March 9, 2014
“Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread”
On the whole, the Women’s Liberation Movement is hostile to the Bible, even as it claims that the Bible is hostile to women. The Yahwist account of creation and fall in Genesis 2-3 provides a strong proof text for that claim. Accepting centuries of (male) exegesis, many feminists interpret this story as legitimating male supremacy and female subordination. They read to reject. My suggestion is that we reread to understand and to appropriate. Ambiguity characterizes the meaning of ‘adham in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, man is the first creature formed (2:7). The Lord God puts him in the garden “to till it and keep it,” a job identified with the male (cf. 3:17-19). On the other hand, ‘adham is a generic term for humankind. In commanding ‘adham not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Deity is speaking to both the man and the woman (2:16-17). Until the differentiation of female and male (2:21-23), ‘adham is basically androgynous: one creature incorporating two sexes.
Concern for sexuality, specifically for the creation of woman, comes last in the story, after the making of the garden, the trees, and the animals. Some commentators allege female subordination based on this order of events. They contrast it with Genesis 1:27 where God creates ‘adham as male and female in one act (Ft. 3). Thereby they infer chat whereas the Priests recognized the equality of the sexes, the Yahwist made woman a second, subordinate, inferior sex. But the last may be first, as both the biblical theologian and the literary critic know. Thus the Yahwist account moves to its climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman (Ft. 5). She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination. Genesis 1 itself supports this interpretation, for there male and female are indeed the last and truly the crown of all creatures. The last is also first where beginnings and endings are parallel. In Hebrew literature, the central concerns of a unit often appear at the beginning and the end as an inclusio device (Ft. 6). Genesis 2 evinces this structure. The creation of man first and of woman last constitutes a ring composition whereby the two creatures are parallel. In no way does the order disparage woman. Content and context augment this reading.
The context for the advent of woman is a divine judgment: “It is not good that ‘adham should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (2:18). The phrase needing explication is “helper fit for him.” In the Old Testament the word helper (‘ezer) has many usages. It can be a proper name for a male (Ft. 7). In our story, it describes the animals and the woman. In some passages, it characterizes Deity. God is the helper of Israel. As helper Yahweh creates and saves. Thus ‘ezer is a relational term; it designates a beneficial relationship; and it pertains to God, people, and animals. By itself, the word does not specify positions within relationships; more particularly, it does not imply inferiority. Position results from additional content or from context. Accordingly, what kind of relationship does ‘ezer entail in Genesis 2:18, 20? Our answer comes in two ways: (1) The word neged, which joins ‘ezer, connotes equality: a helper who is a counterpart (Ft. 9). (2) The animals are helpers, but they fail to fit ‘adham. There is physical, perhaps psychic, rapport between ‘adham and the animals, for Yahweh forms (yasar) them both out of the ground (‘adhumah). Yet their similarity is not equality. ‘Adham names them and thereby exercises power over them. No fit helper is among them. And thus the narrative moves to woman . . . God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.
Let us pursue the issue by examining the account of the creation of woman ([verses] 21-22). This episode concludes the story even as the creation of man commences it . . . The ring composition suggests an interpretation of woman and man as equals. To establish this meaning, structure and content must mesh. They do. In both episodes, Yahweh alone creates. For the last creation the Lord God “caused a deep sleep (tardemah) to fall upon the man.” Man has no part in making woman; he is out of it. He exercises no control over her existence. He is neither participant nor spectator nor consultant at her birth. Like man, woman owes her life solely to God. For both of them, the origin of life is a divine mystery. Another parallel of equality is creation out of raw materials: dust for man and a rib for woman. Yahweh chooses these fragile materials and in both cases processes them before human beings happen. As Yahweh shapes dust and then breathes into it to form man, so Yahweh takes out the rib and then builds it into woman. To call woman “Adam’s rib” is to misread the text, which states carefully and clearly that the extracted bone required divine labor to become female, a datum scarcely designed to bolster the male ego. Moreover, to claim that the rib means inferiority or subordination is to assign the man qualities over the woman which are not in the narrative itself. Superiority, strength, aggressiveness, dominance, and power do not characterize man in Genesis 2. By contrast, he is formed from dirt; his life hangs by a breath which he does not control; and he himself remains silent and passive while the Deity plans and interprets his existence.
The rib means solidarity and equality. ‘Adham recognizes this meaning in a poem:
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.
She shall be called ‘ishshah [woman]
because she was taken out of ‘ish [man] (2:23).
