It all started with Eve, the mother of us all. The story of the first humans, Eve and Adam, opens the Bible with a tangle of loneliness, companionship, desire, and love. It tells how woman, made in the Creator's image, gives up a life of ease in an idyllic setting, along with the promise of immortality, and instead chooses to pursue wisdom and intimacy with her man. Locked within the story of the first couple is a matrix for all the male-female partnerships that follow.
The invisible mover behind the scenes is an all-knowing, loving God who sets all the elements in place: a man, a woman, the lush garden, the talking serpent, the fruit-bearing trees. In the story the Creator teaches us about the exercise of free will, the need to be responsible for the consequences of our actions, and the bumpy road to growing up.
The setting is idyllic. We envision Adam enjoying the company of playful animals. Wonder fills his soul as he watches birds soaring across the sky. He runs with the beasts, climbs tall trees, and skips flat stones on the river's surface. The Garden of Eden is an ideal playground, a place of innocence where life is beautiful and safe, lacking all challenges.
In this lovely setting, however, "no fitting helper for Adam was found." Adam has no other creature that walks upright and is able to contemplate both heaven and earth. No other living being cries or laughs like him. And no other creature talks. Adam has no one with whom to communicate feelings or exchange ideas.
Surveying all he has created, God observes with compassion the loneliness of the human being among the animals. He says, "It is not good for Adam to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him." The Creator acts quickly, first anesthetizing Adam and then performing surgery: "So the Lord God cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, he took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman."
Adam is now unquestionably male, and Eve is his female counterpart. Is God aware of the energy he is unleashing by separating the human into man and woman? Or has woman been part of his secret plan all along? The Hebrew word tzela is customarily translated as "rib," but another of its meanings is "side"—as in the side of a house, or an essential component of the whole. The term suggests that if you remove the "side," the structure falls apart. That woman is made from man's "side" tells us that they are two halves of a once intact whole. On the one hand, man now has a separate companion from whom he can gain a different perspective. On the other, after they are separated, each half pursues the other, yearning to become one again. As the Bible puts it: "Hence, a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh." With this passage, the Bible indicates the potential for man and woman when they join together in mind, heart, and body to pursue a single goal, most fruitfully expressed as offspring.
God did not consult man about the creation of woman. Adam did not ask for a companion; he was not even aware of the deficiency in his life. Woman, like man, is entirely the Creator's idea. Both are created in God's image, which means they have free choice, and both are thus morally and spiritually equal in his eyes.
The Creator "brought her to the man," and he presents her with a courteous flourish. Man is instantly moved to poetry: "This one at last / Is bone of my bones / And flesh of my flesh."
Now man has a "fitting companion," different but equal, who stands upright and laughs and cries and talks like him. Both are naked, but neither is ashamed. They are as innocent as infants romping at the beach.
The Bible introduces the idea of the need for companionship before it even mentions sexuality and procreation. By introducing this concept first, the Bible makes the point that the companionship we offer our mates is the most enduring and rare gift we can bring to an intimate relationship. Sexual desire—although indispensable—may ebb and flow, but the need for companionship is constant. One rabbinical commentary suggests that woman was created second so that man could experience loneliness and more fully appreciate his partner. Another opines that as Adam named the animals as they passed by him in pairs he commented: "Everything has its partner, but I have no partner."
In the Garden of Eden, God designates one tree off limits, and he warns man never to touch its fruit on pain of death. The forbidden fruit is that of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Hebrew word for knowledge, da'at, means sexual knowledge. "To know" is the biblical verb that implies more than the sexual act alone. It is an elegant euphemism for the intimate and sensitive understanding that evolves over time within a sexual relationship.
Lurking about the forbidden tree is a serpent, "the shrewdest of all the wild beasts." Sidling up to the woman, it asks if God really forbade eating fruit from the trees of the garden. She corrects the serpent: "God allows the eating of the fruits of all trees, except for the one in the middle of the garden." She recites God's edict (presumably told to her by Adam): "You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die." The serpent tells the woman: "You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil."
The serpent, a phallic symbol and fertility idol in cultures across the world, is a reflection of the sexual yearnings stirring in the woman's body and soul. The serpent cunningly addresses the woman's unconscious and casts doubts. Woman, however, is not easily swayed. She is not rash; she takes her time and deliberates; she is aware that the punishment for disobedience to God will be severe. She is alone when the serpent works to persuade her, but then she is with Adam when she finally reaches for the fruit. "When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took the fruit and ate. Then she gave some to her husband, and he ate."
Eve deliberates before eating the forbidden fruit, but Adam devours it without hesitation and without questioning the consequences. The fruit has an instantaneous effect: "Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves" to cover their private parts. Before eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, they had nothing to hide either from their Creator or from each other. But afterward, they become self-conscious, ashamed. Privacy thus becomes part of human sexuality.
