In every sermon and Sunday School lesson about Genesis 3, Eve was always the antagonist of the story. She was the one who disobeyed God, who communicated with the serpent, and who convinced Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. She’s the reason shame befell the human race and the reason God kicked them both out of the garden.
But what if Eve wasn’t the bad guy, so to speak?
What happens if we come back to this text with fresh eyes and a different hermeneutic?
That’s exactly what Samantha Field asked us to do in her breakout session during the Q Christian Fellowship conference.
Samantha presented the idea of queering hermeneutics with three main principles:
Both/And — there are rarely binaries, even when the text seems to present two contradicting concepts. For example, God is both alpha and omega. Where can we interrupt the idea of binaries in the text?
Instability and disruption — how can we view the text through a lens of disrupting systems of oppression? How can this text be used to subvert, for example, cisheteronormativity or the kyriarchy?
Playing the trickster — sometimes the initial, “obvious” interpretation of the text should be turned upside down. What happens if we call good, evil and evil, good? What can be seen in the text when we flip the script?
She gave a few examples, but quickly turned us loose in groups to practice using these principles on a given passage. My group** ended up with Genesis 3, although our interpretation encompasses most of Genesis 2 as well.
Almost everything I’m about to write contradicts what I was taught growing up.
Returning to the Text — Our Interpretation
With the creation of the world, God also created hierarchy. This is inherent to any system in which an all-powerful Being creates autonomous life — those created are automatically subservient to their creator because they do not possess equal knowledge or skills. Thus, Adam and Eve were thrust into a system of power imbalance.
God also created the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The existence of the Tree of Life tells us one of two things: either Adam and Eve were not created immortal and needed to eat the fruit of the tree to become immortal, or they were created immortal but had to continually eat the fruit in order to stay that way.
Adam and Eve were given one rule — do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, Adam was given the rule before Eve was actually created, and it is assumed that he passed it on to Eve. (Unless being created from Adam’s rib automatically gave Eve all the knowledge he possessed as well, but that’s a bit of a stretch.) The consequence of breaking this rule was dire. To quote the NRSV, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” God told them that eating the fruit of this tree would kill them “in the day” that they ate it. God was not threatening the decay and eventual death of their bodies, but a sudden and immediate death as soon as they broke the rules.
We can’t know for sure what kind of knowledge Adam and Eve had before eating the fruit, but it was obviously limited. Otherwise, the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would have been irrelevant.
This put the humans in quite a predicament. God was asking them to choose between a life of mediocre, limited knowledge or death. To choose between life under a hierarchy of power differential or death. Their ability to learn and grow was being restricted under penalty of death by a creator who had never, up to this point in the narrative, claimed to love them. God called them “very good,” but this only indicates that God was pleased with the handiwork of what had been created, not that God felt any particular way towards them.
Enter the serpent. For unknown reasons, he questioned Eve about what God had told her regarding the fruit. Eve’s answer was a bit of an exaggeration, but since she wasn’t alive when God made the original statement, it’s possible that she was simply repeating what Adam had told her. There’s no evidence to suggest that she willfully lied about the commandment.
The serpent, however, challenges God’s statement that eating the fruit would kill the humans. He claims that God doesn’t want them to eat of it because it would cause their eyes to be opened to the knowledge of good and evil — the same knowledge that God possesses. “You will be like God,” he hisses. “You will not die.”
Eve becomes the heroine of the story when she resolves to call God’s bluff. She decides that obtaining the knowledge of good and evil is worth the risk of death; that she doesn’t want to live under God’s thumb, unable to fully understand the world in which she resides.
Eve rebelled against the hierarchy God had created and led Adam to do the same. As they ate the fruit, Genesis affirms that the serpent had told them the truth — “the eyes of both were opened,” just as he said would happen.
When their eyes were opened, Adam and Eve more fully understood their own nakedness, so they covered themselves. They hid from God because their nakedness caused them to be afraid. This makes sense, of course. They had just violated the only command God had given them, but with their newfound knowledge, they understood that the vulnerability represented by their nakedness was no longer something they wished to share with the God who had attempted to restrict their lives.
Their clothing was not about shame. Adam and Eve were not ashamed of their nakedness, but fearful of a God who could easily overpower them. They finally fully understood the world, on a level that was “like God,” and they knew that their most private and intimate parts were not safe in God’s presence.
Eve is forced to bear the brunt of the blame. God is angered that the humans have attained the same level of knowledge and curses their existence. As punishment for leading the rebellion against the hierarchy, God extends it even further, placing Eve under the rule of Adam.
God also banished them from the garden. The knowledge Adam and Eve obtained from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil combined with the immortality from the Tree of Life would have practically turned them into gods. This was a clear threat to God’s power, so the humans were sent away to suffer the consequences of their curses and eventually die.
However, Eve did manage to prove that God was a liar. No one died the day they ate the fruit, which is what God originally threatened. Eve also successfully challenged the power structure under which she was forced to live, despite being brutally punished for doing so.
Eve is both victor and victim.
She shows us that power structures are worth disrupting even if God is the one instituting them.
She turns on its head the idea that a woman lured man into sin and instead challenges us with the idea that a woman led man into all knowledge.
When we queer our hermeneutic, Genesis 2-3 becomes a story about a powerful woman who decided that death was better than a life in subservience to an oppressive force.