Rehabilitating Eve

We all know the story. Adam and Eve, naked as jaybirds, are wandering the garden. Then that devious, cunning, and above all evil snake points out the fruit to Eve and whispers suggestively, ‘Take, eat, for then will you be wise.’ Eve plucks the luscious fruit, and bites into it suggestively. Juice runs down her chin and between her naked breasts. Adam swoons. Eve flutters her eyelashes at him; ‘Take, eat, for then will you be wise,’ she murmurs. And Adam reaches out his hand to the ripe and fragrant fruit, raises it to his lips, and eats. In this way does sin enter the world—and it’s all the woman’s fault.

At least, the church fathers think so; the Apostle Paul thinks so; the author of 1 Timothy thinks so. Hundreds of medieval and Renaissance artists think so; numerous paintings portray her as sensual, sexual, seductive. In Europe and the United States, Eve was named the ancestor of all witches; her name was invoked time and again in the torture and slaughter of women during the great witch hunts. Eve was willingly deceived by the snake; Eve knowingly lured Adam into sin; because of Eve, all humanity is cursed; and so, on the assumption that all women are made in her image—not God’s—women have been silenced in God’s name for millennia.

But this image of Eve as an evil temptress is all wrong. When we go back to Genesis 2-3, we see that there is no mention of sin, ‘the fall’, or evil. Neither Adam nor Eve are tricked into eating the fruit: instead, Eve considers, decides, eats, then offers the fruit to Adam. And despite being told by God not to eat the fruit, Adam eats too. No deceit, and no temptation, are implied.

So where does the idea of a seductive, deceitful Eve come from? It’s not in the Hebrew Bible. Instead, it comes from other writings, the pseudepigrapha: early Jewish writings which were later rejected from the collection of texts which came to form the Biblical canon. For example, in the Apocalypse of Moses, we find a story in which Eve is described as having an affair with the devil. At her lover’s command, she deliberately entices Adam to eat the fruit. Although the devil is not mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, here the devil is a driving force. In another story, The Life of Adam and Eve, Eve is blamed for all sin; on Adam’s deathbed, Eve asks that he be absolved from sin, since absolutely everything is her fault. Other texts blame women for sexual depravity and for triggering desire in men; and they describe men as completely innocent of sexual wrongdoing—even in stories of incest and rape.

Unlike the story in Genesis, these stories maintained the status quo. They described life in the patriarchy: men are in charge and have absolute power over women and women’s bodies; women are subservient and blamed for men’s sin; this is how things are meant to be.

However, these stories were rejected from the canon because they were false descriptions of God’s relationship with humanity. But they’d already done their destructive work. They informed both New Testament writers and early church fathers, leading them to read seduction and enticement back into the stories of Creation. And so, for example, even although women were already accepted leaders and sponsors of the earliest churches, the writer of 1 Timothy prohibits women from taking leadership roles and speaking in church because of what he perceived as Eve’s absolute responsibility for the fall. This false reading of the Eve story is why, even now, men continue to dominate and women continue to be silenced and oppressed.

What is rarely admitted is that this false representation of Eve implies that Adam is pathetic. If all it takes for Adam to sin is a tempting woman, then he is not fit to rule over anything. The image of Eve as temptress implies a spineless Adam driven only by what’s below his waist. He becomes a powerless, gullible victim who cannot think for himself or take responsibility for his actions: hardly the material for true leadership.

Let’s go back to the Bible, then, and look at the stories which did make it into the canon: for there, instead of Eve the seductress and Adam the chinless wonder, we find a generous picture of humanity. In the first story of creation, ‘God created humanity in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.’ Neither male nor female was superior. Instead, they were both made in the image of God; they were both blessed; they were both told to be fruitful and multiply; they were both instructed to tend the earth: and God saw that this was good.

On the sixth day, women and men were made in the image of God, called to be partners in God’s ongoing creative work. We will never get back to the garden, yet we yearn for God’s original vision for us all. And we believe that Jesus Christ has dealt with sin once and for all, lifting even the curse of Eden. So let us accept this gracious gift and seek God’s goodness for all people, equally formed, equally capable, equally responsible, and equally precious in God’s generous and loving sight.

Peace,
Alison

Emailed to Sanctuary on 17 March 2021 © Sanctuary, 2021. Image credit: Kira Kira on Unsplash.

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