As much as it can be enjoyable to read the Bible as a mythological text, removed from all the religious baggage that is typically associated with it, there is a danger here. We can and should strip this text from all it’s religious connotations so that we can understand it better, but we must be careful to not remove the text from its history. And history is almost always a tragedy. As we will see, the history of Christianity is no different.
In Genesis 2:7, God creates Adam, the first man, out of the dust and tasks him with taking care of the garden. But Adam gets lonely so, in Genesis 2:18, God decides to find Adam an assistant. God then brings all of the animals in for interviews with Adam but none of them seems to be the right fit for the position. So, God puts Adam to sleep, takes out his rib, and turns it into a woman. The woman, who is later called Eve, turns out to be the perfect partner for Adam and so they marry.
I’m going to dip into Genesis 3 a little bit here as well, because I think it’s important to this topic. In the beginning of Genesis 3, Eve is chatting with a serpent about this whole forbidden fruit rule. The serpent rightly points out that God is being a total buzzkill and that Eve should just take one bite. The serpent promises Eve that he’s cool, and that he won’t narc on her if she eats one (I’m paraphrasing of course). So, Eve eats one of the fruits and gives one to Adam too. This eating of the forbidden fruit leads to what Christians call “the Fall” and it is cited by many as the reason for any and all suffering on Earth.
If you read those past two paragraphs and you saw nothing problematic about them, it’s probably because you aren’t reading them in the proper historical context. In an excellent piece in the Washington Post, Pamela Milne details the impact the character of Eve has had on women throughout history. She connects Eve to the later verse in 1 Timothy that bars women from teaching or having positions of authority and from there she documents the rich tradition of misogyny in the church starting with Tertullian, carrying on through Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, all the way up to the modern day with TV fundamentalist preachers. The impact of the archetype of Eve has been immeasurably damaging, pervasive and seemingly never-ending. Where do we begin in untangling this incredibly complex and problematic legacy?
Let’s start with why these verses have become a weapon against women. In 1 Timothy 2:11-12, Paul says “Let a woman learn in silence with all obedience.I do not permit a woman to teach or to usurp authority over a man, but to be silent.” He proceeds to cite two reasons for this conclusion. First, Adam was conceived before Eve. This reasoning might seem ridiculous, but Paul literally says this in 1 Timothy 2:13. In Milne’s article, she cites a theologian named Phyllis Trible who points out that, while many people argue that because Eve was created second, she is therefore inferior, those same people would never argue that because humans were created after animals, that humans are therefore inferior. So, there’s an obvious contradiction here but the inferiority of women would have been so obvious to someone living at the time that it’s honestly surprising that Paul gives any justifications at all.
The second reason Paul cites is that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, fell into sin.” Now, if you’ve read Genesis 3, you’ll know that this is a factually inaccurate reading of the text. I wish someone had been there to remind Paul that actually, Adam ate the fruit as well, even if it was Eve who offered it to him. So how then was Adam not deceived? This dude is an adult, capable of making his own decisions, why are we blaming his sins on Eve? And the image of Eve as some sort of sinful temptress coercing Adam into eating the fruit is not present in the original text. So, none of these justifications for Paul’s misogyny hold up to even the slightest amount of scrutiny.
There are two more reasons that I’d like to talk about which are often cited for the misogynist reading of Genesis 2 and 3. The first is that, as stated in Genesis 2:21-22, Eve was created out of Adam’s rib. Many argue that this makes Eve subordinate to Adam by definition. Rather than being her own, full-fledged human being, Eve is just a piece of Adam. Personally, I think this has been read into the text over the years. If we continue on in Genesis 2, Moses writes the following about Adam’s rib “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” So from the context, it seems clear that this was a myth designed to explain and justify marriage and it’s entirely possible that this portion of the text was never intended to say anything about the relative inferiority of women. Of course, I can’t say for sure what the intent of the verse was, but it isn’t immediately obvious that the intent of the verse was to assert women’s inferiority.
