Unpack Your Bags, Stay a While

So, I wrote some about the Garden of Eden story and Eve’s choices on Monday; needless to say, this story has a lot of heavy baggage for people.  Thanks to some truly unhelpful and uninspired readings of the text, many people have, for many centuries, walked away with narratives about woman as evil, bad, temptress.  Man as duped. 

(This might be a good time to also note that the doctrine of Original Sin isn’t a Jewish thing. Maybe it is a powerful cornerstone of your own faith. I am not going to argue with you, there are lots of powerful readings of lots of things, but it’s not how Jews read this text, in any case.)

Adam and Eve in the garden, she's handing him an apple while the snake looks on.
Speaking of baggage, let’s talk about the assumption that Adam and Eve were white and reflected late 19th c. Russian ideals of beauty, shall we? (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1873)

Everyone, it seems, blames the woman in this story—but if you read it carefully, God doesn’t, particularly. 

God explicitly blames the serpent, saying, “Because you did this….” you’ll be cursed and have to crawl on your belly, and then doles out punishments to everyone, but God doesn't explicitly blame the woman.  She gets a consequence, sure--Adam, Eve, and the snake all get one--but God doesn’t name her as being specifically at fault.  Adam and Eve get consequences, of course:  

“I will make most severe your pain in childbearing; In pain shall you bear children.”


”Cursed be the ground because of you; By pain shall you eat of it All the days of your life: Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field;By the sweat of your brow Shall you get bread to eat, Until you return to the ground.” 

Notably, the word that gets translated so often as “pangs” of childbirth, by “toil” you shall eat of the ground are actually slight variations of the same word—etzev, connected to words of toil, pain, sadness, the word for the nerve in your body, etc. Adam and Eve are given parallel punishments in so many ways.

Dr. Carol Meyers argues that, as Iron age Israelites settled in hilly areas, farming and agriculture took a quantum leap, with cisterns that allowed the preservation of water.  Her reading of the Eden story was that it was a device to help people to understand the hardship of working the land and need for children--as more people were needed to work the land, despite the difficulties of both childbirth and agricultural labor. 

We can certainly see the story’s emphasis on food, to be sure—its ease of acquisition in the Garden of Eden, its difficulty after Adam and Eve get the boot, and even its use as the vehicle of enlightenment driving the plot. Sustenance was not an abstract or theoretical concern, here.  

So often our deeper needs are right there, manifest, in the stories that we tell.  The ways that we try to bring ourselves to where we need to be--as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations.  

So maybe we need to ask:

  • What needs have the various interpretations of the Garden of Eden stories fulfilled? 

  • Who have they served?  Who have they harmed? What other ways can we tell this story?

  • What are the stories that we tell now? Like, right now—in our media, in our culture? As individuals, communities, as cultures, countries?  Who do they serve?  Who do they harm? 

  • How can we see our deeper needs met by these stories—the ones in these Torah texts, and the ones in our larger cultural narratives today? In ways that are healing, nourishing, life-giving?

So, this is some of how we do Thursday—discussion space, jamming perhaps in a more collective version of hevruta, as we call it in my tradition—iron sharpens iron, no fire ignites by itself. Usually it’s paired study and discussion. Here it’s something more organic. Reply here, join the conversation, share what you think about all, or any of this.

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