The stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah are the first two accounts of a detailed male-female relationship in Genesis. These stories set the tone for not only heterosexual relationships, but also for the role of women for the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. These stories serve a prominent part in Judeo-Christian religions. Because of this, it is crucial to flesh out the inconsistencies and stereotypes embedded in the original work and scholarly interpretations. Women of the Hebrew Scripture often have their identity formed in relation to the man, literally and figuratively. They take on negative and limiting characteristics, which serve to depict female figures as one-sided. The portrayal of women in the Hebrew Scriptures, notably Eve and Sarah, is a reflection of socialized stereotypes of women as temptresses, mothers, submissive “tent-wives” and “helpers” to their male counterparts. It is essential to break stereotypes and grant Eve and Sarah much more credit than they usually receive in mainstream interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures.
The story of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:4-3:24) is one of the most prominent and important biblical stories. The story of the fall of humanity is most often characterized by a disdain of the first woman, Eve. As God’s first woman of earth, Eve sets the tone for all future women to come. The way the Genesis story is written and the manner it is interpreted has very profound impacts on the way women are viewed in religious and secular contexts. The portrayal of Eve as a “temptress” and evil was often not made directly from the scripture itself, but rather a result of societal predispositions to represent women in such a manner. An actual reading of the Garden of Eden story does not present Eve in such a negative light. The serpent visits Eve in the garden and presses her to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. To the first advance, Eve reiterates what God said in defense. But the serpent presses her again and persuasively states “you will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). The serpent is very cunning and uses God to sway Eve. The serpent’s main influential argument consists of becoming more “like God,” which would be very appealing to a couple of devout disciples. Eve is ultimately tricked and eats the fruit in Genesis 3:6 which reads, “she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” The language used in the scripture does not describe Eve as wicked. All the text actually says about Eve is that she simply shared the fruit with her male counterpart who was in near proximity. According to the text, both woman and man disobey God. The Genesis narrative does not detail Eve lying or deceiving Adam with extensive rhetoric, like the serpent did to her.
The popular interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden however, results in an extremely negative depiction of Eve as evil and a temptress. It is founded upon the notion that Eve is the ultimate source of evil and brought not only man, but humankind as well, down. The so-called “temptation” and comparison to the serpent that woman represents in the fall is much more a result of gender stereotypes than actually rooted in scripture. Past scholars, like William Henry Bennett, have suggested that the serpent tempting Eve is similar to Eve tempting Adam later on. Bennett wrote the New Century Bible in 1875, complete with notes to complement the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. He writes, “The process in the man's case was no doubt the same as that just described, the woman taking the place of the serpent.” This interpretation compares Eve to the serpent, while man remains relatively innocent. The parallel between Eve and the serpent reinforces the societal notion that women are seen as an evil and corruptive force. Jean Higgins writes of this parallel stating in her article The Myth of Eve: The Temptress, “It is hard to see there a reasonable parallel to the Eve-Adam relationship described in the next half-verse, ‘and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate’ (3:6b). To make it a parallel requires extensive filling in of what is not in the text.” While the story of Adam and Eve is often extended to portray Eve as an evil temptress, this is a reflection not of Hebrew Scripture, but rather of playing into normalized gender stereotypes. The negative view of Eve as a “temptress” is a social construct, not directly from the scripture itself, but rather reflects commenters own gender biases. Women have consistently been viewed as master seducers, which amounts to a general stereotype that is easily extended to female biblical figures. The major characterization of Eve as a temptress is not grounded in a true reading of the creation story, but rather a product of gender labels ingrained into the society with which scholars were a part of.
The relationship between Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis not only portrays and represents God’s children and creation, but also defines Western views of gender, morality, and human nature. Adam and Eve represent the fundamental symbols for all of humanity, and while both individuals were created in the image and likeness of God, their relationship as a couple illustrates a hierarchy between the dominant male and submissive female. Even though Eve was created in God’s image, she was created second from the bone and flesh of Adam. This secondary state demonstrates the inferior nature of Eve and her role to serve the needs of Adam over her own needs as an individual. This patriarchal relationship is further highlighted in scripture after the Fall from grace, where God states, “in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3.16). God’s punishment for Eve established the hierarchical role of the male as dominant head, and women as the subservient house makers and child bearers. In this sense, Eve is portrayed as a weak counterpart to Adam, serving a sexual role for reproduction and companionship. This idea raises a paradox of gender roles in scripture. While Adam and Eve share an equal partnership in the image and likeness of God and share dominion over creation in the first books of Genesis, this idea of “partnership” takes on a different connotation in Genesis 3 where the female was created as a “helper” or companion to Adam instead of as his equal. This idea of Eve as a “helper” instead of a “partner” illustrates the hierarchy in her relationship with Adam, and shows that Eve’s true purpose is to serve and “help” her male counterpart as opposed to both individuals serving each other as a couple. This idea overall highlights the patriarchal structure of relationships in scripture, and demonstrates the stereotypical weakness and inferiority placed on women in comparison to the dominant role of the male counterpart.
