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SBL e-journal

Shawna Dolansky





The Immortal Myth of Adam and Eve





APA e-journal

Shawna Dolansky





The Immortal Myth of Adam and Eve








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The Immortal Myth of Adam and Eve


The Immortal Myth of Adam and Eve


Adam and Eve in Popular Culture

Allusions to Adam and Eve appear in the opening sequence of television shows, in perfume ads, pop songs, and in computer company logos.[1] Politicians and social activists rally around and against slogans like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Conservatives invoke readings of Eden in support of a “family values” agenda. Feminists wishing to redeem the biblical text for women today re-read and even re-write Eve’s story.

New versions of Eden also appear in counter-cultural movements, as Aryan Nations groups retell the myth to justify their own political and social agendas. Through it all, Adam, Eve, and serpent are used to convey messages about sex, gender, and the origins of evil. Such timeless relevance of an ancient tale is the primary function of a good myth.

Can Myths be Debunked?

All over the internet, various websites attack “common myths and misconceptions” about everything from the idea that humans have only five senses to the fatality of consuming poinsettia leaves, to debunking the “myth” that marijuana use is detrimental to one’s health. But literary critics don’t define the genre of “myths” as untruths. Myth, as many anthropologists have noted, is a vital tool for understanding a culture’s ideals, values, customs, beliefs, concerns, and fears.

Referring to a literary work as “myth” is a way of highlighting how its elements reflect cultural truths. As cultures making use of a given myth change, the accompanying myths sometimes change, but often do not—“only” their interpretation changes. Following Adam and Eve through history demonstrates the enduring power of myth, its firm place in human consciousness and community, and its dual function as both social glue and social mirror.

The Garden of Eden: What is it About?

When I ask them about this story on the first day of class, my students tell me that it’s the tale of the first man and first woman and original sin; Satan tempts them, they eat the apple, and they get kicked out of paradise. Except… there’s no Satan in this story, apples didn’t grow in the ancient Near East (figs and pomegranates are much more likely candidates for forbidden fruit than apples)[2], and the word “sin” doesn’t occur in the Hebrew Bible until chapter four. The concept of the devil isn’t invented until the first century BCE, 500-700 years after this story was most likely written, and “original sin” is an idea first put forward by Bishop Irenaeus of Gaul in the 2nd century CE.

Instead, this story is a myth about a man created to tend the garden of a divine being, a woman created to be the man’s companion, and a talking snake who tempts the woman to eat fruit from a magical Tree of Knowledge, declared off-limits by the Being who created it all. This is a story about a woman disobeying her creator for the purpose of gaining wisdom. She is the protagonist who moves the story – and the subsequent history of humanity – forward. At her instigation, and with the guidance of a serpent, the humans trade a life of ignorance (and potentially immortality) as God’s gardeners, for a taste of divine knowledge.

Eve and Mother Goddesses

In the ancient Near East, mother goddesses – some with names linguistically related to “Eve”[3]–were often associated positively with a tree of life, and with serpents as immortal symbols of the earth’s fertility and bounty. Thus, the biblical Eden story story may well have been a purposeful inversion of beliefs in a mother goddess, giver of life and wisdom, in the service of a growing monotheistic impulse toward a male God who creates alone.[4]

The Independent Life of the Text

The tale of Adam, Eve, and the serpent may be a good story to tell your children; it explains why snakes don’t have legs, why people wear clothes, why women are to be subordinate to men and have pain in childbirth, and why men have to work hard to bring food out of the earth. Over the years it took on a life of its own; the original author of this text could not possibly have imagined what would become of it.

In the biblical author’s world – and that of his (or her) audience for many centuries afterwards – there were no apples, no devil, and no original sin. For the author, evil arose from human imperfection, corruption, and moral bankruptcy (as, for example, in Gen 6:5-7, 11-13). So where do the apple, the devil, and original sin come from, if they are not in the biblical text? A very long history of interpretation.

In the early stages of textual development, before the text becomes canonized and ossified, changes in beliefs changed the texts. Once the biblical text became fixed, however, the wide latitude given to interpretation compensated. These interpretations shifted over time, as society itself changed and needed its myths to have new meanings and relevance. It is this history of interpretation that continues to make this ancient story of the origins of humanity relevant to ever-new understandings of what it means to be human.

Jewish Interpretation

The story of Eden does not receive much comment or interest in any extant sources[5] until sometime in the late 3rd century BCE, when Jewish writers (Ben Sira, Jubilees, and later Philo and others) began to look at it to try to understand what the humans had done wrong and who was to blame.[6] By the Rabbinic period, this became a full-blown investigation. Was it the humans’ desire of which God disapproved? Their disobedience? Some implied that the fruit was from a vine and the sin therefore was drunkenness. Was Eve to blame? Adam? The serpent? A fallen angel?

Rabbinic tradition provides a number of avenues of interpretation, which take the text in very different directions. Below I will highlight a few of these new avenues.

The Sin of Making Extra Rules

In the 3rd century CE midrashic work, Genesis Rabbah (Parasha 19), Rabbi Chiyah suggests that what led to the sin is Eve’s expanding upon the law, putting a “hedge” around it, in rabbinic parlance (m. Avot 1:1). God says not to eat the fruit (Gen 2:17) but Eve tells the serpent that they are not allowed to touch the tree (Gen 3:3).[7] This interpretation appears in the Babylonian Talmud as well (Sanhedrin 29a),[8] and is expanded upon and inverted in the 8th or 9th-century work, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (ch. 1). In this text, the blame goes not to Eve but to Adam. Since Eve never heard the command for herself—she had yet to be created when God uttered it—then she must have heard this wrong version from Adam.[9]

Lilith – Adam’s First Wife

Why was Eve created later? Why didn’t God already know that Adam would be lonely and create him with a mate from the beginning? Why did Gen 1 state that man and woman were created together, and Gen 2 pictured the creation of each separately? In the middle ages, the rabbis came up with a fascinating answer to all of these questions by making use of an old ancient near eastern tradition about a kind of female demon, in Akkadian Lamashtu, but in the Persian period, called a “lilith.” Some texts describe her as a succubus, others as a baby killer. In the Talmud, Rabbi Chanina (b. Shabbat 151b) forbids a man from sleeping alone in a house, since this will make a lilith come.

The Alphabet of Ben Sira, a populist style midrash collection, explains the origin of this demon. She was actually Adam’s first wife (from Genesis chapter 1), before God created Eve (in Genesis chapter 2). The midrashic origin of this interpretation seems simple. Genesis 1:27 says that God created man and woman together, whereas Genesis 2:18 has Adam alone; where did his wife go?

The Midrash answers that she ran away from Adam because the two of them were always fighting, specifically about which one should be on top during intercourse:

...שבשעה שברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את עולמו וברא אדם הראשון, כיון שראה אותו יחידי, מיד ברא לו אשה מאדמה כמותו וקרא שמה לילית והביאה לאדם. מיד התחילו שניהם לעשות מריבה. אומר, את תשכבי למטה. וזאת אומרת אתה תשכב למטה, מפני ששנינו שוין ושנינו מן האדמה. ולא היו משמיעין זה את זה. כיון שראתה לילית כך, זכרה את שם המפורש ופרחה באויר וברחה...[10]
…[A]t the time when the Holy One, blessed by he, created the world, he created first man, and when he saw that [this man] was alone, he immediately created another woman from the earth like him, and he called her Lilith, and he brought her to Adam. Immediately, the two of them began a quarrel. He said: “You will lay on the bottom.” She said, “You will lay on the bottom, since we are both equals since we were both made from the earth.” They would not allow each other to be heard. Once Lilith saw this, she uttered the special name of God, flew off into the air, and escaped…

Since, being equal, they could not live together, God created the more submissive Eve from Adam’s rib (or side) to replace his lost first wife. This also explains why liliths are so aggressive against babies, the descendants of Lilith’s rival, Eve, and why they enjoy seducing poor innocent men while they are sleeping alone.

Having a Submissive Wife

Continuing on the theme of Eve’s submissive nature, the 11th century commentator, Rashi, emphasized the importance of a submissive wife, explaining that the command in Gen 1:28 to “be fruitful and multiply” is given to the male only, and the phrase “subdue it,” where the “it” is gendered female (likely referring to “the earth,” which is gendered female) should be understood as “subdue her.[11]

Nahmanides, writing in the 13th century, agreed about women’s subordination but disagreed with how Rashi derived this point (Gen 3:16). According to him, woman’s subordination is a consequence of her punishment, and not part of the created order.[12]

Adam and Eve in Kabbalistic thinking

Nahmanides adds another insight (Gen 1:26), this time based on the kabbalistic thinking of his time. Before their disobedience, Adam and Eve originally possessed spiritualized bodies that were lost in the second creation story.[13]

This notion is expanded in medieval Kabbalistic teachings into the doctrine of אדם קדמון, the primordial man. In the Tikkunei Zohar, this refers to the idea that when God created light at the beginning of chapter 1, God really emanated the ten Sefirot, which can be visualized as a human being; hence God’s statement that humanity is made in God’s image.[14]

In another kabbalistic take on this story, the lower world is a flawed material world that came into existence because Adam disobeyed God. Adam’s actions affected himself (he lost his spiritual body) and the upper realm as well. Further, Adam and Eve’s separation in the lower world mirrored the separation of God’s male and female parts – the tiferet (masculine) and the malkhut (feminine) – in the upper world. Thus, humankind’s task is to reunite the female with the male, restoring cosmic harmony and balance.[15]

Women’s Mitzvot: Penance or Reward

Yiddish texts from the 16th and 17th centuries written expressly for women interpreted the three “women’s commandments,” i.e. the dough tithe, menstrual purity laws, and lighting candles for the Sabbath (hallah, niddah, and haddlaqah; m. Shabbat 2:6), as necessary atonement for Eve’s transgression.[16] Some of women’s bodily functions (like menstruation and pregnancy) are explained as punishment for Eve’s disobedience.[17] Tekhines, on the other hand, stress women’s rewards for their present obedience, linking mitzvot with fertility rather than penance.[18]

Christian Interpretation

Christian interpretations have had much more far-reaching consequences in Western history, and continue to be dominant in secular notions of Eden today.

Fall from Grace

By the time of Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century, the story of Adam and Eve had become the story of a Fall from Grace that could only be redeemed with the coming of Jesus. It was the tale of the Devil working through the woman to bring down the man and all humanity, and to taint us all with Original Sin.

In Jewish apocalyptic literature (3rd through 1st centuries BCE), the satan (Hebrew for “adversary”) of the book of Job, who plays the role in that story of a kind of “royal opposition” figure in heaven, subservient to God, becomes Satan, leader of the forces of darkness. These forces of darkness, embodied in the Roman rulers of the era, were understood in opposition to the Jewish authors of this literature (as in the Dead Sea Scrolls). They believed that God would intervene, destroy the wicked, and the righteous faithful would be rewarded. Reread in light of this coming apocalyptic battle, the serpent of Eden who had provoked the movement of humanity out of paradise at the beginning of time – causing, in Christian terms, a “Fall from Grace,” or simply, “the Fall” - would be defeated at the end. This serpent is identified explicitly with Satan in the New Testament book of Revelation (12:9; 20:2) when Satan is called "the ancient serpent."

Original Sin

The doctrine of original sin was first developed in the 2nd-century by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons. Irenaeus believed that Adam's sin had grave consequences for humanity, that it is the source of human sinfulness, mortality and enslavement to sin, and that all human beings participate in his sin and share his guilt. Augustine took his argument further, arguing that Adam's sin is transmitted by concupiscence, or "hurtful desire," resulting in humanity becoming a massa damnata (mass of perdition, condemned crowd), with much enfeebled, though not destroyed, freedom of will.

Adam’s sin transformed human nature. All of his descendants now live in sin, in the form of “concupiscence,” the privation of good, transmitted through sexual reproduction. While sexual concupiscence (libido) might have been present in the perfect human nature in Eden, it became disobedient to human reason and will as a result of the first couple's disobedience to God's will in the original sin. Thus “original sin,” according to Augustine, consists of the guilt of Adam that all humans inherit. As sinners, humans are utterly depraved in nature, lack the freedom to do good, and cannot respond to the will of God without divine grace.

Whence the Apple?

And the apple? Sometimes interpretations result from misunderstandings caused by translation. In Latin malum as an adjective means “evil,” but as a noun means “apple.” In Europe, clever interpreters reading the story in Latin and understanding the forbidden fruit as the source of evil, naturally concluded that it must have been an apple.[19] (Not only did this influence medieval artists to portray Adam and Eve in front of an apple tree, but the larynx has since been referred to as an Adam's apple, from a notion that it was caused by the forbidden fruit sticking in Adam's throat as he swallowed.)

Woman as a Defective Male

In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued that God created woman as man’s subordinate in order to allow humanity to reproduce. Appealing to Aristotelian notions of biology, he argued that males, as the “active power” in procreation, provide the “form” (the rational soul, or the defining principle) of the child conceived during intercourse, whereas females, as passive principles, provide only the matter. If all went well during the procreative act, a male would be conceived. If, on the other hand, the active force was insufficient or the passive matter unready for the task – or even if a south wind were blowing – a “misbegotten male,” a female, would result.[20]

Eve’s Lust as the Root of All Sinfulness

In the late 15th century, the Malleus Maleficarum, a handbook for the Inquisition and ensuing witch-hunts, taught that the Eden narrative demonstrated that Eve’s “carnal lust” was the root of all sinfulness, and that women would unite with Satan to overthrow men from their divinely ordained status as leaders of humanity. This set off a wave of persecution and murder of women through the Western world that lasted for more than two centuries.

Eve as a Race-Mixer and Jew Progenitor

In the 19th century, defenders of slavery argued that slavery and the subordination of women were the logical consequences of the Fall. And in the twentieth century, the myth was re-interpreted to propound racism and neo-Nazism: the serpent was a “negro,” a member of a “pre-adamite” sub-human race fit only for slavery, and his so-called “conversation” with Eve contained more than mere words. Thus Eve’s disobedience and sin consisted of “race-mixing” and the result was Cain, progenitor of the Jewish nation, responsible today for America’s social and political problems.

Inspiration for Women’s Suffrage

On the other hand, new and redemptive interpretations of Eve inspired many suffragettes in the 19th century and lay behind some Jewish and Christian arguments in the 20th century for the empowerment, equal treatment, and ordination of women.[21]

Reinterpreting Adam and Eve

The Alphabet of Ben Sira in the 9th century imagined Lilith as having rebelled against Adam; although meant as an admonishment that women be kept in their place, in the twentieth century Judith Plaskow would re-write Lilith as a model for women’s liberation.[22]

The changes this primeval pair undergo in their journey through space and time illuminate the dynamic life of myth through constant re-interpretation, to make old stories relevant and new again. In this case, the words of the myth did not change, but its interpretation did—again and again, often in quite radical ways, sometimes with one interpretation the inverse of the other. In turn, ideas that may otherwise be seen as novel or different – or even heretical, radical and subversive – are given authority by the perception that they are rooted in ancient wisdom.

Adams and Eves of our past fade, change, and grow; ever-new Adams and ever-new Eves are re-created as new ideas are projected and reflected on them. Although they never did get to eat from the Tree of Life, their immortality is a product of their ability to speak simultaneously to eternal human truths and specific time-bound norms. As each generation witnesses the fading of old branches and the budding of new ones, the fruit of biblical myth is continually sanctified and authorized by appeals to its ancient wisdom.

The rabbis recognized this, and expressed it pithily:

בן בג בג אומר הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולה בה ובה תחזי וסיב ובלה בה ומינה לא תזוע שאין לך מדה טובה הימנה:
Ben Bag Bag says: “Search in it [Torah] and search in it, for everything is in it; see with it; grow old and worn in it; do not move from it, for there is nothing better.” (Pirkei Avot 5:21 Eng., 5:22 Heb)


October 9, 2015


Last Updated

March 28, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada. She received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Ph.D. in History from the University of California, San Diego program in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East. Dolansky is the author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Biblical Perspectives on the Relationship Between Magic and Religion (Pryor Pettengill Press, Eisenbrauns, 2008) and co-author with Richard E. Friedman of The Bible Now (Oxford University Press, 2011).