woman as the divine agent, Sophia is gratifying: it places woman within the text positively without allowing for a misogynistic interpretation.  Furthermore, it is advanced in that it also allows for an equal validation of man in Genesis 2-3.  If we consider the woman to be representative of Wisdom, due to association and primary activity, what classifies the man in
Eden?  As noted earlier, man does not till the ground within
Eden, rather his primary activity is to name through words.  It is perhaps convenient that in Christian and Jewish thought, God’s prime agents are Wisdom, (Sophia) and Word, (Logos).  Thus as woman deposits Wisdom upon man, man deposits the Word upon woman in preparation to go into the world outside of
Eden. 

The above reading is indeed a radical reading of Genesis 2-3.  It allows for a positive reading of the woman, without positing her above the man.  Furthermore, it allows the earlier feminist interpretations of Genesis 2-3 to be read and have true effect.  That this is necessary is evident: the traditional interpretations of Genesis are clearly patriarchal and misogynistic and must be re-interpreted for women in the Christian tradition to gain equality: religiously and secularly.  However, to perform a gendered re-reading whilst accepting the interpretation of the ‘fall’, prevents any true feminist reading.  Clearly, in order to provide a reading of Genesis 2-3 that presents woman in a positive light, it is necessary to radically reinterpret the theological meaning.  


[1] Yee, G. 2003. Poor Banished Children of Eve: Women and evil in the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press,
Minneapolis.  p.59; Sawyer, D. 1992. “Resurrecting Eve? Feminist Critique of the Garden of Eden” in ed. Paul Morriss and Deborah Sawyer A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of
Eden
. pp. 273-289. Sheffield Academic
Press, England. p. 274; Korsak, M. 1994. “Eve: Malignant or Maligned?” Cross Currents. Vol. 44. no. 4. pp. 453-463. p. 453; Cornell, M. 2005. “Mother of all the Living: Reinterpretations of Eve in Contemporary Literature” Cross Currents. Vol. 54. no. 4. pp. 91-103. p. 91. 

[2] 1 Tim. 2:11-14; for a lengthy consideration of Eve in Christian though t see Norris, P. 1998. The Story of Eve. Picador,
London.

[3] Gen. 2:18

[4] 1. Cor. 11:7-9. 

[5] Augustine. 1999. “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
pp. 148-154.
Indiana
University Press, Indinanpolis.  p. 150.

[6] Chrysostom, J.1999. “Homilies on Genesis” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
pp. 142-146.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis. p. 144

[7] Luther, M. 1999. “Letters on Genesis” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
pp267-274.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis. P. 270

[8] Augustine. “The Literal Meaning”  p. 151

[9] Tertullian. 1999. “On the Apparel of Women” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
Pp. 132-133.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis. p. 132

[10] See 1999. “Twentieth-Century
Readings: The Debates Continue” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
Ppp. 371-387. 
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis. 

[11] See Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.1999. “The
Danvers Statement” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
pp. 388-390.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis.

[12] Trible, P.1999. “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread” in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
pp. 388-390.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis  p. 434.  Trible’s interpretation is highly influential and used throughout feminist interpretations of Genesis.  For example see: Korsak. “Eve” p. 254; Higgins, J. 1978. “Anastasious Sinaita and the Superiority of Woman.” Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 97. no. 2. pp. 253-257. p. 253; Kimelman, R. 1998. “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist
Readings of the Garden of Eden” Women in Judaism. vol. 6. pp. 1-39. pp. 5-6

[13] Trible, “Eve and Adam” p. 434

[14] Solnik, R.B.A.1999. “The Woman’s Book of Commandments”  in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis.
p 167.
Indiana
University Press,
Indianapolis. p. 167

[15] Furthermore, the silence of Adam in Genesis and his passive acceptance of the apple is often interpreted as being a result of his seduction by Eve. 

[16] Bal, M. 2001. “Sexuality, Sin and Sorrow: The Emergence of the Female Character” in ed. Elizabeth A. Castelli and Rosmund C. Rodman. Women, Gender, Religion: A Reader.  pp. 149-167.
Palgrave, New York. p. 157

[17] Mirroring the act of creation in Genesis 1 which involves the separation of the elements of the universe into opposites.  Trible. “Eve and Adam” p. 433; Bal. “Sexuality” pp. 156-159.

[18] Trible p. 432

[19] Higgins, J. “Anastasius” p. 255

[20]
Gardner, A. 1982. “Genesis 2: 4b-3: A Mythological Paradigm of Sexual Equality or of the Religion History of Pre-exilic
Israel?” Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol. 43. pp. 1-18.; see Saywer. “Resurrecting Eve” pp. 286-287.

