I’ve recently been plodding through The Women’s Bible Commentary, a series of essays on scripture from a woman’s perspective. It’s been pretty interesting reading so far, especially since most of the Old Testament (and I just barely got through the Pentateuch chapters) forgets women exist. But hey, if I were writing a commentary, I’d choose to write about women in the Bible, too, since there’s so much less to have to read, and as a person with a degree in English, I’ve had to write a fair share of papers on books for which I only read Cliffs Notes.
The first chapter of the book deals with various interpretations of the Adam & Eve story. Throughout history, different theologians and scholars have interpreted the role of Eve very differently. Even contemporary views of Eve within a single Gospel Doctrine class disagree on her character and the moral of the story. In a class a few years ago, several of the women argued that Eve was the hero(ine) of the story, that only Eve understood the dichotomy of the command not to eat the fruit and yet to multiply and replenish the earth without so much as a sex ed class to get them started. Then, weirdly enough, several of the men were very vocal in their disagreement! They said Adam was the hero of the story because only Adam was obedient, while Eve was tricked and also talked to snakes which didn’t bode well for her character. They believed that Adam was stalwart, but Eve was inconsistent. Bad girl! That’s why she was punished. It’s like we hadn’t even been watching the same temple film all these years. These were otherwise smart guys, lawyers and executives, people you would expect to understand the complexities of debate and fable.
These are only two of the perspectives on Eve that are out there. From the Women’s Bible Commentary, here are several different ways Eve has been interpreted:
Early Misogyny: Hating on Eve
Early scholars were generally pretty rough on Eve. Sirach, a text from about 200 BC, warns that women are dangerous.
From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die. (Sir. 25:24)
Another text, The Life of Adam and Eve (from roughly 100 AD) portrays Eve as a weak character. By contrast, Adam is seen as heroic, obtaining forgiveness for his sinful wife so that the human race can endure. Right. In the Greek version of this called Apocalypse of Moses, Eve describes their pre-fall existence as a world of equality in the garden in which each Adam & Eve was given half the garden to tend. The text then alludes to Eve’s encounter with the snake being a sexual seduction, a lustful rendez-vous.
The New Testament also blames Eve for sin and claims that women ought to be subordinate for original sin.
For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. (1 Tim. 2:13-14)
Oh really. Seems to me that Adam following Eve is no different than Eve following a talking snake who wasn’t even lying, people. The gnostic Gospel of Phillip suggests that death came into the world when Adam & Eve (an androgynous being) were split into two people, one male and one female. Sounds more like Greek mythology, but OK.
Early Church father Tertullian went so far as to call Eve “the odium of human perdition,” meaning she was the cause of sin. He prescribed modesty in dress so that each woman “might the more full expiate that which she derives from Eve.” So in other words, all women are the cause of all sin. Sounds reasonable. He says that all women conspire with the devil to lead men astray. I wonder if he kisses his mother with that mouth. My guess is that he does not.
Eve as Afterthought
One view sees Eve as secondary because she wasn’t the first one created.
Jewish and Christian traditions post-dating the Hebrew Bible and a long history or Western scholarship have viewed woman’s creation in Genesis 2 as secondary and derivative–evidence of her lower status. The tale explaining the departure from Eden into a real world of work, birth, and death in Genesis 3 is taken to be an even stronger indictment of woman as the gullible, unworthy partner who lets loose sin and death. Her biological function as conceiver and bearer of children is perceived as confirmation of her fall, a punishment shared by all women who come after her.
Other scholars interpret Eve’s creation as superior to Adam’s. She is the crowning achievement, the version 2.0 that improves over the original; Eve is The Empire Strikes Back or Godfather II (but not Back to the Future II or Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom). Evidence to support this is that Adam is made from dirt, but Eve is made from human organic material, rendering her more divine.
Trible saw Eve, the final of God’s creations, not as secondary to Adam, but as the culmination of all creation. She emphasized Eve’s intelligence, sensitivity, and initiative, in contrast to Adam, who remains silent and passive throughout the encounter with the serpent.
