The pun proclaims both the similarity and the differentiation of
female and male. Before this episode the Yahwist has used only the
generic term 'adham. No exclusively male reference has
appeared. Only with the specific creation of woman ('ishshah)
occurs the first specific term for man as male ('ish). In
other words, sexuality is simultaneous for woman and man. The
sexes are interrelated and interdependent. Man as male does not
precede woman as female but happens concurrently with her. Hence,
the first act in Genesis 2 is the creation of androgyny (2:7) and
the last is the creation of sexuality (2:23).(12)
Male embodies female and female embodies male. The two are neither
dichotomies nor duplicates. The birth of woman corresponds to the
birth of man but does not copy it. Only in responding to the
female does the man discover himself as male. No longer a passive
creature, 'ish comes alive in meeting 'ishshah.
Eve and Adam:
Genesis 2-3 Reread
Copyright 1973 by Andover
Newton Theological School. All rights reserved. Used by
[The footnotes at the end are interesting also, but you have to
remember your place in the text.]]
On the whole, the Women's
Liberation Movement is hostile to the bible, even as it claims
that the Bible is hostile to women. The Yahwist account of
creation and fall in Genesis 2-3 provides a strong proof text for
that claim. Accepting centuries of (male) exegesis, many feminists
interpret this story as legitimating male supremacy and female
They read to reject. My suggestion is that we reread to understand
and to appropriate.
Ambiguity characterizes the meaning
of 'adham in Genesis 2-3. On the one hand, man is the first
creature formed (2:7). The Lord God puts him in the garden
"to till it and keep it," a job identified with the male
(cf. 3:17-19). On the other hand, 'adham is a generic term
for humankind. In commanding 'adham not to eat of the tree
of knowledge of good and evil, the Deity is speaking to both the
man and the woman (2:16-17). Until the differentiation of female
and male (2:21-23), 'adham is basically androgynous: one
creature incorporating two sexes.
Concern for sexuality, specifically
for the creation of woman, comes last in the story, after the
making of the garden, the trees, and the animals. Some
commentators allege female subordination based on this order of
contrast it with Genesis 1-27 where God creates 'adham as
male and female in one act.(3)
Thereby they infer that whereas the Priests recognized the
equality of the sexes, the Yahwist made woman a second,
subordinate, inferior sex.(4)
But the last may be first, as both the biblical theologian and the
literary critic know. Thus the Yahwist account moves to its
climax, not its decline, in the creation of woman.(5)
She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination. Genesis 1
itself supports this interpretation, for there male and female are
indeed the last and truly the crown of all creatures. The last is
also first where beginnings and endings are parallel. In Hebrew
literature the central concerns of a unit often appear at the
beginning and the end as an inclusio device.(6)
Genesis 2 evinces this structure. The creation of man first and of
woman last constitutes a ring composition whereby the two
creatures are parallel. In no way does the order disparage woman.
Content and context augment this reading.
The context for the advent of woman
is a divine judgment, "It is not good that 'adham
should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him" (2:18).
The phrase needing explication is "helper fit for him."
In the Old Testament the word helper ('ezer) has many
usages. It can be a proper name for a male.(7)
In our story it describes the animals and the woman. In some
passages it characterizes Deity. God is the helper of Israel. As
helper Yahweh creates and saves.(8)
Thus 'ezer is a relational term; it designates a beneficial
relationship; and it pertains to God, people, and animals. By
itself the word does not specify positions within relationships;
more particularly, it does not imply inferiority. Position results
from additional content or from context. Accordingly, what kind of
relationship does 'ezer entail in Genesis 2:18, 20? Our
answer comes in two ways: 1) The word neged, which joins 'ezer,
connotes equality: a helper who is a counterpart.(9)
2) The animals are helpers, but they fail to fit 'adham.
There is physical, perhaps psychic, rapport between 'adham
and the animals, for Yahweh forms (yaar) them both out of the
ground ('adhamah). Yet their similarity is not equality. 'Adham
names them and thereby exercises power over them. No fit helper is
among them. And thus the narrative moves to woman. My translation
is this: God is the helper superior to man; the animals are
helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man.
