*This post was originally published bilingually in English as well as Korean back in 2017. Now the post is separated in each language. For the Korean version, see this.
The Hebrew Bible was written in a context in which patriarchal order was highly valued; it was, thus, written to maintain and reinforce the patriarchal order. For example, the didactic lessons in Proverbs employ the so-called “father-son” rhetoric, typical in ancient Near Eastern didactic genres. In this father-son dialogue, the father teaches his heterosexual young son wisdom by means of objectifying “woman.” The woman introduced as “strange-woman” or “loose woman” in Proverbs (2:16, 5:3, 7:5), for example, is utilized as a symbol of foolishness and sin, which is represented by adultery. Another woman introduced as “woman wisdom” in Proverbs 1-9 is the counterpart of the strange woman. She is an incarnation of wisdom, personified as a charming marriageable woman, whom the son must seek like his potetial spouse. These two female figures were created in patriarchal order and reinforced the order again.
Besides Proverbs, Genesis 2-3 will probably be the most obviously patriarchal text in the Hebrew Bible, because the story appears at the very beginning of the entire Bible and is the most well-known story. The narrative has been understood that Eve was the main culprit who caused Adam to be expelled from the garden of Eden, the paradise on earth. Therefore, Eve is considered to be the one responsible for putting the entire humanity in a condition in which humans have to toil under the harsh sun all day for survival; she incurred the pangs of childbirth. Because of her great sins, women should not lead men, but men should; she made us justify patriarchal order in which women must play secondary roles. But should Eve be viewed in such a thoroughly negative way? I would not say that the current negative perception of Eve is a total misunderstanding based on our own patriarchal biases or ideology. But some parts of these negative images of Eve should be improved. Though the final text of Genesis 2-3 that we now have is actually pointing out Eve’s problems, Eve could have something to say about all the accusations that she has received. Let’s hear what she has to say. (reference: Carol Meyers, “Eve,” in Women in Scripture)
Where was Adam when Eve was talking to the serpent? Was Eve wandering around the garden “alone” and enticed “alone”? Did she sin “alone”?
- Let’s read Gen 3:6 first: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” (NRSV).
- Genesis 3:6 says, “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her.” Though Adam does not appear on the scene, Adam was, according to 3:6, “with her.” Also, we should note that the text does not clarify that Eve approached the tree without Adam or talk to the serpent without her husband. The text never begins with the story that Eve was wandering around the garden and reached the tree alone (without Adam), though many assume such a story is actually a part of the narrative. Adam is simply silent in the scene; he was listening to the conversation between his wife and the serpent, and he, without reluctance, ate the fruit. This might suggest that he also was convinced by the serpent like Eve.
Did Eve really say “you may or may not die” distorting what God said about “you will surely die?”
- When the serpent asked Eve “Did God say,’You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” many (Korean) readers think that Eve answered, “You should not eat of it, because when you eat it, we might die.” The problem with this understanding is that the part translated as “you might die” is often comprehended as “you may or may not die.” The reader believes that Eve is not sure about the consequence of eating the fruit.
- Some readers also accused Eve of her distorting God’s words. They say, Eve added the expression “you shall not touch it,” which God did not say. Many conservative readers, thus, think that Eve did distort God’s words. But that is a very harsh judgment on her since her words imply Eve’s will, “I will even not touch it to strictly obey God’s commandment.” Even Matthew Henry, one of the big-name conservative commentators, says such a judgment is too harsh.
Is the serpent really the incarnation of evil?
- This question may not seem relevant to our discussion, “Eve’s apologetics,” but it is actually relevant because we need to know Eve didn’t talk to “Satan.” Genesis 3:1 tells us about the serpent: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made (NRSV).
- The Hebrew word for “crafty” is ערום (arum). This word frequently appears in the wisdom texts in the Hebrew Bible, and it basically means “prudent” and “clever,” which are characteristics contrasted to foolish and simple persons.
