For centuries, traditional interpretations of Genesis 1-3 cast Eve quite negatively. By virtue of her creation from the side of Adam, Eve was considered a lesser human being, a secondary and inferior model whose created purpose was to attend to Adam’s needs, support his pursuits, and bear his children. Eve’s inferior creation was confirmed, interpreters suggested, by her disobedience in eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree and plunging the world into sin. In that moment, she put on full display her fickleness and moral feebleness, demonstrating clearly that the woman was made of inferior stock.
Because Adam and Eve were the first human beings in the Bible, created not in the womb but directly formed by the hands of God, they were often seen as archetypes for humanity, defining what it means to be female and male. This rather negative reading of Eve, then, spilled over into the ways that society and the Church thought about women, lending divine approval to a system of patriarchy that denied women protection under the law, the right to own property, access to education, the freedom to make choices for themselves, the privilege to vote, and the joy of preaching the gospel.
But what did women throughout history think of this interpretation of Eve? Did they believe that Eve sanctioned the many limitations and hardships that had been placed on them? Did they accept this interpretation and application as God’s will for their lives? If the writings on Genesis 1-3 by women give us a window into the sentiments of the general populace, the answer would be that while some did accept this interpretation, a significant number did not. From as early as the 14th century, women have been using their influence to change the narrative about women by reinterpreting the story of Eve.
Reading the text closely (or “rightly” they might say), women interpretersnoticed different details in the text that changed the way they characterized Eve. For instance, many women interpreters insisted that to gain a proper understanding of what God intended for women and men, one must start not with Genesis 2 and the creation of Eve, but with Genesis 1. There, they noted, God creates male and female at the same time, both of them made in his image. Additionally, he gives them the same mandate: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground” (Genesis 1:28). In Genesis 1, there is no distinction made between the sexes in terms of their nature and no limiting of women to certain roles in church, family, and society. Reflecting on this initial account of creation in light of prevailing notions about women’s roles, Lee Anna Starr, an early 20th-century interpreter, suggested that women would have to step off the earth to transgress her God-given role in this world.
In their readings of Genesis 2-3, then, women interpreters assumed the male-female equality they discovered in Genesis 1. Thus, when the woman is described as an ‘ezer (“helper”), this label was not taken to imply inferiority. Instead, as God comes alongside the people of Israel as their helper in times of need (Genesis 49:25; Psalm 37:40), so too the woman was created to be a helper for the man because he was in need. In other words, it is the man’s incompleteness and not the woman’s inferiority that makes her a helper—like God himself.
They further noted that Adam didn’t treat Eve as an inferior, but rather he delighted and rejoiced in her. In the end, they realized that although traditional interpretations have read into these chapters much about sexual differentiation, both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 seem more interested in the similarities between male and female. Genesis 1 affirms that both were created in the image of God and given the same commission to rule over the earth, tending and caring for God’s creation. Genesis 2 is focused on the man’s quest to find one like himself to be his companion. Not finding this among the animals, God creates another human being, a woman, who is described as one who corresponds to him.
Again, reading Genesis 3, women interpreters noticed different details than had been highlighted by traditional readings of this text. For instance, they noted that the man was with the woman while she was talking to the serpent. This detail gave them pause as they wondered why the man never spoke up to intervene—why he remained passive while the woman and the serpent were actively engaged in conversation. They concluded from this that the woman must have been the spiritual leader of the two.
At the same time, they refuted the notion that the woman was responsible for the man’s eating of the fruit. Both the man and the woman were created with free will, they argued. Given that traditional interpretations regarded the man as the stronger (physically and morally) of the two of them, they rejected the notion that the weak, fickle woman should be responsible for turning his will.
Like many modern interpreters, women in history read Genesis 3:15-19 as God delineating the consequences of—rather than exacting punishment for—Adam and Eve’s sin. Some even suggested that in Genesis 3:16, “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you,” was a descriptive comment warning women about how men would treat them in a fallen world, and not a prescriptive directive establishing a patriarchal hierarchy. Furthermore, women interpreters noticed that God extended to the woman a special grace, perhaps recognizing that the road ahead would be particularly hard for her. She was invited to be a key player in bringing about the redemption of the world. Her seed would crush the serpent’s head.
As women reread this story for themselves, they discerned that their experience in the world, with the limitations that had been placed on women in church, home, and society, were not rooted in Scripture. For God had endowed Eve, the woman who had so long been used to support women’s subordination and diminishment, with dignity, value, and worth. Reinterpreted, Eve became a source of imagination and hope for women as they resisted a culture that marginalized them and as they advocated for more biblical ways of living out God’s will as male and female.