Let us pursue the issue by
examining the account of the creation of woman (21-22). This
episode concludes the story even as the creation of man commences
it. As I have said already, the ring composition suggests an
interpretation of woman and man as equals. To establish this
meaning, structure and content must mesh. They do. In both
episodes Yahweh alone creates. For the last creation, the Lord God
"caused a deep sleep (tardemah) to fall upon the
man." Man has no part in making woman; he is out of it. He
exercises no control over her existence. He is neither participant
nor spectator nor consultant at her birth. Like man, woman owes
her life solely to God. For both of them the origin of life is a
divine mystery. Another parallel of equality is creation out of
raw materials: dust for man and a rib for woman. Yahweh chooses
these fragile materials and in both cases processes them before
human beings happen. As Yahweh shapes dust and then breathes into
it to form man, so Yahweh takes out the rib and then builds it
into woman.(10) To
call woman "Adam's rib" is to misread the text which
states carefully and clearly that the extracted bone required
divine labor to become female, a datum scarcely designed to
bolster the male ego. Moreover, to claim that the rib means
inferiority or subordination is to assign the man qualities over
the woman which are not in the narrative itself. Superiority,
strength, aggressiveness, dominance, and power do not characterize
man in Genesis 2. By contrast he is formed from dirt; his life
hangs by a breath which he does not control; and he himself
remains silent and passive while the Deity plans and interprets
The rib means solidarity and
equality. 'Adham recognizes this meaning in a poem:(11)
This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.
She shall be called 'ishshah (woman)
Because she was taken out of 'ish (man). 2:23)
Some read in(to) the poem a naming
motif. The man names the woman and thereby has power and authority
over her.(13) But
again I suggest that we reread. Neither the verb nor the noun name
is in the poem. We find instead the verb 'qara', to call:
"she shall be called woman." Now in the Yahwist primeval
history this verb does not function as a synonym or parallel or
substitute for name. The typical formula for naming is the
verb to call plus the explicit object name. This
formula applies to Deity, people, places, and animals. For
example, in Genesis 4 we read:
Cain built a city and called
the name of the city after the name of his son Enoch
And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his
name Seth (v. 25).
To Seth also a son was born and he called upon the name of the
Lord (v. 26b).
Genesis 2:23 has the verb call
but does not have the object name. Its absence signifies
the absence of a naming motif in the power. The presence of both
the verb call and the noun name in the episode of
the animals strengthens the point:
So out of the ground the Lord
God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air and
brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and
whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air and
to every beast of the field (2:19-20).
In calling the animals by name, 'adham
establishes supremacy over them and fails to find a fit helper. In
calling woman, 'adham does not name her and does find in
her a counterpart. Female and male are equal sexes. Neither has
authority over the other.(14)
A further observation secures the
argument: Woman itself is not a name. It is a common noun;
it is not a proper noun. It designates gender; it does not specify
person. 'Adham recognizes sexuality by the words 'ishshah
and 'ish. This recognition is not an act of naming to
assert the power of male over female. Quite the contrary. But the
true skeptic is already asking: What about Genesis 3:20 where
"the man called his wife's name Eve"? We must wait to
consider that question. Meanwhile, the words of the ancient poem
as well as their context proclaim sexuality originating in the
unity of 'adham. From this one (androgynous) creature come
two (female and male). The two return to their original unity as 'ish
and 'ishahah become one flesh (2:24):(15)
another instance of the ring composition.
