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Eve: Bible

by Carol Meyers

The first woman, according to the biblical creation story in Genesis 2–3, Eve is perhaps the best-known female figure in the Hebrew Bible. Her prominence comes not only from her role in the Garden of Eden story itself, but also from her frequent appearance in Western art, theology, and literature. Indeed, the image of Eve, who never appears in the Hebrew Bible after the opening chapters of Genesis, may be more strongly colored by postbiblical culture than by the biblical narrative itself. For many, Eve represents sin, seduction and the secondary nature of woman. Because such aspects of her character are not actually part of the Hebrew narrative of Genesis, but have become associated with her through Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions, a discussion of Eve means first pointing out some of those views that are not intrinsic to the ancient Hebrew tale.

Although Eve is linked with the beginnings of sin in the earliest mentions of her outside the Hebrew Bible—in the Jewish noncanonical Book of Sirach, as well as in the New Testament and in other early Jewish and Christian works—she is not called a sinner in the Genesis 2–3 account. To be sure, she and Adam disobey God; but the word sin does not appear in the Hebrew Bible until the Cain-Abel narrative, where it explicitly refers to the ultimate social crime, fratricide. Another misconception is that Eve tempts or seduces Adam. In reality she merely takes a piece of fruit—not an apple—and hands it to him; they both had been told not to eat of it, yet they both do. Also, the story is often thought to involve God’s cursing of Eve (and Adam), yet the text speaks only of cursing the ser-pent and the ground. And the Eden tale is frequently referred to as the “Fall” or “Fall of Man,” although there is no fall in the narrative; that designation is a later Christian application of Plato’s idea (in the Phaedrus) of the fall of heavenly beings to earth in order to express the idea of departure from divine favor or grace.

Such views are entrenched in Western notions of Eden, making it difficult to see features of Eve and her role that form part of the Hebrew tale. These features have been largely unnoticed or ignored by the interpretive tradition. This situation, and also the way in which the Genesis 2–3 story appears to sanction patriarchal notions of male dominance, has made a reconsideration of the Eden tale an important project of feminist biblical study ever since the first wave of feminist interest in biblical exegesis, which was part of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement in the United States. Contemporary feminist biblical study for the most part, but not entirely, has tended to remove negative theological overlay, to recapture positive aspects of Eve’s role, and generally to understand how this famous beginnings account might have functioned in Israelite culture. The literature dealing with Eve and her story is voluminous, and only a sample of the new perspectives can be discussed here.

The well-known Eden tale begins with the scene of a well-watered garden—so unlike the frequently drought-stricken highlands of the land of Canaan in which the Israelites lived. God has placed there an adam, a person formed from the “dust of the ground [adama] (2:7). This wordplay evokes the notion of human beings as earth creatures. The traditional translation of adam as “man” (NRSV and most English versions) at the beginning of the Eden story can be contested. The Hebrew word adam can indeed mean a male and even be the proper name Adam; but it can also be a generic term for a mortal, or a human being. Such may be the case here, according to some current feminist readings of biblical inclusive language as well as some medieval Jewish commentaries, thus implying that the original human was androgynous and that God had to divide it into two gendered beings in order for procreation and continued human life to begin.

God tells this first being that anything in the garden may be eaten except for the fruit of a certain tree. God then decides that this person should not be alone and tries animals as companions. Creating animals serves to populate the world with living creatures but doesn’t quite meet God’s intentions. God then performs cosmic surgery on the first per-son, removing one “side” (NRSV, “rib”; 2:21) to form a second person. The essential unity of these first two humans is expressed in the well-known words (Gen 2:23) “bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh,” which the “Man” (Hebrew ish) says to the “Woman” (Hebrew isha). This unity is reenacted in copulation, indicating the strength of the marital bond over the natal one: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24). The relationship between this first pair of humans is also expressed by the term ezer ke-negdo, translated “helper as his partner” by the NRSV and “helpmeet” or “help-mate” in older English versions (2:18). This unusual phrase probably indicates mutuality. The noun helper can mean either “an assistant” (subordinate) or “an expert” (superior); but the modifying prepositional phrase, used only here in the Bible, apparently means “equal to.” The phrase, which might be translated literally as “an equal helper,” indicates that no hierarchical relationship exists between the primordial pair.

