In light of a recent online discussion about gender roles in Christianity, I’d like to share an alternative understanding of the relationship between Adam and Eve.
The most common interpretation of Genesis 2-3 has been skewed to depict Eve as a gullible temptress and the channel through which humans first became disobedient to God. Genesis also seems to support arguments for male superiority when read through the most common lens. For instance, the man appears to have been created first, and is given the very breath of God to sustain him. (Gen. 2:7) He is given the esteemed task of caring for God’s garden. (Gen. 2:15) He is given the authority to choose his “helper.” (Gen. 2:18)
It is from this vantage point that we typically understand Eve as an afterthought, a lowly assistant, and an inferior creation. After all, she is created from the man’s “side” without the breath or “inspiration” of God. The woman is traditionally depicted as weaker in both her morals and her intellect. She is easily beguiled or fooled by the snake in the garden into disobeying the only simple prohibition given by God: “From the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.” (Gen. 2:17) Her actions would forever solidify the woman’s role as man’s “weakness”; a cunning temptress unfit for the priesthood and certainly unequal to her male counterparts.
Phyllis Trible’s feminist interpretation of the text is totally contrary to our traditional understanding of the garden story. She points out that Adam is less a proper noun than a verb. His name could more accurately be read as the word ‘adham’, which literally means “earth creature.” She writes that the proper understanding of Genesis 2:15 is that God put IT in the garden, not HIM in the garden—meaning that the ‘adham’ was an androgynous clay figure, and not a man as most literalists might suggest.
The woman, created from the side of the man, is then formed from the same material as the ‘adham or Adam, but through different means. However, the different mode of creation should not be read as evidence of the woman’s inferiority. In fact, the Israelites would have viewed her as God’s grand finale. She reminds those who read Genesis that scripture teaches that the “last shall be first,” which calls into question the belief that women are inferior by virtue of creation’s order. Trible supports her argument further by reminding the reader of Adam’s heartfelt ode to the woman which says: “”This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” Like his Creator, the man realized that creation had met its highest point, and he was inspired to praise God.
Trible observes: “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.” She argues that the woman was the ‘adamh’s helper, but the word “helper” does not imply inferiority in the Hebrew language. The word “helper” or ‘ezer’ is also used to describe God and to describe the animals, making it clear that it is not proper to appropriate a hierarchy solely on the basis of this word.
According to Trible, the culpability for any disobedience in the garden lies evenly with the man and the woman. The ‘adamh chose to eat the fruit without asking questions, without considering its origin, and with no regard for God’s directive. This would actually suggest that he may have been the weaker creation, and not the woman.
This interpretation is important for a variety of reasons. First, I believe Trible’s explanation of the Hebrew words offers a compelling perspective on what the story may have meant to its original hearers. I also believe she makes a convincing argument for the equality of the man and woman in the garden. After reading her explanation, I was able to see that Eve was not created from material different from that with which Adam was created; contrarily, she was created with the same material, which was found in a different source. Simply stated, a logical reading of the texts allows us to see that if Adam is made of clay and God’s breath, and if Eve is made of Adam’s substance, then she is also made of both clay and God’s breath. Likewise, real humans are made of the same materials and are therefore equal.
The traditionally unbalanced reading of Genesis would suggest that Adam was virtuous in both thought and deed, and that Eve was the cunning culprit. However, a closer reading allows us to see that Adam chose to forgo his right to say “no” and his responsibility to God. To say that the woman is responsible for Adam’s behavior is to deny the singular accountability of each human being for his or her actions.