The repast of fruit in the garden is a defining moment in the human saga. Soon the first couple's repertory of emotions expands to include shame, guilt, and desire. Man and woman begin the awkward and painful transition from the innocence of childhood to sexual awareness, awakening, experience, and accountability. It is the beginning of puberty and maturation.
Woman's sexual awakening goes hand in hand with the life force, the drive to procreate. She must attract the man to her because she cannot conceive on her own. God knows that woman will be the first to take advantage of his gift and be drawn to the forbidden tree. In accord with his grand scheme, Eve is biologically, genetically, and mentally designed to perpetuate the species. Like every woman after her, she is born with all the eggs she will need for every child she will ever bear.
Embedded in this charming allegory of sexual awakening is the gap between the female and male sexual response. Woman's arousal is gradual and internal, enlisting all her senses and emotions, as described in Eve's deliberations before tasting the fruit. We imagine the process she goes through before she is persuaded to take the ultimate step. "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eye, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and did eat," the Bible says. The procreative drive has been awakened and overwhelms all other considerations. For the woman, the consequences of a sexual relationship can be much more serious than for the man. She is the one who becomes pregnant. Her decision is therefore slower and more deliberate than the man's.
Eve reaches out to Adam, holding the fruit. In contrast to the female, the male is immediately susceptible to any sexual invitation. Observing the ease with which man accepts the forbidden fruit, woman has already learned that man succumbs easily to sexual temptation. The female ignites the flame of his desire by her mere presence or through the subtlest of means—a smile, flattery, the offering of an apple—and the male is immediately seduced. This theme of man's instant responsiveness runs through the Bible.
Hearing God moving about in the garden, man and woman panic and hide. God calls out to man, "Where are you?" He replies, "I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid." God asks, "Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of the tree from which I forbade you to eat?" Man's immediate defense is to blame the woman as well as God: "The woman you put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate." God then turns to woman: "What is this you have done!" She replies, "The serpent duped me, and I ate."
Both man and woman shirk their own responsibility by blaming someone else. Man could have chosen to protect woman, who has just fed him and given him pleasure. He could have said that she did not force him to partake of the fruit. Woman could have explained that she chose to trade immortality in the Garden of Eden for knowledge and wisdom. Like man, however, she disavows any accountability for her action.
Eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is the first independent act by the human beings in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve cannot be said to have been fully aware of the extent of their transgression because they did not yet have knowledge of good and evil. They do, however, know that God has told them explicitly not to eat of that tree. In that respect, they are like children, who may understand that certain behavior is expected but do not fully understand why.
Like any concerned parent, God wants his children to learn to accept responsibility for their actions, however painful it may be. Indeed, God has lovingly provided all of the arrangements in the garden—a secure life, the edict against one tree—but also the capacity for free choice that will cause Adam and Eve to mature. He knows perfectly well where the humans are in the garden, but he asks his question, "Where are you?" to draw the story out of them and begin the process of moral development.
God becomes angry not so much at the act of disobedience but at Adam and Eve's avoidance of responsibility. Significantly, the word sin is not introduced in the Bible until later, when Cain murders his brother, Abel. It seems that Adam and Eve's worst transgression is their scapegoating, and the couple's moral life will finally begin when they can acknowledge having done wrong.
Seductive and aggressive, a narcissist, the serpent is deemed the archvillain of the story. It proves more articulate than man, and its courtship of woman is as ardent as it is cunning. It is involved with the woman strictly for its own pleasure and gratification. The serpent derives perverse excitement from successfully tempting Eve. It is a villain because of the baseness of its motives, not because of the act it encourages. The serpent began its existence standing erect, an image that suggests sexual enticement, and according to rabbinical tradition, that is how it spoke to the woman. God disapproves of this narcissism and severely punishes the serpent. No wonder we call a sneaky, selfish person "a snake"!
God tells the serpent, "Because you did this, more cursed shall you be than all the cattle and all the wild beasts." God's first punishment reduces the offending serpent's entire species to the humiliation of crawling and eating dirt.
Having meted out his sternest punishment, God then turns to woman: "I will make most severe your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bear children; yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Even with modern medicine, giving birth is not free of pain or risk. After birth, however, a protective amnesia sets in, and the life force within the mother prevails. Memory of the pain recedes, and the woman once again desires sexual union with her partner. That, too, is part of God's grand design. The suppression of the memory of pain in childbirth is part of a fundamental optimism about the future, about hope and a new beginning.
Next, God addresses man: "Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, 'You shall not eat of it,' cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground—for from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
Significantly, God's edict that man must till the soil to bring forth food follows immediately after his pronouncement on woman's role—"He shall rule over you"—linking their roles as complementary. It is clear that Adam and Eve's relationship is about collaboration, not subjugation. Woman is to bring forth life with pain, but she will also derive satisfaction from watching her offspring mature. Man is to eke out a living by the sweat of his brow, but he will also be feeding his family with a sense of accomplishment.