In relation to the paradox of Adam and Eve’s relationship, Dorothy Durkee Miller’s article, “Eve,” paints the character of Eve as a “compliment” to Adam. Eve represents the “weaker vessel” in the relationship, yet her grace and beauty serve as “instruments for man’s salvation.” Miller describes Eve as a significant figure in relation to both Adam and God. Although Eve represents the inferior figure in the patriarchal relationship with Adam, “she too is made in the image of God and his partner in an ideal relationship established by Him.” Miller explains that while Adam has superiority over Eve, the two share equal obligations to respect and honor God, and to carry out his request to tend and rule over God’s creations. Eve serves as the companion to Adam, and through her grace and beauty, “Adam was saved from despair, and, even more significantly, through woman came the means of man’s salvation.” After creating Adam, God realized the significance of creating a companion for him to complete him, serve him, and strengthen his “God-like elements.” In this sense, Eve was created solely for Adam to serve his needs, and bring order and harmony to their relationship in order to follow in the likeness of God. Although Eve is an “addition” and not an equal companion, Eve is a necessary addition for Adam’s happiness. Miller justifies the hierarchal relationship between Adam and Eve by both figures having specific roles in the partnership, and having “a golden dependence of headship and subjection in which fulfillment of function is more important than subjection.” While Adam and Eve each have mutual obligations towards God, Adam’s wisdom and strength are superior to Eve’s tenderness and grace. Overall, Miller demonstrates the complementary roles Adam and Eve have for each other and for God through their patriarchal relationship. Miller’s interpretation of Adam and Eve’s “complementary” relationship further shows the contradiction of gender roles in Scripture. While Eve “compliments” Adam, she is also a servant to her male counterpart in a sexual and spiritual way, and loses a sense of individuality by being created as a “compliment” or “addition” to man instead of an “equal” to man. Although Eve has a more submissive role in the relationship, her “complimentary” role serves as an important portrayal of hierarchy and inferiority of women in the Bible.
The other female figure, Sarah, additionally demonstrates the submissive role of women in Scripture. An example of the dismissal of Sarah’s rights can be found in the killing of her own son. An example of the dismissal of Sarah’s rights can be found in the killing of her own son. In his work “The Matriarch as Model: Sarah, the Cult of the Saints, and Social Control in a Syriac Homily of Pseudo-Ephrem,” scholar David Eastman attempts to explore Sarah’s role in the Bible through the workings of a pseudonymous author. The author found Sarah to be the perfect example of an obedient female at the time, telling readers: “And you, oh listeners, should therefore follow Sarah’s example by surrendering your pious urges to the control of the authoritative male voices in your own contexts.” Sarah was not permitted to watch her own son die, or even be aware that the killing was happening. It is said that when Sarah asked Abraham why he was sharpening his knife to kill something, he responded “curtly, ‘This secret today women cannot be aware of.’” Sarah was so lowly regarded by the society she lived in that she was not informed her son was to be sacrificed. As the story tells, Sarah “was not able to travel to the site of [Isaac's] death or even to leave home, because her husband had forbidden it,” despite her asking to accompany Abraham and Isaac on their journey. Instead, she “hands Isaac over to Abraham and waits at home for Abraham to come back,” without their son.
Her absence correlates directly with gender roles during the time, as women during this time were not permitted to leave their house without a guardian, for ‘”women were thought by men in antiquity to pose the danger of sexual temptation, and often faced the threat of sexual assault themselves.”’ The large majority of females at this time were not shown the same respect men were, forcing them to be obedient and submissive to orders given to them by males. Even if they were to leave the house with a “male companion and remain sexually pure, the ‘sights and sounds of the unseemly’ would still stain her.” At the end of his research, Eastman agreed Sarah’s “activities are also restricted by the voice of Abraham, and she willingly concedes.” Her frequent silence in the Bible ends up speaking volumes to women’s roles during the time.
However, Yannai, a sixth century poet, challenged this notion of Sarah as a silent obedient bystander. Much about Yannai is still unknown, as almost all of his work was lost in the Middle Ages, although it is assumed he came from somewhere in Byzantine Palestine. In “All About Sarah: Questions of Gender in Yannai’s Poems on Sarah’s (And Abraham’s) Barrenness, Ophir Münz-Manor investigates these Hebrew liturgical poems left by Yannai to uncover a different side of Sarah which breaks traditional gender roles. Münz-Manor argues that in the Bible, “Paul explicitly identifies Sarah with the barren woman,” particularly in Isaiah 54:1. Yannai also appreciates typical gender roles of the time, such as Sarah’s upsetness when she could not conceive a child, causing her to say: “I wish I had never been born / since I was halted.” This relates back to childbearing as a woman’s main job, for if she is not able to conceive a child, is her life even worth living?
