1. Eve and Women
2. Eve in Genesis
3. Eve's Identity
4. Genesis & Patriarchy
5. Eve and the Serpent
6. Old Testament, Women & Evil
7. Eve & Lilith
Genesis 1-3
Serpents
Cherubim
   Bibliography

Eve
Hans Memling
outer right panel of a triptych
c. 1485
(Art History Museum, Vienna)


3. Eve's Identity

Whether or not you believe the Bible was divinely inspired, the Book of Genesis has served as the primary source in the West for definitions of gender and morality.

Although much of the story of Adam and Eve can be explained within the context of Hebrew culture, and its patriarchal bias shown to be historical rather than divine in origin, it is nonetheless perceived as containing fundamental, and largely negative, "truths" about the nature of women.

For the last two thousand years or so, Eve has represented the fundamental character and identity of all women. Through Eve's words and actions, the true nature of women was revealed; her story tells men what women are really like.

Eve represents everything about a woman a man should guard against. In both form and symbol, Eve is woman, and because of her, the prevalent belief in the West has been that all women are by nature disobedient, guileless, weak-willed, prone to temptation and evil, disloyal, untrustworthy, deceitful, seductive, and motivated in their thoughts and behaviour purely by self-interest.

No matter what women might achieve in the world, the message of Genesis warns men not to trust them, and women not to trust themselves or each other. Whoever she might be and whatever her accomplishments, no woman can escape being identified with Eve, or being identified as her.

In the West, the story of Eve has served over the centuries as the principal document in support of measures and laws to curtail and limit the actions, rights, and status of women. The Pseudo-St. Paul, for example, in his Pastoral Epistle to St. Timothy, could cite Genesis as the reason why women should not be allowed to teach or to tell a man what to do:

    For I do not allow woman to teach, or to exercise authority over men; but 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.
    (1 Timothy 2:12-14)

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (c. 155/160-220 CE) reminded women that they all share Eve's "ignominy...of original sin and the odium of being the cause of the fall of the human race":

    Do you not believe that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times and so it is necessary that the guilt should live on, also. You are the one who opened the door to the Devil, you are the one who first plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree, you are the first who deserted the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, man. Because of your desert, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.
    (The Apparel of Women, Book I, Chapt. 1)

During the Middle Ages, St. Bernard of Clairvaux could claim in his sermons, without contradiction, that Eve was "the original cause of all evil, whose disgrace has come down to all other women."

This perception of Eve has endured with remarkable tenacity, and persists today as a major stumbling-block in attempts by women to correct gender-based inequalities between the sexes. Consciously or unconsciously, it continues to serve as the ultimate weapon against women who wish to challenge male hegemony.

It is so deeply rooted in the socio-religious psyche of Western civilization that attempts to discredit it, or dismiss it, or simply ignore it as self-serving patriarchal fiction and myth-making have met with little success. One strategy has been to adopt a revisionist approach to the story itself and to re-read it, and re-interpret it, in feminist terms. It has been argued that Genesis 2-3 is not inherently patriarchal and efforts have been made to recover it from centuries of misogynist reading.

Phyllis Trible, Professor of Sacred Literature at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, for example, holds that far from being a secondary or dependent being, Eve is in fact the "culmination" of creation [see BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The argument that the order of creation, in which Adam was created first and Eve second, indicates hierarchy and therefore Adam's superiority ignores the fact that animals were created before Adam. As Adam is superior to the animals, then the hierarchy of creation should be reversed, and Eve seen as God's ultimate creation.

Trible also argues that at the time of their creation, Adam and Eve were equals and that the inequality between them enters only after Genesis 3:16 as a consequence of disobedience. In other words, inequality between the sexes was not originally part of the divine plan. It would therefore follow that attempts by feminists today to restore equality are in keeping with God's original plan.

A point made by Trible and others is that at the time of creation in Genesis 2:7, ha-'adam, which has been conventionally translated as "man," "the man" (ha read as the definite article "the"), or "Adam," had no gender. Gender comes into existence only with the creation of woman in Genesis 2:22, following which, in 2:23, the "earth-creature" or "groundling" (suggested alternative translations of ha-'adam) is sexually differentiated as "man" (ish), and woman as ishah.

A note can be added here on the word "rib." Sarah Roth Lieberman [see BIBLIOGRAPHY] points out that the Sumerian word "ti" means both "rib" and "to make alive." In ancient Mesopotamia, Ninti, whose name means both "lady of the rib" and "lady who makes alive," is the goddess created by Nimhursag to heal Enki's sick rib. The double meaning may explain why Eve, who is called "mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20), was created from Adam's rib (an otherwise very odd piece of male anatomy to chose). Unfortunately, in the Bible, the association is lost because the Hebrew words for "rib" and "life" are two different words with unrelated roots.

Attempts have also been made to correct the popular belief that Eve was a temptress who tempted Adam into eating the fruit despite the fact that according to Genesis 3:6, after she ate the fruit herself, she then "gave some to her husband and he ate."

This simple, and by any other measure, generous and unselfish act of sharing has, in a list assiduously compiled by Jean Higgins [see BIBLIOGRAPHY], been variously interpreted over the centuries by Biblical scholars and commentators to mean that Eve "tempted, beguiled, lured, corrupted, persuaded, taught, counseled, suggested, urged, used wicked persuasion, led into wrongdoing, proved herself an enemy, used guile and cozening, tears and lamentations, to prevail upon Adam."

In the Vulgate, St. Jerome uses the word seducta to describe Eve's transgression clearly implying that she used her sex to tempt, or seduce, Adam into disobedience. Such damning commentary has long supported the wide-spread conviction that Eve tempted Adam to sin and was therefore responsible for Adam's fall.

However, despite the sometimes ingenious efforts by feminists in particular, it has proved remarkably difficult to correct popular belief and redefine Eve in more positive terms.

The negative view of Eve and of women in general has been constantly reinforced in the West over the centuries. In a medieval liturgical drama of the story of Adam and Eve, acted both inside and outside of many churches, at the moment of their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Adam, after hurling a wailing Eve to the ground, kicking her, and dragging her by the hair, cries out in fury and dismay:

    Oh, evil woman, full of treason....
    Forever contrary to reason,
    Bringing no man good in any season:
    Our children's children to the end of time
    Will feel the cruel whiplash of your crime!

Moreover this view of Eve and of women in general has been insinuated into the culture to such an extent that both men and women believe it defines a natural condition of women. It is a pernicious view and the degree to which it continues to subtly influence in negative ways our perception of women must be constantly born in mind while looking at the images of women in these pages.

4. GENESIS & PATRIARCHY


An earlier version of this essay appeared originally in Images of Women in Ancient Art

Copyright © (text only) 2000. Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe. All rights reserved


EVE AND THE IDENTITY OF WOMEN
Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe | Sweet Briar College