Eve-The First Feminist: John Milton's Midrash on Genesis 3:6

Article excerpt

It is amazing that possibly the most important event in the history of mankind is related by the Torah in one curt, choppy verse: So the woman, seeing that the tree was good for meat, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be de sired to get knowledge, took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also (gam) to her husband with her (imah), and he did eat (Geneva Bible, 1564, Gen. 3:6).

However, the verse is fraught with ambiguity and implies a hiatus. The ambiguity rises from the use of both the word gam (also) and the word imah (with her). Each can indicate that Adam was right there alongside Eve when she ate the forbidden fruit and gave it to him to eat. Is there a troublesome superfluous word here needing exegesis? Is the addition of imah merely an intensive? Or does it hint at a different connotation? (1) To state the problem in other words: Was Adam alongside Eve and the Serpent when she ate the fruit, as reported in Genesis 3:6? If he was not there but was induced by Eve only later to eat with her, where was he and why? John Milton endeavors to answer these questions by composing what might be called a narrative midrash in Book ix of his Paradise Lost and along the way conveys a surprising characterization of Mother Eve.

John Milton (1608-1674) was a devout Puritan, with a deep respect for the Hebrew Bible which he learned to read in the original language at Cambridge University. Apparently Milton was what we would call a "peshat" reader of the text. Harris Fletcher in his Milton's Rabbinical Readings reports that he objected to commentators' designation of keri readings of the text (words spelled one way but read differently), insisting "that the text is sacred and can say what it pleases." (2) Milton had at hand the Buxtorf Bible, a Calvinist publication (Basel, 1618-19), which was not a translation, but the masoretic text of the Tanakh printed on the page in a central column flanked by Rashi's commentary on the spine-side and that of Ibn Ezra on the page-edge. Elsewhere in this volume, Buxtorf compiled commentaries by other medieval Jewish exegetes. Harris Fletcher mentions the hundreds of times that Milton evidently had recourse to these commentaries, especially that of Rashi, in the period when he wrote polemical essays on a number of subjects, like Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643). (3)

After years of writing poems and polemical essays, Milton began to search for a subject of breadth and significance worthy to be an epic poem, emulating his beloved classical epic poets, Homer and Virgil. He rejected subjects merely national, like King Arthur and his Round Table, finally latching onto that

   Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
   Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
   Brought Death into the World, and all our woe
   With loss of Eden

--a project that was to grow into Paradise Lost, 10,565 lines, divided into--twelve so-called "Books," of which the quotation above is the opening (I. 1-4). It was published in 1667

Obviously, a knowledge of the Hebrew text of Genesis was essential. It is not difficult to imagine that he paid particular attention to Genesis 3:6. Here was a precis of what his epic was to be all about. The Buxtorf Bible provided him with both text and commentaries on the ambiguity and hiatus in Genesis 3:6. Writes Fletcher, "Several details, more or less minute in Rashi, have been elaborated by Milton into large and important portions of the poem." (4) But it was more likely that Rabbi David Kimhi (acronym "Radak") offered more to the poet than Rashi did. Milton held Kimhi "in highest respect." (5) Kimhi's commentary gave Milton the clues from which to develop his midrash:

   Afterwards, she gave [the fruit] to her husband, who was at one
   of the [other] places in the Garden, and brought to him from the
   fruit and informed him of the words of the serpent, and they [Eve
   and Adam] ate together. …