The pun proclaims both the similarity and the differentiation of female and male. Before this episode the Yahwist has used only the generic term ‘adham. No exclusively male reference has appeared. Only with the specific creation of woman (‘ishshah) occurs the first specific terms for man as male (‘ish). In other words, sexuality is simultaneous for woman and man. The sexes are interrelated and interdependent. Man as male does not precede woman as female but happens concurrently with her. Hence, the first act in Genesis 2 is the creation of androgyny (2:7), and the last is the creation of sexuality (2:23) (Ft. 12). Male embodies female, and female embodies male. The two are neither dichotomies nor duplicates. The birth of woman corresponds to the birth of man but does not copy it. Only in responding to the female does the man discover himself as male. No longer a passive creature, ‘ish comes alive in meeting ‘ishshah.
Some read into the poem a naming motif. The man names the woman and thereby has power and authority over her (Ft. 13). But again . . . reread. Neither the verb nor the noun name is in the poem. We find instead the verb gara’, to call: “She shall be called woman.” Now, in the Yahwist primeval history this verb does not function as a synonym or parallel or substitute for name. The typical formula for naming is the verb to call plus the explicit object name. This formula applies to Deity, people, places, and animals. For example, in Genesis 4 we read:
Cain built a city and called the name of the city after the
name of his son Enoch (v. 17).
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son
and called his name Seth (v. 25).
To Seth also a son was born and he
called his name Enoch (v. 26a).
At that time men began to call upon the name of the Lord
Genesis 2:23 has the verb call but does not have the object name. Its absence signifies the absence of a naming motif in the poem. The presence of both the verb call and the noun name in the episode of the animals strengthens the point:
So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field (2:19-20).
In calling the animals by name, ‘adham establishes supremacy over them and fails to find a fit helper. In calling woman, ‘adham does not name her and does find in her a counterpart. Female and male are equal sexes. Neither has authority over the other. A further observation secures the argument: Woman itself is not a name. It is a common noun; it is not a proper noun. It designates gender; it does not specify person. ‘Adham recognizes sexuality by the words ’ishshah and ’ish. This recognition is not an act of naming to assert the power of male over female. Quite the contrary. But the true skeptic is already asking: What about Genesis 3:20, where “the man called his wife’s name Eve”? We must wait to consider that question. Meanwhile, the words of the ancient poem as well as their context proclaim sexuality originating in the unity of ’adham. From this one (androgynous) creature come two (female and male). The two return to their original unity as ’ish and ’ishshah become one flesh (2:24): (Ft. 15) another instance of the ring composition.
Next the differences which spell harmony and equality yield to the differences of disobedience and disaster. The serpent speaks to the woman. Why to the woman and not to
the man? The simplest answer is that we do not know. The Yahwist does not tell us anymore than he explains why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was in the garden. But the silence of the text stimulates speculations, many of which only confirm the patriarchal mentality which conceived them. Cassuto identifies serpent and woman, maintaining that the cunning of the serpent is “in reality” the cunning of the woman (Ft. 16). He impugns her further by declaring that “for the very reason that a woman’s imagination surpasses a man’s, it was the woman who was enticed first.” Though more gentle in his assessment, von Rad avers that “in the history of Yahweh religion, it has always been the women who have shown an inclination for obscure astrological cults” (a claim which he does not document).’’ Consequently, he holds that the woman “confronts the obscure allurements and mysteries that beset our limited life more directly than the man does,” and then he calls her a “temptress.” Paul Ricoeur says that woman “represents the point of weakness,” as the entire story “gives evidence of a very masculine resentment” (Ft. 18). McKenzie links the “moral weakness” of the woman with her “sexual attraction” and holds that the latter ruined both the woman and the man (Ft. 19).
But the narrative does not say any of these things. It does not sustain the judgment that woman is weaker or more cunning or more sexual than man. Both have the same Creator, who explicitly uses the word good to introduce the creation of woman (2:18). Both are equal in birth. There is complete rapport, physical, psychological, sociological, and theological, between them: bone of bone and flesh of flesh. If there be moral frailty in one, it is moral frailty in two. Further, they are equal in responsibility and in judgment, in shame and in guilt, in redemption and in grace. What the narrative says about the nature of woman it also says about the nature of man.
Why does the serpent speak to the woman and not to the man? Let a female speculate. If the serpent is “more subtle” than its fellow creatures, the woman is more appealing than her husband. Throughout the myth, she is the more intelligent one, the more aggressive one, and the one with greater sensibilities. Perhaps the woman elevates the animal world by conversing theologically with the serpent. At any rate, she understands the hermeneutical task. In quoting God, she interprets the prohibition (“neither shall you touch it”). The woman is both theologian and translator. She contemplates the tree, taking into account all the possibilities. The tree is good for food; it satisfies the physical drives. It pleases the eyes; it is esthetically and emotionally desirable. Above all, it is coveted as the source of wisdom (haskil). Thus the woman is fully aware when she acts, her vision encompassing the gamut of life. She takes the fruit, and she eats. The initiative and the decision are hers alone. There is no consultation with her husband. She seeks neither his advice nor his permission. She acts independently.
