Did Man or God Create Woman? Feminist Interpretations of the Story of Eve and Adam

Did Adam or God Create Eve?

Perhaps no text has influenced current gender roles and concepts of sexuality in Western culture more than the biblical Yahwist (J) account of creation found in Genesis 2-3. [1] This familiar story of the creation of Eve and Adam (the archetypal woman and man) in the Garden of Eden has a long and varied history of interpretation within the Christian tradition, having very often been used as a prooftext to demonstrate that women are inferior and/or subordinate to men socially, morally, and religiously. Such patriarchal and subordinating interpretations of Eve (and hence woman) to Adam (and thus man), in fact, are found in some biblical texts themselves. For instance, 1 Timothy 2.11-15 (NRSV, alternate translations in brackets), uses the story of Eve an Adam in an attempt to show why woman (or specifically wives) are not to teach but to keep silent in public worship and to fully submit to the authority of man (or her husband). According to the author of 1 Timothy (who is most likely not Paul, but a later disciple of Paul writing in his name), this is because Eve was created secondarily to Adam, and because she was the transgressor who was deceived by the serpent, while the man was not deceived. This passage reads:

Let a woman [wife] learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman [wife] to teach or to have authority over a man [her husband]; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

However, are such patriarchal interpretations of the Eve and Adam story correct? Is the text itself patriarchal–bent on demonstrating the inferiority and inequality of women to men–or is it simply that the text has been interpreted patriarchally throughout its history of interpretation (on account of the fact that it has most often been interpreted by male elitists), when in fact the text itself is actually egalitarian, underscoring the equality of the sexes?

The Yahwist account of Eve and Adam has received a number of (re)interpretations in modern feminist biblical scholarship. Feminist biblical scholarship, recognizing that gender is a social construct, and hence “a matter of power” [269], and that all writing is gendered in perspective, generally seeks to (re)discover the history and voices of women–whose written records are typically very limited and who have often been erased or ignored from historical memory–and to “expose the culturally based presuppositions in classic discourse.” (270) Here I will present several critically informed feminist interpretations of the story of Eve and Adam found in Genesis 2-3.

Phyllis Trible

Trible suggests that it is not until after the “fall” that hierarchical distinctions between man and woman come about; rather, before Eve’s and Adam’s banishment from the garden there is a high degree of equality between the sexes that is evinced in the text. She notes that God first made the human (adam) without gender, since, although a masculine pronoun is used for the new creature, it is not until the woman is made from this creature that the sexes are differentiated. Appealing to binary logic (the ability to establish difference[s] based on opposites), the male cannot really be distinguished without the female, and vice versa. Moreover, Trible suggests that woman is really the pinnacle of creation, and that it is significant that she is described as man’s “help(er)” (Hebrew ‘ezer), since this word is often used elsewhere as a descriptor of God–clearly a superior being to the man. Finally, she notes that woman is the active and assertive agent in the story, while the man is passive.

Mieke Bal

Bal develops Eve as “a character of great power” (271). Eve’s act of eating the fruit is truly humanity’s first act of human independence, making humanity, now possessing a real knowledge of good and evil, more like God/the gods (Gen. 3.22). It is by this act, Bal suggests, that humanity and divinity can truly enter into a genuine relationship. Eve did not “sin” (no such word is found in the story), but rather chose reality, and “her choice marks the emergence of human character” (271).

Carol Meyers

Meyers seeks to interpret the story of Eve and Adam within its historical-cultural context of ancient Israelite (pre-monarchical) agrarian society. For Meyers, the emphasis on food and sustenance, which would have been of the utmost importance in the context of an ancient agrarian society, overrides the themes of disobedience and its effects. The garden is well watered; there is no need for the toils of plowing, planting, and harvesting field crops. “For Meyers, Genesis 2-3 is not a story of “the fall” (no word for “fall” or “sin” is ever mentioned) but a wisdom tale dealing “with the meaning of the paradoxes and harsh facts of life”” (272). Meyers, based on her own translation of Genesis 3.16, suggests that God’s judgment for woman is not pain in childbirth but rather multiple pregnancies, and, like her husband Adam, increased agrarian toil. Her translation of Genesis 3.16 reads:

I will greatly increase your toil and your pregnancies; [along] with travail shall you beget children. For to your man is your desire, and he shall predominate over you.

Thus female subordination after Eve’s and Adam’s departure from the garden is limited to the domain of sexual activity, and is not concerned with general social hierarchy.

