By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
What to say about Beraysheet—Genesis? There are two, clearly-delineated versions of the Creation-Story; in particular, the creation of Man and Woman. The first, in Gen. 1, has God creating Man and Woman as equals, at the same time (no rib-story here):
And God created Man in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them. God said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and conquer it; rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth” (Gen. 1:27-8).
This more equitable, “feminist” version of the story, if you will, is attributed to the E-author of the story, because God is referred to by the name Elohim, as opposed to the J-Version, wherein God is referred to as Jehovah, which we pronounce as Adonai.
Moving on to Gen. 3, we find the famous story of Eve and the Serpent, which has been blamed—not particularly in Judaism, but the onus is there, as well—for women’s inferior status in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It has resulted in enormous suffering for women through the ages, and needs to be reinterpreted; it is time to remove prejudices promulgated by such theologians as St. Augustine and John Milton (on whose epic “Paradise Lost” I specialized while in English graduate school), in order to redress grievances and achieve women’s true religious and legal equality.
By hearkening to the Serpent, picking and tasting the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (no, it wasn’t an apple), Eve is fulfilling the role which all curious and scientific discoverers must play: that of being curious and eager to learn. Unlike her passive, almost clownish husband, she becomes the seeker of knowledge, willing to test limits laid down by another man, albeit a Divine One—that is, God, judging from the imagery ascribed to the Deity in the text. Like her Biblical descendants, she does not hesitate to push the limits in order to further humanity’s quest.
The result, judging according to the society which created the Adam and Eve Saga, is definitely mixed. From a static world of paradise, Man and Woman move into a world of life and death, birth achieved with pain, painful work laden with toil and sweat, and gender inequities. It is, however, truer to the world which exists today: one of social, economic, racial, and sexual differences. This world may be no paradise, but it is all we have.
As for the Serpent, the catalytic creature who achieves this enormous metamorphosis, he is no Satan-figure in our Tradition; no. Like his African and Promethean antecedents, he is a trickster figure, far weaker than God (or the gods of parallel mythologies), but he is, nonetheless, able to disturb the calm of the cosmos, changing the order of nature forever. He and the Woman band together to bring culture, agriculture, social order, and progress to humanity.
As for Adam, he remains passive—almost a spoiled brat. He lets the Woman feed him the fruit, as if he were an infant. Despite his informing on her, she is still chief actor in the piece. Despite the pain involved, she will become the Mother, indeed Uber-Matriarch, of Humanity, as women remain today. Birth, with all of its attendant pain and suffering, remains the realm of women, as does the primary care of the young. Men, for the most part, continue to rise, dress, and go to the office, wherever and whatever that might be, though more Millennials (if my male college students’ viewpoints are any guide) are willing to take on the role of caregiver, by staying at home, if their wives make higher salaries than they.
In the end, thanks to the Woman’s courage, human beings gain responsibility for their own lives and destinies. Like angels, they gain the capacity to discriminate between Good and Evil. Like animals, they feed their bodies (and, hopefully, their spiritual souls), procreate, and die. There is one added advantage which humanity possesses over the beasts: the ability to cooperate in the cause of peace among nations great and small, and to hasten the Golden Age from which all humanity hopes to benefit.
It all began with Eve: fearless boundary-crosser, explorer, and tester of limits. We owe her our thanks, not our opprobrium.
Susan Niditch, “Genesis,” in Newsom, C. A., & Ringe, S. H. (1992). The Women's Bible commentary. London: SPCK.