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. That it [the text, Kimhi continues] says
   imah--thus it is that she ate twice and Adam once [emphasis
   mine].

For Milton, these are clarifications of the inherent ambiguities in the sacred text of Genesis 3:6 and also hints at perceiving what today could be called the feminism of Eve.

The first indication of the beginning of Eve's self-revaluation comes at line 214 of Book ix of Paradise Lost, where Eve proposes to her husband:

   Let us divide our labors, thou where choice
   Leads thee, ... while I
   In yonder Spring of Roses intermixt
   (With Myrtle, find what to redress till Noon ... (IX. 214-20)

Independence is what she craves. (6)

Adam does not agree. His argument is twofold: He praises her for the suggestion to divide their labors and thus do more of the work the Lord requires of them in the Garden, but still,

   Nothing lovelier can be found
   In Woman, than to study household good,
   And good works in her Husband to promote. ((IX. 232-4)

He expounds, however, upon a stronger reason for refusal than this litany of Woman's place in the marital union. Adam had been warned by a heaven-sent messenger (he tells Eve) that there is a subtle danger abroad,

   Envying our happiness, and of his own
   Despairing, seeks to work us woe or shame
   (By sly assault ... (IX. 254-6)

At this Eve bridles. She agrees that such an enemy may be wandering about in Eden with evil intent,

   But that thou shouldst my firmness therefore doubt
   To God or thee, because we have a foe
   (May tempt it, I expected not to hear. (IX. 279-81)

She argues that "Faith, Love, Virtue unassay'd [untested]" are meaningless (IX. 334-5). Not only independence, but respect, is what Eve craves. Ultimately, Adam relents--with misgiving, however. And so, after this first tiff of their married life, Eve goes off to her destined disobedience, as told in Genesis 3:6.

There is one more element in this verse that Milton decides he must deal with in his midrashic narrative: That the fruit is physically attractive to the sight and luscious to the taste is obvious, but the verse tells us that Eve found the tree a tree to be desired to get knowledge (le-haskil--knowledge in the Geneva Bible; wisdom in JPS, 1985). The very word in the thought of a woman in Milton's seventeenth century sounds anomalous, and is further evidence of Eve's feminism. Indeed, it forms the major part of a soliloquy Milton composed for his character. Eve realizes she faces a dilemma:

   But to Adam in what sort
   Shall I appear? shall I make known
   As yet my change, and give him to partake,
   Full happiness with mee [sic], or rather not
   But keep the odds of Knowledge in my power
   Without Copartner? so to add what wants
   In Female Sex, the more to draw his Love,
   And render me more equal and perhaps
   A thing not undesirable, sometime
   Superior: for inferior who is free? ((IX. 816-25)

Concepts like these and the very vocabulary referring to woman's equality and inequality--and, more extreme than that, "superiority," will not be heard publicly until the twentieth century. But there it is in the Bible, the term lehaskil, the reach for Knowledge that leads to all else. It is a legacy that Mother Eve left to all her daughters so that one day women will be great scholars, CEO's of banks and corporations, and prime ministers of nations old and young,

There is, in Eve's mind, another side to her dilemma. As Milton conceives of it in his midrash, she loves her Adam. What if the Serpent in one respect is wrong?

   And Death ensue, then I shall be no more,
   And Adam wedded to another Eve,
   And live with her enjoying, I extinct;
   (A death to think. (IX. 830-31)

It should be noted that these lines of Eve's soliloquy are a virtual translation of) Rashi's comment on Genesis 3:6.) And so Eve comes to a decision in her dilemma: "Confirmed then, I resolve / Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe" (IX. 831-2)

Meanwhile, in Milton's midrash, Adam was weaving his own legacy to his sons in eons to come, even though he didn't know it. Although his foreboding upset him, he persisted nevertheless to atone for the argument he had had with Eve. Regardless of who was right or wrong, he was hoping to make amends. While waiting for her to appear, he "wove / of choicest Flow'rs a Garland to adorn / Her Tresses ..." (IX. 839-41)--so in long-after days, the husband will make amends by offering a bouquet of flowers to his wife. Joy envelops him when Eve appears, and immediately, enthusiastically, she gushes out her meeting the Serpent and the consequences accounted in Genesis 3:6. Adam is dismayed. "From his slack hand the Garland wreath for Eve / Down dropp'd" (IX. 892-3), and he intones: "How art thou lost, how art on a sudden lost ..." (IX. 900). Now he faces his own dilemma: Should he say to Eve that he enjoyed her company, et cetera, but that the time has come to part? Or shall he disobey God Himself by eating the fruit she proffers? Finally, he chooses:

