Oh, joy! One of the scripture readings for this Sunday is one of the banes of my preaching existence. Genesis 3: 8-15 is the story of when Adam and Eve get caught eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, it’s also perfect fodder for this blog; the religious roots of patriarchy can be found right here in this story.
WOMAN BLAMED FOR FALL OF HUMANKIND
In this version of creation (the other very different one is in Genesis 1), the talking serpent tempts the woman, who eats the forbidden fruit, then turns around and offers it to the man, who also partakes. The passage for Sunday begins with God confronting the man (ha-‘adam: ‘earth creature’) who immediately points the finger at the woman ( ezer kenegdo: a ‘power’ or ‘strength’).
(For more insight about a better way to translate ezer kenegdo than ‘helpmate,’ a good article is Gender from Eve’s Point of View.)
Not only is Eve traditionally relegated to the status of a helper, she’s also blamed by Adam for succumbing to the wiles of the serpent and then tempting him. In other words, Eve is responsible for the fall of humanity into sin. The book of Sirach (2nd century BCE) says it plainly: From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.
EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS PILE ON
Some of the early Christian church fathers then picked up the theme.
- Tertullian (2nd century) claimed that all women carried the blame for Eve’s sin: “You are the Devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first foresaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.”
- Ambrosiaster (4th century):
“Women must cover their heads because they are not the image of God. They must do this as a sign of their subjection to authority and because sin came into the world through them. Their heads must be covered in church in order to honor the bishop. In like manner they have no authority to speak because the bishop is the embodiment of Christ. They must thus act before the bishop as before Christ, the judge, since the bishop is the representative of the Lord. Because of original sin they must show themselves submissive.”
- Jerome (4th century) also blamed women for The Fall. Women could overcome their guilt only by childbearing or by abstaining from sex.
And lest you think these dusty old guys are long dead and gone and of no significance any longer, think again. Several years ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, I attended a Service of Lessons and Carols. The traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, begun way back in 1880, tells the story of the birth of Jesus. And how does the story begin? With Genesis 3: 1-15, the fall of humanity. In the theology put forth in this service, the reason Jesus was born clearly was to undo the effects of original sin. And reading this passage reinforces the notion – held by many of early Christian theologians – that Eve was the cause of it all.
Now granted, it may be that the main attraction of Lessons and Carols is the music – favorite carols and the opportunity for choirs and church musicians to strut their stuff. But the theological underpinnings are rotten. At the service I attended, several women actually hissed during the Genesis reading. I did find an alternative service on the Process & Faith website, which “is based on the traditional set of readings with some changes. It retains lessons 3-9, but shifts the message of lessons 1 and 2 away from original sin toward original blessing.” Yes! But how many churches will seek out and use this alternative? How many will read this passage this week with no commentary or corrective?
BEYOND THE CHURCH
If we’re serious about dismantling patriarchy, then we have to get at its roots. The Framing of Eve is at the root of our cultural misogyny, too; Genesis 3 lies in our collective subconscious. It doesn’t matter if you don’t believe the story; it doesn’t matter if you’re not religious at all. Misogyny is baked into our national psyche.
Those of us who are in the church have a responsibility to everyone – inside and outside the church – to identify and dismantle the toxic interpretation of sacred texts. This week, we can begin by liberating Eve, metaphorical mother of us all.