The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden

Article excerpt

1. First Reading

There is probably no episode of the Bible that has been subject to a greater variety of interpretations than the story of the Garden of Eden. This variety is due to the fact that no single line of interpretation has accounted for all the data. That is to say, no single meaning of the story has exhausted all its features. If every reading perspective leaves a remainder, the only question is whether one reading accounts for more of the data than another in a coherent way. Indeed, it may even take multiple readings to account for all the data. The claim to significance of the following reading lies in its capacity to minimize the remainder by providing a structure for illuminating the narrative that explains its overall thrust, accounts for the interaction of its characters, and sheds light on interpretational difficulties. [2] Although the reading is primarily synchronic, focusing on the narrative as a whole, it takes into account literary issues raised by a diachronic reading.

I state this explicitly, since a reader has a right to expect a consistency of explanation or causation. Such an expectation is all the more important with regard to the opening chapters of Genesis where there are so many literary maneuvers available to a modern exegete to account for difficulties or rough spots in the smooth flow of one's proposed understanding. For example, some will account for such elements by ascribing them to specific etiological considerations or as part of a larger etiological orientation. Others will resolve alleged contradictions by falling back on source criticism. A variant of this postulates a coherent earlier form of the story, but imperfect elaborated final form. Still others will fill the alleged gaps by borrowing from comparable motifs from the Ancient Near East. The common denominator of these maneuvers is an account of the text by that which is not in the text. In any case, it is inappropriate to switch arbitrarily modes of explanation in order to maintain at all cost one's interpretation. To proclaim the composite artistry of the narrative when it supports one's interpretation but its sloppiness when it does not is problematic. Or to evoke source criticism only when one's interpretation means a bump in the narrative is disingenuous at best. [3]

Among the ways of resolving sloppiness are attributing the obtrusive elements to another source, to imperfect embellishment, or to responses to ancient concerns. Since literary analysis is more of an art form than a science, there is always a judgment involved. In view of the different ways of making a sense of a narrative, the question is only how much mileage can be accrued from a reading strategy. [4]

Minimally, a reading of Genesis three worthy of the name has to deal with the Bible beginning its account of human history with a tree of knowledge, humans seeking to acquire divine-like knowledge, and serpents talking to women. In doing so, it must focus on the role of sexuality and birth pangs, blaming and guilt, nakedness and clothing as part of the human debut on the stage of life. Such a focus needs to account for the shift in the relationship between man and woman from parity to domination and for the link between morality and mortality within a revised divine-human relationship.

This reading of the Eden story argues that woman is not only the hero of the story but is representative of humanity. [5] Her representative status, as will be shown, explains why the story features both woman and serpent, why the serpent talks specifically to woman, why of all the ancient epics of origins Genesis alone gives the creation of woman separate billing, and why Genesis underscores the commonality between man and woman. By highlighting the significance of the woman, this reading makes for the remarkable combination of authoritarian theology and egalitarian anthropology. [6]

According to our reading, the Eden story reflects the perennial struggle of humanity to break out from its subdivine status only to come upon the chasm separating the human from the divine. …