MOTHER OF ALL THE LIVING
One aspect of the difficulty was that even when women did appear in these texts, they were presented in ways that women found strange and alienating or blatantly distorted to support patriarchal assumptions about women. The extremes of the choices faced by religious women seemed to be (a) abandoning the religions on which they had based their lives, in order to be true to their own experiences of divinity and spirituality; (b) submitting to an understanding of themselves that denied their own experiences; or (c) re-reading and re-interpreting the scriptures to rewrite theology and spirituality, incorporating women's lived experience.
Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza sees the latter work as essential for women, whether or not they adhere to an organized Biblical religion:
The necessity for such transforming—for telling women's part of the history—lies deep at the heart of women's spirituality in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a result of her search over the years, Carol Christ came to the conclusion that "Women's stories have not been told. And without stories . . . she cannot understand herself. . . . If women's stories are not told, the depth of women's souls will not be known."3 In her introduction to "She Unnames Them," Ursula Le Guin says something similar: it is in the retelling of our most essential myths that we learn the truths of our existence: "Myths are one of our most useful techniques of living . . . but in order to be useful they must . . . be retold."4 The re-telling, she adds, must include a seeing differently, so that we can be aware of the ways in which the old narratives have formed our ability to see and to understand others, the world, and ourselves.
Marilyn Sewell proposes a similar necessity to see everything, including ourselves, differently, in her introduction to the "Re-Mything" section of her anthology Cries of the Spirit:
The scholars and poets whom I will discuss in this paper have chosen to reexamine and transform the tradition—the scholars by studying the texts anew in their original languages and contexts, and the creative writers by re-imagining the lives of women in the Bible—to discover the "creative power, dignity, and goodness" of women in their texts. Their work on the character of Eve, the archetypal woman in Western thought, as she appears in the Genesis accounts of creation and in the varied interpretations of her, illustrates the many dimensions of this feminist re-envisioning of women's place in the Bible and in women's understanding of their place before God and the rest of humanity.
Perhaps the best way to begin this brief study of Eve is to look at some of the "canonized mythology" of Eve. Scripture scholar Phyllis Trible explains the difficulty that Genesis passages about Eve pose for modern women: "Throughout the ages people have used this text to legitimate patriarchy as the will of God. They maintained that it subordinates woman to man in creation, depicts her as his seducer, curses her, and authorizes man to rule over her."8 The poetry of Eve presents a similar picture. A poem by Ralph Hodgson, published in 1924, gives us a little taste: As the serpent begins his assault on Eve—"to get even and / Humble proud heaven"—Hodgson asks the reader to
When she succumbs to the serpent's wiles, the poet cries out: "Oh, had our simple Eve / Seen through the make-believe!" And in the last stanza:
In Hodgson's poem, Eve is presented as not merely naive but actually stupid; the Fall is for her no more than a loss of "sweet berries and plums."
More recently (1977) Derek Walcott writes of "a sigh under the fig tree and a sky / deflating to the serpent's punctured hiss, / repeating you will die." Later in the poem he speaks of Eve in relation to Adam as "she, his death."11
And it is not only men who picture Eve this way. Christina Rossetti has Eve contemplate her deeds: "As a tree my sin stands / To darken all lands; / Death is the fruit it bore," and later "The Tree of Life was ours . . . I chose the Tree of Death."12 Milton, of course, has fostered the widest array of these interpretations of Eve's weakness, inferiority, and origin of later human evil, but that is a field too broad to step into in this essay.
Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins, in their 1991 study of women's spirituality, report that such depictions of women persist: "Portrayals of women [like Eve and Pandora] as the holders of keys to locked doors behind which lie demoniacal forces, sin, and death abound in our myths and stories, both sacred and secular."13 Such interpretations of the mythic stories reinforce notions that women are lesser humans than men, weak and unintelligent, unable to develop their own strengths and trust their own judgments and insights, even about their own nature.