Next the differences which spell
harmony and equality yield to the differences of disobedience and
disaster. The serpents speaks to the woman. Why to the woman and
not to the man? The simplest answer is that we do not know. The
Yahwist does not tell us any more than he explains why the tree of
the knowledge of good and evil was in the garden. But the silence
of the text stimulates speculations, many of which only confirm
the patriarchal mentality which conceived them. Cassuto identifies
serpent and woman, maintaining that the cunning of the serpent is
"in reality" the cunning of the woman.(16)
He impugns her further by declaring that "for the very reason
that a woman's imagination surpasses a man's, it was the woman was
enticed first." Though more gentle in his assessment, von Rad
avers that "in the history of Yahweh-religion it has always
been the women who have shown an inclination for obscure
astrological cults" (a claim which he does not document).(17)
Consequently, he holds that the woman "confronts the obscure
allurements and mysteries that beset our limited life more
directly than the man does," and then he calls her a
"temptress." Paul Ricoeur says that woman
"represents the point of weakness," as the entire story
"gives evidence of a very masculine resentment."(18)
McKenzie links the "moral weakness" of the woman with
her "sexual attraction: and holds that the latter ruined both
the woman and the man.(19)
But the narrative does not say any of these things. It does not
sustain the judgment that woman is weaker or more cunning or more
sexual than man. Both have the same Creator, who explicitly uses
the word "good" to introduce the creation of woman
(2:18). Both are equal in birth. There is complete rapport,
physical, psychological, sociological, and theological, between
them: bone of bone and flesh of flesh. If there be moral frailty
in one, it is moral frailty in two. Further, they are equal in
responsibility and in judgment, in shame and in guilt, in
redemption and in grace. What the narrative says about the nature
of woman it also says about the nature of man.
Why does the serpent speak to the
woman and not to the man? Let a female speculate. If the serpent
is "more subtle" than its fellow creatures, the woman is
more appealing than her husband. Throughout the myth she is the
more intelligent one, the more aggressive one, and the one with
Perhaps the woman elevates the animal world by conversing
theologically with the serpent. At any rate, she understands the
hermeneutical task. In quoting God she interprets the prohibition
("neither shall you touch it"). The woman is both
theologian and translator. She contemplates the tree, taking into
account all the possibilities. The tree is good for good; it
satisfies the physical drives. It pleases the eyes; it is
aesthetically and emotionally desirable. Above all, it is coveted
as the source of wisdom (haskîl). Thus the woman is fully
aware when she acts, her vision encompassing the gamut of life.
She takes the fruit and she eats. The initiative and the decision
are hers alone. Thee is no consultation with her husband. She
seeks neither his advice nor his permission. She acts
independently. by contrast the man is a silent, passive, and bland
recipient: "She also gave some to her husband and he
ate." The narrator makes no attempt to depict the husband as
reluctant or hesitating. The man does not theologize; he does not
contemplate; he does not envision the full possibilities of the
occasion. His one act is belly-oriented, and it is an act of
quiescence, not of initiative. The man is not dominant; he is not
aggressive; he is not a decision-maker. Even though the
prohibition not to eat of the tree appears before the female was
specifically created, she knows that it applies to her. She has
interpreted it, and now she struggles with the temptation to
disobey. But not the man, to whom the prohibition came directly
(2:6). He follows his wife without question or comment, thereby
denying his own individuality. If the woman be intelligent,
sensitive, and ingenious, the man is passive, brutish, and inept.
These character portrayals are truly extraordinary in a culture
dominated by men. I stress their contrast not to promote female
chauvinism but to undercut patriarchal interpretations alien to
The contrast between woman and man
fades after their acts of disobedience. They are one in the new
knowledge of their nakedness (3:7). They are one in hearing and in
hiding. They flee from the sound of the Lord God in the Garden
(3:8). First to the man come questions of responsibility (3:9,
11), but the man fails to be responsible: "The woman whom
Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I
ate" (3:12). Here the man does not blame the woman, he does
not say that the woman seduced him;(21)
he blames the Deity. The verb which he uses for both the Deity and
the woman is nth (cf. 3:6). So far as I can determine, this
verb neither means nor implies seduction in this context or in the
lexicon. Again, if the Yahwist intended to make woman the
temptress, he missed a choice opportunity. The woman's response
supports the point. "The serpent beguiled me and I ate"
(3:13). Only here occurs the strong verb nsh', meaning to
deceive, to seduce. God accepts this subject-verb combination
when, immediately following the woman's accusation, Yahweh says to
the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you
above all animals" (3:14).
