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

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Adam and Eve

The riveting and controversial story of human origins can best be understood as portraying archetypal human qualities, whereby the first humans represent all humans. The woman's name is Eve, which apparently is derived from a root meaning "to live." The introduction of her name is followed by a folk etymology; she is "mother of all living" (3:20). Her name is rich in symbolism, characterizing her archetypal role--as the first woman, Eve represents the essential life-giving maternal function of all women.

Eve is also the one who provides the first morsel of food, in a narrative in which the words for "food" and "eat" appear repeatedly. The repetition of such words in the story of human origins reflects the Israelite concern with sustenance in the difficult environment of the Canaanite highlands. Eve's action in handing the man some fruit may thus derive from the reality of women's roles in food preparation rather than from a depiction of temptation or seduction.

What about the Women?

The Eden story also serves etiological purposes. It helped ancient Israelites deal with the harsh realities of daily existence, especially in contrast with life in the more fertile and better watered areas of the ancient Near East, by providing an "explanation" for their difficult life conditions. The punitive statements addressed to the first couple prior to the expulsion from the garden depict the realities they will face. Men (Gen 3:17-19) will experience unending toil in order to grow crops from ground that is "cursed." And women?

This brings us to perhaps the most difficult verse in the Hebrew Bible for people concerned with human equality. Gen 3:16 seems to give men the right to dominate women. Feminists have grappled with this text in a variety of ways. One possibility is to recognize that the traditional translations have distorted its meaning and that it is best read against its social background of agrarian life.

Instead of the familiar "I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing," the verse should begin "I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies." The word for "work," izavon, is the same word used in God's statement to the man; the usual translation ("pangs" or "pain") is far less accurate. In addition, the woman will experience more pregnancies; the Hebrew word is pregnancy, not childbearing, as the NRSV and other versions have it. Women, in other words, must have large families and also work hard, which is what the next clause also proclaims. The verse is a mandate for intense productive and reproductive roles for women; it sanctions what life meant for Israelite women.

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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.