Is Genesis 1-3 Discriminatory Towards Women?
The first six chapters of Genesis are about the creation of the universe and the beginnings of humanity. Perhaps more than any other biblical story, those which make up the book of Genesis are considered to embody cultural, religious, and political symbols. Thus, Genesis is significant to this day because it is an etiological text. In particular, the story of Adam and Eve is essential in understanding gender roles and differences today. Discussing the relationship between Adam and Eve and the creation of the two figures by God often brings about controversy. It is obvious that the Bible, in particular chapters 1-6 of Genesis, has an abundance of examples where sexism towards women exists; however, some may interpret these examples with different meaning. Phyllis Trible, for instance, rejects the notion that Eve is an inferior or dependent being, but is rather the “culmination” of creation. These two opposite views are so frequently argued because Eve represents the fundamental character and identity of all women today. By examining the instances in Genesis which, to some, are seen as sexist, one can understand the reasoning behind gender role differences.
The notion that women are the inferior sex originates in the Bible at the very beginning. It is in the creation story itself where controversy arises over gender equality. In Genesis 1:26-7, it appears as though equality between the sexes exists: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” The statement “male and female created he them” denotes equality because both sexes were established at the beginning; however, we later learn that God did not create them at the same time nor did he create them in the same way. Because Adam, representative of all men, was created first, Eve and all women alike, are viewed as the “second sex.” The order in which God created humankind is significant because it stresses the primacy of man and his superiority while emphasizing that women play a subordinate role. Does this mean that God favors man and intended for this set-up of gender roles? Phyllis Trible writes on this topic in her book, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality.
While many see the book of Genesis as a patriarchal text, proclaiming male superiority and female inferiority as the will of God, Trible’s interpretation of Genesis offers a different perspective. She argues that the traditional interpretations of male superiority and female inferiority are inaccurate and “they fail to respect the integrity of this work as an interlocking structure of words and motifs with its own intrinsic value and meaning. In short, these ideas violate the rhetoric of the story” (73). The way in which Trible argues against the traditional view of the book of Genesis is quite interesting. She is realistic and does not disagree with the fact that the texts are sexist; rather, she states that the Bible is patriarchal and that the literature comes from a male-dominated society. Her point of view is fair; she does not reject the obvious notion that sexism exists in Genesis. She adds that the intention of the Bible is not to “create nor perpetuate patriarchy but rather to function as salvation for both women and men” (73). Trible believes that the Bible is commonly seen as sexist because of the challenge readers face in being able to “translate biblical faith without sexism.”
Chapters one through three contain five points which are the most argumentative in all of Genesis. While there are interpretations for each point that take the sexist approach, Phyllis Trible challenges these interpretations by construing them as non-sexist. The first of these argumentative points that appears in Genesis is the creation of humankind. When God creates humankind he says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen:26-27). Earlier I mentioned how it appears as if God is equally creating the male and female sexes-he creates them in his own image, blesses them, and says unto them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…and have dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon earth”(Gen:27). At this point-before Adam and Eve are created-the notion that God created the sexes equally is mostly indisputable; however, once we get to the creation of Adam and Eve, controversy arises. The mere fact that God creates Adam first and Eve second implies that the male sex is of greater significance because in general, first means superior and last means inferior. Trible argues against this interpretation by focusing on the language of the text. She notes that “the singular word humankind, shows that male and female are not opposite but rather harmonious sexes…From the beginning, the word humankind is synonymous with the phrase ‘male and female,’ though the components of this phrase are not synonymous with each other” (18). This point can be argued because in some versions of the Bible, the word humankind is replaced with “man,” which clearly denotes male dominance. She concludes her argument by stating, “Thus, the vocabulary of humanity in the poem disallows interpretations of the sexes as either antonyms or synonyms. It recognizes distinction within harmony” (18). I find this argument to be weak because actions speak louder than words. The way in which something is written and the pronouns used are not half as important as what actually happens. For example, the way in which God creates Adam and Eve goes above and beyond to support the notion that the male sex was created superior.
When God created Adam, He “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen 2:7). Adam’s creation is extraordinary and required God to use His divine power to form this being. On the other hand, Eve’s creation is less significant: “the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam and he slept: and he took one of his ribs…and made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:21-3). The means by which Eve was created is enough to be extremely suggestive that the woman is inferior to man. To begin with, Eve is a derivative of Adam. She is literally created from the rib (a very small part) of Adam, and thus is dependent on him for life. The words “she was taken out of Man” emphasize this point and indicate that Eve will occupy a place secondary to Adam. There is no suggestion here that woman might be superior or even equal to man after reading this passage. While it is impossible to argue with the written words that woman was taken from man’s rib, Trible challenges the interpretation that man was responsible for woman’s creation. She states that “human life is God’s gift; it is not possession” (81). She believes that for both man and woman, creation is an act of God and that when the man says “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” he is not implying that she is derived from him or subordinate to him. Rather, he is saying that he shares equally with the woman the dust of the ground and the origin of their lives.