Though the tempter (the serpent) is
woman and the man are not. But they are judged, and the judgments
are commentaries on the disastrous effects of their shared
disobedience. They show how terrible human life has become as it
stands between creation and grace. We misread if we assume that
these judgments are mandates. They describe; they do not
prescribe. They protest; they do not condone. Of special concern
are the words telling the woman that her husband shall rule over
her (3:16). This statement is not license for male supremacy, but
rather it is condemnation of that very pattern.(23)
Subjugation and supremacy are perversions of creation. Through
obedience the woman has become slave. Her initiative and her
freedom vanish. The man is corrupted also, for he has become
master, ruling over the one who is his God-given equal. The
subordination of female to male signifies their shared sin.(24)
This sin vitiates all relationships: between animals and human
beings (3:15); mothers and children (3:16); husbands and wives
(3:16); man and the soil (3:17); man and his work (3:19). Whereas
in creation man and woman know harmony and equality, in sin they
know alienation and discord. Grace makes possible a new beginning.
A further observation about these
judgments: They are culturally conditioned. Husband and work
(childbearing) define the woman; wife and work (farming) define
the man. A literal reading of the tory limits both creatures and
limits the story. To be faithful translators, we must recognize
that women as well as men move beyond these culturally defined
roles, even as the intentionality and function of the myth move
beyond its original setting. Whatever forms stereotyping takes in
our own culture, they are judgments upon our common sin and
disobedience. The suffering and oppression we women and men know
now are marks of our fall, not of our creation.
At this place of sin and judgment
"the man calls his wife's name Eve" (3:20, thereby
asserting his rule over her. The naming itself faults the man for
corrupting a relationship of mutuality and equality. And so Yahweh
evicts the primeval couple from the Garden, yet with signals of
Interestingly, the conclusion of the story does not specify the
sexes in flight. Instead the narrator resumes use of the generic
and androgynous term 'adham with which the story began and
thereby completes an overall ring composition (3:22-24).
Visiting the Garden of Eden in the
days of the Women's Movement, we need no longer accept the
traditional exegesis of Genesis 2-3. Rather than legitimating the
patriarchal culture from which it comes, the myth places that
culture under judgment. And thus it functions to liberate, not to
enslave. This function we can recover and appropriate. The Yahwist
narrative tells us who we are (creatures of equality and
mutuality); it tells us who we have become (creatures of
oppression); and so it opens possibilities for change, for a
return to our true liberation under God. In other words, the story
calls female and male to repent.
1. See inter alia, Kate Millett, Sexual
Politics, NY: Doubleday, 1970, 51-54; Eva Figes, Patriarchal
Attitudes, Greenwich: Fawcett, 1970, 38f; Mary Daly, The
Courage to See," The Christian Century, Sept. 22,
1971, 1110; Sheila D. Collins, "Toward a Feminist
Theology," The Christian Century, August 2, 1972, 798;
Lilly Rivlin, "Lilith: The First Woman," Ms.,
Dec., 1972, 93, 114.
2. Cf. E. Jacob,
Theology of the Old Testament, NY: Harper & Row, 1958,
172f; S. H. Hooke, "Genesis," Peake's Commentary on
the Bible, London: Thomas Nelson, 1962, 179.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed that Genesis 1:26-28 dignifies
woman as an important factor in the creation, equal in power and
glory with man," while Genesis 2 "makes her a mere
afterthought" (The Woman's Bible, Part 1, NY: European
Publishing Company, 1895), 20. See also Elsie Adams and Mary
Louise Briscoe, Against the Wall, Mother . . . Beverly
Hills: Glencoe Press, 1971), 4.
