Friday, 14 February 2014

The sexual politics of paradise

Throughout the Bible, God is assumed to be male. For centuries, artists have portrayed him, when in a human form, as a patriarchal older man with a white beard. In the last few decades in particular, largely thanks to feminism, this has been challenged. After all, according to Genesis 1:27, both men and women were created “in the image of God”.

The archetypal image of God,
as imagined by Michelangelo
on the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Defenders of the Bible concede it makes no sense for a lone and absolute deity to have a sex, and the usual modern view, including among believers, is that God is actually sexless. The common argument runs that we should respect the use of male imagery and language because that is how God chose to reveal himself to the Biblical writers, and thus to humanity: either as Yahweh or (in Christianity) as Christ.

God is presented unequivocally as a male. He is referred to using masculine pronouns and his name Yahweh is of masculine gender; though he is occasionally seen through female imagery, as in Isaiah 42:14 where he says “I will cry out like a woman in labour”, feminine pronouns and names are never used. In his earlier incarnations he seems to have had a female consort, Asherah, who appears on inscriptions and votive figures. He is seen in traditional masculine roles of father, fighter and king.

I don’t intend to study the gendering of the Abrahamic god. But the Bible was written in a culture where authority was mostly male and the priesthood was barred to women, and this shaped how its authors wrote about women. For centuries, it has usually been used not to liberate women but to justify their oppression. The roots of this can be found at the very beginning of the anthology, in the story of the garden of Eden.

The making of men and women

What does the Bible say about Adam and Eve?

The first two chapters of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of men and women. Chapter 1 is by the source text known as P:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:26-27]

God blesses them, bids them to be fruitful and multiply, and grants them dominion over every living thing on earth. There’s no suggestion that the sexes are not created equal. The ESV translation above uses the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘humankind’ – the Hebrew word, adam, is a noun meaning ‘earthling’ or ‘human’, though it serves as a proper name for the first man later. The adam is created both male and female, and they are both in God’s image.

So far, so good. Then Chapter 2 tells the story again, at much greater length.

The LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed... The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it... Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’ Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens 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 livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

‘This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.’[1]

The source text here is J, the Yahwist. This account differs to Chapter 1’s, e.g. things are created in a different order. The inconsistencies occur because the Torah was constructed out of several source texts with sometimes contradictory viewpoints, which were then woven together without removing the inconsistencies.

In the previous article we saw how the Mesopotamian myths presented human beings as workers created to spare the gods from toil. In Genesis humanity is the climax of creation. The text doesn’t give a reason for why Adam is created, though we could argue that he fills the vacancy for a gardener. J’s God then creates the animals, but finds no suitable companion for him from amongst them, so he creates the woman from Adam’s rib.

The phrase ‘bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh’ could be read as supporting equality – it emphasises that all humans are made of the same stuff. The positive spin offered by apologists was summed up long ago by the Baptist preacher John Gill:

It is commonly observed, and pertinently enough, that the woman was not made from the superior part of man, that she might not be thought to be above him, and have power over him. Nor from any inferior part, as being below him, and to be trampled on by him. But out of his side, and from one of his ribs, that she might appear to be equal to him.[2]

But although the text doesn’t say explicitly that Eve is unequal to Adam, we can infer it. The woman is created from part of the man, which implies a secondary status (hence the title of the feminist magazine Spare Rib). Whereas the man is definitive, the female is a version of him. This time a reason for her creation is given: so she can be a ‘helper’ for the man. She doesn’t even have a name until Adam names her. As the New Testament would later interpret it:

“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.” [1 Corinthians 11:8-9]

If we want to be more positive, chronologically it is with Eve that the process of creation is complete, i.e. the climax of creation is Woman. It’s amusing to point this out, but I don’t think it compensates for what’s gone before. The Church fathers preferred to honour Adam for being created first.

The Fall

In the next scene, the first humans eat the forbidden fruit, with terrible consequences. Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden in an event known to Christianity as the ‘fall of humankind’, or the Fall. It is when humanity passed from living in innocence and peace in God’s garden to becoming mortal, suffering beings. This doctrine is only an interpretation of the text, as it is not named or explicit in the Hebrew Bible.

