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.
- Meyers, Carol. Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
- Meyers, Carol, ed. Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- Yoder, Christine Roy. “Proverbs.” in Women’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Newsom, Carol A., Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.