By Bex Canner
The biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is well known in Jewish and Christian traditions, as well as in secular culture. It’s a story that has been used to explain human sin, suffering, and the dominance of men over women. Shawna Dolansky sums up the common interpretation, in which the serpent (representing Satan) tempts the woman (Eve) to eat fruit from a forbidden tree in the garden. Eve then seduces or tricks the man (Adam) into eating the fruit. God punishes both of them for their disobedience and, in doing so, decrees that the man is to rule over the woman. This interpretation dates to the second century BCE, and Christian writers as early as the New Testament cite this story to describe how sin entered the world (Rom. 5:19) and to justify male superiority over women (1 Tim 2:12–14).
A different interpretation
More recent scholarship has proposed other ways to interpret the story. As I read the text with the help of scholars such as Carol Meyers and Phyllis Trible, a story emerges that varies significantly from the one I heard as a child. It is a story of the origin of an intimate relationship between the Creator and humankind, a partnership between two human beings, and the rupture in both relationships due to a series of events involving a serpent, a woman, a man, and a bit of fruit.
The focus of this present exegesis is on the nature of the relationship between the woman and the man and the ways in which the narrative of Gen 2:4b–3:24 (attributed to the Yahwist author—the “J” source in textual tradition) explains the origin of difficulties in human relationships that exist to this day.
In pulling out from this text the key elements in the relationship between the man and the woman, several points emerge, which will be dealt with in this essay:
- The man and the woman were created as equal partners.
- The crafty serpent talks to the woman, while the man remains silent.
- When confronted with their disobedience, the man blames the woman and God (while the woman blames the snake).
- The consequence for the woman is that her relationship with the man is henceforth unequal and difficult.
The man and the woman were created as equal partners
Traditional interpretations hold that woman was created to be inferior to man. The writer of 1 Timothy cites the order of creation to justify male superiority. In their nineteenth century commentary, Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch claim that “by this the priority and superiority of the man, and the dependence of the woman upon the man are established as an ordinance of divine creation.” John Collins interprets the word “helper” (Gen 2:18, 20) as “one who takes a subordinate role.”
Phyllis Trible disagrees. ’Adham (“Adam”) is gender neutral, “a generic term for humankind. . . . Until the differentiation of female and male (Gen 2:21–23), ’adham is basically androgynous” (p. 74). For the first time, God declares something in Creation “not good,” that is, for ’adham to be alone (Gen 2:18). God must make an ‘ezer kenegdo for the ’adham. What is lacking, according to familiar English translations, is a “helper.” Nahum Sarna writes, “This term cannot be demeaning because . . . ‘ezer . . . is often used of God in . . . relation to Man,” citing as examples Psalm 70:5 and Psalm 121:1–2 (p. 21). Carol Meyers translates kenegdo as “corresponding to,” noting that “the phrase connotes a nonhierarchical relationship” (p. 73).
The partner is created from the rib of the ’adham, who then recites a poem of delight: “This one at last is bone of my bones . . .” (Gen 2:23a NJPS). Trible emphasizes that at this point, the two humans are differentiated as male and female for the first time. (p. 76). “This one shall be called Woman [’iššāh], for from Man [’iš] was she taken” (Gen 3:23b NJPS).
Both Sarna (p. 23) and Meyers (pp. 75–76) explain that the etymology of the words ‘iš and ’iššah are not related; but in the context of this verse, they are used to convey, by their assonance, that the man is the counterpart to the female. The ’adham only becomes male when presented with the female. (This, of course, suggests that the original meaning of the text does not support the interpretation that woman was made from man, and is, therefore, somehow inferior or subordinate.) Walter Brueggemann explains how this verse “suggests nothing of the superiority of the male” but demonstrates a covenant relationship “rooted in an oath of solidarity.” The picture at the end of Genesis 2 is of a happy relationship of mutual aid and trust. But it soon breaks down, beginning with the serpent approaching the woman.
The crafty serpent talks to the woman
The next scene (Gen 3:1–6) is notable for what is not there—or who is not there. In the conversation with the serpent, the woman never mentions her husband, although, as Trible (p. 79) points out, the woman alludes to him in interpreting God’s command. In any case, the dialogue is entirely between the serpent and the woman, as if the man is not there. Or is he? This question is the subject of debate that centers on the meaning of the word ‘immah in Gen 3:6b: “she took of its fruit and also gave to her husband <who was> with her, and he ate.” (Bernard Grossfield explains that the < > indicates the “item so enclosed does not occur in the Aramaic but is necessary for English syntax.”)