However, other commentators have been less optimistic that the character of Eve (and hence of woman in general) may be so equally rehabilitated. As mentioned, all writing is gendered, and “Genesis 2-3, as a story of origins, is, among other things, in the business of constructing gender roles…” The man “names both genders–and according to him, the woman is derivative of the man,” which is further underscored by the fact that God “relates woman to the man as his “helper”.” The man suggests that the woman’s primary role is to be the “mother of all living.” God assigns each sex their own specific duties. Thus “the narrative establishes a particular kind of life style for men and women” (273).

Susan Lanser

“Susan Lanser, applying the principles of speech-act theory to the text, argues that inference and context are as important to the production of meaning as the formal characteristics of language.” (273) Thus the man (Hebrew ha’adam), when first introduced into the story, would be assumed to have a masculine gender. Moreover, when the man calls the new creature “woman,” this is an act that defines her (and not simply a recognition of sexual difference), just as the man’s naming the animals defines them. Lanser argues that the accusatory formula of Genesis 3.14 that is directed to the serpent is carried over into Genesis 3.16, and so this statement is, in fact, a divine punishment, and not a simple descriptive statement.

David Clines

Clines, contra Trible, argues that the word “helper” attributed to Eve does not (necessarily) indicate her superiority to the man, and at any rate she is still secondary to the man and his status, roles, and function(s). For Clines, Eve is still only essential to the man for the act of procreation.

Phyllis Bird

Bird, although recognizing that the story of Eve and Adam is clearly androcentric in nature, nevertheless finds more to salvage than Lanser or Clines. For Bird the first human is certainly male (contra Trible), but the man does not fully represent humanity. Bird comments that “Although the help which the woman is meant to give to the man is undoubtedly help in procreation, the account in Genesis 2 subordinates function to passion. The attraction of the sexes is the author’s primary interest, the sexual drive whose consummation is conceived as a re-union” (274). For Bird, the subordination of woman to man is not a part of God’s original creation. Human sexuality, originally meant as a means of happiness and fulfillment, can be turned into a weapon of oppression.

David Jobling

Jobling, utlizing structuralist analysis informed by Marxist and feminist ideology, seeks to find meaning in the text by highlighting its own tensions. For Jobling, there is tension in the presentation of Eve. Although the story blames Eve (the woman) for the negative vicissitudes of life, nevertheless she is, as Trible pointed out, an active and intelligent character while the man is passive. Jobling observes that “at the deepest level of the text, where the fall myth as a whole is in tension with “a man to till the earth,” the possibility is evoked that the human transformation in which the woman took powerful initiative was positive, rather than negative, that the complex human world is to be preferred over any male ideal,” although he notes that this is not occasioned by an ancient feminist perspective, but rather by a patriarchal insecurity which attempts to both legitimize its power and make sense of “femaleness” (276).

Who Has Been “Deceived”?

As has been seen, there have been many different interpretations and applications, from ancient times until the present, of the story of Eve and Adam in Genesis 2-3. These interpretations bring a number of important questions to the fore: Is Eve truly equal to Adam, or is the biblical story of Eve and Adam irretrievably patriarchal? Or is there perhaps some middle ground? Simply, of what significance is the biblical story of Eve and Adam for informing a modern understanding of human sexuality and gender, and especially among those Judeo-Christian traditions (including LDS Christianity) that accept the Bible as an authoritative religious text in some sense? What interpretations of the story seem most valid to you, and why, and how can or should this text be appropriated in today’s society (or societies)?


[1] The following discussion is from Danna Nolan Fewell’s article “Reading the Bible Ideologically: Feminist Criticism” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), pgs. 268-282. All quotes (including those of other authors) and page numbers refer to this article.

8 Replies to “Did Man or God Create Woman? Feminist Interpretations of the Story of Eve and Adam”

  1. This brings to mind something that I’ve heard that a rabbi said: Eve was not taken from Adam’s feet to be under (inferior to) him, nor from his head to be over (superior to) him but from his side to be next to (equal with) him.

  2. YD, the Mormon application of the story of Eve is similar to some of the feminist scholars above in that it celebrates Eve’s power and decision to take the fruit. We even expand upon this idea to say that it was a decision that was necessary for the progression of the human race. Do you know if the Latter-day Saint presentation of Eve in this way was the first positive one in Western thought, or do we have others which preceded Joseph Smith?

  3. TYD,

    Thanks for the review of that chapter. I really liked To Each Its Own Meaning. It’s a great presentation of different approaches to scripture.

    I also have to admit that the feminist criticism chapter was my least favorite when I read the book initially. By isolating certain aspects of the chapter you made me reconsider my opinion of it. Thanks.

    One thing that she does gloss over, and which I wish she had spent more time on was this: “The Bible, for the most part, is an alien text, not written by women or with women in mind. Some feminist critics have asked why we should be reading the Bible at all.” (p. 270) That’s a powerful critique which I wish she would have addressed more thoroughly.

