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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: It Was Eve’s Fault

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November 23, 2010 Tags: Biblical Interpretation
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: It Was Eve’s Fault

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Garden story is about something that started right and quickly went very wrong. The forbidden fruit was eaten with lasting effects for humanity. But who is to blame, Adam or Eve? That was a common question asked by ancient interpreters.

The truth is there is blame enough to go around, and ancient interpreters picked up on it. After all, both Adam and Eve are responsible for curses stemming from their act (Genesis 3:16-19). They both clearly bear some fault. Eve’s accursed act was listening to the serpent; Adam’s was listening to Eve.

Also, the order in which the curses are pronounced may be significant. The serpent is first, and therefore the most culpable, since he instigated the whole scheme. Next comes the woman, and third Adam. To some interpreters this suggested a descending order of guilt, and that Adam was less guilty than Eve.

Part of what drives the question is the fact that, once again, the story is very “gapped,” meaning it doesn’t explain all the details and so interpreters are left to fill in those gaps somehow. Modern interpreters do this every bit as much as ancient ones.

One of those gaps concerns a curious piece of information in 3:3. Eve repeats the command of God back to the serpent, but she adds something that was not given in the original command to Adam. The original command says that eating of the fruit will result in death. Eve adds “and you must not touch it.”

This has captured the attention of biblical interpreters from early on. Why does Eve add this? Could it be that the original command in 2:16-17 is only recorded in an abbreviated fashion and what Eve says is really not an add-on at all but captures the full conversation? Or perhaps Adam was the one who added this prohibition when he told Eve what God commanded. Remember that Eve is created after the command was given (2:21-22), so Adam must have relayed to conversation to her. Maybe Adam added the proviso because he did not trust Eve: he wanted to make sure that there was no chance of her eating the fruit.

Or perhaps Eve added that piece of information on her own. Perhaps Eve was just being extra-zealous. Not touching might have been her innocent attempt to put an extra layer of protection around the command.

There is no clear answer to this question. But however one explains it, this addition may have given the serpent all the ammunition he needed to complete his task. Perhaps upon hearing this addition to God’s command, the serpent proceeded to touch the fruit right then and there. Eve saw that he did not die, and so she might have thought: “if he touched it and didn’t die, perhaps eating it isn’t so bad.”

There is another curiosity in the text that early interpreters took note of. Verse 6 reads, “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food….” Yet how can one see that something is good to eat? It might look good but taste horrible. Perhaps the serpent touching the fruit and not dying led Eve to the conclusion that it must also be good for eating.

One rabbinic tradition, a medieval Jewish text Abot de-Rabbi Natan, suggests another solution. Although unstated in the biblical text, perhaps the serpent not only touched the fruit but ate of it as well without dying. This led Eve to conclude that Adam lied to her—and perhaps God as well.

Of course, this is all speculative, but the fact remains that the gapped nature of the Garden story invites some problem-solving—then and now. Who is really to blame? Is one more guilty than the other?

Some early interpreters squarely put the blame on Eve. For example, in the 2nd century B.C. apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, we read, “From a woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her, we all die” (25:24). Philo is also explicit. In On the Creation 151-52 and 165-66 is talks about how things were just fine for Adam until this woman came a long a ruined everything. Philo gets specific. He says that Eve introduced love, desire, and bodily pleasure, which is the beginning of the end of any virtuous life.

In the first century pseudepigraphical text Apocalypse of Moses, Adam says to Eve, “Why have you brought destruction among us and brought upon us great wrath, which is death gaining rule over all our race?” “Oh evil woman! Why have you wrought destruction among us?” (14:2 and 21:6).

Christians will understandably point to Paul’s comments in Romans 5:12-21, where he stresses that Adam’s act of disobedience introduced sin and death into the world. Adam is clearly to blame here.

Still, even the New Testament shows some variety on explaining this episode. In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, we read that women may neither teach nor have authority over men. The reason given is that Adam was formed first (hence has priority) and that the second-formed Eve was the one deceived, not Adam. In fact, the end of v. 14 puts it rather strongly: “the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

This is hardly the place to get into the debate about the teaching role of women. My only point is that even in the New Testament there is plenty of blame to go around.

We might also wonder why Adam was so quick to listen to Eve when he had been told by God himself not to eat of the fruit. Adam just caves in: no debate, no fight, and no second thought (Genesis 3:6). This easily justifies shifting a lot of the blame back to Adam, especially since he was actually with her when the conversation with the serpent took place, as we see in 3:6: “she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”

As guilty as Eve looks for adding words and listening to the serpent, Adam also looks guilty himself for listening to Eve even after he saw the whole conversation take place.

As we have seen in many other examples over the last few weeks, the Genesis story is gapped. Important details are missing, and anyone reading it will wind up filling them in somehow, either deliberately or out of habit.

Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

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Bryan Hodge - #42031

November 30th 2010

I know that there is a long history of filling in the gaps, but I’m not sure if we all really do this. I’m just trying to think of my own model, and I don’t really see myself filling in gaps. I could be blind to it of course; but I’m wondering if the need to fill in the gaps is due to the idea that the text is attempting to fill us in on the event rather than teach theology with the event. We all make theological connections to the text that may be “filling in the gaps,” but I’m not sure that would be accurate. So I wonder if one views the text as describing the event, then one will seek to fill out what is not there; whereas one who sees the text as using the event to teach something theological has no need to fill in the gaps.

