They are of inferior substance, of secondary importance to God.
They have no souls. They are the gateway for the devil. How does the devil enter the world through a woman? Her sexuality of course.
And if they get out of line, it’s okay–you can beat them…
After all, you are not really beating her, you are beating back the devil.
Such are just a few of the “truths” influential theologians have posited over the course of the centuries regarding women.
Why? Where do they get this stuff from?
The story of Adam and Eve.
The consequences of such interpretations as passed down over the centuries need not be expounded upon here, for they are quite obvious.
But where do they come from? Patriarchy for one. And literal readings of the story.
The story of Adam and Eve is just that: a story. In other words, a myth. As “works” of the imagination, myths employ metaphor, thus implying multiple meaning. Contrast to the multiplicities of metaphorical meaning is literalism’s positing a singularity of meaning–a singular truth which, in relation to the story of Adam and Eve, led Jewish and Christian theologians to make the aforementioned statements.
If unfamiliar with the story, here’s the gist: God creates Adam, the first man; he then creates Eve, the first woman. They are happy living peacefully in the Garden of Eden. Then the snake comes along and tempts Eve; she succumbs and gets Adam to eat the fruit. God finds out, he’s angry, punishes them, kicks them out of paradise.
Literalist approach read this story as telling the story of the creation of the first man and first woman. Literal, biological.
So if this isn’t a literal reading of the myth, what follows deviates from a traditional reading and the interpretations that stem from such.
To begin, let me set the scene. (All biblical quotations are drawn from The Catholic Study Bible, 2nd ed. New American Revised edition, Oxford UP, 2010. )
There is nothing on the earth nor in the heavens; no “field shrub on earth and no grass of the field had sprouted” (Gen 2: 5). No rain and no man to till the ground. But there was a stream welling out of the ground and thus God, using water and dirt, “formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” So Adam is made. But is Adam a “man?” Such is problematic, for the Hebrew adam is a generic term meaning “human being.” Moreover the Hebrew word translated here as “living being” is nephesh, or “soul”–nephesh signifies that which gives life to a person.
Literal interpretations suggest God creates literal man and literal woman in two distinct processes of creation. This reading sees things a little differently: I read this story, the second story of creation in the Bible, as a process, a process which consists, moreover, of several “stages.”
At the onset, with God forming humankind, the process of creation begins with just that: the giving of FORM.
God then breathes life/soul (nepesh means breath/life/soul), animating this form, making it alive. Thus this form is given ANIMATING PRINCIPLE.
Then God plants a garden in Eden (the garden and Eden are not synonymous). This garden is place in the east of Eden (a point which will become significant below). So Adam is supposed to cultivate and take care of the Garden. Adam is alone, and God decides to make for him a “helper” (2: 18). Not a subordinate, not an inferior, but a helper.
God then creates the animals, and Adam names them. In ancient Middle Eastern mythology, naming was an inherent element in the creation of a thing (as in the first biblical creation story). Here then Adam, in naming the animals, plays an essential role in creation (the relevance of such will be discussed below). But of course the animals do not suit Adam in terms of being a good helper, so God “cast a deep sleep on the man (adam/”humankind”) and while he was asleep, he took out of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh” (2: 21-22). God transforms this rib, then, into a woman. While one familiar with the story knows already this is Eve, that she is referred only as “woman” here, as will be discussed below, is significant.
To this FORM (adam/humankind) that has been instilled with the animating principle (breath/life/soul), we have added to the mix the rib, the implication of STRUCTURE (i.e. a “skeleton”). To this then God adds FLESH.
So the process goes as such: A) form; B) animating principle; C) structure; and D) flesh.
One may ask, why the rib? I cannot say for sure. Perhaps because the ribs protect vital organs such as the heart and lungs [i.e. house for breath–one who dies “breathes out the soul” (Jer. 15:9)]? The Sumerians, another ancient Near Eastern culture, had a goddess named Ninhursag, the “true and great lady of heaven,” a mother goddess. Amongst her many epithets was “lady of the rib.” At any rate, in ancient Near Eastern (of which our current story is a part) there seems to be a relation between mothering, life giving and nourishing, and the rib.
The one is now two and “all hell breaks loose” when the snake comes to “tempt” the woman. Described as cunning, the snake asks the woman about the trees in the Garden. “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” the woman says, “it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat or even touch it, or else you shall die'” (3: 2-3).
The snake replies, “‘You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know good and evil” (2: 4-5). Eyes will be opened and they will be like gods who know. Knowledge, consciousness.
After flesh above then, consciousness is fifth in the process of creation.
So God finds out, and while one may assume God is angry as he punishes the man, the woman, and the snake, such is a presumption, for nowhere does the text say God is angry. The text does say how God “feels.” God simply speaks and punishes. And even that is a presumption, for while there are consequences for the act of eating the fruit the text does not call such punishments.
Now things get a little tricky, as what follows speaks to scribal editing of biblical texts. Following said punishments, the Bible reads: “The man
gave his wife the name ‘Eve,’ because she was the mother of all the living” (3:20). Then, in verses 23-24: “The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. He expelled the man, stationing the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword east of the garden of Eden.”
So as it is, Adam names the woman Eve prior to the expelling from the garden, but as the editors to my Bible state in the notes, this verse is out of place and suggest it is better placed after verse 24. After, that is, they are expelled.
Herein lie the two elements I alluded to above: the significance of the east and of naming. To start with the latter, the naming. As suggested above, naming was an inherent element of the creative process. Here the woman is given her name: Eve, or Hawwa in the Hebrew, a word related to hay, living. “The mother of all living,” Eve’s name, then, clearly relates to life.
And what of the east? The east, of course, is where the sun rises and across the world, the east is associated with life, birth, beginnings, etc.
In being kicked out of the garden and, if the editors are correct in their assumption that the proper place for the naming of Eve is after the expelling, with the naming of Eve, the process of creation is complete. Life is born.
The garden is like a womb, a place a maturation and development.
Centuries of religious literalism have referred to this story as the “Fall of Man”–the emphasis, of course, on man. Man who has fallen. In other words, man used to be of a higher position. Where? With God, say the theologians. With the Fall, we fall into material existence, away from God, the realm of spirit, the true place of man. Trapped in the material world, the world of the woman. So the story goes, generating further statements such as those above. And whose fault is it? Eve’s of course. Woman.
But do we have a fall here? Not according to this reading, this interpretation.
We have not a fall, but a birth. Life’s beginning.
And who do we have to thank?
And what do we owe her?
Gratitude, respect, love.