Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Genesis 3: Is the Fall Eve's Fault?

Last week, I dedicated a blog post to Lilith, Adam's "first wife" according to tradition. This week, I address his "other" wife Eve to deal with a pressing question: whose fault is the Fall?

Most of us are familiar with some version of the opening of Genesis: Adam and Eve live peacefully in the Garden, free to eat of all fruit except that of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (2:17). Eve, however, is tempted by a serpent to transgress God's only command; she eats the fruit, convinces her husband to do the same, and brings an everlasting curse on humanity.

Though both man and woman eat the forbidden food, early Christian writers agree that Eve is the arch-sinner. The author of 1 Timothy puts it succinctly: "Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (1 Timothy 2:14). For this writer, Eve's superior sin casts a pall over all female-dom, and scores of early Christian authors take his lead in excoriating women for Eve's misstep.

However, I always encourage readers to treat the opening chapters of Genesis as a whodunnit--to examine the text closely and assign blame more fairly. Yes, Eve trips up. But many modern readers of Genesis argue that she is not so guilty as the Timothy author would have us believe. In fact, she may just be the victim of bad intelligence.

There are a number of ways that modern scholars use Genesis to defend Eve's action, but their work usually starts with 3:3. At this point in the text, the serpent--who is, by the by, never identified as Satan--has already approached Eve and delivered an awkward pick-up line: "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (3:2) (If this were a bar, the serpent would get shot down.)

Eve replies, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die'." (3:2-3). Eve's got the gist, but she's off on the details. God delivers his famous dietary restriction to Adam in 2:17: it reads, simply, "Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat."

There are two differences between Eve's understanding of God's command and His articulation of it. First, Eve believes that she can neither eat of the tree nor touch it. In reality, God only forbids tasting the fruit. Second, Eve identifies the tree not by its function--as giving the knowledge of good and evil--but by its location: it is the "tree in the middle of the garden."

How are we to explain these discrepancies? Some suggest that Eve is just playing fast and loose with the divine word; her changes indicate her moral lassitude. But this is an anti-Eve reading likely generated by later, anti-feminist attitudes.

Many instead attribute these small alterations, ironically, to Adam. Indeed, Eve is not present when Adam receives God's no-fruit interdiction--she has yet to be created. The text, then, allows for the possibility that Adam passes along the command with small but devastating changes.

This line of reasoning goes as follows: perhaps Adam does not trust Eve to understand the severity of God's request, so he beefs it up: she may neither eat nor touch the fruit.

Further, he may not respect her moral intelligence, so he changes the tree of knowledge of good and evil to the tree in the middle of the garden--that one, over there.

Thus, when Eve reaches the crucial moment, she has faulty information. For philosophers, moral decision-making relies on correct knowledge--a correct knowledge Eve does not have in Genesis 3. For example, if Eve were told that arsenic is an artificial sweetener--and not a poison--she could not be blamed for putting it in Adam's drink. Similarly, if she does not know the true nature of the fruited tree, we cannot blame her if she makes bad choices about eating it.

To drive home the point, many artists (see Albrecht Durer's painting above) show the serpent wrapped around the tree. Eve, looking on, sees a living being touching the tree and not perishing--an impossibility given her understanding of God's law.

So when she takes that fateful bite, she may not be succumbing to ethical weakness. She may just be working with bad intelligence.


  1. Any chance I can use the same excuse on a regular basis at work?

    So, you're saying Eve might have been a contender for Most Gullible at her high school class awards ceremony?

    I wouldn't go so far as to take umbrage with your well-argued point, but let's not forget the fact that she's still taking advice from a talking snake, which doesn't exactly show the best judgment.

    I'm just saying...

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