Eve as Pandora
A different perspective on the creation story casts Eve in the role of Pandora, the one who creates world order by disobeying a command that was designed to be disobeyed. In this view, the command not to eat the fruit was always intended to be broken in order for the world as we know it to come into being. Eve is the protagonist, the one smart enough and clever enough to understand what must be done, the only one with the intellectual curiosity to weigh outcomes and take actions.
In the lore of all cultures interdictions such as Genesis 2:17 (“But of the tree . . .”) exist to be disobeyed by the tales’ protagonists. That is what makes the story. Eve, as she is named in 3:20 is the protagonist, not her husband. This is an important point, as is the realization that to be the curious one, the seeker of knowledge, the tester of limits, is to be quintessentially human–to evidence traits of many of the culture-bringing heroes and heroines of Genesis.
Eve as Bringer of Life and All-Around Smartypants
While many consider the Garden of Eden to be a virtual paradise, an idyllic world without pain or death or trials, this is just one way to look at it. In another view, the world changes from something that is sterile and flat (in Genesis 1 & 2) to a world teeming with life, birth and death (in Genesis 3), thanks entirely to Eve’s actions.
In a wonderful tale about a trickster snake, a woman who believes it, and a rather passive, even comical man, biblical writers comment on the inevitability of reality as they perceived it, wistfully presenting an image of an easier, smoother life. Woman, the one who will house life within her, helps to generate this new, active, challenging life beyond Eden.
That started out sounding like the opening to an Arrested Development episode.
She is no easy prey for a seducing demon, as later tradition represents her, but a conscious actor choosing knowledge. Together with the snake, she is a bringer of culture. The man, on the other hand, is utterly passive. The woman gives him the fruit, and he eats as if he were a baby.
Finally, someone sees what I see in Adam! He’s a dunderhead, a cry-baby who immediately pins it all on his wife rather than grasping that she’s the brains of this operation. And yet we teach our Primary children to sing that “Adam was a prophet.” Really? That is, BTW, a claim unique to Mormonism and not found in the Bible. Whatever. I really don’t remember that being a thing when I was a Primary kid.
The man’s self-defense, like his passive act of disobedience, portrays him in a childlike manner. When accused by God of defying his order, the man says comically, “The woman whom thou gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” (3:12)
Eve as Underdog Heroine
The Bible has a clear pattern of portraying its heroes and heroines as underdogs who overcome circumstances to win in the end. Eve, not Adam, fits this description.
One of the biblical authors’ favorite narrative patterns is that of the trickster. Israelites tend to portray their ancestors, and thereby to imagine themselves, as underdogs, as people outside the establishment who achieve success in roundabout, irregular ways.
We see this with Sarai, Rebekah, Jacob (who is practically a Biblical Loki), and Rachel. Between Adam & Eve, clearly Eve is the one who outsmarts the situation. She listens to the snake–who is actually telling the truth–and makes the better choice, the challenging choice. She is curious and weighs the options. Adam is just waiting like a baby in a high chair to be fed by his wife.
Adam Builds Hedges About the Law
Having a chat with a serpent has caused some scholars to view Eve skeptically.
Why does the serpent engage the woman and not the man? Why does the woman state that God forbid them not only from eating the fruit but from touching the tree in the middle of the garden (3:3)? God forbade only eating the fruit; God said nothing about touching it (2:17). Furthermore, the woman had not yet been created when God issued the injunction, so from whom did she get her information?
Apparently Adam didn’t think God’s actual command was enough. Like current prophets who say you should drive in the middle of the road rather than near the shoulder, he said don’t even touch the tree. And when you overcorrect, sometimes you end up encouraging people to do the prohibited thing because you’ve gone too far. The snake doesn’t have to lie; Adam’s credibility is shot by his own exaggeration, and by extension, God’s command is lost in the confusion. Good going, Adam.
Some traditions suggest that it was Adam’s fault, for in an attempt to prevent either of them from transgressing the divine command not to eat the fruit, Adam told Eve that she should not even touch the tree. . . . Adam’s injunction left just the opportunity that the serpent needed to deceive Eve, for when he showed her that she would not die for touching the tree, she ate the fruit.
That’s one theory you’re not likely to hear in Gospel Doctrine unless you bring it up yourself!