The word ‘immah literally means “with her” and is rendered as such in most English translations (e.g., NRSV, KJB, NASB). In some, the words “who was” are added (NIV, ESV). In others, the word is simply left untranslated (NJPS). Jean Higgins describes the dilemma as partially grammatical. Is the word a preposition, conveying a physical location? Or does it simply mean that the woman ate the fruit and the man ate also? There is much to unpack here, as this phrase has been subject to many pages of commentary, including versions of Gerhard von Rad’s leap that “[t]he one who was led astray now becomes a temptress” (p. 87). But what does it say about the relationship between the woman and the man?
Trible pictures the man standing silently alongside the woman during the entire conversation with the serpent. She describes the woman as “the more intelligent one, the more aggressive one, and the one with greater sensibilities . . . [while] the man is a silent, passive, and bland recipient” (p. 29). Sarna agrees that the presence of the word ‘immah and the use of the plural form when the snake speaks to the woman both suggest that the man was present the entire time (p. 25). Higgins elaborates on the evidence for the man’s presence but then backs away from the notion that the man would just stand there silently, “leaving the woman to do the talking . . . only at the end to reach out his hand and accept . . . it is hard to take seriously.”
Older commentators also have difficulty imagining a scenario in which the man would stand by and watch Eve fall into sin without intervening. I think there is a strong case for the silent presence of the man at the scene of the temptation, but regardless of where he is located, he remains silent and he and the woman let each other down. The woman decides to pick the fruit and, fully aware of her disobedience, gives some to her husband. The man willingly accepts it and they both eat. The fact that they immediately notice their nakedness (Gen 3:7) is a sign that their relationship has started to unravel. This is poignantly described by William P. Brown as “a conventional world order in which their nakedness, once the occasion for delight and intimacy now signals deficiency and defensiveness” (p. 86).
The man blames the woman and God, and the woman blames the serpent
But it gets worse. Ashamed and frightened, the pair attempt to hide from God. When confronted, their immediate response is to apportion blame (Gen 3:12–13). Adam’s response is perhaps the sadder of the two. He blames God for giving him the woman, whom, just a few verses earlier, he was praising as “bone of my bones.” Then, to use a common American idiom, he “throws her under the bus.” “Adam’s response involves betrayal of Eve, accusation of God, and finally acceptance of responsibility,” says Alice Bellis. And in the process, “the solidarity between the pair has been broken” (p. 28).
It leaves one wondering which was the greater sin: the disobedience or the failure to own up to it and repent? It is interesting to note, as Higgins does, that God turns Adam’s blame of his wife back on him when his punishment is handed down. “Because you have listened to your wife . . .” (Gen 3:17). Higgins asserts that, while this phrase may imply that the woman tempted or deceived Adam, in reality, God is merely picking up the man’s own excuse and using it as a basis for his punishment (p. 645).
Consequence: The woman’s relationship with the man becomes unequal
The final blow to the relationship comes in God’s words to the woman (Gen 3:16). Trible writes that “the judgments . . . show how terrible human life has become as it stands between creation and grace” (p. 80). Carol Meyers’s detailed exegesis puts Genesis 3:16 into the context of life as a woman in ancient Israel (pp. 81–102), and Ronald Simkins sees these consequences as a description of an ancient understanding of the biology of reproduction (pp. 50–51). In that context, the woman’s role as child-bearer becomes hard and painful work, requiring many pregnancies, the possibility of repeated loss through stillbirth and infant death, and the dilemma of dependence on the man who ultimately holds the power to impregnate her (Meyers, pp. 97–102; Simkins, pp. 49–50).
Although their methods of interpretation differ, both Trible and Meyers emphasize that God’s words to the woman in Genesis 3:16 are not meant to imply a divine sanctioning of the domination of men over women. Trible’s assertion that the words are “descriptive, not prescriptive” (p. 80) has turned out to be true. For thousands of years after the writing of this narrative, relationships between men and women have been fraught with difficulty, betrayal, and male domination. In a sad and ironic twist, justification for domination and subjugation of women by men has, at least in part, been found in Chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis.
Hope, Healing, and Redemption
The story ends with an act of kindness—God making proper clothes for the man and woman (Gen 3:21) (Levenson, p. 16) —and a voice of hope, in which the woman is called “Eve . . . the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20 NJPS). The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word havvah (translated “Eve” in English) is “Zȏȅ,” the Greek word for “life.” Broken relationships are not the end of the story. There is hope for healing and redemption.
