Mother Eve part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Mother Eve part 1
God creates Eve to be of help to Adam. Learn more about Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the serpent.
According to the Eden story in the Hebrew Bible, Eve is depicted negatively in postbiblical tradition. However, feminist biblical scholarship of recent years has reclaimed her as a representative figure which signifies Israelite women's social and economic roles. A close look at the language portraying the creation of the first couple and their disobedience in Eden, followed by God's mandate for life outside the Garden, reveals Eve's partnership with Adam and her contributions to what will become family life. Her motherhood, notably in bearing and naming her first child Cain, has her participating with God in the creative act of maternity.
1 Postbiblical View of Eve
2 The First Woman in Genesis 1
3 The Woman of Eden and Her Partner
4 Disobedience and Its Consequences
5 Typical or Ideal examples, Causes, and origins
6 Mother Eve
Postbiblical View of Eve
According to 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 affected by postbiblical 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 part of the Hebrew narrative of Genesis but have become associated with her in Jewish and Christian interpretive traditions, a discussion of Eve means first pointing out some of those opposing views that are not inherent to the ancient Hebrew tale.
Although Eve is associated with the beginnings of sin in the earliest mentions of her outside the Hebrew Bible—in the non-canonical Jewish Book of Sirach, as well as in the New Testament and 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, murder. 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. Moreover, 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 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 postbiblical 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 how the Genesis 2–3 story appears to sanction notions of male dominance, has made a reconsideration of the Eden tale an essential 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. The contemporary feminist biblical study, for the most part, but not entirely, has tended to remove negative theological overlay (a covering either permanent or temporary), to recapture positive aspects of Eve's role, and generally to understand how this famous beginnings account might have functioned in Israelite culture.
The First Woman in Genesis 1
The first thing to be noted is the apparent contrast between how the creation of humanity is portrayed in Genesis 1 and its depiction in Genesis 2–3. The heaven-focused first chapter of the Hebrew Bible (actually, Gen 1–2:4a) is usually attributed to a Priestly author. In contrast, the earth-focused Gen 2:4b-3 creation story is probably an earlier account. The P account has God creating humanity in the divine image (Gen 1:26). The word for humanity, adam, is grammatically masculine and can mean a male and even be Adam's proper name. However, it is often used generically or collectively, as in Genesis 1, to denote a class of living beings, that is, people (rather than animals or God). Traditional translations render it "man," but more recent gender-sensitive translations now render it with inclusive words like "humanity" or "humankind." A further aspect of creation in Genesis 1 is that adam (humanity) is inclusive; it consists of both "male and female" (Zakhar and neqevah, Gen 1: 27; also Gen 5:2); these words generally denote two biological (sexual) categories and are used in the Bible for both people and animals. The simultaneous creation of females and males in the image of God is often interpreted as evidence of female-male equality in the first creation story. However, it is uncertain that these complementary biological categories are also social. In any case, the terms for the two parts of humanity in Genesis 1 are very different in the Garden of Eden story.
The Woman of Eden and Her Partner
The well-known Eden tale begins with the scene of a well-watered (fertile) garden—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 "clods of the earth adamah" (Gen 2:7). This wordplay evokes the notion of human beings as earth creatures: God forms an earthling from the earth, notably reddish-brown fertile land (for adam is likely related to adom, the Hebrew word for "red"). Because adam is often a gender-inclusive term, its use here for the first human does not necessarily mean a man. Indeed, some feminist readings of inclusive biblical language, rabbinic texts, and medieval Jewish commentaries consider the original human androgynous (having the characteristics or nature of both male and female), as does an ancient Mesopotamian creation tale. At the very least, God has to divide the first being into females and males for procreation and ongoing human life to begin. Because the word adam in Genesis 2–3 is not unambiguously male, it is best rendered "human" until a second person is created.
God tells this first being that anything in the Garden may be eaten except for the fruit of a particular tree. God then decides that this person should not be alone and tries animals as companions. Creating animals to populate the world with living creatures does not meet God's intentions. God then performs cosmic surgery on the first person, removing one "side" ("rib"; Gen 2:21) 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." The word ishah is now used for "woman" and ish for "man." These similar sounding words are probably not from the same Hebrew root, but they form a striking wordplay (as do adam and adamah), indicating an essential sameness of the two beings. This unity, a function of the one being split into two, 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" (Gen 2:24).
The relationship between this first pair of humans is expressed by the term Ezer kenegdo (Gen 2:20), translated "helper as his partner" by the NRSV, "fitting helper" in the NJPS (New Jewish Publication Society Version), and "helpmeet" or "help-mate" in older English versions. This unusual phrase probably indicates mutuality. The noun helper can mean either "an assistant" (subordinate) or "an expert" (superior; e.g., God as Helper in Ps 54:4 Hebrew 54:6). The modifying prepositional phrase, used only here in the Bible, apparently means "equal to." The phrase, which might be translated as "an equal helper" or "a suitable counterpart," indicates that no hierarchical relationship exists between the two members of the primordial pair. They form a marital partnership of the kind necessary for survival in the highland villages of ancient Israel, where the hard work of both women and men was essential. However, another translation is possible, one that retains the counterpart idea and also takes into account that ezer can be derived from a Hebrew root meaning "to be strong, powerful" rather than the one meaning "to help." The phrase would then be translated as "powerful counterpart." This reading is compelling because women had considerable power in rural Israelite households in the Iron Age.