1st Timothy 2:11-14
“Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
You all look really nervous. “What’s he gonna say?” Well it sure would be nice to just avoid verses like this and pretend they aren’t in the Bible, wouldn’t it? So let’s look at Genesis 3! Seriously, I want to get through Genesis 3 and then we’ll get back to 1 Timothy. Let me just read it to you again, and I’m going to read my own translation (side note – Hebrew distinguishes between you singular and you all, or y’all, plural, so I will make that distinction):
“Now the snake was more crafty than every living thing of the field which Yahweh, God, made. And he said to the woman, “Has God really said ‘Y’all shall not eat from any tree of the garden?’” And the woman said to the snake, “From the fruit of trees of the garden we may eat. But from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden God said, ‘Y’all shall not eat from it and y’all shall not touch it, lest y’all shall die.’” And the snake said to the woman, “Y’all will not surely die. For God knows that on the day of y’all’s eating from it y’all’s eyes will be opened and y’all will be like God, one who knows good and evil.” And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was desirable to the eyes and the tree was desirable for causing prudence and she took from its fruit and she ate. And she gave also to her husband with her and he ate. And the eyes of both of them were opened and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed together leaves of a fig tree and they made loin-coverings for themselves. And they heard the voice of Yahweh, God, going about in the garden in the wind of the day. And the man and his wife hid from the face of Yahweh, God, in the midst of the trees of the garden. And Yahweh, God, called to the man, and he said to him “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you so as not to eat from it?” And the man said, “The woman, she who you put with me, she gave to me from the tree and I ate.” And Yahweh, God, said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The snake deceived me and I ate.” And Yahweh, God, said to the snake, “Because you have done this, cursed are you from every beast and from every living thing of the field. Upon your belly you shall go and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. And I will set enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring. He will bruise your head and you will bruise his heel.” To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains and your pregnancy; in pain you will bear children. And to your husband will be your longing and he will have dominion over you.” And to the man he said, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife and you ate from the tree that I commanded you saying, ‘You shall not eat from it’, cursed is the ground on account of you. In toil y’all will eat all the days of y’all’s life. And thorn and thistles it will grow for you. And you shall eat herbs of the field. In sweat of your nose will you eat bread until you are returning to the ground, for from it you were taken, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And the man called the name of his wife Eve because she was mother of all life. And Yahweh, God, made for the man and his wife tunics of skin and clothed them. And Yahweh, God, said, “Behold! The man has become like one from us, knowing good and evil. And now lest he stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever.” And Yahweh, God, expelled him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground, which he was taken from there. And he drove the man away and he placed Cherubim and the flame of the whirling sword to guard the path of the tree of life from the East to the Garden of Eden.”
I really wish I could be more interactive with this. Like, “what do you think of when you hear this story?” Obviously, we all have our different interpretations of the Bible. We all think about Scripture differently and we inevitably all interpret this story in particular differently. But let me point out some major things that, traditionally, we get from this story. And then I’m going to challenge them. It’s gonna be fun, y’all.
Traditionally, Christianity has identified the “serpent” or “snake” with Satan, or the devil. This makes sense when you think about it. This episode with the serpent is the first example in the Biblical record of temptation, which leads to sin. This is a classic Christian understanding of the role of Satan, which is derived from some 1stcentury Jewish ideas about Satan. In the Hebrew Bible, however, “Satan” is a developing character. “Satan” is a Hebrew word meaning “accuser”, and this figure that shows up in places such as Job has the title “ha-satan”, or “the accuser”. This figure is not the devil as we conceive of it, but more like a heavenly prosecutor – hardly identifiable with the paradigmatic evil temptation artist we think him to be. There is certainly nothing wrong with reading the serpent in the story as Satan, but there is also nothing wrong with reading it as just a regular old snake. The Bible does not call this snake “Satan”, and those who first started telling this story more than likely had no concept of “Satan” – the idea that there is a supernatural evil being constantly in conflict with a supernatural good being (God vs. Satan) is something that is borrowed from Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion that was picked up by Israelites in Diaspora under Persian rule. In other words, the earliest Israelites did not believe in Satan. Satan comes later.
A lot of the things we believe about the Bible have similar stories – the beliefs we have now weren’t always held by the Israelites. These beliefs developed over time. For example, while the Bible mostly advocates following Yahweh and only Yahweh, it isn’t always the case that the Israelites thought Yahweh was the only God in existence – just the only God they should follow. Over time, the idea that Yahweh is the God of the Israelites and the only God to be worshipped developed into the idea that there simply were no other gods – only Yahweh was true God of all the earth. So, the Israelites were not always true monotheists. Although, they were always adamant that they should follow no god but Yahweh.
