Adam and Eve

Neil Forsyth. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 1. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

Two different creation stories are told in the first three chapters of Genesis, with the break coming at Chapter 2:4b. The two stories come from quite different sources such that they use two different expressions for God: Elohim and Yahweh Elohim. In English Bibles those terms usually are translated “God” and “the Lord God.” Scholars refer to the supposed author of the first story as P, for “the Priestly writer,” who wrote in approximately 500 to 400 BCE, and the second often is known as J, or the Yahwist, from his title for God (spelled with a J in German). His narrative is much older, perhaps from the tenth or ninth century BCE.

The P Version and the J Version

In P’s version the creation of humankind (‘adam) comes on the sixth day as the climax of a series of acts: “male and female he created them.” Thus, man and woman are created simultaneously and together receive the command to “be fruitful and multiply,” to subdue and have dominion over the earth.

In the J story everything begins again, but this time there is no orderly progress over six days of divine activity. God makes man (‘adam again) from the dust of the ground (‘adamah, the first of several puns in this part of the story) and breathes into his nostrils the breath of life. Then God plants a garden eastward in Eden and puts the man there. God then makes all the trees grow, including the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He explains that the man may eat from every tree except the last one, for “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die.” Only then does God say, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as a partner” (2.18). Even so, the reader is made to wait while God first forms all the animals and birds and brings them to the man to name them. Then the story continues: “but for the man was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.” Then the man says a little poem: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.” (The word for woman, ‘ishshah, also involves a play on the word for man in 2:23b, ‘ish, a pun that also works in English.) Therefore, says the narrator, “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.”

The differences between the two stories are striking. In the first story language is generative: God speaks, and something comes into being. In contrast, in the second language is used for naming and ordering the world, and it is the man who is given that task. Indeed the focus of the Yahwist’s version is on man’s work, whereas the point of interest in the first story is Elohim, God. The most notorious difference is the creation of woman. In the first story God creates man and woman at the same time, but in the second God first makes man and then seems to search for a mate among the animals to which the man gives names before making another creature from the man’s rib. Most commentators see a contradiction between a story in which man and woman are equal from the beginning and one in which the woman is almost an afterthought, created simply as a helper for the man, and is inferior to him. Indeed, she apparently is given her title Woman as a kind of further act of naming by the man.

The focus on humankind becomes even clearer as the story continues in Chapter 3 with the story of the serpent and his address to the woman. The woman explains that God has forbidden the eating of the tree in the middle of the garden or they will die. However, the serpent persuades her to eat, saying, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Thus, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” and she took and ate and gave also to her husband. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” God then curses the serpent and makes him go on his belly in the future. He punishes the woman by increasing the pain of childbearing and by saying that her husband shall rule over her. He punishes the man by cursing the ground for his sake and telling him that “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” At this point—and only now—”the man named his wife Eve (hawwa), because she was the mother of all living [hay].” Finally God points out that “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Thus, so that the man cannot put out his hand for the tree of life as well and so live forever, God expels him from the garden of Eden.

Scholarly and Theological Interpretations

Every detail of the story has been analyzed by generations of scholars and theologians. The word ‘adam is eventually used without the article as a proper name only in the next chapter, at 4.25: “Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son.” Until that point it means “the man” or indeed “humankind,” as in P’s creation story. Eve is named only in 3:20, after what came to be known as “the Fall” (because of overlapping with the fall of angels from heaven), and as in the word for her husband, a pun or wordplay is involved. These playful usages are characteristic of the Yahwist: He even plays with the word for naked, ‘arummim, in 2:25 in that in the first verse of the next chapter he calls the serpent crafty (‘arum).

Does this mean that the story itself, with its magic trees and hesitant jealous God, is not serious in its original context? Is the talking snake who tells Eve the truth about the tree and God’s warning (as God admits in 3:22) a kind of trickster, a figure common in the myths of many other cultures? After all, this story fills a slot familiar from many other cultures: It narrates the origin of death and incidentally explains why people wear clothes.

Oddly enough, there is no further reference to the story in the whole of the Jewish scriptures. However, most subsequent commentators took the Eden story very seriously. For Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-50 CE) it was an allegorical warning of what can happen when the rational mind (Adam) allows itself to be overcome by the pleasures (the serpent) of the senses (Eve). In the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphical literature (200 BCE to 200 CE), the serpent came to be thought of as a form of Satan, and there was a good deal of speculation about the nature of the human sin: The desire for sex, for knowledge, or for sexual knowledge begins to appear as an explanation, but as to whether it was primarily Adam’s or Eve’s responsibility there were various opinions.

