Defending Eve: A Case for an Egalitarian Interpretation of the Creation Story
Contrary to popular interpretations, the creation story actually depicts an egalitarian utopia between men and women, an ideal that is entirely conducive with both feminism as well as the progressive teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.
Prominent interpretations of the Biblical creation story throughout history, and more specifically the characterizations of Eve, the first woman in Biblical creation, have led to more catastrophic abuses and exploitations of women than arguably any other interpretations of scripture. From 13th century philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, who believed Eve to be a “defective and misbegotten” male (Summa Theologiae, Ia q.92, a.1, Obj. 1), to 2nd century theologians like Tertullian who branded Eve “the devil’s gateway” and the “unsealer of that forbidden tree” (On the Apparel of Women, 196–212 C), powerful thought leaders throughout history have exploited the creation story for their own misogynist purposes. According to these interpretations, Eve’s apparent inferiority, stupidity, and wickedly seductive nature are inherent characteristics to be found, and feared, in all womankind. Even later verses in the Bible cite the nature of Eve as reason to never let women, “take over and tell the men what to do. They should study to be quiet and obedient along with everyone else” (1 Timothy, 2:11–15). But the question begs to be asked, is the creation story of the Bible inherently sexist, as these famous interpretations suggest? If not, why would discovering a more accurate characterization of Eve still be relevant today, over two millennia since Genesis was written? The most widely known expositions of Eve, and the subsequent harm those misogynist expositions have since inflicted upon millions of women throughout history, suggest that no flattering, progressive, or feminist alternative interpretation exists for the first woman in creation. Upon further reflection and analysis, however, one finds that the creation story actually depicts an egalitarian utopia between men and women, an ideal that is entirely conducive with both feminism as well as the progressive teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. A slew of misunderstandings, including the misinterpretation of the ancient words used to describe Eve, may explain why she is so wrongly characterized as subordinate to Adam by God’s design. Eve’s choice to eat the apple has often been used as a brush to paint women as impressionable, stupid, or easily deceived, but her actions may more accurately suggest her capacity for intelligence rather than her naivete. Eve’s choice to offer the apple to Adam has routinely been cited as evidence for a women’s instinct towards seduction and treachery, but this logic does not hold up at all under scrutiny. Critics may argue, and rightfully so, that even if a more egalitarian interpretation of the creation story can be found, the stories surrounding women in both the Old Testament and many verses in the New Testament seem wildly contradictory to egalitarian ideals. But a strong case can be made that the subordination of women has no place in God’s utopia as described in Genesis, and true equality between the sexes, as it began in the Garden of Eden, should be what believers of the Bible actively strive for.
But doesn’t the fact that Eve was created after Adam, and from his rib, imply that she is somehow inferior? Doesn’t God refer to Eve as Adam’s “helper” (Genesis, 2:18), confirming her subordinate status? Many interpreters of the creation story have used these elements of Eve’s origins as an excuse to view women as secondary to men. For example, verses in the Bible use this logic as reason for women to chastely cover themselves, stating how, “A man ought not cover his head, since he is in the image and the glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (Corinthians 1:7–9). Contrary to this analysis, however, it’s worth noting that before Eve is even introduced, God is said to have “created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis, 1:27). This verse clearly states how men and women, though separate entities, reflect the image of God equally. Historian and Biblical scholar Christopher L.C.E. Whitcombe aptly points out that while Eve was indeed conceived after Adam in the creation story, being first in the timeline of God’s seven day creation in no way suggests a hierarchy of value or importance. On the contrary, God’s beloved humans were created on the very last day, in the image of God himself. Further, creating Eve from Adam’s rib, philosopher Elaine Storkey suggests, is further proof of the equality between the genders rather than evidence of Adam’s superiority. She astutely points out that while other animals were made out of clay in the second Genesis account, God chose to make Eve not from the dirt by which Adam was created but from Adam’s own body, implying their sameness. Still, Genesis describes the purpose of Eve as a “helper” (Genesis, 2:18) for Adam, and many have taken this description as proof of a woman’s divine destiny for male subservience. But even the interpretation of the word helper to mean servant can be easily disputed, its origins deriving from the Hebrew word ezer, a word used repeatedly throughout the Bible to describe a savior, rescuer, or protector, and even to describe God himself many times (Man and Woman, Ch. 5, P. 111). No foundational basis exists for assigning a subservient connotation to ezer when looking at the entire context of the word throughout scripture. In short, before Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden, no evidence suggests that God’s idea of utopia included female servitude, subordination, or inferiority.
Why then, if Eve is just as perfect in the eyes of God, was she the one the serpent chose to entice? As many interpretations go, the serpent recognized a feminine naivete and lesser capacity for intelligence in Eve, making her a prime target for temptation. This exclusively feminine stupidity, some have argued, was the direct cause of Adam’s betrayal, her foolishness being entirely responsible for his fall. In Genesis 3:5, the serpent convinces Eve to eat the apple by telling her that her, “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Upon being caught, Eve indeed told God that, “the serpent deceived me, and I ate,” (Genesis, 3:13) but where was the deception? The serpent informed Eve of exactly what was to happen, and she acted upon what turned out to be a completely factual statement made by the snake. She was told the apple was “desirable for gaining wisdom” (Genesis, 3:6) and made an autonomous choice to accept the fate of knowledge. One can assign any number of motivations to Eve’s decision, and could even accuse her of lying to God about the deception of the snake, but ascribing the eating of the apple to an act of inherent female stupidity holds no merit.
