Eve: A Feminist Interpretation of a Biblical Matriarch
Women in the Biblical Tradition
The Hebrew Bible, an anthology interlaced with a myriad of varying independent literary works, genres, authors, time periods, cultures, and traditions, starts in the Book of Genesis with two cosmogonies. It is the second text that founds some of the most basic notions of human depravity, gender construction, and anthropocentrism in our modern Western culture today; we are laden with religious platitudes, social norms, and a looming zeitgeist which have a host of interpretations of this text. It is vastly assumed that this narrative privileges males over females, with females receiving only a subordinate, secondary status as second born to men. As biblical scholar Phyllis Trible contends, Western culture interprets this story to espouse patriarchy via a host of technical points, such as the male’s creation first, the female deriving from the male, the male’s supposed sanction to rule over the woman, et cetera (73).
However, these views, which have been filtered through generations of interpretation, are heavily debated and questioned by many scholars today. A new wave of literary biblical criticism has challenged the ideas of sex and gender construction in this text. Specifically, we will look at the character of Eve, the one Adam named as the ‘mother of all the living’, as well as Adam, to understand how the ancient writers of this text understood what it means to be both a human and a woman. After viewing Eve in this story anew with academic insights, far from rigidly patriarchal, we will find this work of literary art profoundly intriguing, propagating women as distinctive, coequal, and sacred expressions of both humanity and God.
The second creation narrative in Genesis is a foundational myth to Ancient Israelite/Jewish communities regarding the character of their god, Yahweh, and a sort of etiology to the human condition. In it, we find the first human, ha-adam, and later Eve and adam, who give us a profound glimpse into the Israelite notions of both human and gender identity. We will analyze the text using literary, textual, and rhetorical criticism to tease out the construction of femininity as represented by the character Eve.
When we attempt to step into the textual world of this story in the Ancient Israelite myth, we find a deep world of possibilities for what it means to be human. The second creation narrative, contrary to many english translations, begins the creation of a human rather than a man, stating “The LORD God formed the human from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7 CEB, italics mine). In the original Hebrew text, the word for ‘formed’, יצֶר (yizter), is the verb used for God’s creative work, which is sometimes used elsewhere as a formed pot (Benner 239) (cf Psalm 2:9 JPS 1414).Thus, Yahweh here is an anthropomorphic god forming a human from the earth (Coogan 11). Both Yahweh’s human-like character as well as the human’s earthly makeup give us more vivid insights into the ancient Israelite anthropology propagated in this narrative.
Firstly, the human’s earthly origins are significant in substantiated its androgyny: the word ‘man’ (ESV, NRSV, or NIV) or ‘human’ (CEB) used in this text is הָאָדָם (ha-adam), which often means humanity, and the word for ‘ground’ or ‘earth’, which is הָאֲדָמָה (ha-adamah), together provide a complimentary meaning: ha-adam derives out of ha-adamah, thus rather than merely man, it could be rendered as a ‘being of the earth’, ‘earthling’, ‘earthly one’, or ‘human one’ (Benner 94). We discover, as scholar Carol Newson provocatively notes, that this ha-adam may actually be a dually sexed primordial human (6). Although ha-adam is later mentioned in verse twenty-three as ish, or ‘man’, she theorizes that this being is beyond gender boundaries, especially before the creation of ha-isha, or ‘the woman’.
As it is argued that ha-adam is androgynous, it is at the point that ‘the woman’ appears that ha-adam becomes adam; thus, the neuter, primordial human is formed into two gendered humans (Trible 98). This is the point at which sexual difference is constructed in the narrative, and thus subverts the patriarchal interpretation that ‘the man’ existed before ‘the woman’ was created, but rather that both were the creative results of the forming from the first human, ha-adam. This realization both gives notions of sexual equality and identification to the reader: although both sexes come into exist simultaneously, it is also the separation from one body that actualizes the two sexes’ distinctiveness and uniqueness. Thus, ‘the man’ and ‘the woman’ both are derived from one neutral being and are therefore constituted both of equal worth and differentiation. Ultimately, Trible sees both Adam and Eve not as the mere result of a greater ha-adam, as is understood as a hierarchy in patriarchal readings, but rather as the culmination of the creative act in the narrative (WBC 50); this is not too dissimilar from that of the first Genesis narrative, in which the last creative event was humanity, simultaneously both male and female, which were deemed ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:27, 31).
Secondly in the narrative, ‘the woman’ (ha-isha), who is later named Eve, emerges. Ha-adam is found without a helper, עֵזֶר (eyzer), and it is for this reason that Yahweh forms ‘the woman’ and manipulates ha-adam to create her. Interestingly, of the twenty-one times the term ‘helper’ (eyzer) appears in the Hebrew Bible, twelve times it is describing Yahweh as a helper to Israel, seven times it is generically describing ‘help’ that is needed, and twice it is found in Genesis for ha-adam’s helper (Gesinius DCXIX). For example, in describing Yahweh, the psalmist writes “We put our hope in the LORD. He is our help and shield” (Psalm 33:20 CEB, italics mine) (JPS 1449). In light of the overwhelming usage of this word, ‘helper’ is thusly reclaimed. In contrast to the popular Western, biblical imagination of Genesis two and three, the Israelite author provides herein a highly respectable role for ‘the woman’, not as a subordinate other to ‘the man’, but rather an empowering and highly dignified subject who is like a divine agent of help for the man (Benner 94).
