When I was a senior in high school, I invited one of my classmates to my house so we could do our homework together. He was the son of the pastor at the church down the street, across town from the church my family attended. When we finished our assigned reading, he sexually assaulted me. Afterward, as he adjusted his pants, he launched into a mini-sermon about the Garden of Eden, the biblical paradise where man and woman were first created. As he left my bedroom, he called me an Eve, with anger dripping from his voice; as he saw it, I was a jezebel and a temptress, my mere presence a threat to his purity and his devotion to Christ. My version of this story mirrored his version for a long time because I didn’t have the language to tell a different one. I’d been taught that my body didn’t really belong to me; it belonged to God and someday my husband, so I believed that what the pastor’s son did was my fault. By inviting him into my room, I had dangled the “forbidden fruit” from the origin story of Adam and Eve in front of him.
The most familiar version of the Adam and Eve tale is depicted in the King James Bible, and it goes a little something like this: God created Adam in his own image. When Adam became lonely, God pulled out one of Adam’s ribs and used it to create Eve, Adam’s perfect companion. They lived in Eden, a lush and abundant garden containing everything they could possibly need. The trees were fruitful, and they could eat from all of them, except one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree only appears in two verses in the Bible, Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 2:17, and neither offer a clear definition of the tree. Without really saying why, God simply tells the two humans its fruit is off limits: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Still, Adam and Eve lived happily, until a devilish serpent charmed Eve into taking a bite of that forbidden fruit. When Adam waltzed over, Eve convinced him to try it as well. With those two bites, Adam and Eve committed an unforgivable sin against God, who banished them from Eden and cursed their descendants with mortality, the suffering of hard work, and painful childbearing.
The story has long been used as a warning about what can happen when one questions their place in the world. It teaches us that the woman who dares disobey God is the monster, and the serpent that seduced her into eating the forbidden fruit is a close second. But if God didn’t want Adam and Eve to eat the fruit, why make the tree at all? Eve’s punishment for becoming aware of her place in the world is death. But it’s not an immediate death; it’s a slow and miserable journey that’s speckled with her own menstrual blood. It’s a reminder to the oppressed to think hard before challenging their oppressors because the consequences may well be dire. In order to understand oppression, there must be death—the world as you know it shrivels away as you form a new understanding of how systems work. Patriarchy thrives on our lack of awareness of its existence, and despite the pain that skepticism can bring, it’s also vital to reimagining and fighting for a better world. In a world that is rife with atrocity, casting a light on the monsters who run the place and make its rules will rightfully shatter the illusion of paradise.
Revisiting Old Monsters and Creating New Ones
Theologians have long debated the meaning and significance of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Jacob Milgrom, an American Jewish biblical scholar, believes the tree symbolizes sexual awareness, as he wrote in a 1994 article for Bible Review. Others, such as C. John Collins, an Old Testament professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, consider the origin story as related to our understanding of mortality, while American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna has written about the possibility that the tree of knowledge is an oblique reference to using psychedelics. But theological debates aside, we know the tree ultimately represents sin leading to some kind of awakening. Eve’s sin was disobeying God’s command, not asking permission of her male counterpart, and exercising her autonomy. The Bible was a product of patriarchy, not the other way around: Women were born into a world where the pain of menstruation, childbirth, infertility, and subservience already existed. The men who wrote and translated the Bible simply used stories like the one told in Genesis to justify the world they’d already created.
Jennifer Bird, a biblical studies professor at the University of Portland, keeps this understanding in perspective when considering Eve’s treatment in Genesis. “The storytellers were aware that women tend not to be afraid of being curious, intellectually or [otherwise], and while it sometimes gets us in hot water, it also leads to some pretty cool developments,” Bird says. “This way of looking at Eve explains why the serpent engaged her instead of Adam in this conversation. She’s intellectually curious. She can reason things out. She’s brave enough to lead us into full human awareness. It’s pretty mind-blowing to go from believing this is what God intended to realizing this is what a bunch of men wrote to justify [an established patriarchy].” After all, Adam is just as aware as Eve of the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, and though he’s expelled from Eden with the companion God made for him, he isn’t cursed with perpetual suffering for his sin. Instead he’s just thrown out of Eden, resigned to eating bread and tilling the land rather than enjoying the fruit trees. In this way, the death of Eden is also the birth of male privilege.
Eden has long been a central metaphor for women’s place in the world, one that’s exemplified by an ongoing cultural and political debate about reproductive healthcare. A literal interpretation of the story of Eden would lead readers to conclude that every menstrual cycle and birth—from the beginning of time until the end—needs to be excruciating in order to appease God and pay for Eve’s sins. Even a nonliteral interpretation reads as a cautionary tale: In Genesis 3:16, God doles out his punishment to Eve by pronouncing, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” That latter part of the verse tends to get lost when religious scholars and followers of religion discuss Eve’s curse, but it’s still the part we have grasped on to most tightly. He shall rule over thee. Six men and three women currently sit on the Supreme Court, and on July 8, 2020, all six of those men and Elena Kagan voted to allow employers to opt out of covering birth control due to religious or moral objection.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in dissent, with Ginsburg writing, “Today, for the first time, the court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree.” Birth control is expensive, and the court’s decision may force many to forgo the medication for financial reasons, which is another example of how those in power have chipped away at our ability to have full control over our bodies. The pain is the point. We’re left in this perpetual loop, continuing to carry the weight of Eve’s sin. Before epidurals hit the scene in the early 1900s, science and medicine had advanced enough to make childbirth less painful. However, the patriarchy, hell-bent on perpetual suffering for Eve’s sins, largely denied any relief for childbearing. In 1591 in Scotland, Euphanie Macalyane was suffering through a painful birth when she asked the midwife to give her something for relief. When King James VI heard about Macalyane’s request, he ordered her to be burned alive as a warning to other expectant mothers and sent a pamphlet out to doctors that read, “To all seeming, Satan wishes to help suffering women, but the upshot will be the collapse of society, for the fear of the Lord which depends upon the petitions of the afflicted will be destroyed.” Macalyane’s desire to know a different world, to experience her body in a different way, had fatal consequences.