That beliefs develop over time is just as true of Christianity as it was of ancient Judaism. Sometimes we can get stuck thinking that what we believe is simply what Christians have always believed since the time of Jesus, and this isn’t necessarily the case. As a Restorationist tradition, the Disciples stand in the line of tradition that tries to reclaim or “restore” the New Testament church. The truth is, the New Testament church (if one can speak of a unified early church) looks a lot different from the church today, and probably would not even be considered “Christian” by today’s standards. But I’m off topic – we should move on in our story.
Next we have this really interesting exchange between the snake and the woman (it’s not Eve yet!). The snake asks, “Has God really said you (plural) shall not eat from any tree of the garden?” Of course, this is not what God has said, so the woman responds, “From the fruit of trees of the garden we may eat. But from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden God said, ‘You (plural) shall not eat from it and you (plural) shall not touch it, lest you (plural) shall die.’” Now, this is not what God has said either. Earlier in Genesis 2, God says, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it; for on the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” Not only is there nothing about touching the tree – God says this to the man, and the man alone (note the difference between the singular and the plural ‘you’). The woman has not yet been created. So whatever the woman is quoting, she did not hear it from God, unless God repeated the commandment to her. She probably heard it from the man. Phyllis Tribble has one interesting way of dealing with this – she draws on the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘adam’ – which generally means “human being”. We translate ‘ha-adam’ throughout this story as “the man”, because we contrast it with ‘ishah’ (woman). ‘Ish’ and ‘ishah’ mean “husband/man” and “wife/woman”, respectively, but ‘adam’ can also be used to refer to a man. Tribble suggests that when ‘ha-adam’ was created, this was an androgynous human being, neither male nor female, and it is only when the woman was taken out of ha-adam that there was a differentiation of the sexes. Thus, when God gives the commandment to ‘ha-adam’, both the man and the woman contained within ha-adam received that commandment, and so the singular ‘you’ has now become plural. Given this understanding, both the man and the woman were created at the same time. This does not have to be the way we read this story, but it can be read this way. In either case, it is perfectly okay for the man or the woman to touch the tree, so long as they don’t eat from it. The woman has misinterpreted God’s commandment, and oh how so very often do we do that?
The next part of this story is important. When I was a kid, the story was told to me this way – Eve has the conversation with the snake, the snake tempts Eve, and Eve falls for it and takes some fruit from the tree and eats. She then takes some fruit with her back to Adam (who was off by himself) and gives it to him to eat, which he does, not knowing where the fruit came from. And I’m thinking “Noooo! Don’t eat it! It’s not just normal fruit!” And then I got really mad at Eve because I knew that it wasn’t really Adam’s fault that he ate from the tree – he didn’t know any better. Now, that’s the way I remember it as a kid; that’s the way I interpreted this story; that’s the way it was communicated to me. In fact, my boss at the museum where I work knew I was working on this sermon, and he gave me an “illustrated book of Genesis” to use, which combines the text with graphic drawings. As I was reading Genesis 3 in this book, I noticed that the artist made the exact same interpretive move – the woman and the snake are alone for their conversation, the woman takes some fruit from the tree and eats, and then she brings some back to the man, wherever he was, and gives some to him to eat. It is the woman’s fault – the man didn’t know any better.
This understanding of the story has led to some very prominent church fathers saying some things that, well, I’ll let you judge for yourself – Tertullian says: “In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die.” Ambrose: “Adam was deceived by Eve, not Eve by Adam… it is right that he whom that woman induced to sin should assume the role of guide lest he fall again through feminine instability.” Augustine: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.”
It goes without saying that these attitudes are extremely harmful and, by the way, extremely inaccurate. These are the kinds of attitudes that develop when we see Eve as the “paradigmatic woman” and when we place all the blame for the disobedience that happened in the garden on her head. When we make Eve out to be a temptress, we encourage these kinds of destructive attitudes toward valued human beings who are, despite the assertions of St. Augustine, bearers of the image of God. While we may not be able to escape making Eve the “paradigmatic woman” in our biblical tradition, allow me to offer a reinterpretation of this story that more accurately reflects the actions and intentions of both the woman and the man.
