When we were children, we saw pictures of Adam and Eve in religion class and in our children’s bibles. Their faces always looked serenely blank; they were always naked and standing in a garden, and sometimes Eve was reaching for an apple that hung from a tree, or looking at a serpent.
They were shown as sweet, simple people, and the pictures did nothing to portray the horror of what happened after Eve listened to that serpent and tasted that apple. Because of Eve, we learned, humans were kicked out of God’s beautiful garden. Because of her, we are all tainted with the stain of original sin. Even little tiny babies who look so pure and sweet are tainted and sinful. Worst of all? We all are going to get sick and die. Ourselves, our parents and families and friends, everyone.
All because of Eve.
The story of Adam and Eve is not just a simple bible story. It’s the foundation of the Catholic church’s history of misogyny and persecution of women. Because the Catholic belief system forms the underlayment for Western civilization’s beliefs about women, everything would be different for women in at least half the world if this one single story were different.
So why isn’t it?
Given that the older myths from which the Adam and Eve myth was constructed do not present woman as the source of sin, why head off in this new direction? Why build a belief system around the concepts that, as Joseph Campbell noted in The Power of Myth, woman is the cause of sin, and woman is responsible for humanity’s fall from paradise?
The historical context of Adam and Eve
As Merlin Stone writes in When God Was A Woman, the great event that led to the writing of much of the Old Testament was the invasion of the Near and Middle East (including the modern-day countries of Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran) by European tribes, beginning around 2,400 BCE and lasting for at least a thousand years. These invading tribes were warriors who brought with them their male god and their male priests. They invaded and conquered territory that was occupied by less warlike agricultural tribes who worshipped a female god.
Under the old religion, women owned property, held positions of status, and were respected in their societies. Lineage was matriarchal, and female sexuality and fertility were revered.
The religion of the conquerors was very different. Lineage was patriarchal, and women had the status of livestock.
Beliefs and stories
To establish their culture as dominant, the invaders needed to stamp out the old goddess religion, along with its beliefs. But how to convince the people in these new lands to accept a new god, and to adopt new beliefs? These new beliefs included the inferiority of women and the superiority of men; the sexual depravity of women, which needed to be closely controlled; and the requirement that women submit to the authority of men. How would they get people to accept that women were no longer equals, but were now property?
The answer was to create stories to teach and justify these new beliefs, beginning with the story of Adam and Eve - which was based on earlier myths of Eve and a serpent in a magic garden. These earlier myths were present throughout Middle East civilizations for thousands of years before the arrival of the invaders. In these older myths, Eve is a goddess and the serpent provides prophetic counsel and wisdom. And in these older myths, man and woman were created simultaneously, as equals, by the Goddess.
The Adam and Eve story, as we all know, presents Adam as created first, and in God’s image, while Eve was created later, from Adam’s rib. This change in the myth was critical because it justified the claim that according to God, women were less, a mere companion for man and not equal to man. Man was the image of God, not woman.
Eve is also presented in this new version as weak and seductive, as needing to be controlled by man to prevent more mischief and more damage. In case anyone missed how much damage Eve did because of her female nature, the new story of Adam and Eve includes God explicitly condemning all men to a life of toil because Adam listened to Eve. God also relegated all women to being owned by their husbands because of Eve’s acts. And lest anyone feel sympathy for women because of the pain and very real danger of dying in childbirth, the new story presents these realities not as tragedy, not as worthy of sympathy, but as fair and just punishment handed down by God because of Eve’s sin.
Laws and punishment
The second strategy used by the invaders to destroy the old religion and its empowerment of women was to create and enforce a series of strict laws and dire consequences that would force women to accept their new subjugation. Wives could be discarded for any reason (Deut 24:1); women could be killed for sexual ‘crimes’ such as adultery or having sex before they were married (Deut 22:20 – 22, Lev 21:9); married or betrothed women who were raped would be killed along with their rapist (Deut 22:23 - 25).
Along with laws to subjugate women, there were also directives to prevent followers of the new God from abandoning his harsh religion and choosing the Goddess instead. The penalty for even suggesting that the Goddess might be a better fit was death (Deut 13:6). If inhabitants of a town were found to have abandoned the worship of God in favor of the Goddess, all the inhabitants of that town were to be killed (Deut 13:15).
A religious solution to a political problem
The adoption of the new patriarchal system worked, and wealth and power were transferred from people exclusively to men. Eventually, women started believing the stories they were taught about their status. But the transition wasn’t easy. People resisted; the struggle to stamp out the old religion took a couple thousand years of burning and stoning people, mostly women. It’s not hard to imagine why - what woman who tasted the freedom and respect of the old system would accept a God who took away all her rights as a human being?
It’s still political
Which brings us back to today’s question: Why build a belief system around the concept that woman is less than man? That woman is the source of sin? That woman is the cause of humanity’s fall from paradise?
The answer is simple. This belief system was a political strategy to support the subjugation of a conquered population, and to facilitate the transfer of power and wealth from women to men.
If we look at the stories and beliefs we were taught in this light, it’s easier to see how the story of Adam and Eve, along with everything else we were taught about ourselves, serves this same political purpose. Equal but different? Complementarity? Feminine genius? It’s all a continuation of the ancient political strategy, and the goal is the same: to continue to make us believe that because we are women, we are less. So that we continue to accept that it’s ordained by God that men have power, status and wealth, and women don't.