Rich - #42383

December 3rd 2010

Gabriel Powell:

You wrote:

“we know that she was sinless”

Where does the text say that?

“and had a mind far more productive than any of us.”

Where does the text say that?

“Therefore she could communicate at a higher level with God and her husband than we can comprehend.”

Where does the text say that?

Gabriel, you are supplementing the text with things it doesn’t say.  So it seems preposterous for you to complain when other interpreters attempt to supplement unclear parts of the text with various explanations.

Why is it worse, Gabe, to wonder why Eve adds the words about not touching the tree—words which according to you Moses wrote, and therefore presumably have some special purpose—than to invent post-Flood miracles, never mentioned by Moses, in order to explain why there are no traces of the global Flood detectable by archaeology and anthropology?  Your YEC friends do the latter regularly.  Do you complain when they thus go well beyond the words of Scripture? 

Nobody, not even you, goes with “just what the Bible says.”  Everyone supplements.  Therefore everyone should be a little more tolerant of the supplements proposed by others.  That’s what Pete’s trying to teach here.

Gabriel Powell - #42853

December 7th 2010


I wasn’t avoiding questions… just living life .

Romans 5:12 says that Adam and Eve were sinless before the Fall.

There is no verse that says Eve’s mind was more productive. For that you have to understand theology, specifically, the doctrine of the noetic affects of sin. I won’t waste time explaining that. If you don’t understand it, there are other issues…

The same applies to communication. She was sinless, has a mind unaffected by sin, and therefore could communicate better. All the commands regarding speech and the use of the tongue in Scripture didn’t apply to Eve because she was sinless.

Rich, read the rest of the Bible. You simply can’t accuse me of supplementing the text, because I take the Bible to be entirely consistent and inerrant and therefore I interpret Scripture with Scripture. In these comments I’ve only supplemented Scripture with more Scripture.

Rich - #42884

December 7th 2010

Ah, Gabriel, now I see.

We have the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, a story told only in Genesis 2-3.

In interpreting the Garden story, you make three statements which cannot be substantiated from within that story.  One of those statements you get from Romans, which was written perhaps as much as 1,000 years later, in a completely different cultural context, by a person with an agenda very different from the agenda of the person who wrote Genesis.  The other two statements you claim to derive from “theology,” though *whose* theology you leave completely unspecified.

Of course, in appealing to “theology” you are proving Pete’s point.  Everyone brings something to the text, to fill in the gaps in his understanding.  You bring in “theology.”  Without “theology,” you could never speak of “the noetic effects of sin,” which are never discussed in the Genesis story.  In fact, I doubt they are discussed in any book of the Bible.

I grant one of your points—that Eve was probably “sinless.”  But we have no way of knowing, since sin isn’t mentioned until Genesis 4; the Fall story isn’t about sin at all.

Oh, and I have read most of “the rest of the Bible,” some sizable chunks of it in Greek and Hebrew.

Gabriel Powell - #42889

December 7th 2010


I see where you are coming from now. Obviously there is a great chasm in what we believe about God.

Take care

Gabriel Powell - #42894

December 7th 2010

... and just to be clear (because one might wonder how I made the leap from understanding of Scripture to God), 2 Tim 3:16 says that all Scripture is God-breathed. Therefore all Scripture is consistent and using proper hermeneutics should be interpreted together. Therefore based on God’s consistent revelation I see using Romans 5:12 as a clear commentary on Genesis 2-3 because God was commenting on it.

Theology, properly done, is not bringing something outside the text to bear on the text, but rather bringing other texts to bear on the text. Biblical and systematic theology is a basic and necessary component to hermeneutics. This is contrasted with conjecturing situations and ideas totally untied to Scripture as this article is discussing.

If you limit your interpretation of Genesis 2-3 to the evidence exclusively within Genesis 2-3, then you are making a profound mistake.

Rich - #42960

December 8th 2010


2 Tim is referring to the Old Testament (probably just to the Law and Prophets) when it speaks of “Scripture”; there was no such thing as a “New Testament” yet.  It certainly wasn’t endorsing Romans as Scripture.  In fact, when 2 Timothy was written, it wasn’t even endorsing *itself* as Scripture.  It was a letter, which its author had no reason to suppose would ever be part of a “New Testament.”  Your argument is anachronistic, like the Medieval pictures of Mary holding a Bible.

I don’t limit my interpretation of Genesis 2-3 entirely to what’s in those chapters, but those chapters have to be the focus; otherwise, one can just bring in any old proof-text from anywhere, and yammer about “sin,” which has nothing to do with the story.  The proper context for interpreting Genesis 2-3 is primarily Genesis 1-11, secondarily the rest of Genesis, and finally some other parts of the Old Testament.

In Romans 5:12 God isn’t commenting on Genesis; Paul is commenting on Genesis.  Last I heard, Paul was not God, but a first-century theologian.  One, I might add, who notoriously misrepresented the Jewish Law, doubtless due to those “noetic effects of sin” which are allegedly mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.

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