By contrast, the man is a silent, passive, and bland recipient: “She also gave some to her husband, and he ate.” The narrator makes no attempt to depict the husband as reluctant or hesitating. The man does not theologize; he does not contemplate; he does not envision the full possibilities of the occasion. His one act is belly oriented, and it is an act of quiescence, not of initiative. The man is not dominant; he is not aggressive; he is not a decision maker. Even though the prohibition not to eat of the tree appears before the female was specifically created, she knows that it applies to her. She has interpreted it, and now she struggles with the temptation to disobey. But not the man, to whom the prohibition came directly (2:16). He follows his wife without question or comment, thereby denying his own individuality. If the woman be intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept. These character portrayals are truly extraordinary in a culture dominated by men. I stress their contrast not to promote female chauvinism but to undercut patriarchal interpretations alien to the text.
The contrast between woman and man fades after their acts of disobedience. They are one in the new knowledge of their nakedness (3:7). They are one in hearing and in hiding. They flee from the sound of the Lord God in the Garden (3:8). First to the man come questions of responsibility (3:9, 11), but the man fails to be responsible: “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (3:12). Here the man does not blame the woman; he does not say that the woman seduced him (Ft. 21); he blames the Deity. The verb which he uses for both the Deity and the woman is ntn (cf. 3:6). . . . This verb neither means nor implies seduction in this context or in the lexicon. Again, if the Yahwist intended to make woman the temptress, he missed a choice opportunity. The woman’s response supports the point. “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate” (3:13). Only here occurs the strong verb nsh’, meaning to deceive, to seduce. God accepts this subject-verb combination when, immediately following the woman’s accusation, Yahweh says to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all animals” (3:14).
Though the tempter (the serpent) is cursed (Ft. 22), the woman and the man are not. But they are judged, and the judgments are commentaries on the disastrous effects of their shared disobedience. They show how terrible human life has become as it stands between creation and grace. We misread if we assume that these judgments are mandates. They describe; they do not prescribe. They protest; they do not condone. Of special concern are the words telling the woman that her husband shall rule over her (3:16). This statement is not license for male supremacy, but rather it is condemnation of that very pattern (Ft. 23). Subjugation and supremacy are perversions of creation. Through disobedience, the woman has become slave. Her initiative and her freedom vanish. The man is corrupted also, for he has become master, ruling over the one who is his God-given equal. The subordination of female to male signifies their shared sin (Ft. 24). This sin vitiates all relationships: between animals and human beings (3:15); mothers and children (3:16); husbands and wives (3:16); people and the soil (3:17-18); humanity and its work (3:19). Whereas in creation man and woman know harmony and equality, in sin they know alienation and discord. Grace makes possible a new beginning.
A further observation about these judgments: they are culturally conditioned. Husband and work childbearing) define the woman; wife and work (farming) define the man. A literal reading of the story limits both creatures and limits the story. To be faithful translators, we must recognize that women as well as men move beyond these culturally defined roles, even as the intentionality and function of the myth move beyond its original setting. Whatever forms stereotyping takes in our own culture, they are judgments upon our common sin and disobedience. The suffering and oppression we women and men know now are marks of our fall, not of our creation.
At this place of sin and judgment, “the man calls his wife’s name Eve” (3:20), thereby asserting his rule over her. The naming itself faults the man for corrupting a relationship of mutuality and equality. And so Yahweh evicts the primeval couple from the Garden, yet with signals of grace (Ft. 25). Interestingly, the conclusion of the story does not specify the sexes in flight. Instead the narrator resumes use of the generic and androgynous term ’adham with which the story began and thereby completes an overall ring composition (3:22- 24). Visiting the Garden of Eden in the days of the Women’s Movement, we need no longer accept the traditional exegesis of Genesis 2-3. Rather than legitimating the patriarchal culture from which it comes, the myth places that culture under judgment. And thus it functions to liberate, not to enslave. This function we can recover and appropriate. The Yahwist narrative tells us who we are (creatures of equality and mutuality); it tells us who we have become (creatures of oppression); and so it opens possibilities for change, for a return to our true liberation under God. In other words, the story calls female and male to repent.
1. See inter alia, Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 51-54; Eva Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1970), pp. 38f; Mary Daly, “The Courage to See,” The Christian Century, September 22, 1971, p. 11 10; Sheila D. Collins, “Toward a Feminist Theology,” The Christian Century, August 2, 1972, p. 798; Lilly Rivlin, “Lilith: The First Woman,” Ms., December 1972, pp. 93, 114.
2. Cf. E. Jacob, Theology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Bros., 1958), pp. 172f; S. H. Hooke, “Genesis,” Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 179.