  4. BIV,

    Christian Gnostic and Jewish Kabbalistic teachings have elements that are much more positive towards Eve than more orthodox interpretations. Neither of those is a monolith, so interpretations will vary.

  5. Thanks David, I guess by Western thought I meant beginning with the 5th century church at Rome, just to distinguish from those earlier (more pagan influenced?) interpretations. I’m wondering if JS was truly innovative in his presentation of Eve, or if he was borrowing from other traditions.

  6. BIV,

    I second David Clark with the Jewish Kabbalistic and Christian Gnostic views. I hope you won’t dismiss these as “pagan influenced.”

    If anything, I believe Christianity was much more influenced by paganism after the Romanization of the Church.

    Some of these Gnostics were making an effort to preserve some of the knowledge and traditions that the Romanization took away.

    One of the fundamental pillars of knowledge they held on to is the fact that Eve was an instructor to Adam. It was she who made it possible for man to become like God. They (the Gnostics) believed Eve was a vessel of knowledge sent to Adam by God.

    When they partook of the fruit, the “Complexio Oppositorium” was put into effect, which is the idea that there must be opposition in all things for man to progress and experience joy. The Gnostics believe Eve knew this concept but Adam did not. Thus Eve saves Adam from the eternal damnation of ignorance (or the absence of gnosis) by becoming the vessel God uses to endow Adam with that gnosis.

    The Kabbalistic tradition is similar to Phyllis Trible’s interpretation. I am sure Trible used Kabbalistic elemets for that interpretation. The primordial creature being sexless, and the separation of the sexes, etc.

    On the other hand, while Joseph Smith acknowledged the immense importance of the complexio oppositorium (also a Masonic teaching) and that it in turn became possible due to Eve’s initiative, I am not sure about his interpretation of the Genesis account of the fall regarding the equality of Adam and Eve. In fact, notwithstanding his efforts to give women a leadership structure (Relief Society), I am not sure Joseph saw women as truly equal to men.

    While he clearly understood the necessity of the female character in the salvation of man (remarkably reflected in the meetings of the quorum of the annointed), some other events in his life also reflect a strong patriarchal influence (the polygamous period).

    It was not until recently that the specific text from Genesis that insinuates Eve is a subordinate to Adam due to her disobedience was removed from the Temple Endowment.

  7. Actually, I think the Gnostics were far ahead on these concepts than the LDS movement in Joseph Smith times ever was, perhaps even ahead of todays LDS views.

  8. Good post on an important topic.

    David Clark points out a very poignant quote in “Reading the Bible Ideologically: Feminist Criticism” (chapter title? does that mean only feminists read ideologically???) when Fewell expresses a fairly wide held opinion among biblical scholars that the bible was written by men and for men. The idea that the text is intrinsically patriarchal (and perhaps beyond rescue) has led some prominent Christian feminist scholars to look to other forms of worship (e.g. Ruether, Daly, etc). That being said, what Trible did with Gen 2-3 in “God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality” was nothing short of a lifeline to anyone who realized the patriarchal nature of the text (or interpretation of the text? or both?) and yet still wanted to place stock in the authority of the bible. The main weakness with Trible (in my opinion) is that rather than present her “rhetorical criticism” i.e. a complex set of poetic structures, “ring compositions”, and inclusios as one possible way to reconcile the text by means of a modern construction, she argues that the author(s) really meant it to be read in the manner she suggests (to be fair she was cutting edge in 1978 in the wake of Muilenberg’s “Form Criticism and Beyond”). Nevertheless, I think many still try and ague that the author(s) meant or were thinking this or that though such questions seem far beyond the realm of modern readers/interpreters. Furthermore, scholarship seems to point to a fully patriarchal society during the time in which Gen 2-3’s redaction took place. (although that may not hold true of an earlier society; see Meyers). Thus, maybe we should not be asking if Gen 2-3 is patriarchal or not, but rather, despite the fact that it seems to in fact be patriarchal in scope and nature, how should we read it in today’s society/churches? What “informal canonical” decisions should/can be made? Should any canonical decisions be made? Should/can such passages as the one quoted by TYD (1 Tim 2:11-15) and many others be informally removed from our own personal canons? Is it possible not to constantly make “informal canonical” decisions about scriptures? We all tend to hold up the passages and/or teachings (scriptural and otherwise e.g. GA’s teachings) we like and downplay those we don’t.

    Also, concerning LDS interpretations of Eve, I echo the previous question concerning LDS’s view on Eve. Does the idea that Eve was keen enough to further the plan begin with Joseph Smith as far as LDS teaching go? Also, how widely do you all think this principle is taught explicitly in seminaries/institutes/sunday schools?

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