The humans' reactions to God's judgments go unrecorded. God's devastating final punishment—"For dust you are, and to dust you shall return"—is followed by an apparent non sequitur: "The man named his wife Eve [Hava in Hebrew], because she was the mother of all the living."
This name highlights Eve as the archetype for all women, whose unique role is to give life. It is the first of rare husband-to-wife compliments in the Bible; it is also hardly the contrite admission of guilt that might be expected in response to God's stern edicts. Instead, man and woman participate in the ritual act of giving a name, which suggests Adam's appreciation for his wife's action. He has stopped blaming her.
The next sentence exemplifies God's compassion and mercy. He upgrades the fig leaves they wear to "garments of skins for Adam and his wife." His gift of clothing protects his children from the elements outside the garden. The garments also portend the beginnings of aesthetic appreciation and, with it, civilization.
Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden is necessitated by a second tree in the garden, one previously mentioned but playing no part in the story thus far. God, mysteriously using the royal we, observes: "Now that man has become like one of us, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!" Now that man has breached the previous demarcation by gaining knowledge of good and evil, the Creator is determined to draw a line between the human and the divine; human beings are henceforth destined to live as mortals. God not only banishes Adam "to till the soil from which he was taken" but also "drove the man out, and stationed east of the Garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life."
Eve and Adam leave their father's protective abode, as children must. God knows it is time for them to face life as adults in an imperfect world. The heartbroken parent appoints a guard at the garden's gate to prevent Eve and Adam from regressing to a childhood devoid of adult responsibilities but also to prevent himself from softening and allowing them to return.
The Garden of Eden offers a life that is comfortable and risk free. Yet Eve rejects the stultifying monotony of her perfect, paradisiacal life. As she gazes at the forbidden tree of knowledge, she seems to ask, "What good is life without the wisdom that arises from experience?" Passing by the tree of life, she might muse, "Of what use is immortality without knowledge or growth?" Eve wrestles with humanity's first moral dilemma and takes the first moral action recorded in the Bible when she crosses the limit set by the all-knowing God.
The reader sees Eve and Adam leaving the Garden of Eden full of optimism. They are not at all the tearful, dejected couple portrayed in Renaissance art, expelled by a furious father. The first thing they do is make love and create new life. What better way is there to teach us about pleasure and responsibility, behavior and consequences, than through the knowledge that the fleeting gratification of lovemaking produces a child with whom parents share a lifelong bond?
Generations of male commentators have accused Eve of being a disobedient seductress who led innocent Adam astray, thus bringing pain and suffering and death to all humankind. But a close reading of the Bible actually points in quite a different direction.
The biblical chronicle suggests that Eve's sole motivation is curiosity, the starting point that leads ultimately to wisdom. It is Eve who forces open the gates of Eden so that all of us may benefit from the vast, perilous realm of human potential that lies beyond the garden. It is her daring choice that unlocks the sexual knowledge essential to the creation of new life.
The biblical term "to know" is a graceful summing up of the intimate and in-depth understanding that grows over time in a sexual relationship. Only when a man and a woman really "know" each other over time and under many different circumstances—as companions, partners, lovers—will they risk revealing their most private feelings and responses to each other.
The most sobering sentence in God's judgment is "Dust you are, and to dust you shall return." This is how Eve and Adam learn that life is finite. The words "from dust to dust," however, further proclaim a universal truth that is neither the tragic consequence of the first couple's disobedience nor a punishment. Our goal as humans should not be to try to escape death but instead to embrace life and savor its challenges and gifts.
Eve is the one who chooses knowledge over immortality. She tastes the fruit from the tree of knowledge and forgoes the fruit from the other tree, the tree of life. She manifests no interest in immortality, despite God's concern about humans' pilfering from the tree of life. The narrative implies that the trade-off of immortality for knowledge and experience is complete. When Adam and Eve become mortal, they become fully human. Death confers a sense of urgency to life; the fact of death tells us that whatever we do is important, that we must not procrastinate.
Contrary to popular understanding, Eve is not a manipulative temptress; nor is she a gullible victim who succumbs to temptation. On the contrary, Eve is a risk taker, a woman who dares to question the limitations imposed on her and her helpmate. She is driven by the need to create new life. She is the one who determines the future of humankind. She is a heroine, and her story is the template for the stories that follow. The women in the Bible are part of a long line of Eve's descendants—women who use their powers to work everyday miracles in a patriarchal world. l
From After the Apple: Women in the Bible: Timeless Stories of Love, Lust, and Longing by Naomi Harris Rosenblatt. Copyright © 2005. Miramax Books