The serpent now enters the scene. An intelligent being, it begins a dialogue with the woman, who is thus the first human to engage in conversation (a reflection perhaps of female skill with words?). The woman is the one who appreciates the aesthetic and nutritional qualities of the forbidden tree and its fruit, as well as its potential “to make one wise” (3:6). The woman and the man both eat and ultimately are expelled from Eden for their misdeed, lest they eat of the tree of life and gain immortality along with their wisdom. Eating of the forbidden fruit has made them like God, able to know, perceive, and understand “good and bad” (3:22)—meaning everything. But they must never eat of the life tree and gain immortality too.

The riveting and controversial story of human origins can best be understood as portraying archetypal human qualities, whereby the first humans represent all humans. The woman’s name is Eve, which apparently is derived from a root meaning “to live.” The introduction of her name is followed by a folk etymology; she is “mother of all living” (3:20). Her name is rich in symbolism, characterizing her archetypal role—as the first woman, Eve represents the essential life-giving maternal function of all women. Eve is also the one who provides the first morsel of food, in a narrative in which the words for “food” and “eat” (from the same Hebrew root, ’cl) appear repeatedly. The repetition of such words in the story of human origins reflects the Israelite concern with sustenance in the difficult environment of the Canaanite highlands. Eve’s action in handing the man some fruit may thus derive from the reality of women’s roles in food preparation rather than from a depiction of temptation or seduction.

The Eden story also serves etiological purposes. It helped ancient Israelites deal with the harsh realities of daily existence, especially in contrast with life in the more fertile and better watered areas of the ancient Near East, by providing an “explanation” for their difficult life conditions. The punitive statements addressed to the first couple prior to the expulsion from the garden depict the realities they will face. Men (Gen 3:17–19) will experience unending toil (izavon) in order to grow crops from ground that is “cursed.” And women?

This brings us to perhaps the most difficult verse in the Hebrew Bible for people concerned with human equality. Gen 3:16 seems to give men the right to dominate women. Feminists have grappled with this text in a variety of ways. One possibility is to recognize that the traditional translations have distorted its meaning and that it is best read against its social background of agrarian life. Instead of the familiar “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing,” the verse should begin “I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies.” The word for “work,” izavon, is the same word used in God’s statement to the man; the usual translation (“pangs” or “pain”) is far less accurate. In addition, the woman will experience more pregnancies; the Hebrew word is pregnancy, not childbearing, as the NRSV and other versions have it. Women, in other words, must have large families and also work hard, which is what the next clause also proclaims. The verse is a mandate for intense productive and reproductive roles for women; it sanctions what life meant for Israelite women.

In light of this, the notion of general male dominance in the second half of the verse is a distortion. More likely, the idea of male “rule” is related to the multiple pregnancies mentioned in the first half of the verse. Women might resist repeated pregnancies because of the dangers of death in childbirth, but because of their sexual passion (“desire,” 3:16) they accede to their husbands’ sexuality. Male rule in this verse is narrowly drawn, relating only to sexuality; male interpretive traditions have extended that idea by claiming that it means general male dominance.

Eve does not disappear from the biblical story at the expulsion from the garden. In a little-noticed introduction (4:1–2a) to the ensuing Cain and Abel narrative, Eve is said to have “created a man together with the Lord.” The NRSV translation—“produced a man with the help of the Lord”—obscures highly unusual language. The word for “create” is the same as the word used in the Bible for the creative power of God (Gen 14:19, 22) and in extrabiblical texts for the creativity of Semitic mother goddesses. Women in the Bible are said to “bear children,” not “create a man”; and creating a man “with” God puts female creative power alongside that of God. This view of the woman as the source of life, together with the more conventional notice of the birth of her second son, Abel (Gen 4:2a), is the last direct reference to Eve in the Hebrew Bible (although she is mentioned indirectly in Gen 4:25, where she gives birth to Seth). It follows the scene in which Adam names her, presumably signifying his power over her. Is that a male narrator’s attempt to compensate for the awesomeness of female creativity, akin to God’s?

Bibliography

Bal, Mieke. “Sexuality, Sin, and Sorrow: The Emergence of the Female Character.” In Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories. Indiana: 1987.

Bellis, Alice Ogden. “The Story of Eve.” In Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: 1994.

Clines, David J. A. “What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Irredeemably Androcentric Orientations in Genesis 1–3.” In What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament. Sheffield, England: 1990, 25–48.

Layton, Scott C. “Remarks on the Canaanite Origin of Eve.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59 (1997): 22–32.

Meyers, Carol. Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: 1988.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Morris, Paul, and Deborah Sawyer, eds. A Walk in the Garden: Biblical, lconographical, and Literary Images of Eden. Sheffield, England: 1992.

Pardes, Ilana. “Creation According to Eve.” In Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, MA: 1992.