As the narrative unfolds, Eve, rather than Adam, becomes their spokesperson to the serpent. In the first dialogue with the serpent, ‘the woman’ is addressed by the serpent, who uses plural verbs to indicate that he is communicating to both ‘the woman’ and ‘the man’ (Trible 108). For example, “He [the serpent] said to the woman, “Did God really say that you [plural] shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 3:1b CEB, italics mine). As the conversation continues, and the serpent continues to address both of them, it is clear that the serpent identifies the woman, not the man, as the representative of the couple, who came from one flesh (Trible 109). In this whole conversation, Adam is present, but intriguingly silent. Thus, as we will see, Adam will continue to be a passive character, only reacting to Eve, rarely talking or acting.
More precisely, in this conversation, Eve is even depicted as a sort of Rabbi, interpreting and declaring Yahweh’s command with theological insight, authority, and clarity to the serpent (Trible 110). Eve not only relays Yahweh’s edict to the serpent, she changes the word order and adds extra phrase. First, after describing to which tree Yahweh was referring, she then states that “but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die’” (Genesis 3:3b CEB, italics mine). Here, Eve adds the phrase ‘and don’t touch it,’ which Trible interprets as a very intelligent and informed move, displaying both her skill as an interpreter and her great desire to obey Yahweh; not touching the tree reinforces to a greater degree the piety with which one may be obedient: if one does not touch the tree, than one may surely not be able to eat of its fruit. Rather than fall into hierarchical patterns of patriarchy, Eve is the active spokesperson, interpreting and defending the spoken word of Yahweh from disobedience. Although she later disobeys, canonically speaking, Eve is the first biblical character to faithfully interpret and defend Yahweh’s commandment from an enemy.
Later in the story, while Eve does indeed take the forbidden fruit and disobeys, she has more of a prominent, heroic, human, and central role in the narrative than that of Adam. Being fully independent, without any counsel or conversation with Adam, she is the one who “saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it” (Genesis 3:6 CEB, italics mine). Eve is not deceptive, but rather straightforward and curious, actively taking initiative. She makes the decisions, and contrary to traditional patriarchal, he passively conforms. Whereas she disobeys by committing an act, he is disobedient by omission: he does not interrupt her activity, even though he is present throughout. He is silent and weak. She is clearly the protagonist and heroine of the story, active and animated, transcending boundaries, and seeking wisdom (WBC 31). In brief, Trible remarks, “If the woman is intelligent, sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept” (Trible 113).
Lastly, Yahweh accuses both Adam and Eve of their disobedience, but Eve is more righteous in her response. After Yahweh asks Adam if he ate from the tree, he responds “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate” (Genesis 3:12 CEB). In a scrambled account riddled with vanity, Adam accuses first the woman, then Yahweh, who gave him the woman, and then he finally concedes: “and I ate.” Eve, on the other hand, is asked “‘What have you done?!’ And the woman said, ‘The snake tricked me, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:13 CEB). Contrastingly, while Adam’s response took four verses, nine through twelve, and many more words to arrive at his confession, Eve is much quicker to confess. She does not blame her companion, or Yahweh, and she does not use the stronger word to give, ‘nathan’, but rather ‘to seduce’ or ‘deceive’ to characterize the cause of her disobedience. Thus, she ultimately accepts more responsibility for her fault and is more straightforward and honest with Yahweh than Adam (Trible 120).
Interestingly, there is a parallel between Adam and Eve’s accusation’s and confessions with their judgement. Just as Adam has a myriad of excuses and then blames Eve and Yahweh before confessing his disobedience, he also is accused a second time: “To the man he said, “Because you listened to your wife’s voice and you ate from the tree that I commanded, ‘Don’t eat from it,’ cursed is the fertile land because of you” (Genesis 3:17a, italics mine). Similarly, the serpent is charged, “Because you did this, you are the one cursed out of all the farm animals” (Genesis 3:14a CEB, italics mine). In contrast, however, the woman is not accused a second time or cursed. In only one verse, Yahweh charges “To the woman he said, ‘I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you’” (Genesis 3:16 CEB).
Thus, while Adam and the serpent are both cursed and accused, Adam accused a second time, the indictment against Eve lacks an accusatory clause or the word ‘curse’ (Trible 126). Since Adam earlier blamed Yahweh and the woman before confessing (v. 12), he is cursed by Yahweh and accused of listening to her in his judgement (v. 17). Eve’s confession, on the other hand, was received as correct by Yahweh: the snake indeed did trick her, and as a result, in the next verse, he is promptly accused and cursed. Since Eve was right in her confession, not blaming falsely as Adam had, she is not cursed or accused a second time in the judgement. Even the patriarchal notion listed as a curse to Eve, “You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16b CEB) is not evidence of the way things should be, but as a result of disintegrated, broken humanity.
Although many views have been held in Western tradition about Eve and biblical patriarchy, the ideas and work of feminist interpretation and biblical interpretation have given way to new imaginings of Eve. These views may provide a new way to identify what it means to be human, gendered, and created. Although there are many more layers of history, reception, philology, and literary criticism with these texts, some interpretations such as these provide the reader with a more life-giving and generous worldview for post-modernity in light of feminism. Perhaps, with these insights, we may re-appropriate and reclaim this text back into Western culture as dignifying, affirming, and celebrating the distinction between sexes and the virtue shared among all people.
Benner, Jeff A. The ancient hebrew lexicon of the Bible. Jeff A. Benner, 2005.
Coogan, Michael David. The Old Testament: A historical and literary introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Gesenius, William. “Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon of the Old Testament, transl.” SP Tregelles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 and 1986) (1857).
Newsom, Carol A. Genesis 2-3 and 1 Enoch 6-16: Two Myths of Origin and Their Ethical Implications.
Newsom, Carol Ann, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. eds. Women’s Bible commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia). JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: the traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation. Jewish Publication Society, 1999.
Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.