In re-examining the original texts, contemporary scholars are finding that Eve's story as told in Genesis does not necessitate such an interpretation. Scripture scholar John Phillips, for instance, suggests that what he calls "canonized mythology" is not the true meaning of Genesis. In Eve: The History of an Idea, he remarks,
Scripture scholar Phyllis Trible carefully dissects the Genesis texts to show how the patriarchal bias lies in interpretation, not in the text itself. For instance, she explains that the word ha-'adham, usually translated as "Adam," "signifies a sexually undifferentiated creature: neither male (nor female) nor a combination of the two."15 She reinforces her understanding of the word as gender neutral by explaining that Hebrew has no neuter category for nouns, and therefore the use of masculine pronouns with the masculine noun ha-'adam does not necessarily denote masculinity in the persons it describes.
As to the priority of male over female, she points out that the male ha-'adam comes from the female ha-'adama (earth, ground), which would reverse the usual interpretation and make femaleness primary, and emphasizes that "sexual identity" as well as "direct speech, and social identity . . . appear only when the earth creature becomes two creatures, male and female. And the two emerge simultaneously, not sequentially."16
Trible continues to use her knowledge of the ancient language to show the neutrality of the original text. In fact, she proposes that the Yahwist account of Genesis 2, often interpreted as showing the inferiority of woman because of the woman's being created second, "moves to its climax, not its decline in the creation of woman. She is not an afterthought; she is the culmination."17 The structure of the two chapters of Genesis, she points out, reinforces this:
Later in her essay, Trible takes the comparison of male and female even further. She asks why Eve is the one who is tempted, and replies to her own question:
Even when God calls Adam to account (in Gen 3:9, 11), Treble continues, the man "fails to be responsible; . . . he does not say the woman seduced him, he blames the Deity."20 The judgments on Adam and Eve also do not support the subordination of woman to man, according to Trible; rather than a curse like that the serpent received, "the judgments are commentaries on the disastrous effects of their shared disobedience. . . . They describe; they do not prescribe."21
Pamela Norris, in her comprehensive literary study Eve: A Biography, likewise demonstrates that the interpretations we have come to accept about Eve are not imbedded in the original story. She points out that Eve's "disreputable character"
Norris's research discovered that the earliest references to Eve's "disreputable reputation" appear in the second century A.D., when "Eve's responsibility for Adam's death had become a commonplace in Jewish pseudoepigraphic narratives."23 She attributes this primarily to a contemporary Greek text called Apocalypse of Moses, "in which the sexually tainted Eve first steps into the limelight."24 Norris then comprehensively traces the development through Jewish and Christian society.
In their own way, contemporary women writers are attempting to revise the more traditional interpretation of Eve, and to challenge the views of women that have grown from it. Many of the poems from recent years postulate an Eve much like Trible's, wise and self-possessed, with little patience for an Adam who is blinded by his self-centeredness and lack of ambition. She sees herself as part of the natural world, her wisdom a natural extension of its development. These writers also present an image of God that is more experimental, often suggesting that God did not realize what could happen once humanity was created.
Lucille Clifton's interpretation is perhaps most fully developed, in her series of poems about Eden which began appearing in the 1972, in Good News About the Earth, and continues into the 2000 Blessing of the Boats. In "Adam and Eve" from the earlier book, finding words for "the Things" takes on a fascination for both Adam and Eve and bonds them to the rest of creation:
The later poem "adam thinking" further describes Adam's need for words:
Eve's desire is for something more personal: In "eve's version," Clifton presents her tempted to self-knowledge:
In "eve thinking," Clifton presents an Eve similar to the one Trible describes, impatient with her "clay two-foot" mate, who has not caught on to the most basic facts of life:
Adam, in this poem, is lost in an abstract search for language. The woman, having become more self-aware and more logical, anchors both herself and Adam in the everyday reality of living in the newly-created world. Eve gives Adam the language he seeks, but presumably also rouses him to some of the "coupling" and "groping" she and the animal "brothers and sisters" understand is the way to continue life.
One element of the myth that Clifton challenges here is the separation of sexuality and logical thought; while Adam's abstractions distance him from life, Eve's use of language and logic are rooted in the body, fortunately for the future of the human race. Other poems in the series explore the importance of Eve's knowledge for humanity, and, indeed, the whole divine enterprise of creation.
