[UPDATE: I wrote this in 2016. Since then I have learned immeasurably more about the dangers of gender binaries that exist in culture, and in interpretations of Scripture, such as this one. Since writing this, I have also written elsewhere about the gender fluidity in the creation narratives. So, yes, this piece is thick with gender binaries, but I think the point being made still stands, and is important. If you or someone you love does not fall into these binaries, know that you are a beloved creation of God, and that you matter, and that however you identify is the you that God made, that God loves, and, just like with these first humans, to whom God says, “it is very good”.]
So this Sunday the Narrative Lectionary began with Genesis 2-3. And for the purposes of where the lectionary is going, I felt the message for Sunday needed to focus on the reality of a broken world and our job as God’s people to be laborers for restoration and healing of that broken world. But the more I read this story- this very familiar story- the more something stood out to me that I felt I needed to say but which I did not have time to preach. It was an entirely different sermon. In order to give the Narrative Lectionary focus, the Genesis reading for this year skips over the creation of Eve, not because she doesn’t matter, but that it is in another year when we focus on the relationship between her and Adam. But something hit me about this relationship that I felt warranted words now, and that is this:
Despite many traditional interpretations of this passage in relation to male-female dynamics, Eve is the stronger of these two central characters. For centuries this passage has been twisted to blame what we call “the fall” on Eve, and it is has been twisted to name Eve as subordinate to Adam. It is from perversions of this text that we have shamefully referred to women as “the weaker sex”. What I found fascinating about that in my reading of it this week is that if there is one who is weaker, it’s Adam, and Eve is not so subtly, but clearly, the leader. Let’s look at it…
The story begins with Adam all alone. God makes him from the dirt and he is referred to as “the man”. He gets the name Adam because the Hebrew word for “man” is “adahm”. So right off the bat even his name is generalized and in this sense not particularly strong. It doesn’t mean “warrior” or “worker” or “leader” or anything like that- just “man”. But God does give Adam a job, which is to “till and to keep” the garden. That means he is to serve it and he is to protect it. It’s his to take care of. Then God gives Adam some instructions: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16–17 NRSV).
As soon as God gives these instructions (which seem simple enough), the very next thing that happens is God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”, or “it is not good for Adam to be alone”. God gives Adam the instructions and immediately upon doing so it’s as though God says, “oh, boy- he’s got no shot. He needs help.” And it’s here that God says, “I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18 NRSV). And it is from here that we get a woman, whom Adam will later name Eve, which at its root doesn’t mean the generalized “woman”, but means “life” (a relatively strong name, if you ask me).
Here’s the problem: “Helper as his partner” is a terrible translation. It makes it sound as though Eve is a child holding the nuts and bolts while dad fixes something. It makes her sound like an assistant to the one really doing the work, but if we look at the context, we see that Adam can’t actually do the work at all without her. He needs her. She’s not a “helper”, but she is necessary and active participant. The Hebrew phrase literally translates to “helping opposite”, or as the NET Bible notes, she is “an indispensable companion”. It speaks to a mutuality of relationship. It speaks to the idea that Eve has what Adam doesn’t and which Adam desperately needs and vice-versa. The woman is given a name rooted in the word for “life” because without her Adam (and with him, humanity) dies. She is not secondary or subordinate- she is essential.
But there’s more: It’s from here that the story moves toward that crafty serpent coming in and tempting them to eat the forbidden fruit. Traditionally Eve has taken the brunt of the blame for The Fall because she is the initial one to give in to temptation, and because of that, the story is twisted to make her subordinate. We treat this story as though Adam is some great leader who delegates the task of fruit gathering to Eve, and she fails. But this not all what happens. Just look closely at what happens here…
The serpent comes in and goes directly to Eve. He doesn’t even bother with Adam. I don’t know about you, but I always thought the serpent went to Eve because Adam was off doing something else. But that’s not the case at all. Verse 6 tells us “he was with her”. So the serpent slinks in, doesn’t even bother with Adam and goes directly to Eve. Is this because Eve is the weak one? No. If that were the case, Adam would’ve stepped in and said “not so fast, Mr. Snake!” But he doesn’t. He’s there, but he’s so inconsequential to the narrative that we don’t even notice him. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the serpent goes to the decision maker, which is Eve. And she gives in to the temptation. She takes the fruit which God commanded not to take (and even adds to the commandment by stating that they are not even to touch it). She eats and then “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” (Genesis 3:6 NRSV).
Let’s think about this for a second. First of all, the serpent bypasses Adam. He doesn’t even deal with him. The serpent goes straight to the decision maker. Also buried in this is the fact that Adam is the only one to whom the command is given firsthand. God gives Adam the dietary instructions before Eve is even created. So Adam is the first-hand keeper of the command, while Eve presumably hears it second-hand from Adam. Yet Eve is still the decision maker. She hands the fruit to Adam who is utterly oblivious to anything that’s going on. While Eve is working hard to till and keep the garden of life, working to fend off the temptation of the serpent, Adam is off catching a Pidgey playing Pokemon Go. It is from there that humanity “falls”, and then God gives these curses to the serpent, to Adam, and to Eve.
My point is this. Do not let anyone use this passage to pass on sexist, misogynist declarations about humanity and gender roles. When it comes down to it, what is really happening in Genesis 2-3 is God establishing an equality between the sexes. Eve is the “indispensable companion” to Adam and Adam is the “indispensable companion” to Eve. Or, to put it another way, Life (Eve) is meant for humanity (Adam), and humanity (Adam) is meant for life (life). They balance, complete and fulfill one another.
But if there is an inequality between the sexes in Gneiss 2-3, it is certainly not in favor of men. the man (Adam) is a non-factor in this story. Eve is the leader. Putting her in a subordinate position because she is the one that gave in to the serpent initially is like a third string quarterback putting the starting quarterback in a subordinate position because it is the starter who threw a game losing interception on the final drive. Adam isn’t even in the game. He’s on the sidelines with a clipboard and a headset… learning. Like I said, this story is (I believe) about equality, but if it is not, it is about dudes like me being utterly lost, confused, and wholly dependent on women for any chance at survival.
I’m thankful for all those women who’ve led me in my life. First my mom, and then so many others. I’ve said for years now, if you don’t think women can lead, let me introduce you to… and then I can go on with the many women who’ve led, taught, shaped, and mentored me. As I look at this foundational story, I also say, “if you don’t think women can lead, just look to Eve.” Yes, she gave in to the temptation, but we all do and we have the benefit of history and still can’t resist that fruit. Though she gave in to temptation, Eve is still the leader in the story. So all you women and girls out there, don’t let any one, and in particular church folks, hold you back. God’s been expecting leadership out of you since the beginning. You get out there, assert yourself with your Creator-endowed strength, courage, and leadership, and lead me home.