Ibid. “Beyond Genesis 3: The Politics of Maternal Naming.” In Countertraditions in the Bible: A Feminist Approach. Cambridge, MA: 1992.

Trible, Phyllis. “A Love Story Gone Awry.” In God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadelphia: 1978, 72–143.

2 Comments

Carol, I see you've studied the Eden story extensively. So have I. My book, "The Secret Dowry of Eve," narrates similar sentiments as yours. However, I would like to point out that Eve was never given any commandment forbidding her the fruit. Only Adam was given that commandment and he was alone when the commandment was issued. Eve did not yet exist when the commandment forbidding the eating of the fruit was issued. My take on that is related directly to the text. Adam was forbidden the fruit because he was alone. It was his solitude, his existence without a female partner, that determined the need to forbid him that fruit. His inability to interpret the fruit, to understand the fruit, to properly digest the fruit was hindered without a "helpmate." So, until then, he is forbidden the fruit, and if he dares disobey and eats the fruit when he is alone, he will die. So then, Eve is created, she eats the fruit, gives it to Adam, and neither of them dies. Instead, their eyes are opened. That's what the text says. So Eve being blamed for tempting Adam is simply a misconstrued assumption with no basis in the facts narrated in the story. According to the story, it seems that her role as "helpmate" was specifically to aid him in eating that fruit without dying, because it's the only act she performs as a helpmate. And it certainly helps him. He doesn't die. Instead his eyes are opened. I find it interesting that a text which begins with the creation of light, then goes on to narrate a story in which Adam and Eve have their eyes opened. To me, it's a direct connection between light and seeing, and specifically a new kind of seeing, inner seeing, or enlightenment, germinated by Eve's eating of the fruit.

Also, in Genesis 2:24, in which Adam is directed to leave his father and mother (his family) and cleave unto his wife, you claim that interpretations of the "helper" or "helpmate" refer to equality. Yet Genesis 2:24 directs Adam to cleave unto his wife. It does not direct Eve to leave her family and cleave unto Adam. It seems to me that something besides equality is going on here. It directs Adam, the male, to leave his family, his heritage, his patriarchy, and instead cleave unto his opposite gendered partner, the woman. Couldn't it be saying that the male agenda should be left behind and the instead the female agenda should be adopted, because it promotes life?

ORIGINAL SIN PROOF-TEXT BY STEVE FINNELL

The original proof-text for original sin is Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. (NASB)

Was David a sinner at conception? No. Was David a guilty of sin at his birth? No. David was a sinner only after he broke God's commandments.

Psalm 51: 1 Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; According to your compassion blot out my transgressions. (NASB)

David asked God to blot out his transgressions. David did not asked God to blot out the guilt that he inherited from Adam. He did not ask God to block out the guilt of sins that he inherited from his mother and father.

Psalm 51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin. (NKJV)

David wanted to be cleansed from his sin. David did not ask God to cleanse him from original sin.

Psalm 51:3 For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. (NASB)

David did not transgress one of God's laws by being conceived. David did not commit sin by being born.

Psalm 51:4 Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge. (NKJV)

David did not do evil by being conceived and being born.

Psalm 51:5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. (NASB)

David was conceived in a sinful world. David was born into a world filled with sinner's. David was not guilty of the false teaching of original sin.

Psalms 139:13-14 For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb. 14 I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. (NASB)

God formed David in his mothers womb. God did not create David guilty of Adam's sin nor guilty of anyones sin. God does not create sin. How could a sinner be wonderfully made?

Genesis 1:27 God created man in His own image , in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (NASB)

God created David in His own image. Is God's image that of a sinner? David was created innocent of sin just like every person that God creates today. All men are created in God's image.

Mark 10:14 ..."Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (NASB)

Jesus said the kingdom of God belongs to children. Did Jesus mean the kingdom belongs to dirty little sinners who were guilty of Adam's sin at conception. Did Jesus mean that children who were sinners at birth belong in God's kingdom. If the false doctrine of original sin is true how did these children have their sins wash away. Jesus gave this command after His death. Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved...). Small children and infants are not guilty of sin.

Romans 3:23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,(NASB)

Men will go hell because of the unforgiven sins they commit. Men will not go to hell because they were sinners at conception. Men will not go to hell because they were sinners at their birth. Men will not go to hell because they are guilty of Adam's sin. Men will not go to hell because they are guilty of a false sin. The doctrine of original sin is a false doctrine invented by man and perpetuated by the uninformed.

YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot....

How to cite this page

Meyers, Carol. "Eve: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 24, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/eve-bible>.

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