Several poems about Lucifer develop this idea; in one untitled poem with an epigraph beginning "How art thou fallen," the speaker mourns Lucifer's absence,
and the "solitary brother" creates a garden, presumably Eden. In "whispered to lucifer" the speaker wonders who tempted whom:
Regardless of the reason, the speaker concludes that even the angels are affected:
In another poem, Lucifer himself pronounces the results of his foray into Eden, recognizing the tremendous change that human sexuality introduces into creation:
Ursula Le Guin's Adam is also lost in the abstractions of his mind, in "She Unnames Them"; while Eve prepares to leave Eden, Adam, content that his naming has settled each being into a comfortable and forgettable niche, fiddles with some invention. Eve first "unnames" the animals and, like Adam and Eve of Clifton's early poem set before the naming, discovers that she and they have regained some lost community, which she says was "more or less the effect I had been after."33
Eve then returns her own name to Adam: "You and your father lent me this—gave it to me, actually. It's been really useful, but it doesn't exactly seem to fit very well lately. But thanks very much. It's really been very useful," she says again, as if to soften the blow of its uselessness. Adam pays no attention, says "Put it down over there, OK?," convincing Eve that her actions were right: "One of my reasons for doing what I did was that talk was getting us nowhere." For Le Guin's Adam, language has become a barrier, relegating Eve, the animals, and the garden itself to generic functions in service to his needs; he cannot see them as individual selves.
Eve dawdles, hoping he will wake up and hear her, but she finally leaves, saying, "Well, goodbye, dear. I hope the garden key turns up." Adam replies absently, "OK, fine, dear. When's dinner?"34 Le Guin's Adam has not really understood the garden, has not got the Key to paradise—to communion with the animals or with Eve—or, most likely with himself. He continues "fitting parts together" but misses the whole point of creation.
John Phillips's analysis of the origins of the Eden story sheds light on Le Guin's Adam and his refusal or inability to hear Eve: "The God of Judaism is a god whose nature is to act. He is, it is true, the Creator and, as such, Lord of nature; but he creates by acting, by speaking, by bringing into being,"35 but he is also set apart from what has been created, in opposition to earlier goddess/nature-centered creation stories of the Middle East. Le Guin's Eve, on the other hand, sets off to make her way in the new world, and to construct it according to her own experience of community with the other creatures of the world.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, with their usual anti-patriarchal vigor, remark that Le Guin "imagines a new Eve redefining and thereby liberating Adam's world."36 Eve "leaves the oppressively enclosed Garden of a patriarchal vocabulary," reclaiming the right of all creatures to name themselves according to their own natures, and begins her own, distinctively female, creation story.37
Eleanor Wilner's poem "Candied" takes another tack, placing the blame for Eve's action on the limitations of Eden itself, rather than on either of the humans. The poem seems to begin singing Eden's perfections, but by the third line, hints of what will drive Eve out of the garden appear:
Wilner's characterization of God raises a possibility that is hinted at in the Genesis accounts, but rarely articulated: that Eden is an experiment. Thus Eden
But Wilner's Eve is not satisfied with the experiment:
And so she heads out, away from Eden and "its sticky, sticky rivers."39 Like Le Guin's Eve, and Trible's, this Eve takes an active role in creating her world. Alicia Ostriker sounds a similar note at the end of "The Garden" section of The Nakedness of the Fathers: "Reader you may thank God for death, without which there's no story. Reader imagine yourself imprisoned in paradise dying of whole-someness dying of health dying for a grain of poison."40
Cinda Thompson, in her poem "The Tree," like Clifton and LeGuin, presents an Eve who comes to know and take on her power, from within what seems to be her weakness. Thompson's poem begins with a pregnant Eve identifying with the Tree:
she asks. The rest of the poem turns on her pregnancy and the body-knowledge that comes from it, resting on the subtle implication that this knowledge has caused a rift, whether with Adam or with God is not clear. "I know all" she declares, and gives as evidence "Children, Cain and Abel alike / come to / My breast"; she embraces both, refusing to distinguish by any test but her mother love. The line breaks and lack of punctuation deepen the ambiguity of what exactly she is accused of: the lines quoted above go on:
In spite of her pain, Thompson's Eve exults in her condition, flings the traditional interpretation of labor pains as curse back at her accuser, and twice names herself with the sacred name God gives himself later in Genesis:
This poem contains the harshest rejection of traditional (mis)interpretations of Genesis that we have seen. Thompson has Eve not only reject the implication that sex—and consequent pregnancy—is somehow related to Original Sin. She declares that it is in her sexuality, her ability to give birth, that the true nature of God is found.
