Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia
with permission of the author and the
Jewish Women?s Archive
The first woman, described in 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 post-biblical 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.
Did She or Didn’t She Sin?
Although Eve is linked with the beginnings of sin in the earliest mentions of her outside the Hebrew Bible–in the Jewish non-canonical 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 serpent 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.
And God Made Humans
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” 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” 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.