In I Enoch 98:4 neither Adam nor Eve are culpable (it is simply “people” who invented sin), and in 4 Ezra it was Adam’s “evil heart,” a common rabbinic concept, that was responsible. However, as time went on and especially in the later literature of Judaism, the Talmud and Midrash (200-600 CE), there was an attempt to shape women’s lives by retelling Eve’s story, usually by putting the blame on her. Already in Sirach (Ecclesiastes, 180 BCE) 25:24 it is said, “From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die,” although Eve is not named, and the reference may be more general, including the many bad women listed in the accompanying verses. Indeed, this may refer to the story of the seduction of the angels by the daughters of men, a myth mentioned briefly in Genesis 6:1-4 and given much fuller development in the various books of Enoch.

But there was a wide range of interpretive opinion even in the rabbinic tradition as scholars tried to cope with the apparent contradiction between the two creation stories: Was there an original androgyne or hermaphrodite, did God change his mind, were there two different Eves? In some cases Eve copulates with the serpent or with the evil angelic presence (Satanail in 2 Enoch 31:3-6) usually known as Sammael (who replaces or acts through the serpent) and gives birth to Cain (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 4:1, 5:3, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, chapters 21-22; Questions of Bartholemew 4:58-59, a Christian apocryphal gospel that echoes the Jewish stories). This idea also occurs in the teachings of Mani, which eventually gave rise to Manichaeism (Ibn al-Nadīm, Fihrist, 58:11-61:13), but for the most part the serpent is simply “more skilled in evil than all the beasts of the field.”

Eve in the New Testament

In the Christian New Testament the negative view of Eve is enormously influential. In 1 Timothy, one of the pseudo-Pauline pastoral epistles, Paul is made to write that women should not teach or have authority over a man and should even be silent during worship: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing” (1 Timothy 2:13-15). Such texts defined the subordinate role of women and still are cited in discussions about women serving as priests or bishops.

Yet the authority of women was clearly a major issue in the early Church, and those who opposed the orthodox, who generally are referred to as Gnostic, sometimes used the figure of Eve in a different way. Thus, in the Secret Gospel or Apocryphon of John, Eve represents the higher power that emerged from Adam as he slept, urging him to awaken to spiritual enlightenment. But from the end of the second century CE, when Irenaeus and others were denouncing such heretical ideas and establishing a sacred canon, orthodoxy was defining the path that much of subsequent Christianity would follow. A key text was 1 Corinthians 11.7, in which Paul says that women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying but not men, “since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. Indeed man was not made from woman, but woman from man.” The reference to the hierarchy of Genesis 2 is clear. Paul announced (Romans 5:12-17) that Christ was a second Adam and thus put the Genesis myth at the center of the story of fall and redemption that Christianity learned to tell. It was left to followers such as Justin to add the parallel relationship of Eve to Mary, and soon it was commonplace to see Mary’s virginity as the compensation for Eve’s sexuality. Interpretations often turn on ideas of sexual morality. Whereas Clement saw God’s blessing on marriage and procreation in Paradise, the ascetic Jerome insisted that God’s plan was for Adam and Eve to stay virgin: They were united in marriage only after the Fall and their shameful exile from “the Paradise of virginity” (Letter 22, 18).

The misogyny of the Church Fathers can be illustrated by a passage from Tertullian, who wrote “On the Apparel of Women” in about 202 CE and recommends (I:1) that women “affect meanness of appearance, walking about as Eve mourning and repentant, in order that by every garb of penitence she might the more fully expiate that which she derives from Eve—the ignominy, I mean, of the first sin, and the odium attaching to her as the cause of human perdition…. You are the devil’s gateway.”

Not all the Fathers were quite so definite. Thus, John Chrysostom invokes both the original equality implied by Genesis 1:27 and the subordinate status of Eve in the Yahwist’s story. He has his “loving God” say to Eve, “In the beginning I created you equal in esteem to your husband, and my intention was that you would share with him as an equal … but you abused your equality of status. Hence I subject you to your husband, and he will be your master” (Homily 17). Augustine also admits the original equality but spends most of his energy reflecting on the purpose of creating a woman—to have children (De Genesi Ad Litteram 9:5, 401 CE)—or on the doings of Eve and the serpent. Like most commentators he worries about Paul’s refusal of the image of God to her in 1 Corinthians 11:7, where she is instead the glory of man. Perhaps she had not yet received the gift of the knowledge of God but was supposed to receive it gradually from her husband. Thus, she jumped the gun. Adam, however, ate the fruit not through lust for his wife, which he still could control, but because “he did not wish to make her unhappy, fearing she would waste away without his support” (11.42.59).

