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Genesis and the Place of Women in Creation
By John R. Coats,
Author of Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis

If your experience was like mine, you were told that the creation stories in Genesis place women in an inferior status to men. Nope. In fact, the language used by the authors of those ancient stories makes it clear that the woman was created to be the man's partner, his equal. So, what explains the millennia old, so-called biblically-supported inferior status of women? Spin. Mistakes were made. The usual. Here, in summary, is what happened: The Israelites assumed their God would protect them, provided they remained faithful to the covenant. But in 586 BC, after an ill-advised renunciation of Israel's vassalage to the Babylonian empire, Jerusalem, soon under siege, and hopeless, surrendered. As punishment, the nation's most important citizens were marched off to live in exile. Fifty years later the Persians defeated the Babylonians and gave the Israelites permission to go back. Some stayed, but those who did return carried with them a troublesome question: Exactly what had their ancestors done to lose Yahweh's protection? Nobody knew, and the elders who might have remembered were dead, along with their knowledge of the sacred texts and their meanings. With their past out of reach, and no place else to look but their holy writings, the role of the scriptural interpreters -- those who took it upon themselves to try to discern the possible meanings within the texts -- was born.

There are two things here worth noting about these early interpretive efforts: None of the interpreters was a woman, and; because nobody was left who understood the meanings within the ancestral texts, the best they could do, however sincere and thoughtful their approach, was guesswork.

So, the interpreters began looking into the old stories -- as yet there was no "Bible" -- hoping to figure out just what their ancestors had done to warrant the loss of Israel's divine protection. Some of them fixed on the tale of the Garden of Eden in which the man had been told he could have anything in the Garden, but not the fruit of a certain tree, because if he did, he'd die. After the woman entered the picture, the man told her about the admonition. And what did they do? They ate the fruit of that tree, of course! So, maybe the divine upset had its roots in that story? Sure, that must be it! By eating the so-called "forbidden" fruit, they'd tweaked the divine nose, condemning not only themselves but all subsequent generations. The reason tiny Israel had been trounced by the greatest empire the world had yet seen was because of what happened way back when! Case closed? Hardly. There was still the assignment of guilt. It was decided that the serpent who'd talked Eve into eating the fruit was due the most guilt. Then the woman. Yes, each had eaten the fruit and, yes, either could have just said no. But the woman could have said it first. And she gave the man some of the fruit.

Later interpreters piled on: "From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her, we all die" (Sirach 25:24); "I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men [because] Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor" (St. Paul, 1 Timothy 2: 13-14).  Though it's unlikely that Paul wrote this passage, the author seems to be saying that Adam knew what he was doing when he ate the fruit, but that Eve had been under the spell of the serpent. But the text says nothing about a spell, and if Adam was not deceived, and did eat the fruit, then either he knew what he was doing, making him equally culpable and too weak-willed to resist, or he was too stupid to realize what Eve was offering. Then there's the text itself, in which J (for "Jahwist," one of the four authors of Genesis) writes, "Eve gave Adam the fruit and he ate it." In other words, Eve gave Adam the fruit, but the decision to eat it was his alone.

A bit of irony on the subject appears in Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Even if you've not seen it in person, you've likely seen in photographs, so try this: Imagine that you are looking up into that vaulted ceiling. Now, follow the panels along the central axis until you find the one containing the incident at the tree. Here, in this panel, entitled Original Sin, the artist has followed the medieval tradition of depicting the serpent as a woman with a snake's lower body. Look closely, and you'll see that the serpent-woman has plucked a piece of the fruit and is holding it out to Eve, while Adam is plucking his own.

Allowing the blame to settle on the woman, on women, has left us pretty much terrified of, and violent toward, the feminine in the development of Western culture. So I find myself wondering what might have been different if, say, one of the old Temple priests had survived the exile long enough to tell those beginning interpreters that story of Adam and Eve was not history, that, like the creation stories of the cultures that surrounded them, it was not a recounting of human foolishness but metaphor born in the human heart, an attempt to answer our need to understand what can't be understood.

© 2010 John R. Coats, author of Original Sinners: A New Interpretation of Genesis

Author Bio
John R. Coats holds his master's degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former Episcopal priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More To Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa and an independent management consultant. He lives with his wife in Houston, Texas.

For more information please visit www.JohnRCoats.com and connect with him on Facebook.