The second reason is that God created Eve as an assistant to Adam. The key thing to understand here is that in the time Genesis was written, existentialist thought did not exist, everyone was an essentialist. For those of you that don’t nerd out over philosophy, an existentialist is someone who believes that existence precedes essence. Essence is the purpose of something, so an existentialist believes that humans are born without a purpose and that their purpose is somehow created throughout their life. An essentialist, on the other hand, believes that essence precedes existence. In other words, an essentialist is someone who believes that human beings are born with a predefined purpose. In the time Genesis was written, virtually everyone would have believed that essence was predefined by God and that humans were powerless to change their essence.
This might sound like philosophical gibberish but it’s essential (pun intended) when we’re talking about Genesis 2:18 because here God defines Eve’s essence. Eve, prior to even being created, was defined as Adam’s helper. On the other hand, Adam was created with the purpose of ruling over the kingdom of Earth. Aside from this being a highly toxic dichotomy, it’s important to note that readers of this text would probably have interpreted these “purposes” as being intrinsic and unchanging properties of men and women. So, men were, by definition, rulers and women were, by definition, servants.
In an article on Bible.org, Kenneth Boa argues that the word “helper” is misinterpreted in Genesis 2:18. He argues that, based on the context, the word “helper” would not indicate any degree of subordination or inferiority but rather indicates that man would need a companion. And while it does seem that the implication was that woman was created more to satiate man’s loneliness than to help him with yard work, I don’t think this fixes the larger problems in the text. Even if woman was made to be Adam’s companion, as opposed to his slave, she was still made for Adam. In other words, while Adam was created for his own independent interests, Eve was made for Adam’s interests which clearly implies that her role in the world is to serve Adam’s interests.
While many of the misogynist readings of Genesis 2 and 3 are, in my opinion, misreadings of the actual text, the underlying sexism in verse 18 seems to be inseparable from the text. Furthermore, as much as we can try to argue against misogynist readings, we have to remember what the culture of the time was. If misogyny wasn’t written into Genesis, then it would already be a radically feminist text for its time. So, we can pretty safely assume that some of the sexist interpretations were intentional on the part of the writers.
That being said, I’ve noticed that it’s common among atheists to work very hard to confine religion to a lot of its more egregious tendencies. I’ve listened to debates where the atheist argues that the Bible is anti-woman or anti-gay because they want to prove that Christianity is a backwards religion, while a more progressive theologian attempts to debunk misogynist readings of the Bible. And while I certainly don’t think Christianity is forward thinking at this point, I think we need to allow the room for Christianity to evolve, which means supporting progressive theology, not attacking it. If atheists are attacking liberal theologians, then those theologians have enemies on all sides when they should be supported by people that support their overall conclusions (that women deserve equal rights, that gay people should be allowed to marry etc.). Serious humanists should be supporting those liberal theologians that defend the rights of oppressed groups regardless of how we feel about Christianity.
On the other hand, Christianity should not be totally off the hook. Whatever your interpretation of these texts, it’s undeniable that Genesis 2 and 3 have been used to oppress women. If Christianity is going to evolve, the church must acknowledge these wounds and work towards healing them. They need to address the fact of sexism in the church and work harder to empower women. A good starting point would probably be to stop spouting off nonsense about how women can’t be leaders. The Christian leadership needs to be held to account for the grotesque sexism that pervades Christian culture to this day, but we need to recognize that there may be allies within Christianity for this initiative. We shouldn’t alienate these allies by invalidating their perspective. The focus of atheists is all too often centered around shitting on Christianity rather than focusing on the much more important goal of liberating women and correcting the toxic traditions of the past.
In Milne’s article, she cites several feminist theologians who have worked to reform the Church’s views on Eve in an effort to correct the Church’s views on women in general. Many of them address the topics I’ve discussed here (though much more effectively) and they address many more misogynist readings of Genesis 2 and 3. What’s important is not that any of them are necessarily correct, but that they’ve been virtually ignored by the theological world. How many Christians have heard of Phyllis Trible or Elizabeth Cady Stanton? I hadn’t until I was doing research for this post. Why haven’t we heard their names from Rick Warren, Tim Keller or Joel Osteen? The goal right now should be to hold these leaders accountable for the lack of representation of women in the church. Perhaps there will come a day where we can challenge Christians to abandon Biblical inerrancy and maybe even Christianity as a whole. But for now, the best we can do is to challenge the narrative and challenge Christian leaders to start talking about this issue.