Here’s how it happens. In Chapter 3, the serpent [3] talks to Eve about the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

The fateful act of eating the forbidden fruit is described next. Incidentally, the apple, which in the West is the most famous symbol of the story, isn’t specified in the Bible. The text refers only to a ‘fruit’.

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.

On eating it, the two humans acquire the knowledge of good and evil, which is usually understood as the self-awareness that separates us from other animals. As a symbol of this separation, the very first thing they do is clothe themselves:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.

When they hear God walking in the garden, they hide from him, ashamed of their nakedness. Eventually they confess what they have done, and God is angry. He condemns the serpent to forever crawl on its belly [4] and live at odds with humans, and tells Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Presumably Eve’s body was originally formed in such a way that childbirth would have been painless. If so, women have good cause to feel aggrieved against God for what he does with their bodies here. Then Adam is told:

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground.”

But this is not all.

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever –” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.

William Blake: God Judging Adam, 1795
Eating of the fruit has given humans a god-like awareness of their moral agency: their ability to choose between good and evil. There are two trees in Eden, and God fears they will now eat from the tree of life as well. If they do, they will become immortal and truly like gods, so they are banished from the garden. Humans have let Yahweh down, and they will continue to do so – in subsequent history the Israelites let him down again and again. Symbolically, the two humans move from a state of nature, where all is good and there is no violence, to a state of culture, where life is hostile and difficult. The chapter straight after the Fall, Genesis 4, already shows Cain committing the first murder.

Only after the disobedient eating of the fruit does God say to Eve that her husband shall rule over her. We could take this as evidence that in their original state of nature men and women are equal, and that only in a state of culture is there sexism. However, the issues of the rib and Eve being a ‘helper’ seem to speak against this reading. Either way, the sexism after the Fall is explicit. There is no way for apologists to spin Eve being told her husband will rule over her. Perhaps God meant only that Adam would rule over Eve, not that all men would rule over all women. But the story serves to provide the ancient Israelites with an explanation of the world as they knew it. Why are men dominant in society? Why is childbirth so painful and dangerous? Why is it such hard work for settled Iron Age cultures to feed themselves? In this context it is fair to take Adam and Eve as symbols for all men and women. After all, God’s curse of painful childbirth clearly applies to all women, so his edict on male rule must do too.

In conclusion: although the opening passages of Genesis are open to a multitude of complex interpretations, more than I could possibly outline here, on balance they are sexist. The first woman was made from a body part of the first man; women are men’s helpers; and God decrees women’s husbands shall rule over them. Why does the Bible say this? Because it was written in a male-dominated society that took the secondary status of women as a given.

Original sin

The story of the Fall persuaded St Augustine that human nature was fundamentally sinful, and inspired the Christian Church’s doctrine of ‘original sin’. Adam and Eve’s disobedience towards God did not only lead to painful births and to laborious farming. Their descendants – the entire human species – were born inherently sinful, marked with the stain of the transgression.

Original sin is a doctrine unacceptable to Judaism.

Not every Christian believes that the Eden story is literally true. But the theme of original sin is still central to Christianity. The purpose of baptism is to symbolically wash away, in name of Jesus, that original stain. Yet there is no ‘doctrine of original sin’, as such, in the Bible. It was created for a pressing ideological reason: if humanity hadn’t fallen, we wouldn’t need a saviour in Jesus Christ. The very existence of the West’s dominant religious institution [5] is built upon this interpretation of what happened in Eden.

For Christianity, the story has been very important for defining society’s attitude to women, teaching that Eve was responsible for humanity’s ejection from paradise. The misogynist Paul of Tarsus wrote in the New Testament:

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 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 church fathers had the same view. The Gallic bishop Irenaeus (second century CE) wrote in Against Heresies:

Having become disobedient, she [Eve] was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race.