   The Link of Nature draw[s] me: Flesh of Flesh
   Bone of my Bone thou art, and from thy State
   (Mine never shall be parted, bliss or woe. (IX. 914-16)

--the last lines of which Milton selectively quoted from Adam's words upon--seeing Eve for the first time (Gen. 2:23). The very last words echo the last words of Eve's soliloquy. And Adam eats the fruit that Eve hands to him.

Thus Milton, with Radak's aid, completes his midrash on Genesis 3:6. The ambiguities are explicated, the hiatus filled, and Eve emerges as a feminist.

However, Milton's midrash includes an epilogue. There's another side to feminism which he faces in Book X of Paradise Lost. The only biblical ambiguity he seems to explain is in the verse: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:23, trans. Geneva Bible). Va-yeshallehehu is singular, which Milton cannot accept as exile for Adam alone. He explicated the word as evidently referring to both Adam and Eve, as one flesh (Gen. 2:24).

In Book X, Adam experiences paroxysms of guilt for disobeying God Himself, despair over being the father of an imperfect race of human beings for eternity, and angry wonderment why God gave him Eve--a "fair Defect" (7)--to betray him. He turns on Eve: "Out of my sight, thou Serpent, that name best / (Befits thee" (X. 867-8).

Eve, on her part, having eaten the forbidden fruit, had acquired her own Wisdom. She understands her husband's feeling of helplessness. Eve resolves to preserve her marriage--after all the Bible does say that Man clings to his wife and they become one flesh (Gen. 2:24). So she adopts a strategy of humility. She falls "humble" at his feet and pleads:

   Forsake me not thus, Adam, witness Heav'n
   What love sincere, and reverence in my heart
   (I bear thee. (X. 914-6)

As a "suppliant", she grasps his knees and admits her guilt. "Fault / Acknowledg'd and deplor'd, in Adam wrought / Commiseration; Soon his heart relented toward her." (X. 938-40). Milton, I think, is not suggesting as part of Eve's feminist legacy to her infinite daughters that Woman should always use a strategy of humility. Rather, his midrash illustrates the necessity of strategies in marriage.(8) When in his narrative he describes the moment of exile, Milton imagines:

They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow
(Through Eden took their solitary way. (XII. 648-9)

NOTES

(1.) The new Jewish Publication Society edition of 1985 avoids the danger of ambiguity by blithely. refraining from translating the word imah altogether: She also gave some to her husband and he ate.

(2.) Harris Francis Fletcher, Milton's Rabbinical Readings. (New York: Gordian Press, 1967) p.30.

(3.) See Fletcher, throughout and the reproduction of a page of the Buxtorf Bible at p. 59.

(4.) Fletcher p. 207.

(5.) Fletcher, p. 65.

(6.) Ariel's Exegesis: A Reinterpretation of Genesis 2-3.http://arielsexegesis.wordpress.com. Quotations from Paradise Lost in this article are from the second ed. of 1674; see facsimile title page (p. lvi) in the Merritt Y. Hughes ed. of the poem cited in note 8 below.

(7.) See Robert S. Jungman, "Eve as 'Fair Defect' Milton's Paradise Lost, Book X", Explicator 65. (Summer 2007) pp. 2-3.

(8.) In his own life, Milton's wife left him for a few years, but returned to him and built a normal . 8 family life. See: Merritt Y. Hughes, ed. John Milton, Paradise Lost (New York: Odyssey Press, 1935), Chronology. under year 1642.

Dan Vogel was Professor of English at Yeshiva University and Dean of Stern College before making aliyah in 1973. He then served as Chairman of the Department of English at Michlalah-Jerusalem College until retirement in 1995. He is the author of Three Masks of American Tragedy, Emma Lazarus, Mark Twain's Jews and numerous articles on literature. He is currently an Associate Editor of The Jewish Bible Quarterly.

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