- Therefore, the translation “crafty” is an interpretation rather than a literal rendering of the original Hebrew word. Translations always require interpretations, but the level of the subjectiveness of an interpretation can also vary.
- The serpent was neither simple nor foolish. The serpent was, in fact, clever to know that God said to the first humans that they shall die on that very day if they eat the forbidden fruit; the serpent even knew that what God said was not really true. Moreover, the serpent knew that the fruit will make the first humans’ eyes open and they will be like God, knowing good and evil.
- Strictly speaking, considering the discrepancy between what happened to Adam and Eve (e.g., they did not die) and what God said about the forbidden fruit, it is not impossible to say that the serpent just tried to reveal the truth.
- God, on the other hand, tried to hide something from humans. So it is not suitable to designate the serpent “Satan” because of this event
What is so wrong with the forbidden fruit?
- As you know, the tree, the fruit of which is forbidden to eat, is called “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It is not some kind of fruit that symbolizes lusty desires that are considered to be immoral and evil in most cultures. It is the tree of “knowledge” or “wisdom.”
- The fruit indeed gave Adam and Eve “knowledge;” the knowledge was not some sort of dangerous thing to know; the knowledge that equipped Adam and Eve with the wisdom of good and evil was a very essential quality for kings in the ancient Near East.
- The immediate symptom that occurred to Adam and Eve after they ate the forbidden fruit is to start feeling ashamed of being naked. This change perhaps indicates or suggests, as Newsom argues, that the text tries to explain how humans became “humans,” a cultural being that is different from the rest of the animals.
- Another effect that the first humans and their descendants had to encounter was that they were placed in a harsh environment that required humans to labor all the time. Previously, humans were in a place where they did not work and, accordingly, did not produce anything. Instead, they just ate what is naturally provided. But after the forbidden fruit event, the world turned into a place like our world in which various items went into production; the surplus is created; accumulation of wealth became possible for a limited population; society became stratified, and hierarchical human relationships, corruption, and everything (both positive and negative) occur to obtain more material wealth. As Newsom points out, the event of the forbidden fruit is a symbolic description of how the world became like “this world.” (See Newsom, “Genesis 2-3 and 1 Enoch 6-16: Two Myths of Origin and Their Ethical Implications” in Shaking Heaven and Earth)
Is Eve a sinner?”
- Eve is, of course, a sinner, but not because of her uncontrolled desires and disobedience concerning the forbidden fruit. She is a sinner in the sense that “humans are not perfect.” She didn’t push us to fall into a pit of wickedness. The name “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” already indicates that Gen 3 is undoubtedly related to the Israelite wisdom tradition. Especially the ability to discern what is good and evil is Solomon’s wisdom quality that God gave him when he pleased God. Of course, this ability is an important virtue in any society. Strangely, Adam is utterly passive and quiet in Gen 3, whereas Eve is highly active. Perhaps, we can consider that Eve is playing a leading role in pursuing “wisdom” and became the starting point of human culture. Like many other heroes in the Hebrew Bible, traditions (oral and written) related to Adam and Eve should have been more than just one; there once should have existed some traditions about Eve that describe her positively; Tob 8:6 is, in fact, a surviving document. We should also note that it is not coincident that the Hebrew word for wisdom “Hokma” is personified as a woman (or a daughter of God in Prov 8); she came down to earth to reside among humans. It seems that Eve’s desire for wisdom springs from this cultural background.
As mentioned at the outset, the Hebrew Bible was written in a context in which patriarchal order was highly valued; it was, thus, written to maintain and reinforce the patriarchal order. But the text of the Hebrew Bible is not that simple. Obviously, it is true that Gen 3 depicts Eve negatively and justifies the patriarchal order. At the same time, however, Gen 3 shows us another aspect of Eve, that is “a woman of wisdom,” a very positive quality of a person. As discussed above, if we read the text closely, the so-called “traditional reading” of the text perhaps overly and illegitimately villanizes Eve. I hope this article helps you develop a new lens through which you can understand Eve anew.