Monday, August 30, 2010

Women, Subordination, and Knowledge in Genesis

As Professor Mikics points out, in Genesis 3, the woman does indeed take the lead in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil, and the man follows her. And though this act will eventually lead to the woman’s dependence upon and subordination to the man, I would like to round out this portrait of their marriage by looking at the woman’s disobedience from a slightly different angle.

It is the woman, under the suggestive influence of the cunning serpent, who eats and shares the fruit that then opens the eyes of both human creatures. If our deepest human desires are embodied in the two forbidden trees—those desires for knowledge and for immortality—then it is the woman who, in reaching first for the fruit of knowledge, helps begin to fulfill that first desire. It is she who gives knowledge to the man, and by extension to humankind. Further, though this disobedience will get them both kicked out of the garden of Eden, it is only in the world of thorn and thistle that the man and the woman—now called Adam and Eve—can bear children, fulfilling that command that God had given the male and female in Genesis 1 to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it.”

Eve may be a precursor to some of the other wives we will meet in Genesis—women who, despite their subordinate and dependent positions, manage through shrewd and crafty means, to preserve that fragile seed, which, though often troublesome and occasionally in need of wiping out, will eventually become God’s Chosen People, numberless as dust.

—Kim Meyer


  1. I've always wondered about this "knowledge" of good and evil. Of what evil is there knowledge in a world created "good," as God says of his handiwork in Chapter 1? The serpent is "cunning," but not said to be "evil." So is there real "knowledge"—i.e., cognitive content—imparted by eating of the fruit, or is it rather that the act of eating it—in defiance of God—creates the first evil of which they are then made aware? In other words, rather than learning about the evil things in the world—the existence of which has not been established at all—they learn to know themselves as agents of evil.

    The serpent tells them that eating of the fruit will make them "as gods, knowing good and evil" (Genesis 3:5-6). But God doesn't say that, nor does he point to the evil of which they will have any knowledge. All we know is that once they eat of it, they realize they are naked!

    Richard Armstrong

  2. An interesting comment from the Jewish scholar and thinker Martin Buber on the scene in the Garden:

    "Man--caught up in demonry, which the narrator symbolizes for us with his web of play and dream--withdrew at once both from the will of God and from his protection and, without realizing what he was doing, nevertheless with this deed, unrealized by his understanding, caused the latent opposites to break out at the most dangerous point, that of the world's closest proximity to God."

  3. Here is the wrestler parable mentioned in lecture from Bereishit (Genesis) Rabbah 22:9 (tr. Maurice Simon, Soncino Press)--
    (this parable may date from around 500 CE, though it's hard to be sure)

    R. Simeon b. Yohai said: It is difficult to say this thing, and the mouth cannot utter it plainly. Think of two athletes wrestling before the king; had the king wished, he could have separated them. But he did not so desire, and one overcame the other and killed him, he [the victim] crying out [before he died], "Let my cause be pleaded before the king!" Even so, THE VOICE OF THY BROTHER'S BLOOD CRIES OUT AGAINST ME. [substituting _alai_ for _elai_, "against me" for "to me"]

  4. On the question of the disadvantage endured by women, raised in the curse given to the woman in 4:7:

    "for your man shall be your longing,
    And he shall rule over you."

    Does this "rule" refer just to the fact that the woman desires and longs for the man (as she has not done until now)? If something more is meant, what sort of "rule" is being referred to here? As Profesor Meyer pointed out, the women of Genesis often outsmart and overrule the men, and seem to be rewarded for doing so. (See the Judah-Tamar episode, for one; but there are many others.) I can't think of an instance in which a female character is punished because she refused to be "ruled" by her husband or father.

  5. The trangressive act in many myths becomes the necessary event for the formation of the human, and of affirming a crucial tension between the human and the divine. Throughout Genesis, it appears that the one who does what they are not supposed to, the one who deceives, the one who displays cunning rules the day, forms a community. The divine in Genesis may wish to keep the human from becoming god-like, but any number of characters rewrite what God has provided. Fun.