4. Cf. Eugene H.
Maly, Genesis," The Jerome Biblical Commentary,
Prentice Hall, 1968, 12: "But woman's existence,
psychologically and in the social order, is dependent on
5. See John L.
McKenzie, "The Literary Characteristics of Gen. 2-3," Theological
Studies 15 (1954), 559; John A. Bailey, "Initiation and
the Primal Woman in Gilgamesh and Genesis 2-3," Journal of
Biblical Lit., June,1970, 143. Bailey writes emphatically of
the remarkable importance and position of the woman in Genesis
2-3, "all the more extraordinary when one realizes that this
is the only account of creation of woman as such in ancient Near
Eastern literature." He hedges, however, in seeing the themes
of helper and naming (Gen 2:18-23) as indicative of a
"certain subordination" of woman to man. These
reservations are unnecessary; see below. Cf. also Claus Westermann,
Genesis, Biblischer Kommentar 1/4, Neukirchen-Fluyn:
Neukirchener Verlag, 1970, 312.
Muilenburg, "Form Criticism and Beyond," Journal of
Biblical Literature, March, 1969, 9f; Mitchell Dahood, Psalms
1, The Anchor Bible, NY: Doubleday, 1966, passim and
7. 1 Chronicles
4:4; 12:9; Nehemiah 3:19.
8. Psalms 121:2;
124:8; 146:5; 33:20; 115:9-11; Exodus 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26, 29.
9. L. Koehler
and W. Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti Libros,
Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1958, 591f.
10. The verb bnh
(to build) suggests considerable labor. It is used of towns,
towers, altars, and fortifications, as well as of the primeval
woman (Koehler-Baumgartner, p. 134). In Gen. 2:22 it may mean the
fashioning of clay around the rib (Ruth Amiran, "Myths of the
Creation of Man and the Jericho Statues," BASOR No.
167, Oct. 1962, 24f).
11. See Walter
Brueggemann, "Of the Same Flesh and Bone (Gn 2, 23a)," Catholic
Biblical Quarterly, October, 1970, 532-542.
proposing as primary an androgynous interpretation of 'adham,
I find virtually no support form (male) biblical scholars. But my
view stands as documented from the text, and I take refuge among a
remnant of ancient (male) rabbis (George Foot Moore, Judaism,
I, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1927, 453; also Jos.Campbell, The
Hero with a Thousand Faces, Meridian Books, World Publishing,
1970, 152ff, 279f).
13. E.g., G.
von Rad, Genesis, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961, 80-82;
John H. Marks, "Genesis," Interpreter's One-Volume
Commentary on the bible, NY: Abingdon, 1971, 5; John A.
Bailey, op. cit., 143.
Westermann, op. cit., pp. 316ff.
15. Verse 24
probably mirrors a matriarchal society (so von Rad, op. cit.,
83). If the myth were designed to support patriarchy, it is
difficult to explain how this verse survived without due
alteration. Westermann contends, however, that an emphasis on
matriarchy misunderstands the point of the verse, which is the
total communion of woman and man (op. cit., 317).
16. U. Cassuto,
A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 1, Jerusalem: The
Magnes Press, n.d., 142f.
17. von Rad, op.
cit., pp. 87-88.
departs from the traditional interpretation of the woman when he
writes, "Ève n'est donc pas le femme en tant que 'deuxième
sexe'; toute femme et tout homme sont Adams: tout homme et toute
femme sont Ève." But the fourth clause of his sentence
obscures this complete identity of Adams and Eve: "toute
femme peche 'en' Adam, tout homme est seduit 'en' Ève." By
switching from an active to a passive verb, Ricoeur makes only the
woman directly responsible for both sinning and seducing. (Paul
Ricoeur, Finitude et Culpabilité, II. La Symbolique du Mal,
Aullner, ditions Montaigne, Paris, 1960. Cf. Ricoeur, The
Symbolism of Evil, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, 255).
19. McKenzie, op.
20. See Bailey,
op. cit., 148.
Westermann, op. cit., p. 340.
22. For a
discussion of the serpent, see Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil,