Genesis: Folklore of Faith: Lesson 6: Eve (Genesis 3). Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Originally aired on October 23, 2005
Introduction: In the last lesson we focused in on the serpent as the tempter. Let’s look closer at the character of Eve in this story. Eve has been the object of much attention through the centuries, and her name has been used to sell a wide variety of products for women. She has been praised and vilified, defended and rejected.
The story of Eve in the Bible is very short, but the interpretation of Eve has been a litmus test for society’s view of women for over two millennia. For instance, in the 5th century Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, barred the Byzantine Empress Pulcharia from standing behind the altar beside the priests, like the emperor did. He shouted that she was unworthy because she was the daughter of Eve, the mother of all sin and evil. As such, she could not stand in the holy of holies. Pulcharia replied that she was also the daughter of Mary who brought the Redeemer into the world.
And since she was empress, she also exiled Nestorius and declared him a heretic. But she lost the war. Women are still not allowed behind the altar in Orthodox Churches, nor can they be priests. This is just one dramatic example of the fact that Eve has often been the subject of political and social debate. It is remarkably easy to let our fears and prejudices cloud our reading of the Bible.
A New Look at Eve: Many people assume they know ‘all about Eve,” as a movie title suggests, but there is always need for a fresh look at old topics. In the story we first meet Eve walking naked and without shame in the garden. She encounters a snake who asks her a question about God’s commandments, and she answers. It is interesting that she does not simply quote what God said to Adam, she adds to it. “Do not even touch the tree” is not in the original prohibition. It could be that Adam exaggerated when he told Eve the rules laid down by the LORD, but it is more likely that it was Eve herself who expanded the prohibition.
The Old Testament scholar Phyllis Tribble in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality points out that this shows that Eve is thinking. In fact, she could be considered a rabbi since the rabbis examined the biblical laws and expanded them. They called this putting a fence around the Torah so that people would not accidentally transgress. Parents do this all the time. You don’t want children to play in the street, so you give them a boundary in the yard many feet from the street. We do it politically when we establish a buffer zone between warring nations. Eve’s version of God’s prohibition included a buffer zone. Don’t eat; don’t even touch. She was thinking about God’s words.
In short, Eve is a thinker, and there are some commentators who see Eve as the first theologian because she engages in rational discussion with the serpent on the meaning of God’s commandments. She is the first interpreter of the Torah, but she is also the first to violate the divine law. The snake engages her mind by raising questions, and she responds intelligently.
Some rabbis and theologians have even argued that the snake tempted Eve instead of Adam because Adam was too stupid to be persuaded by the snake’s arguments. Certainly Adam in this account is no theologian or rocket scientist. Eve has to have her resistance worn down; Adam doesn’t even protest when Eve offers him the fruit.
Wisdom: The snake offers Eve divine wisdom, and when she saw that the “fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom,” she took it and ate it. Adam just did as he was told. Now, if we simply take the straight-forward meaning of this verse rather than over-interpreting, we see that Eve took the forbidden fruit to satisfy her bodily desire of hunger, her spiritual desire for beauty, and her mental desire for wisdom. Mind, spirit, and body were all involved in her choice. It was good for food, pleasing to the eye, and desirable for gaining wisdom. Normally we would praise what Eve has done; she acted out of the fullness of human nature.
In fact, the early Christian Gnostics saw Eve as a heroine, as the one who understood the value of wisdom and beauty. The church rejected that view, recognizing that Eve was punished by God for her actions rather than praised. Even so, Eve is such a strong character, so different from social stereotypes of women, that some have speculated that her story was first told by women before it was included in the Bible.
For centuries, people have recognized that the story of Eve is similar to both the myths of Pandora and Promethius. Her curiosity brought knowledge to the human race but also unleashed many ills. It is no surprise that some early Christian theologians identified the sin of Eve with the Greek idea of hubris or pride. In seeking to be more than a mere human, she stumbled and fell. Her fall began before she ever ate, but her fall also brought wisdom to the human race.
Theology and the Fall: It is a little uncomfortable talking about Eve as the first theologian when your title is Theologian in Residence, but Genesis 3 should encourage us all to self-reflection. Zinzendorf was suspicious of theologians’ desire to question and debate scripture, arguing that Satan has always been a theologian. The issue here is not theology itself, and it is not the desire to understand our faith and the will of God.
The issue is whether we use our minds to live in harmony with what God has intended or seek ways to advance our own desires without concern for consequences. Theology, like all human endeavors, can lead to harm. Theologians are just as prone as scientists to the seductions of the mind. When theological questioning becomes a tool to undermine faith, love, and hope rather than strengthen them, then problems arise.
The seducer turns her away from Eve’s original blessing of living in obedience and harmony with God’s will by offering her the potential of being like God herself. Eve lost her sense that she lived in a network of relationships, including a relationship with the creator. In many ways, Eve is a tragic heroine, the mother of the race who first learned a bitter lesson about good and evil. By seeking to become like God, she actually became fully human. In Luther’s words she became, like us, “a lost and undone human creature.”
Moral Discernment: In looking at the story of Eve and Adam, it is helpful to contemplate the significance of the tree in the midst of the garden. It is not the Tree of Knowledge, as it has often been described. It is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which is actually one of the definitions of wisdom. Wisdom is more than intelligence or knowledge; it is also the ability to discern what is good and bad, prudent and foolish, harmful and helpful. Wisdom involves actions as much as intellect and it is one of the most important characters for adults to have. History is filled with stories of brilliant people with bold ideas who were ultimately shown to be fools. The snake offered Eve wisdom, which she desired.
Here we come to one of the most troubling parts of this story. This is part of what keeps the story of Adam and Eve from being nothing more than one of Aesop’s fables with a tidy moral. Fables generally end with a simplistic sense of right and wrong, good and bad, often summed up in a memorable statement. “Always look before you leap.”
We can’t do that with the story of Adam and Eve, can we? Would the moral be, “Never eat from trees in the middle of the garden,” or “Never talk to snakes?” It is like saying that the moral of World War I is, “Never assassinate archdukes named Ferdinand,” as it says in the Limony Snicket books. In contrast, the story of Adam and Eve draws us into the depths of the human dilemma of innocence and wisdom, opening up many avenues of contemplation. It shows us in story form the complexities of moral decision-making and the tragedy of human existence.
It is recognized in the Bible that moral discernment comes with age. Though there is no set age for reaching maturity, there comes a point in every person’s life when you no longer “think as a child and act as a child.” You become accountable for your actions, your decisions, and your judgments—even when there is no written law to guide you. In Judaism, this passage into adult responsibility for following the laws of God is called the Bar or Bat Mitzvah. For most Christian churches, it is called confirmation. Before you reach the age of accountability, your actions are judged differently.
We do not arrest toddlers for shoplifting; we teach them not to shoplift. We also take steps to prevent them from harming themselves and others until they develop the wisdom to do so on their own. Innocence does not mean that someone has not done something wrong. It means that someone does not know what wrong is. It is interesting that the word for “sin” is not used in the Genesis 3 account. Eve was innocent until she ate of the fruit. Like many tribal peoples today, Eve and Adam had no concept of sin at the beginning. They were naked without shame, just like children.
Open Eyes: If we take the Genesis text seriously instead of reading our theology into it, we see that the climax of the story is when Eve eats. “Then her eyes were opened.” Perhaps she was wrong to listen to the snake, to yield to temptation. Perhaps she was wrong to desire the fruit at all, just as Augustine taught. But the text merely tells us that it was the moment of eating that opened her eyes, and then she became aware of good and evil. It might be that she became aware because she had just done evil, but we aren’t told that. Just that her eyes were opened. She is wiser, but perhaps sadder. I am reminded that the charlatan salesman in The Music Man sings about his desire to meet ‘the sadder but wiser girl.”
I may be taking the wrong approach to this text. Certainly it is not the standard interpretation, but it is curious that elsewhere in the Old Testament it is clear that the Law was given by God so that his people would know good from evil. Except for the writings of Paul, the Bible always praises the law. Sin is defined in the Bible in terms of obedience and rebellion to the commandments of God. With that in mind, one should expect that a story of the eating from of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would be a good story, a story of the people of God learning what God knows about right and wrong.
But it doesn’t turn out that way, does it? The LORD warned Adam not to eat of the tree, and there are painful consequences as a result. With knowledge of good and evil comes pain and suffering, not the joy of the LORD. The Law was a gift of God, but as Paul points out, the Law may also lead us into sin and alienation from God. We can only rebel when we know what the commandments are.
It is illuminating that the first thing that Eve and Adam see when their eyes were opened is that they are naked. They immediately cover their bodies, hiding from one another. To quote the great philosopher Lewis Grizzard, Adam and Eve went from being naked to being “nekkid.” Naked means you ain’t got no clothes on; nekkid means you ain’t got no clothes on and you’re up to something.
But the text does not indicate that lust entered the world when they ate of the forbidden fruit. It was shame that first appeared, and clothes are the symbol of that shame. We need to be aware that shame is primarily a social phenomenon. There are things you do in private that you would be ashamed to do in front of someone, and that is how it should be.
There have been groups through the centuries who sought to reverse the fall by living as Adam and Eve. The Shakers did this with celibate communities. The Adamites in Moravia and Bohemia did it by getting rid of their clothes without adopting celibacy. That was frowned upon violently by the other Hussites.
Today we suffer from the opposite problem. Judging from popular entertainment and politics, it appears that we have lost both shame and innocence. Today we may have reached the point where we are so unable to discern good and bad that we no longer know when to be ashamed of our actions, judgments, and words.
The truth is that ritual nudity and other ways of ignoring shame do not bring back the innocence we seek. Ignoring the wisdom gained from the tree or pretending we don’t know better does not return us to paradise. The point of the story of Adam and Eve is that there are some bridges that you can only cross once. Shame comes with the loss of innocence and is an unexpected byproduct of wisdom. Last week I noted that the snake did not say anything untrue to Eve, but he deceived her none the less. He did not tell her the truth about shame and the grief that comes with loss of innocence. Seducers tell you of the pleasure but not the consequences of crossing certain bridges.
A True Story: People ask me if I believe that the story of the garden of Eden is true. I say that it is most certainly true. In fact, it is too true to be factual. It is not a story about our distant ancestors; it is our story. It is the story of each of us as we mature and lose our innocence. We don’t lose them in a single moment, but in a serious of moments. We eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil many times.
The story of Eden is the bittersweet story of having our eyes opened and at the same time recognizing our nakedness in the world. It is the story of how we lose our original sense of harmony and belonging in the world that we knew as infants held in loving arms. We become aliens in the garden, strangers to our families, and even strangers to our own bodies. We gain wisdom, but with wisdom come shame and loss. And we hide ourselves from God when we hear him walking in our garden in the cool of the day. “Where are you?” God asks Adam and Eve. It is one of the most poignant questions in Scripture. This story is remarkably rich. It is a description of who we are rather than who our parents were.
 Phyllis Tribble, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978). See also Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1988).