Though Genesis describes Eve as Adam’s divine companion, many believe Eve’s wicked powers for seduction to have been directly responsible for his inevitable downfall. Just as the Virgin Mary has come to represent the pinnacle of female purity in Christianity, Eve has come to represent the harmful stereotypes of a women: untrustworthy, conniving, and seductive. For thousands of years, these characterizations of Eve, and all women in turn, paved the way for rampant abuses of women ranging from the suppression of their education to the witch huntings of the Early Modern Period. But is there any valid evidence for this wild characterization of the temptress Eve in scripture? In Genesis 3:7, it is said that Eve, “gave [the apple] to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it”. But where in scripture does it say that Eve used her sexual prowess to beguile him into eating the apple, or that she shoved the apple down his throat? Did Adam really have so little autonomy that he was required to eat the apple just because Eve handed it to him? Even Adam can’t accept his own personal responsibility, demoting his description of Eve in a matter of a few verses from “flesh of my flesh” (Genesis, 2:23) to “the woman you put here with me” (Genesis, 3:12). It could be said that Adam didn’t know what kind of apple he was eating, or was unaware that it came from the forbidden tree, and this theory could perhaps be debated. Still, scripture’s description of Adam eating the apple proves a far cry from the exaggerated and ridiculous retellings of a wanton temptress forcefully and sexually seducing him into evil.
Still, feminist critics of the Bible may argue that even if one could entertain an egalitarian interpretation of Eve’s creation story, this ideal is a far cry from the rampant misogyny found in the rest of scripture. How then, does one reconcile a creation story rooted in equality within the context of a book riddled with misogyny? Like any analysis of Biblical verse, attempts to reconcile discrepancies and contradictions so seemingly prevalent in scripture proves difficult, this to be no exception. But a sharper focus on the perfect and equal state of men and women in the Garden of Eden, before their banishment into the real world, provides an understanding for how an egalitarian interpretation of the creation story may have a home in the greater narrative of the Bible. There is no mention of men ruling over women until Adam and Eve are banished from the garden in Genesis 3:16, where God proclaims to Eve, “thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” One could perhaps interpret this state of equality between the sexes in Eden as being part of God’s utopian ideal, and a woman’s subordination to be a consequence of living in the reality outside of paradise. This interpretation also mirrors the teachings of Jesus Christ and his radically equalitarian behavior towards women. For Christians, who believe the teachings of Christ mark a revolutionary completion of the original scriptures, the ideals of peace and equality in the Garden of Eden may serve as a perfect bookend to the arrival of Christ. For those who follow the teachings in the Old Testament alone, those same ideals could be seen as something to which all believers should aspire.
Biased and bigoted interpretations of the creation story, rather than the story itself, have perpetuated the idea of Eve’s inferiority, stupidity, and seductive nature for thousands of years. A more egalitarian approach to the creation story not only represents scripture more accurately but is also more cohesive with the revolutionary teachings of Jesus Christ, and feminism as a whole. But why, after thousands of years, is the push for a more egalitarian lens to view Eve’s creation story so important? Perhaps some may believe a reinterpretation of the creation narrative two millennia after the fact to be useless or without merit, but the idea of reimagining historical documents which heavily influence modern culture is by no means unprecedented, or without great utility. As with the re-evaluations and evolving interpretations of documents such as the U.S. Constitution, sometimes it takes centuries to discover the most accurate interpretation of a text. When progressions are made in constitutional rights, the Constitution is not abolished or cast aside but rather reimagined to reflect what modern legal activists and politicians believe to be the most accurate and profound reading of those rights. By that same logic, the creation story is not so much a like a lethal weapon to women’s rights but more like a hammer, which can be a useful tool or a bludgeoning weapon, depending on who is wielding it. Whether one wholeheartedly believes creationism to be scientific fact, or one appreciates the creation story as a meaningful allegory, understanding the true role of the first woman in the Bible proves vital to protecting the treatment and characterizations of women among religious communities today.
B. Becking & S. Hennecke (Eds.), Out of Paradise. Eve and Adam and Their Interpreters (pp. 50–66). Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. (Hebrew Bible Monographs)
Boff, L. (2011). Feminist interpretation of the creation story. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.alainet.org/en/articulo/148732
Edwards, K. (2008). Sex and the Garden: Representations of Eve in Postfeminist Popular Culture. doi:http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6110/1/489713.pdf
Elerick, G. (2013, February 20). God Without Religion. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/god-without-religion_b_1693449
Jiang, C. (2016, December 01). A Change to a Popular Bible Text Could Affect How Readers View Women. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/bible-evangelicals-womanhood-marriage/508076/
Milne, P. (1989, March 26). Genesis From Eve’s Point of View. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1989/03/26/genesis-from-eves-point-of-view/dc371184-1f4c-4142-ac2d-d5efee72a0da/
Payne, P. B. (2009). Man and woman, one in Christ: An exegetical and theological study of Paul’s Letters. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Ph.D., P. (2016, October 12). Trump’s Sexism Is Deeply Biblical. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-secular-life/201610/trumps-sexism-is-deeply-biblical
Sabin, M. (1996). Feminist Interpretations of Certain Bible Passages. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Projects/Reln91/Gender/fembible.htm
Tertullian. (2018). On the Apparel of Women. Lighthouse Publishing.
The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments. (2010). London: Trinitarian Bible Society.
Thomas, Shapcote, L., Mortensen, J., & Alarcón, E. (2012). Summa theologiae. Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine.
Whitcombe, C. L. (2000). Eve and the Identity of Women. Retrieved November 11, 2020, from http://witcombe.sbc.edu/eve-women/3eveidentity.html
Women’s Bible disputes ‘patriarchal’ readings. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/11-january/news/world/women-s-bible-disputes-patriarchal-readings