How the first woman's relationship with man and God is complicated.

Print this page Print this page

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.

Enter Eve

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.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Carol Meyers

Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor in the department of religion at Duke University, where she teaches biblical studies, archaeology, and gender in the biblical world. As a field archaeologist, she has participated directed many excavation projects in Israel. Her recent book, Women in Scripture, is the most comprehensive study ever made of women in Jewish and Christian scriptures.