This generous attitude to Adam did not last, and soon Augustine came to identify Adam’s deed as the “original sin” from which all people have suffered ever since, which befouled the world. He thought he found that idea in the text of Paul’s letter to the Romans 5:12 about Adam “in whom all have sinned.” Paul’s Greek text simply connects the origin of death with the fact that Adam had sinned, but in the Latin Vulgate translation it became the foundational text for a new and immensely influential doctrine: the transmission of Adam’s corrupt seed to all his descendants.

Interpretations in the Middle Ages

There was considerable resistance to this view of the story throughout the Middle Ages. One example is the Latin poemCarmen de Deo by Dracontius, from the end of the fifth century CE, in which the author describes Eve as she stands before Adam “naked like a nymph of the sea.” The two are commanded to live in honesta voluptas (honest pleasure). The writer is very clearly adapting the tradition of pagan Latin poetry, both Lucretius and Ovid, to the Christian topic. Throughout the tradition of representing the first humans there is an oscillation between adapting and rejecting the pagan world. In Augustine, and thus more often in the medieval period, it is rejected, but Augustine did allow for the possibility of sexual intercourse in Paradise.

Islamic Interpretations

After 600 CE Islam enters the picture as a distinct religious tradition. Adam is mentioned in several Suras of the Qur’an. Although Eve is not named, she is referred to as Adam’s mate or wife. Her creation is not mentioned, and she is not made responsible for the primary act of disobedience. But two of the learned traditions (hadith) contend that God created Eve (Hawwa in Arabic) as a source of “rest” for Adam (which the Qur’an itself says about all spouses) and emphasize her culpability by saying that Adam at first refused to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree (al-Tabari on Q.2.35 and 36, written in the 800s). In the Qur’an (Surahs 2 and 15 especially) the reason for Iblis or Shaitan to tempt her to disobedience is jealousy of Adam because the angels are told to prostrate themselves before him. This story is found first in the Adam literature that developed in Jewish and Christian circles, for example, in the text known by its Latin title asVita Adae et Evae (it exists in many other languages and variants, including Armenian and Greek), and it is one sign among many that early Islam made considerable use of noncanonical Jewish and Christian stories. The Islamic serpent has four legs in some versions, “as if it were a camel,” an idea that reappears in the medieval Jewish Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, in which the angel Sammael mounts and rides it, an unusual way of explaining how fallen angel and snake both could be present in the story (Chapter 13, c. 700-800s). In other versions, both Islamic and Jewish, Eve’s punishment is to bleed every month, “just as you have made this tree to bleed.” Again, as in some medieval Jewish versions, Eve’s method of seduction is to get Adam drunk, the forbidden fruit being a grape.

Jewish Interpretations

It is in the medieval period that within the Jewish tradition the rabbinic idea of Adam’s two wives, which comes from interpretation of the two successive creation stories in Genesis, develops the figure of Lilith as a separate first wife. But whereas God earlier had removed the first Eve because Adam was disgusted by her, now (e.g., in The Alphabet of Ben Sira, c. 800s-900s) Lilith leaves of her own accord, refusing to lie below Adam on the grounds that they are equal. In several legends Lilith lives on and becomes a general threat to men or to newborn babies, in alliance with demons. That idea was contested by many rabbis but remained popular.

Medieval Christians officially lived their faith in the light of Augustine’s misogyny. When Aquinas added a dash of Aristotle, man was understood as the “form” and woman as the “matter” of sexual reproduction. If all went well, a baby was male, but if something went wrong, such as a south wind blowing, a misbegotten or defective male, that is, a female, would result (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 13, Qu. Ia, 92, 99).

Female mystics often took a notably different view. Hildegard of Bingen, for example (1098-1179), argued that woman’s association with the body tied her more closely to the Incarnation. Eve was the mother of humanity (“all living” in Genesis), and Mary the mother of God incarnate: It was woman who gave humankind the chance to participate in the divine image. Christine de Pizan (1365-c. 1430) complained about clerics who indoctrinated schoolboys with stories of Adam and other men supposedly deceived by women. Instead, Eve innocently accepted the serpent’s words as true and guilelessly shared the news with Adam (“Letter of the God of Love,” 260-280, 604-616, 1399). In the Anglo-Norman play Mystère d’Adam (1150-1200) Eve thinks the fruit will give them great wisdom and charges Adam with cowardice when he refuses to eat; he then agrees. In some English medieval mystery plays Eve is under the impression that the visitor, an actor dressed in a snake costume and walking upright, is actually a messenger from heaven, and so she says to Adam: “A ffayr Aungell thus seyd me tylle / To Ete that appel take nevyr no drede” (Ludus Coventriae 11 238-239, 1450). The fruit had by then become an apple because of a Latin pun: Malum means “evil” (with a short a) and “apple” (with a long a). The expression Adam’s apple originates in the popular idea that the fruit stuck in his throat as he ate.