When the use of chloroform during childbirth became more widely accepted in the mid-1800s, one obstetrician said women would now be given the choice between “pain and poison.” James Simpson, who pioneered this anaesthetic use of chloroform in 1847, used the Bible to justify its use during labor: If God had put Adam to sleep in order to remove one of his ribs and create Eve, wouldn’t the use of anaesthesia be an acceptable form of pain relief? If we look at the Bible as a collection of myths, then the origin story explains the reasoning for the double standard. Martin Luther, the founder of Lutheranism, said mothers were lucky to “gloriously suffer,” but glorious suffering came to be seen as a redemption and was compared to the suffering of Jesus Christ at the end of his life. Jesus suffered in order to redeem the sins of Christians, and Christians suffered in order to redeem the sins of Eve. According to his letters, Luther believed childbirth was a way for women to grow spiritually and become closer to God. Even if a woman were to die giving birth, Luther said she was lucky to do so as it would be the will of God.
“Trust joyfully in his will, and let him have his way with you. Work with all your might to bring forth the child,” he wrote in 1522. “Should it mean your death, then depart happily, for you will die in a noble deed and in subservience to God.” Women willing to do that glorious suffering are virtuous, while those who choose not to are often shamed or looked down on by the church. In 1962, Gianna Beretta Molla developed a tumor in her uterus during her fourth pregnancy. She refused the hysterectomy and abortion recommended to her by doctors and asked for a solution that would save her baby. Molla’s baby lived, but she died of an infection transmitted during her child’s birth; in 2004, she was canonized as Saint Gianna Beretta Molla. Gratitude for suffering is one of the sharpest tools the patriarchy wields against us. It’s a way of gaslighting the oppressed into believing their suffering isn’t really suffering at all. If pain is glorious, powerful, and righteous, why should we question it? Indeed, Luther even implied that men should be jealous that women are able to have these experiences with God: They are lucky to experience such trauma and should be grateful for the suffering.
The men at the top, the patriarchs in the sky, they aren’t coming to set us free. It’s the snakes, the fruit, the trees, and each other that will.
Eve, the Misunderstood Martyr
Lara Plecas, who was raised by two minister parents, used to blame her period cramps on Eve. The story of Eden contextualized her experience of becoming a woman and colored her ideas about power. “Growing up, I definitely felt as though [being married and staying in the home] is what it meant to be a woman of God,” she says. “[Eve] didn’t listen to her husband, and look at what happened.” As Plecas grew older, feminism became a new lens with which to see and understand religion, a lens that reinscribed Eve as a misunderstood, scapegoated biblical figure. Plecas subscribed to a daily email affirmation about Eve and began to see the woman blamed for mankind’s fall as graceful, strong, and honest. And she saw herself as both a woman of God and a powerful woman, even outside the home. Plecas now sees the serpent as the evil character in the biblical origin story, while Bird reiterates that it was God—not the serpent—who deceived Eve. As more women have begun both challenging and leaving religion, or trying to reconcile their faith with their political commitments, Eve has emerged as a modern feminist symbol, an example of how complicated it is to exist as a woman in patriarchy’s paradise.
Some theologians believe Eve wasn’t Adam’s first wife: Genesis 1:27 alludes to a first wife also created from the mud and in God’s own image—in other words, an equal to Adam. Jewish literature identifies her as Lilith; she lived in the garden but refused to be subservient to Adam. When she left the Garden of Eden, Lilith became a demon who inflicted pain on women and children, and God created Adam’s new companion from his rib so that they could never be equals. Some stories even hypothesize that Lilith may have been the serpent, tempting Eve to open her eyes to the truth of the garden. A companion for Adam who is forced into subordination is imperative for the biblical creation story. If this is the rule book, then an example has to be made: disobey or question the word of God and suffer the consequences. “Why has the Christian tradition persisted in reading the story of Adam and Eve in ways that are to women’s detriment: misogyny, sexism, the fear that women really are powerful so they must be kept down?” asks Bird. Over the years, as my relationship to religion has changed and my belief in a Christian god has dissipated, I’ve found myself wondering about Eve.
She strikes me as a character deserving of so much more depth, a curious and rebellious young woman who was willing to test her place in the world in order to dream of a better one. Even in paradise, she knew something was being kept from her, and she was willing to break the illusion of satisfaction in complacency. It was ingrained in me that my painful periods were her fault, but I wonder if my desire for liberation from a heteronormative, white patriarchy didn’t also start with her. Eventually, I gained an understanding about what happened to me in my room with the pastor’s son. It was painful, but being able to name and condemn that behavior was so much more freeing than living with an untruthful story. Naming our monsters means questioning our place in their world. Patriarchy leads us to believe the men at the top can save us, but that’s an illusion meant to keep us underneath them. The men at the top, the patriarchs in the sky, they aren’t coming to set us free. It’s the snakes, the fruit, the trees, and each other that will.