Eve's Fault

It was a delight to the eyes, according to the biblical account, the forbidden fruit that the Lord dangled in front of his prize newbies in the Garden of Eden. And that was how William Blake rendered it in his depiction of the scene for a series of illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam stands mesmerized beneath the tree of knowledge, staring up at the iridescent orbs hanging like Christmas ornaments from its boughs. The Lord has commanded Adam not to eat the fruit of this tree lest he die. But the serpent, introduced as the "subtlest" of God’s creatures, has other ideas. He tells Eve the fruit will make her like God, knowing good and evil. But since she has as yet no such knowledge, she does not realize the serpent is up to no good. In Blake’s illustration, Eve is turned away from Adam, with the serpent coiled suggestively around her naked torso. She is about to bite into the fruit that the serpent holds for her in his jaws. The illustration is entitled “The Temptation and Fall of Eve,” but as interpreted by Blake, the scene is more nearly a seduction.

According to Christian tradition, eating the forbidden fruit was the original sin and Eve the original sinner. Adam was likewise condemned for having gone along with his wife, and the serpent also took his lumps for instigating the whole thing. But from the beginning, Eve was singled out for blame, starting with her husband, who complained that she had given him the fruit to eat. He also reminded his Maker in so many words that none of this would have happened if he had not brought the woman into his life in the first place. For her transgression, the Lord told Eve, “In pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

But was Eve primarily at fault? Certainly she shared some of the blame. But she wasn’t even around when the Lord commanded Adam not to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge. And lacking any knowledge of good and evil, she was ill-equipped to resist the subtlest of God’s creatures when he was working his wiles on her. Adam, who was the only one present when God issued his edict, apparently just stood by when the serpent was making his pitch. Nor did he refuse when Eve offered him a bite of the forbidden fruit. Then there was the serpent that masterminded the entire episode, to say nothing of God himself, who had more to do with it than just bringing Eve into the picture. He also planted a tree in the midst of the garden that was a delight to the eyes and good for food, then commanded the man not to eat from it – an obvious incitement to misadventure. So was Eve really the perpetrator here or just the patsy?

The keepers of the faith, whether rabbis or church fathers – and, yes, they were all men – have not been kind to poor Eve. St. Paul advised that women should not be allowed to teach or exercise authority over men, explaining that “Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” Eve was often portrayed as a temptress, even though she was more nearly the victim of seduction. “You are the Devil’s gateway,” wrote the early Christian polemicist Tertullian in urging women to dress modestly. “You are the unsealer of that tree; you are the first forsaker of the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not brave enough to approach; you so lightly crushed the image of God, the man Adam.” Ambrose, a fourth-century bishop in Milan, summed up the case against Eve this way: “The woman, therefore, is the originator of the man’s wrongdoing, not the man of the woman’s.” 

It was not just that Eve was responsible for Adam’s downfall, as well as her own, but she also brought about the downfall of everyone else. According to the doctrine of original sin, first promulgated by St. Augustine in the fourth century, Eve’s transgression was like a congenital disease transmitted to the entire human race. Accordingly, succeeding generations of women were condemned to bear children in pain as punishment for Eve’s disobedience. In 1591, Lady Euframe MacAlyane was burned as a witch in Scotland for having asked a midwife to give her analgesics to relieve her labor pains, which was regarded as contrary to the will of God. Church leaders and even a leading medical journal disapproved of Queen Victoria’s use of chloroform during the delivery of her eighth child in 1853. However, Victoria pronounced herself “satisfied” with her experience, which effectively ended discussion of the issue.

Careful readers of the biblical account will be hard-pressed to find any hint that all women should be punished for Eve’s shortcomings, even assuming that the story is taken literally. Granted, standards of justice could be fairly harsh in those days. Yet Scripture clearly states that “the son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” – a standard that presumably applies to women as well as to men. It is a gross libel upon God’s good name to suggest he would condemn countless generations of women to undeserved agony and possible death in childbirth merely because their ancestor had filched some fruit. If there is indeed a transgression that unaccountably persists from generation to generation, it is the sin of misogyny, which is all the more heinous because it is falsely attributed to God.

1 Timothy 2:11-14
Ezekiel 18:20

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