This partially sympathetic view contrasts with that of the Malleus Malleficarum [Hammer of witches] (1496), a work by two Dominican inquisitors that encouraged two centuries of persecution of witches on grounds such as that “there was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib.” That work collects much misogynist lore. It even describes the word Femina as coming from Fe and Minus, “she of lesser faith.” Adam “was tempted by Eve, not the devil, so she is more bitter than death,” it says, citing Revelations 6:8 (Part I, Qu. 6, ed Montague Summers, pp. 42-45). By contrast, in a Latin play by the Renaissance humanist Hugo Grotius, Adamus Exul (1601), Eve is faced with a choice between bearing a race of captives or a race of free men, and she acts in the name of freedom.

Protestant Interpretations

The leading figures of the Protestant Reformation took the Augustinian idea of original sin very seriously. The Fall had devastated all human life. In abolishing monasticism, Martin Luther insisted that patriarchal marriage was the necessary result of the Fall. Once equal partner to the man, woman was obliged through Eve’s sin to subject herself to her husband. For Jean Calvin, “Thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes” (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis Vol. 1, p. 172, on 3:16). Calvin had a complex understanding of the text of Genesis, which he read in the light of the New Testament passages, largely Pauline, that mention it. Thus, on the one hand, “Adam was not deceived but the woman” (1 Timothy 2.14), and so it was his wife’s allure, not Satan’s, that persuaded Adam. Thus, he was not present when the serpent tempted Eve (a matter about which the text of Genesis 3:6 leaves some doubt because “she gave also unto her husband with her”). On the other hand, Paul says at Romans 5:12 that “sin came not by the woman but by Adam himself” (Commentaries on Genesis 3:6): “No excuse was left to him who had obeyed his wife rather than God” (on 3:17).

These paradoxes are explored thoroughly in the most influential literary treatment of the story, Milton’s Paradise Lost, in which it is Adam who is made to bear the larger part of the blame because he falls “not deceived/But fondly overcome with female charm” (IX 999). Most of the more overtly misogynist statements are put into Adam’s mouth in his misery after the Fall, for example, when he aligns Eve with the serpent (like much of the tradition): “Out of my sight, thou serpent!” (X 867). Although some readers find a more specifically Miltonic misogyny in statements such as “He for God only, she for God in him” (IV 299) and in the explicit statement that she was made for subjection even if “required with gentle sway” (IV 308), others see those statements as the ways in which Milton honestly faced the implications of the story (especially in view of the Pauline interpretations) and of Western misogyny and thus explained Eve’s sin on the grounds of her feeling of inferiority: As she says while debating whether to give Adam the fruit, “for inferior, who is free?” (IX 825). Milton balances the egalitarian and hierarchical readings of Genesis. Adam had asked God for an equal and thought of Eve as “the last and best/Of all God’s works” (IX 896-897). Yet he is reproved explicitly for having been so moved by passion that he listened to his wife, whom he should have ruled.

An enormous variety of views about the Genesis story can be found amid the revolutionary fervor of early modern England in which Milton participated, and thence in American tradition. It had implications for ideas of government, gender, and class. Was Adam like a modern peasant, or was he far above later people in the heights of his intellect? Was Eve responsible for the lack of political rights among her daughters, modern women? Should contemporary society try to re-create the original state of Adam as patriarchal head of the family or as “borne free”? Even gardening manuals could hark after the original state of innocence and the holiness of digging.

The story was potentially subversive as soon as anyone began to question it seriously. Genesis 3:22 states: “Behold the man is become as one of us to know good and evil.” If God were not being ironic here, as many, such as Luther, were forced to argue, he admits the force and truth of the serpent’s discourse. The fruit did indeed contain real wisdom. So why was it banned? It is a short step from this question to the Socinian Stephen Nye’s position that the God represented by this story, who banishes Adam and Eve from the garden in case they should eat from the tree of life also, has “the just Character of an Almighty Devil. For if the Devil had Supream Power, what worse could he do?”