However, Yannai provides a spin on Sarah’s infamous famous infertility, looking at the situation from Sarah’s point of viewing, instead wondering “whether indeed she is the barren one...or if Abraham is indeed the infertile partner.” This point of view is a breakthrough, as never is it mentioned in the Bible that Abraham may be the infertile one opposed to Sarah. No longer is she depicted as a barren woman whose husband has a child with their slave, but rather a woman with knowledge. Yannai also credits Sarah with the plan for Abraham to conceive a child with Hagar, as seen through Sarah’s dialogue: “Peace and calmness / will not come to my pious man [Abraham] / until there will be an end to my jealousy / until my wish will be fulfilled.” While it may originally appear that Sarah “failed” at her main job of being a woman, having a child, you are able to see that in secret, she ruled over Abraham and made decisions. She is more intellectual than Scripture gives her credit for, leading us to wonder how much collective memory accounts for the Bible as the writers of the Bible were male. Since men wrote the Bible, it would come as no surprise that collective history remembers events from a male’s perspective.
While Sarah may see herself personally as capable, intelligent, independent, and important, the male dominated social structure of the society in which she lives still perceives her as being introverted, obedient, motherly and submissive, solely because she is a woman. This view of Sarah in Scripture and thus women in general in Scripture, is portrayed in Don Seeman’s journal article, "Where Is Sarah Your Wife?". In this article, Seeman highlights how during this time period in Scripture there was a lot of emphasis on the “tent” and a man a woman’s place in relation to their tent. The inside of the tent was seen as an “overwhelmingly female space in Genesis” because women “frequently appear inside tents.” This view of women being seen only inside the tent further solidifies the patriarchal social structure view of woman being obedient, submissive, and “properly removed from” the exchanges being held outside the tent. By having the role of the woman be inside of the tent it also illustrates the characteristic that women are introverted, if it goes against their gender norm to leave their tent to explore and communicate at high levels with others then they will not have the experience and confidence to become extroverted. The men’s place in scripture is not so limited; while men may “pitch tents or enter them as guests,” they usually spend most of their time outside the tent. They are “confined to the field, the outside, or the tent opening.”This freedom to roam feeds this patriarchal view of man being seen as the leader and doer of his family. Thus this example of gender roles in Scripture relating to the tent is a perfect example of the deep-rooted beliefs of the roles of man and woman in Scripture.
Seeman goes on to say that “Sarah and Abraham are the first example of this tent paradigm.” This example of male versus female roles around the tent is demonstrated when Sarah and Abraham have three strange visitors arrive at their tent. When the three men arrive Abraham is startled and runs into the tent to tell Sarah to stay in and near the tent, disengaged from the guests, in order to “knead and make cakes” for their unexpected guests (Genesis 18:6). When Abraham greets his guests they ask, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Abraham quickly responds saying, “behold, in the tent” (Genesis 18:9) This very clear depiction of Abraham, the male, getting to communicate and be outside the tent and Sarah, the female, being told to stay in and near the tent away from the guests to prepare food for them further illustrates the gender roles of man and woman in Scripture. Also, by these three men asking Abraham where his wife is, it almost sounds like they are questioning whether or not he has control over his wife. Because Sarah is a woman she is supposed to stay deep in the tent. However, these three men see her in the doorway or opening of the tent, typically a male occupied spot, where Abraham cannot see her and that is why they ask Abraham if he really knows exactly where his wife is. Thus, this further illustrates how, from the male perspective in scripture, the role of the female was a less prominent one. It was their job to stay in the tent, cook, and rear children. While these are hardly small tasks to complete, they were completed less forcefully and more in the background and thus were not given the credit the deserved. We see the importance of a woman rearing children in this story because the purpose of the three men coming to the tent is to tell Sarah that next year she will bear a son. Thus, the ability for women to be able to bear children is seen as the one of the most positive attributes associated with their gender. Overall, the gender roles of Abraham and Sarah portrayed in Scripture are in line with the traditional social structure views of that time; the woman is submissive and below man in the social hierarchy with her best attribute being a child bearer while man is above woman in the social hierarchy and is the powerful controller and doer.
Overall, the stories of Adam and Eve and Sarah and Abraham detail some of the stereotypes, inconsistencies, and paradoxes associated with the role of women in Scripture. Women in the Bible represent the submissive or weaker role in the hierarchical relationship with their male counterparts. The stories of Eve and Sarah demonstrate this patriarchal structure, and show the paradox that while both men and women were created in the image and likeness of God, in relation to their male counterparts, they play a more introverted and subservient role whether through tending to household duties or bearing children. Scripture is often viewed as a male-dominant or male-favoring, and women often receive negative connotations or attributes. Eve is often blamed for the Fall from grace and served as an evil “temptress” who seduced Adam to betray God’s word. In comparison, Scripture belittles Sarah and demonstrates that her sole purpose is to tend to the household and raise children. While raising children is hardly a small task it is belittled in Scripture because it is seen as a more background task. Scripture and its interpretation illustrate the weakness and negative outlook on women, however when examining women through their perspective, women play as equally important role as their male counterparts both in their relationship with men and following obligations to God. This male-dominated bias in the Bible leads to misinterpretations of women and their roles, and shows that women in Scripture should gain more respect and be interpreted as originally intended—equal in the eyes of God.
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