Eve as Progenitor of Female Tricksters & Rule-Breakers
The author notes that Eve, like many other women in the Bible, is portrayed (positively) as someone who is smart enough to break the rules and create better outcomes in so doing–for herself, for her family, and for humanity.
A number of women are portrayed as active tricksters who, like Eve, alter the rules, men’s rules. Would not women authors and audiences take special pleasure in Rebekah’s fooling her dotty old husband or in Rachel’s using men’s attitudes to menstruation to deceive her father Laban, or in Tamar’s more directly and daringly using her sexuality to obtain sons through Judah? Like Adam, the men in many of the women’s stories of Genesis are bumbling, passive, and ineffectual.
So the Bible stories portray women as clever and successful, but the men are portrayed like the Dads on TV who can’t figure out how to do laundry or help kids with homework. Apparently there really is nothing new under the sun. There are a lot of second wave feminists who like this approach to taking control, and there are also men of this era who likewise respect a woman who can get things done despite the assumed patriarchal background. These are the women who talk about the man being the head but the woman being the neck that turns and controls the head. It shows that in a patriarchal society when women are stripped of direct power, they find indirect ways to manipulate and control their situation. They use the tools available to them to protect their interests. As the book puts it:
Such is woman’s power in a man’s world, and it is not the sort of empowerment to which most modern women aspire. It is the power of those not in authority . . . . completely superior in wisdom to the men around her, that she seems to be the creation of a woman storyteller, one who is part of a male-centered world and is not in open rebellion against it, but who nevertheless subverts its rules indirectly by making Rebekah a trickster heroine, for this is also a woman’s power in a man’s world, a power of mockery, humor, and deception. One might even go further and suggest that the biblical writer grapples with masculinities and femininities and reveals in the tales of Rebecca, Isaac, Jacob and Esau a distinct preference for the archetypally feminine.
This preference is also marked by God preferring to work with “the weak things” or those without power who are disenfranchised, and Jesus’ mission did not work with existing church authorities, those in power; rather he decried their blindness and hypocrisy and said that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” He debased those who were exalted and exalted those who were debased.
God loves the weak because their success is testimony to the realization that all power comes from him. Who is weaker than women in the views of androcentric writers?
Eve as Jealous but Clever Wife
Another tradition says that when death was introduced, Eve understood very clearly the implications if Adam didn’t join her for lunch.
Once Eve ate the fruit, the Angel of Death appeared to her, and she quickly forced Adam to eat the fruit as well, lest he take another wife after she died.
Good thinking, girl. If only Lilith had thought of that!
Eve as Seductress
There is no biblical evidence to support this view of Eve that is so prevalent in artwork and literature, that she was a sexual seductress and that the “forbidden fruit” was a sex act. By contrast Gaugin portrayed Eve as she exists in the Bible:
Eve after the fall, serious and not at all self-conscious, a deliberate antithesis to the wanton, seductive Eve found in much of Western art.
Of course, most literature and art portrays women as either mother or whore. Not surprising that Eve would be so portrayed.
I’ll add a different perspective on the creation story from some of the reading later in the book.
Eve is Partially Exempt
From a later section of the Women’s Bible Commentary (on Deuteronomy), the author observes that Moses provides laws, but only to the men, clearly phrased for men to follow them. Women are left to wonder what applies to them and how it applies to them if at all.
This exclusion does not mean that women are permitted to transgress the law with impunity, but it does suggest that women are not treated as subjects. Nor are they full members of the community with the same obligations and responsibilities as the men.
We often refer to the Priesthood as a “duty” for men, one women don’t share (although it’s obviously also authority). This observation when applied to Eve makes particularly good sense because Eve wasn’t even given the command directly, only through Adam who gave her misleading information to protect her. If women are only ever given information indirectly through a male lens, perhaps the rules don’t apply equally to us.
There are many ways to look at Eve in the creation story, some more compelling than others. I found the Women’s Bible Commentary to be a pretty good overview of many of these theories and perspectives.
- What view of Eve do you find most compelling?
- Are there other theories not outlined here that you like more?
- Do you think women are partially exempt from men’s rules? Why or why not?
- How are women to interpret rules that are not addressed to them and that seem designed for a male perspective? Are there modern examples of this in the Church today?