This is an Eve who claims her connections to the ancient mother-goddesses that, as Phillips reminds us, the writing of Genesis was designed to depose. Phillips points out that the name Adam gives Eve, "Mother of All the Living" links her to the Mother Goddesses of the ancient Near East religions from whose body earth and all beings were created. Phillips also notes that Chava, Eve, is "taken from a form of the Hebrew verb 'to be'" and that, in Genesis, she is replaced "by the masculine God, Yahweh, whose name has the same derivation."43
Eve's repetition of "I am" in Thompson's poem emphasizes this connection, and denies the separation of humanity, divinity, and nature. This raises a number of issues that are featured in feminist readings of Scripture, most notably the attitude toward non-human nature.
Phillips points out that, even though earlier stories of creation—for instance the Babylonian stories—say that creation emerged from the substance of the god,
Many contemporary writers have seen in this division of God from the earth a source, not only of modern exploitation of the planet and its resources, but of the demeaning and exploitation of women as well. Rosemary Radford Ruether elaborates, saying that the Hebraic conception of God and the cosmos portrays
This mythic inversion of the natural order of birth creates, and is a symptom of, a deeper denial of the true sexual nature of humanity, according to Jungian psychologist Ann Ulanov. She speculates:
Paula Gunn Allen's "Eve the Fox" gives us an Eve deeply identified with her sexuality and, like Eve in Clifton's poems, eager to share her knowledge with Adam. Her Adam is likewise lost in linguistic puzzles:
Allen presents Adam as "bored" but Eve's knowledge keeps her content, "for she / knew the joy of swivelhips / and the taste of honey on her lips." The fruit she offers Adam in this poem is her own sweet body, and the knowledge their joining opens to both of them is complete: "let me tell you / right then they knew all / they ever wanted to know about knowing."48 Here Allen accepts the interpretation of the knowledge promised in eating the forbidden fruit as sexual, but shows Adam and Eve celebrating it, with no condemnation from God, who does not appear in the poem at all.
Another interesting revision of both Eve and God appears in what Judith Plaskow calls a "feminist midrash"49 on the story of Eden. Plaskow recounts the tradition of "Lilith, demon of the night . . . [who] according to rabbinic legend was Adam's first wife. Created equal to him, for some unexplained reason she found she could not live with him, and flew away."50 In Plaskow's version of the story, Lilith leaves Adam because he refuses to accept their equality and starts ordering her around.51
God then creates a second, more compliant woman for Adam, one who "though she occasionally sensed capacities within herself that remained undeveloped, was basically satisfied with the role of Adam's wife and helper." Adam and God seem to engage in deeper and deeper male bonding, so much so that it "made God a bit uncomfortable" and leaves Eve feeling lonely. In spite of Adam's story of a demonic creature named Lillith, Eve "got a glimpse of her and saw she was a woman like herself."52 Plaskow then imagines Eve climbing a young apple tree that "stretched over the garden wall," meeting Lilith, and befriending her. The story ends: "And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together."53
This approach to Eve builds on the legend, but depicts her as independent of both Adam and God, a woman whose power is formidable. Ellen Umansky calls the story
The women writers examined here have begun to re-imagine the Genesis creation myths, correct misinterpretations, and change the point of view so that "the drama of history," as Phillips calls it, will likewise change, so that "our reality can be narrated," in Le Guin's words,55 and we can all, male and female attain "spiritual wholeness."56 Their presentations of Eve display the strength and self-knowledge that many women, like Plaskow and Christ, found lacking in the works they studied in the 1970's, and demonstrate that women have begun to reclaim the heritage of their faith and to find in them a source of source of strength and encouragement in their own personal spiritual journeys.
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