One justification that frequently has been offered for the ban on the fruit is that Adam and Eve were still like children, not ready for the knowledge contained in the fruit, especially if it was sexual knowledge (their lack of shame at their nakedness supported that reading). This doctrine is common in the Jewish tradition and in the Eastern (later the Orthodox) Church and was espoused especially by Irenaeus in the West. Augustine had rejected that view because it makes the temptation (in his view Satanic) unfair. Calvin followed Augustine and denounced the French Libertines for seeking “to return to that innocent state which Adam enjoyed before he sinned … and like a child let himself be led by his natural sense.” And yet an originally mature, adult Adam raises the problem of how he fell at all. Augustine had great difficulty with this in light of his exalted conception of Adam and Eve and eventually insisted on an inherent weakness of the will before the act of eating. His followers did not find the problem any easier to solve. No wonder Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire could describe the Western church’s adoption of Augustine’s views as conducted “with public applause and secret reluctance.”

Thinkers who were under Paracelsan influence thought of the forbidden tree as an aphrodisiac. Or was it a kind of magic “smart drug,” genuinely enlightening, as God admits, but overwhelming for human beings who were not properly prepared or adult? Other, even more radical trends began to be heard in this period. An example is the Quaker Margaret Fell, author of Women’s Speaking (1666), who rejected the hierarchical model and encouraged women to speak up in meetings. The seed promised to Eve’s descendants in Genesis 3:15, understood as Christ, more than compensated for the transgression, and the Church is spoken of as a woman. Anyone who denies all this is “of the Seed of the Serpent, wherein lodges the enmity.” Moreover, “Christ in the Male and in the Female is one.”

Interpretations in the United States

In the United States the Quaker influence was even stronger, and Sarah Grimké and her sister, former slave owners who converted to Quakerism, became prominent spokeswomen both for the abolitionist movement and for women’s rights. In her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1838) Sarah Grimké denounced the hierarchical reading of Genesis and argued ingeniously that the so-called curse of Yahweh to Eve was not a command but a prophecy: “Thou wilt be subject unto thy husband, and he will rule over thee.” Unfortunately, she thought, Hebrew does not differentiate shall from will as does English. The translators saw only through the medium of a perverted judgment. What the words actually mean is that “the consequence of the fall was an immediate struggle for dominion, and Jehovah foretold which would gain the ascendancy.” It is time to right that wrong, since Adam and Eve “fell from innocence and consequently from happiness, but not from equality.”

Other American sects, such as the Shakers, went so far as to argue from Genesis 1:26-27 that there is truly “a Heavenly Divine Mother as there is a Heavenly Divine Father” (Frederick W. Evans, Autobiography of a Shaker, 1888, p. 199). Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, went further. The true creation account was that in Genesis 1, whereas the contradictory version in Genesis 2-3 was simply an allegory of error. They could not both be true, and she picked out in particular the mist that arises in Genesis 2:6 and Adam’s sleep in 21-22 as signs of the error of giving predominance to the world of matter (circa 1875). Soon one among many of the spoof versions of the tale was written, Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve (1892-1893), in which the first extract from Adam’s diary begins: “This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way. It is always hanging around and following me about. I don’t like this; I am not used to company. I wish it would stay with the other animals.”

Contemporary Interpretations

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, especially in the United States, the story has continued to be a focus for debate, almost always political. Some conservative thinkers, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, have defended the hierarchical views implied by the text and insisted on the so-called household code of the New Testament, but under the inspiration of the feminist movement there have been new ways of reading the story.

In 1972 Phyllis Trible read a paper to the Andover Newton Theological Seminary in which she argued that God created an androgyne that became male only when God separated out the female parts for Eve. Genesis 3:16 did not sanction male supremacy but condemned it. The myth places under judgment the patriarchal culture from which it comes. Judith Plaskow, a Jewish scholar, wrote an essay called “The Coming of Lilith” in which she told a new story, in the mode ofmidrash, of Adam’s first wife as a woman so aware of her own value that she refused to become Adam’s servant. Adam then asked for a new and more docile partner, but eventually Eve escaped and joined Lilith, returning to Eden with plans to make it new. Within Islam there have also been some stirrings in these new directions, as in the work of Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani woman living in the United States who argues that in the Qur’an “both men and women were made in the same manner, of the same substance, at the same time.” The radical Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi used ambiguities in the Adam and Eve story as part of her attack on traditional gender roles. Such reinterpretations remain marginal, however, and the most important recent trends in Muslim countries have seen the strengthening of traditional patriarchal understandings of the religion.