If the order in which man and woman came to life and the means by which they were created are not enough to convince you that Genesis is a sexist text, then perhaps we should observe the reason why woman was created in the first place. After putting man on earth, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Gen 2:18). It is only then that God formed every living creature and subsequently woman is created. When God created Adam, He gave him a purpose on earth and tasks to fulfill: “The Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen 2:15). Additionally, “Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him” (Gen:20). It is only at this point-after Adam accomplished his tasks such as naming the creatures of the earth-that Eve is created. Thus, it is obvious that woman is created for the sake of man, merely to cure his loneliness. Trible argues this notion that Eve was created for the sole purpose of being Adam’s helper by discussing the translation of the Hebrew text: “The Hebrew word ezer, rendered here as ‘companion,’ has been traditionally translated as ‘helper’-a translation that is totally misleading because the English word helper suggests an assistant, a subordinate, indeed, an inferior, while the Hebrew word ezer carries no such connotation” (90). Trible’s argument is interesting because one would never know this fact by just reading the King James Version of the Bible. However, I still find that even if Eve were a “companion” she would still be subordinate to Adam because of her role on earth. If it hadn’t been for Adam’s existence (and loneliness), Eve would never have been created; thus, she is produced for the sake of man.
The fourth point I found to be one of the most argumentative in all of Genesis is the naming of Woman. The fact that man names her clearly signifies that he has power over her, which in turn extends to universal male authority. Adam has just finished naming all the other creatures on earth after “God brought them unto [him] to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Gen 2:19). Immediately after Adam names the creatures, he names the woman: “she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man,” (Gen 2:23). The scene where Adam names Eve demonstrates his authority over her in a way similar to that by which he named the animals. While I feel it is obvious that man named woman in this scene, Phyllis Trible rejects this entire notion. Just as she did with the arguments regarding the order in which humankind was created and the purpose for Eve’s existence, Trible focuses on the language of the text to support her argument. zeroes in on the wording of the text: “she shall be called woman” (Gen 2:23). She believes that this does not imply Adam specifically named her, but rather she was to simply be called Woman. She explains that “the verb call by itself does not mean naming; only when joined to the noun name does it become part of a naming formula…Hence, in calling the woman, the man is not establishing power over her but rejoicing in their mutuality” (100). I consider this argument to be particularly weak because she unreasonably discards this scene and generalizes that in order for the man to have named the woman, the wording in the text must be altered. While Trible focuses on the rhetoric, I feel that it is not the wording that is so essential to the text but rather the point that gets across.
The final point that is necessary to discuss in order to fully understand why the Bible is a sexist text is the notion that women are considered to be responsible for the sin in the world. This belief is a result of the story of the Garden of Eden. When Eve is tempted to eat the forbidden fruit and in turn, tempts her husband to eat it as well, fault is placed on Eve and she is portrayed as the cause of humanity’s fall. Both Adam and Eve are punished by God; however, Eve’s punishment is more severe than Adam’s: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen 3:16). Eve is held responsible for the fall of humanity despite Adam’s free will; even though he listened to his wife and ate the forbidden fruit, he was not forced to do so. Obedience is the act of a choice. Why is it that, even though Adam and Eve committed the same crime, Eve is punished with pain during childbirth and submission to her husband? This can only be explained by the fact that male authority is favored in this misogynist text. However, some, such as Trible beg to differ. She believes that, because God curses the serpent (“cursed are you”) and the man (“cursed is the earth because of you”) and not the woman anywhere else in the story, “any claim that Yahweh’s judgement upon her is the most severe of the three falters at this very point” (126). Additionally, she states that “at the same time, the lack of a curse does not mean that she is less responsible than either the serpent or the man-or that she is less a human being than the man” (126). Trible considers Eve’s punishment to be equal to Adam’s and that they are both held accountable for eating the forbidden fruit: “At their trial, the questions of God made clear their individual accountability; similarly, their confessions, although given separately, indicated mutual responsibility. Thus in judgement the woman is neither more nor less responsible than man” (127). If Trible’s perspective is valid, then how can we explain the reasoning behind Eve’s subordinate role to Adam? The answer is we cannot; it takes a perception such as that of Trible to understand the text in a non-sexist way.
By recalling the five scenes I mentioned from Genesis, it is likely that one will perceive them to be obviously misogynistic. However, in order to find the significance behind these scenes, one must relate them to how they affect us now. It is easy to draw parallels between Eve and modern day women due to problems concerning gender equality. Eve is representative of all women because she symbolizes the origin of female inferiority. Although feminist efforts are becoming more and more successful in equalizing gender roles, there has long been discrimination towards the female sex. Not only in the workplace and at home, but the reputation of women has been seen as inferior to that of men. Now that we have analyzed a few crucial points in Genesis, we can draw conclusions as to where and why female inferiority began.
The Holy Bible, King James Version. New York: Penguin Group, 1974.
Trible, Phyllis. God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality. Philadephia: Fortress Press, 1978.