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