His contemporary Tertullian, from Carthage, was even harsher. In On The Apparel of Women he likened all women to Eve:

You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.

St Augustine’s tutor Ambrose (fourth century CE) wrote of Eve in On Paradise:

She was first to be deceived and was responsible for deceiving the man.

You get the picture. There are plenty more disparaging views about women that we could quote from the Church fathers. Passages like these established the traditional Christian view that all women bore the guilt of Eve, and that their subordination to men was a permanent divine punishment of women.

In some of these accounts Eve was not only disobedient, but an agent of the devil. In the Christian tradition, the serpent is interpreted to be Satan. The Bible never says anything of the sort, and the concept of the Devil didn’t exist when the Genesis texts were written.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world. [Revelation 12:9]

The Jewish tradition has a very different view of the ‘adversary’, which we won’t go into here. In the Hebrew Bible the serpent is described as ‘crafty’ or ‘cunning’, not ‘evil’, and it is probably just a smart talking animal, of the sort that populates fables across ancient literature.[6] The serpent tells Eve:

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

And this is perfectly true. He may have an ulterior – and unexplained – motive for talking to Eve, but he doesn’t ‘deceive’ her as she later claims.

Lucas Cranach the Elder depicts Eve
feeding the fruit to Adam
As we’ve said, this episode was used by Christianity for centuries to blame women for humanity’s fall from grace. There is a tradition that Eve eats the fruit, then talks Adam into eating as well. Is it really only Eve’s fault?

Genesis 3:6 refers to “her husband who was with her”, indicating that Adam and Eve were at the tree together. Adam is present when the serpent addresses Eve, but he passively says nothing, and he eats the fruit that is handed to him without protest, although he had been warned not to by God personally. When confronted by God, Adam tries to divert the blame (just as Eve tries to blame the serpent):

The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

God doesn’t accept this and punishes them both. The commentators who laid the whole blame on Eve were wrong. And, in fairness, Christian institutions past and present have often recognised this too.

Is the Fall necessarily even a bad thing? It initiates the human race into suffering and hard labour, but also into culture, civilisation and moral awareness. Eating the forbidden fruit opened our eyes to our own moral agency – without it we would not be who we are.


As a very long and complex text, the Bible is not unremittingly sexist. There are powerful female figures such as Deborah, a prophet and the only female judge mentioned in the Bible, who leads the Israelites into battle against the Canaanites. The Song of Deborah from Judges 5 is a hymn of victory celebrating the accomplishments of two women: the other is Jael, who bravely kills the enemy commander Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his head. Other major female characters include Abigail from 1 Samuel, Esther and Ruth. Women could be prophets, such as Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14). And we have seen how some of the traditional accusations against Eve, such as her responsibility for the Fall, are questionable.

Despite this, there is no escaping sexism in the Bible. Women in the Bible are usually defined as wives, daughters and mothers, and are expected to play a subordinate role. Even when the Bible text is open to interpretation, the interpretations (by men) generally have not treated women as equals.

Given how she has been used as a justification for oppressing women, it is ironic that Eve’s ancestry goes back to the goddesses of Sumer, who were powerful, life-giving deities. Monotheism was invented during a period of history that grants males privileges over females, and the one true God of the Abrahamic religions has been presented in male terms. It is no surprise therefore that all three religions, despite the protests of their apologists, have disempowered women.

[1] The Hebrew word for woman (ishshah) sounds similar to the word for man (ish).
[2] John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testament (1746-63).
[3] The Hebrew word nachash, often translated as ‘serpent’, also has the meaning ‘the shining one’ and conveys enchantment or fascination. Whether the writer of J intended us to picture a snake is open to debate.
[4] The serpent acquires its present form only after the disobedient eating of the fruit. We can’t know what it looked like before, but the implication might be that it had legs before it was cursed. This is a detail artists have often ignored.
[5] I am generalising for reasons of space. Of course, the ‘Christian Church’ is not a single institution, nor do its many denominations agree ideologically.
[6] The other Biblical example of a talking animal is Balaam’s donkey from Numbers 22.

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