What are some common perceptions of Eve, and where do they come from?
Eve is probably the best-known woman in the Hebrew Bible. The story of Eve in Gen 2-4 has had an enormous influence on women’s lives and roles for thousands of years. As the first woman, according to the biblical story, Eve represents all women. Sure, she is a mother—“the mother of all living,” as she is called in the biblical narrative —and indeed she represents the maternal potential of adult women. But she is also called a sinner and a seductress, and she is considered secondary and subordinate to man.
But these other labels and views are actually not in the biblical story itself. Just as there is no apple in the Eden tale—the apple designation comes from postbiblical sources—so too are these negative perceptions the result of later translations and interpretations of the original Hebrew text. These later interpretations come from contexts very different from the Iron Age (circa 1200–600 B.C.E.) society of the Israelites, and they convey ideas that resonate with their own cultures. A closer look at the biblical tale itself, even in English translation, shows, for example, that the misdeed of the first humans is never called a sin and that the first woman hands the first man a piece of fruit—she doesn’t seduce or tempt him.
What can we learn about the “real” Eve of the biblical tale?
Putting common perceptions aside, very different aspects of the tale emerge. For example, although English translations make this hard to see, the first human is called not “the man” but rather “the human,” a gender-inclusive term. To be sure, the Hebrew word is ’adam, which plays delightfully on the word ’adamah, the clayey soil from which the human is made. And, without the definite article, ’adam becomes the name of the first male. But mostly in the Hebrew Bible it is a generic term, as it is in the Eden narrative until God performs cosmic surgery on this first living being, taking one of its sides (that is, a half, not a “rib”) to form a second being. Then they are gendered, a “man” and a “woman.” The utter closeness of being originally one is then replicated in the relationship of a woman and her husband.
An aspect of this female-male bond is also expressed in the phrase ‘ezer ke-negdo, best translated “suitable [or powerful] counterpart,” which describes the intended relationship of the woman to the man. The Hebrew carries no hint of subordination, no support staff. The woman and man form a complementary partnership so that together they can establish and sustain a household in the challenging environment facing all Israelite farm families. In fact, that the first thing the humans do in the garden is eat some fruit is related to an important theme of the story. It is not only about the beginnings of human life; it is also about the importance of food for human survival. The words for “food” and “eat,” which are from the same root in Hebrew, appear repeatedly (in contrast to the absence of “sin”), creating a thematic focus on food. After all, the very first thing God tells the first human concerns food.
In meting out punishment to the first couple, God assigns the woman many pregnancies, a role suited to the need for children in agrarian life and also to the high infant mortality rate in biblical times, and hard work, another stipulation appropriate for the arduous life of peasant farmers. The word for “work” is exactly the same as the one used for the man’s fate of grueling labor. (Typical English translations mentioning “pain in childbirth” misrepresent the Hebrew. A more accurate translation is “I will make great your toil and many your pregnancies.”) The male dominance prescribed for life after Eden pertains to sexual relations, not to social or legal arrangements; men control women’s sexuality because of women’s reluctance to have many pregnancies, given the dangers of maternal and child mortality in biblical antiquity.
The punishment is not the end of the story for Eve. She appears in her maternal role after the departure from Eden, when she gives birth to the first naturally born human, Cain. The usual biblical language for reporting that a woman has given birth, however, does not appear in the announcement of Cain’s birth. Rather, Eve proclaims that she had created a man together with God.
Carol Meyers, "Eve", n.p. [cited 14 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/eve
Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; a reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2012).
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.
A written, spoken, or recorded story.
Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.
A woman who uses her sexuality to entice men to sin; often used as a cautionary figure in the biblical book of Proverbs.
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Relating to agriculture, or (of a society) dependent on agriculture for food.
The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.
Not specific; not connected to a particular version.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.
The interests or topics that dominate a literary work.
Explaining the origin of a feature of the world, e.g. why snakes have no feet (Genesis 3:14) or why "Isaac" sounds like the Hebrew for "laughter" (Genesis 21:5-6).
The Christian idea that humanity is inherently sinful because of Adam and Eve's transgression in the garden of Eden, found in the very first chapters of the Bible.
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