[21] Sawyer. “Resurrecting Eve” pp. 286-287. 

[22] Cunningham, A. 1992. “Type and Archetype in the
Eden Story” in ed. Paul Morriss and Deborah Sawyer. A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of
Eden.
pp. 291-310.  Sheffield Academic
Press, England.  pp. 291-292

[23] Korsak, M. 1998. “A Fresh Look at the Garden of Eden” Semeia vol. 81. pp. 131-145.  p. 138

[24] Gen. 2:12

[25] The opening of eyes is an important notion that frequents wisdom literature and separates the wise from the ignorant, who are like children.  Bal. “Sexuality” p. 165. 

[26] Mitchell, S. 1996. “Temptation” in ed. Bill Moyers.. Genesis – a  Living Conversation pp. 40-69.
Doubleday, New York. p. 54

[27] Sawyer. “Resurrecting Eve”  p. 68

[28] They are also often connected with female divinities and women.

[29] Matt 10:16.  Sawyer. p. 67

[30] Carmichael, C. 1992. “The
Paradise Myth: Interpreting Without Jewish and Christian Spectacles” in ed Paul Morriss and Deborah Sawyer. A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, Iconographical and Literary Images of
Eden.
pp. 47-64.
Sheffield Academic Press.  p. 49

[31] Gen. 3:22.

[32]
Carmichael. “The
Paradise Myth” p. 51

[33] Kimelman. “The Seduction” p. 6

[34] McKinlay, J. 1999. “To Eat or not to Eat: Where is the Wisdom in this Choice?” Semeia. vol. 86 pp. 73-86. p. 77

[35] McKinlay.  “To Eat” pp. 76-77.

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Entry filed under: Bible interpretation, Eve, Feminist biblical interpretation, Feminist Interpretations, Genesis 2-3, Hermeneutics, Women and the Bible.

Jihad Jack Galatians 3: 28

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Michele Najlis  |  October 27, 2008 at 4:37 pm

    ¡Excellent!

    ¿Who wrote this article? I want to refer to it in a book I’m
    writing. Thanks.

    Michèle Najlis (Nicaragua)

    Reply
  • 2. MedsOnline  |  January 31, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    ¡Excellent!

    ¿Who wrote this article? I want to refer to it in a book I’m
    writing. Thanks.

    Michèle Najlis (Nicaragua)

    Reply
  • 3. Maddison  |  April 29, 2009 at 5:57 am

    It would be lovely to know who wrote this article

    Reply
  • 4. Adam  |  June 4, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    To say that this text does not tell about a fall but rather an ascent into wisdom is irresponsibly flimsy. God’s command concerning the tree, while it could be considered motherly, is most certainly not simply a statement wherein God shows God’s dreading of a time that is still altogether good. He says “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” It is a false dichotomy to say this is either a threat or a motherly concern. Whatever it says of God’s condition, it is a direct command to man or mankind and it is a statement of a dynamic: eating of the tree will result in your death.

    Additionally, to say that this act of disobedience on the part of Adam and Eve was a first step toward wisdom is to say that wisdom can be gained by disobeying God. Even worse you may read it to say wisdom must be obtained by disobeying God. Are God’s commands only given that we may gain wisdom by breaking them? Rather, where the command was first broken, there death entered in.

    But concerning whether it was God’s intention that Adam and Eve sin in this way, it is written, “…when He marked the foundations of the earth, then I was beside Him, like a master workman, and I was daily His delight, rejoicing before Him always, rejoicing in His inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.” (Pr. 8) Wisdom comes from God, not mankind. Wisdom was in full force before the garden and God established what He established in wisdom.

    Reply
    • 5. Adam  |  June 4, 2009 at 12:25 pm

      By (Pr. 8) I mean Proverbs, Chapter 8. I guess emoticon trumps citation.

      Reply
  • 6. talithakoum  |  April 22, 2010 at 4:28 am

    stumbled across this while doing research. it’s great. can you email me a .doc copy if i promise not to steal it? have you tried publication?

    thanks,
    sarah

    Reply
  • 7. Margarita  |  June 22, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Dear Ariel,
    I’ld like to credit you and this article properly in a class I’m teaching on Women in the bible, Can you please contact me?

    Thanks,
    Margarita

    Reply
  • 8. The Sight  |  May 11, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    I love this work. Thank you for bringing a thoughtful perspective to Genesis 2 discourse.

    http://www.sightlikaconstructionworker.blogspot.com

    Reply
  • 10. http://www.leehongmall.com  |  April 30, 2013 at 9:47 pm

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