Volumes of commentary have been written about the Yahwist creation narrative of Gen 2:4b–3:24. The story has been the basis of much Jewish and Christian theology, as well as sacred and secular literature. It has been used to explain the origins of sin, humankind’s “fall from grace,” and the etiologies of hard work, suffering, and male dominance. However, the narrative also tells of the rupture of the created relationship between male and female and alludes to the hope of redemption and healing. Careful reconsideration of the original narrative in context can also, perhaps, bring healing to those harmed by over two thousand years of misappropriated patriarchal interpretation.
1 Alice Ogden Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 46. See also Carol Meyers, Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 62–63. The first references to the woman being the source of sin are in the apocryphal Wisdom of Ben Sira 25:24 “From a woman sin had its beginning and because of her we all die” (NRSV) and the pseudepigraphical Life of Adam and Eve 35:2–3: “Thus Adam . . . cried out with a loud voice, ‘What shall I do? I am in distress. So cruel are the pains with which I am beset.’ And when Eve had seen him weeping, she also began to weep herself, and said: ‘O Lord my God, hand over to me his pain, for it is I who sinned.’ And Eve said to Adam: ‘My lord, give me a part of thy pains, for this hath come to thee from fault of mine’” R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913). (back to text)
 Meyers, p. 73. (back to text)
 Walter Brueggemann, “Of the Same Flesh and Bone,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32:4 (October 1970): 541–542. (back to text)
 Jean Higgins, p. 647. Note that Alice Bellis refutes this statement in the endnotes to her chapter “The Story of Eve,” p. 248. “It may be hard for Higgins to take this seriously. Perhaps she is so accustomed to male domination that it is hard for her to imagine another world. Perhaps it is hard for her to imagine the biblical authors who are often very androcentric producing such a meaning. We are on dangerous ground, however, if we reject a possibility on this basis. We must be careful not to read our assumptions into the text.” (back to text)
 Nahum Sarna, p. 29. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew word havvah (translated “Eve” in English) is “Zōë,” the Greek word for “life.” In Benjamin Wright and Albert Pietersma, A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), the name given to the woman is “Life.” (back to text)
 Jon Levenson, p. 16. In Judaism, “the practice and study of Torah renew intimacy with the God of Israel and lead to eternal life.” (back to text)
Bellis, Alice Ogden. Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1989.
Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Study Bible. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Brown, William P. The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Brueggeman, W. “Of the Same Flesh and Bone.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 32:4 (October 1970): 532–542.
Charles, R. H. 1913. The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament.. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.
Collins, C. John. Genesis 1–4; A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006.
Delansky, Shawna. “The Immortal Myth of Adam and Eve.” The Torah.com: A Historical and Contextual Approach. 2016.
Grossfeld, Bernard. “Critical Introduction, Apparatus, and Notes.” In The Targum Onqelos to Genesis, ed. Michael Maher, Martin McNamara, and Kevin Cathcard. Translated by Bernard Grossfeld. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1988.
Higgins, Jean M. “The Myth of Eve: The Temptress.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 44:4 (December 1976): 639–647.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993.
Keil, Carl Friedrich and Franz Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Vol. 1, The Pentateuch. Translated by The Rev. James Martin. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885.
Levenson, Jon D. “Genesis: Introductions and Annotations.” In The Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Meyers, Carol. Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2013. Kindle Edition.
Pietersma, Albert and Benjamin Wright. A New English Translation of the Septuagint. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Sarna, Nahum M. The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Simkins, Ronald. Gender Construction in the Yahwist Creation Myth. In Genesis: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. Athalya Brenner, pp. 32–51. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1998.
Trible, Phyllis. “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2–3 Reread.” In C. C. Plaskow, Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, pp. 74–83. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983 .
von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis: A Commentary. Translated by Prof. J. H. Marks. London: SCM Press, 1961.
Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1–11. Translated by John Scullion, S.J. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1974.
Whitelaw, The Rev. Thomas. “Exposition and Homiletics.” In The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. 1, Genesis. ed. The Rev. Cannon H. D. M. Spence and The Rev. Joseph Exell. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, ca 1890.
Abbreviations of Bible Translations
ESV English Standard Version
JPS Jewish Publication Society (Tanakh translation 1917)
KJV King James Version
NASB New American Standard Bible
NIV New International Version
NJPS New Jewish Publication Society (Tanakh translation 1985)
NRSV New Revised Standard Version
RSV Revised Standard Version