3. E.g., Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed that Genesis 1:26-28 “dignifies woman as an important factor in the creation, equal in power and glory with man,” while Genesis 2 “makes her a mere afterthought” (The Woman’s Bible, Part I [New York: European Publishing Company, 1895], p. 20). See also Elsie Adams and Mary Louise Briscoe, Up Against the Wall, Mother . . . (Beverly Hills. Glencoe Press, 1971), p. 4.
4. Cf. Eugene H. Maly, “Genesis,” The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 12: “But woman’s existence, psychologically and in the social order, is dependent on man.”
5. See John L. McKenzie, “The Literary Characteristics of Gen. 2-3,” Theological Studies, Vol. 15 (1954), p. 559; John A. Bailey, “Initiation and the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3,” Journal of Biblical Literature, June 1970, p. 143. Bailey writes emphatically of the remarkable importance and position of the woman in Genesis 2-3, “all the more extraordinary when one realizes that this is the only account of the creation of woman as such in ancient Near Eastern literature.” He hedges, however, in seeing the themes of helper and naming (Genesis 2:18-23) as indicative of a “certain subordination” of woman to man. These reservations are unnecessary; see below. Cf. also Claus Westermann, Genesis, Biblischer Kommentar 1/4 (Neukerchener-Vluyn: Newkirchener Verlag, 1970). p. 312.
6. James Muilenburg, “Form Criticism and Beyond,” Journal of Biblical Literature, March 1969, pp. 9f; Mitchell Dahood, “Psalm I,” The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1966), passim and esp. p. 5.
7. See 1 Chronicles 4:4; 129; Nehemiah 3:19.
8. See Psalm 121:2, 124:8; 146:5; 33:20; 115:9-11; Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29.
9. L. Koehler and W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1958), pp. 591f.
10. The verb bnh (to build) suggests considerable labor. It is used of towns, towers, altars, and fortifications, as well as of the primeval woman (Koehler-Baumgartner, op. cit., p. 134). In Genesis 2:22, it may mean the fashioning of clay around the rib (Ruth Amiran, “Myths of the Creation of Man and the Jericho Statues,” BASOR, No. 167 [October 1962], p. 24).
11. See Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone (Gen. 2:23a),” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, October 1970, pp. 532-42.
12. In proposing as primary an androgynous interpretation of ’adham, I find virtually no support from (male) biblical scholars. But my view stands as documented from the text, and I take refuge among a remnant of ancient (male) rabbis (see George Foot Moore, Judaism [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927]), I, 453; also Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Meridian Books, The World Publishing Company, 1970), pp. 152ff., 279f.
13. See e.g., G. von Rad, Genesis (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 80-82; John H. Marks, “Genesis,” The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1971), p. 5; Bailey, op. cit., p. 143.
14. Cf. Westermann, op. cit., pp. 316ff.
15. Verse 24 probably mirrors a matriarchal society (so Von Rad, op. cit., p. 83). If the myth were designed to support patriarchy, it is difficult to explain how this verse survived without proper alteration. Westermann contends, however, that an emphasis on matriarchy misunderstands the point of the verse, which is the total communion of woman and man (ibid., p. 317).
16. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, n.d.), pp. 142f.
17. Von Rad, op. cit., pp. 87f.
18. Ricoeur departs from the traditional interpretation of the woman when he writes: “Eve n’est donc pas la femme en tant que ‘deuxieme sexe’; toute femme et tout homme sont Adam; tout homme et toute femme sont Eve.” But the fourth clause of his sentence obscures this complete identity of Adam and Eve: “toute femme peche ’en Adam, tout homme est seduit ’en Eve.” By switching from an active to a passive verb, Ricoeur makes only the woman directly responsible for both sinning and seducing. (Paul Ricoeur, Finitude et Culpabilite, II. La Symbolique du Mal. Aubier, Editions Montaigne [Paris: 1960]. Cf. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil [Boston: Beacon Press, 1969], p. 255).
19. McKenzie, op. cit., p. 570.
20. See Bailey, op. cit., p. 148.
21. See Westermann, op. cit., p. 340.
22. For a discussion of the serpent, see Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, op. cit., pp. 255- 60.
23. Cf. Edwin M. Good, Irony in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), p. 84, note 4: “Is it not surprising that, in a culture where the subordination of woman to man was a virtually unquestioned social principle, the etiology of the subordination should be in the context of man’s primal sin? Perhaps woman’s subordination was not unquestioned in Israel.” Cf. also Henricus Renckens, Israel’s Concept of the Beginning (New York: Herder & Herder, 1964), pp. 127f.
24. Contra Westermann, op. cit., p. 357.
25. Von Rad, op. cit., pp. 94, 148.