What was that Eve all about?
We could let the advertising industry tell us. Katie B. Edwards’ recent book, Admen and Eve, uncovers (that was a pun) several diverse, even contradictory uses Eve serves. Obviously, the Eve story provides a free opportunity to depict naked or nearly naked models coupled in kinky ways with men — and with snakes. Eve, the temptress, overwhelms our resistance with “forbidden fruit” that ranges from alcoholic beverages to cars, shoes, and underwear. As temptress, Eve possesses more power than does poor Adam. According to Edwards, Eve almost always gazes directly into the camera while Adam, presumably undone by his partner’s sexuality, looks off in the distance. This temptress, Eve, evokes a peculiar combination of feminine power and vulnerability. Men (and women) cannot resist her, but her value does not extend beyond her commoditization.
The legacy of Eve continues to permeate images of women in our society.
Or we could listen to others, sometimes preachers and even politicians, who tell us the problem with Eve is her sexuality is dangerous. No new idea, this. The brilliant Jewish interpreter Philo explains the serpent approached Eve rather than Adam because women are naturally more influenced by their emotions than are men, who are more rational (On the Creation 165). As the apocryphal wisdom book, Sirach, puts it, “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die” (25:24). I Timothy in the New Testament teaches that women should never exercise authority over men. After all, Adam was not deceived; Eve was, and she fell into transgression. Therefore, women may hope to attain salvation through childbearing (2:9-15).
Like the advertising industry, this line of thought also lives in contradiction. Because of Eve, because their sexuality is so powerful, women must not be allowed to exercise public influence. In fact, they shouldn’t even be trusted to govern their own bodies, much less households, churches, and societies. According to this script, preachers exhort women to dress modestly. (Searching “modesty” at a leading evangelical periodical, Christianity Today, underscores this fascination with monitoring women’s appearance.) Politically, the seductive Eve legitimates bizarre outbursts and public policy initiatives. A member of Congress wants to discriminate “legitimate rape” from — what, illegitimate rape? A state legislator and candidate for Congress states that he doesn’t believe a man can rape his wife. After all, “when they’re living together, sleeping in the same bed, she’s in a nightie, and so forth … .” Several states have entertained legislation that would require invasive ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. Eve’s vagina is a dangerous place. It must be watched very, very carefully.
But is Eve all about sex? Or might she want something else? Our popular imagination turns Eve into a receptacle for one set of our fantasies. Our fixation on Eve’s sexuality causes us to overlook the story’s major themes and what they might mean for our common life together. Indeed, biblical scholar Ken Stone shows that Genesis 2-3 has a lot more to say about food than it does about sex. Even if becoming “one flesh” is about sex, and maybe it’s not, there’s all kinds of references in the passage about what the first humans may or may not eat.
The story tells us directly what Eve wants. She doesn’t want to tempt Adam. And she doesn’t want a snake curling suggestively around her body. Eve wants wisdom.
And she gains wisdom.
Let’s review some of the overlooked details in this story.
First, God does not prohibit Eve from eating the fruit. God fills the garden of Eden with trees that bear fruit. Yet God sets apart one tree as forbidden. “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat” (2:16-17, NRSV). God provides this instruction to Adam but not to Eve. She hadn’t yet been created. Eve apparently hears this news from Adam (3:2-3).
Second, the serpent doesn’t really deceive Eve. Everything the serpent tells Eve turns out to be true. She does not die in the day that she eats the fruit, as God had warned Adam (2:17; 3:3-4). Instead, precisely what the serpent predicts comes to pass: “your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good from evil” (3:5). Confronted by God, Eve does accuse the serpent of deceiving her (3:13), but God’s own words confirm that the serpent was correct: “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” (3:22).
And third, Eve eats the forbidden fruit in large part because it promises wisdom. She sees that it’s “good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes,” but she also discerns that “the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (3:6). Having eaten the fruit, she now knows good from evil.
By eating the forbidden fruit, Eve and Adam grow into human maturity. We may idealize their pre-transgression life in the garden. No pain. No fear. No sin. No alienation. But where the knowledge of good and evil is lacking, so is maturity. Growing in wisdom requires pain, risk, and the presence of sin.
Imagine Eve before the fruit incident. How could she be honest if there were no benefit in lying? How could she demonstrate courage in the absence of danger and death? How could she express compassion in a world without suffering, pain, and injustice? Eve could not experience full adult humanity apart from the knowledge of good and evil.
Most everybody loves baby hugs. Feeling an adult’s warmth and calm, a little baby will just curl up into our shoulders and neck. It’s a great feeling. As a parent, however, I much more valued my daughters’ hugs when they were four, or nine, or fourteen, or eighteen. For as they grow up, they know more. Their hugs carry additional meaning because my daughters now know my faults as well as my virtues. Out of their maturing wisdom, they choose to love me. And that makes all the difference.
Eve’s choice embodies all the complications of human maturity. Contrary to her representation at the hands of the advertisers and some preachers alike, Eve seeks wisdom — and she finds it. In her choice, we face life and mortality in all their complication.
Greg Carey, is the Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Lancaster, PA.