The Old Testament reading on 26th February is the story of the Fall. Guest blogger Debbie Rooke invites us to revisit our assumptions about the story and what it says about responsibility.
Genesis chapters 2 and 3 are some of the best-known in the Old Testament. That is to say, everyone has heard of them, everyone knows their basic outline, and everyone knows what they mean. They’re the Fall, right? The Fall, with a capital ‘F’, where the woman whom God has made to keep the man company in the Garden of Eden goes and messes everything up by making the man eat the fruit from the tree that God told them was off-limits. End result: they’re condemned to die and are kicked out of the garden by God. A totally Bad Thing, and of course it’s all the fault of the woman. That’s why the Fall has a capital ‘F’, because it’s the Female who caused it. If she hadn’t been consorting with the devil it would never have happened. Just like a woman to be lured away by the powers of evil. You know you can’t trust them, so they have to be kept in their place, otherwise they’ll cause complete havoc.
No, don’t stop reading, or scroll away because you think you’ve got the wrong blog. I’m indulging in a little hyperbole in order to make a point. The point, of course, is this: it’s all too easy to adopt such a lazy reading of the Genesis narrative, partly because you think you know what it says, and partly too because such a reading seems natural in that it reinforces traditional prejudices about gender roles (cue 1 Timothy for that). But if we’re wanting to play the blame game there’s plenty of other fodder for it in Genesis 2 and 3, because for all its apparent simplicity, the story of the man and the woman and the snake in the garden is far from straightforward.
Let’s start with that tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Just what is it doing in the middle of the garden if the humans aren’t meant to eat its fruit? Its name indicates that it represents the entire spectrum of knowledge between the extremes of good and bad, not simply the good and bad ends of the spectrum; and you’d think that knowing where on the spectrum particular aspects of knowledge might fall would be vital for the humans’ development and maturation. Why then should they – or more accurately, the man, to whom alone the prohibition is given – be forbidden to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, when it’s right there in front of them? And then there’s the snake. I insist on calling it the snake rather than the ‘serpent’, because that’s what it is – not some mythological beast or spiritual force but a snake, one of the creatures that the Lord God has made (Gen. 3.1), presumably out of dirt, like the man himself (Gen. 2.19; cf. 2.7). The snake is a part of God’s own creation, which God has made and the man has named, and this joint effort of creating and naming indicates that between them God and the man have made the snake what it is, giving it its snakey (or should I say sneaky) character. So God and the man between them have set the stage for what follows, by putting in place first the tree with its alluring but forbidden fruit and then the snake with its wit and craftiness.
But the real facer in the narrative is that the snake is right. It assures the woman that eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge definitely won’t kill her and her husband; and despite God’s words to the man about ‘on the day that you eat from the tree you shall surely die’ (Gen. 2.17), when they do eat the fruit they don’t die. Instead, they apparently gain a heightened awareness of their bodies (Gen. 3.7), an awareness of the kind that we associate with sexuality and thence the ability to create new life. No death there! And then there’s the woman’s motivation for taking the fruit in the first place. Note how the snake incentivises her by saying that the tree, far from being death-dealing, will make the humans wise, like gods themselves (Gen. 3.4-5). And that’s what really appeals to the woman: not only is the tree good for food and pleasing to the eye, it has the power to enrich the humans in emotional, spiritual and intellectual terms (Gen 3.6). What she wants, then, is that wisdom; and when they eat the fruit they get it, as we just saw, in their realisation of their ability to create new life – how god-like is that! The man, on the other hand, appears to have no lofty aspirations. He is content simply to eat the fruit. He is present with the woman when she takes the fruit, as Gen 3.6 makes clear – and he doesn’t raise any objections to the idea that they should eat it, even though he was the one to receive the command direct from God: ‘you (masculine singular) shall not eat the fruit from this tree’ (Gen 2.17). So if we’re looking to apportion blame at the human level, he is just as guilty as she is, if not more so. He fails to challenge her supposedly illegitimate desire or remind her of the prohibition, but simply takes the fruit she gives him and eats it. Perhaps he too is secretly captivated by the idea of becoming wise – or maybe he thinks that he can always blame her if things don’t work out.
Regardless of how we might read the man’s motives, the apostle Paul seems to have no qualms about attributing blame to him. In the passage from Romans that the Lectionary places with the Genesis passage, we read, ‘Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned … Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5.12, 18-19). For Paul, it’s about the contrast between Adam and Christ, not the contrast between Eve and Christ, or Eve and Adam. Soteriologically speaking, it makes no difference ‘who started it’ at the human level. Understanding Genesis 3 in a way that demonises women is not a necessary part of Christian salvation.
What is a necessary part, however, is taking responsibility for our own mistakes, and this is something else the man in Genesis 3 seems bad at. God questions him, Have you eaten from the tree that I told you not to eat from? The man replies, it was that woman you made to be with me – she gave me the fruit and I ate it. Your fault, God and woman, not mine, that I ate what I was told not to. Compare this with God’s question to the woman, What have you done?, and with her reply, The snake tricked me, and I ate. She references the snake quite matter-of-factly, and takes responsibility for her own eating. What she doesn’t do is try to shift blame onto the man for his failure to prevent either of them consuming the fruit – something she might well have done, since he was the one whom God specifically told not to eat it.
I could say a lot more, but I’ll round off with a general comment. The narrative of the Garden of Eden is complex, multi-layered, and far from straightforward. No-one – man, woman, snake, God – comes out of it very well, and to regard it as justifying ideas of women’s moral, intellectual or ontological inferiority when it’s about so much more than a woman is gratuitous at best and malicious at worst.
Deborah Rooke is Lecturer in Old Testament Hermeneutics at Regent’s Park College, Oxford. Her current teaching commitments include a course for the Oxford Faculty of Theology and Religion on Gender and Power in Biblical Texts, an area in which she has several publications. Apart from her academic activities she is a preacher (Baptist) and a pianist, likes running half-marathons, and serves as chaplain to Oxford United Women’s Football Club.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.