What I was not told when I was a kid, and what the church fathers and the artist behind the illustrated book of Genesis missed, is the fact that the man was not absent when the woman was talking with the snake. The man was not absent when she got fruit from the tree. On the contrary, the Hebrew says that “she gave also to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.” And when you think about it, why wouldn’t he be there? For the rest of the story, they are together. Now, I admit, the Hebrew particle ima, ‘with her’, does not come while she is talking to the snake. The man is not even mentioned while she is talking to the snake (except in the plural “you”). But neither does the Bible say that she took the fruit and went to where her husband was and gave it to him. It says that she took the fruit and gave some also to her husband, who was with her. I see no reason not to assume that the man was standing next to her the whole time she was having this conversation with the snake (and, in fact, this makes the man look better, since he is not just willfully disobeying God by eating the fruit but was also deceived by the snake in the same way the woman was).
So why does the snake speak to the woman instead of the man? It seems like we can come up with a whole slew of reasons, but one thing is for sure – it is not because the woman is somehow less intelligent, more naïve, more prone to disobedience, etc. than the man. For if the man was also there, he could easily have contributed his own opinion on the situation. Instead, she is the one that engages in dialogue with the snake. She is the one who asserts God’s position on the matter. She is the one doing the thinking, considering the benefits of eating from the fruit of the tree – Phyllis Tribble calls her “the first theologian”. The man does nothing. The man just stands there. The man does not act, except that he also eats of the fruit, and folks, no matter which way you slice it, he knows full well where that fruit came from. He is not an innocent victim of the woman’s deceit. He is fully complicit in the disobedience.
But, of course, he would have us believe otherwise. When God goes looking for him and accuses him (and him alone) of eating from the tree, he starts pointing fingers! And who does he blame? Not just the woman! “The woman, who you put with me, she gave to me from the tree and I ate.” The man blames God. Lucky for him, God seems to overlook this statement, and questions the woman. She also plays the blame game, but at least she places the blame where it actually lies. “The snake deceived me and I ate.” She does not say, “The snake, which you put with us, deceived me.” It is not the man’s fault. It is not the woman’s fault. It is not God’s fault. It is the snake’s fault. But, in some sense, it is also both the man and the woman’s fault, is it not? They chose to listen to the snake instead of listening to God. That was their “sin”. It was not that the woman deceived the man. It was that both the man and the woman put their trust in something other than God.
But that’s not the end of this story. There are consequences. Now, here is where Christianity traditionally gets a major component of its theology. You all have probably heard it before. It’s called the doctrine of original sin, or “the Fall”. It’s the idea that what Adam and Eve did in the garden unleashed “sin” upon the world, so that from then on humanity has been, by nature, sinful. Some people understand this as an inclination to sin, while others understand that sin is like a disease that is inherited from one generation to the next – some medieval thinkers even thought it was biological (passed from parents to child through intercourse). The point at which Adam and Eve eat from the tree is the point at which humanity “falls” from some perfect, sinless state into the state we observe today. The consequences that God imposes in these next couple of verses are a direct result of this fallen state. According to this doctrine, they have become a part of our fallen state so that, just like our proclivity to sin, they cannot be altered.
But, that’s not what the Bible says. The Bible doesn’t even mention “sin” in this story. What happens to the man and woman when they eat from the tree? They lose their innocence. They become self-aware of their actions. They are filled with “the knowledge of good and evil”. Folks, this is one of the reasons I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Because what the composers of this story recognized is that what fundamentally separates humans from other animals is that we have the ability to evaluate our actions. We know when we are doing something right or when we are doing wrong (for the most part). My dog knew he was breaking the rules when he snuck some of the cat’s food, and he would act all sneaky and avoid eye contact when he would do it. He knew we didn’t want him eating the cat food and that there could be consequences if he ate it. But he didn’t know why it was wrong to eat the cat food. As far as I know, he never questioned the morality of his actions. But this is what happened to the man and the woman when they ate from the tree. All of the sudden, they “became like God”, knowing good and evil. It was not their actions or their instincts that changed – it was their knowledge. All of the sudden, we have a greater responsibility, because we know better – and boy were we not ready for it.
So what comes next is not part and parcel of some “fallen state”. What comes next are consequences for disobedience. They should not be understood as the way things are supposed to be, but a distortion of the way things are supposed to be. So, when God says to the woman, “your longing will be for your husband and he will have dominion over you”, this is not a reflection of divinely ordered creation. When God says to both, “in toil you (plural) will eat all the days of your life”, this is not a reflection of divinely ordered creation. Women are not meant to be subject to their husbands. People are notmeant to toil for their food. These are consequences for disobedience, consequences which are not present in the Kingdom of God. So if we are working to bring about the reign of God here on earth, if we are in any way interested in preparing the way for the Kingdom, these things no longer apply to us. We have painkillers to ease the pain of childbirth. Men should not have dominion over women. Food is not scarce – we have enough to feed 9 billion people (the population of the world is around 7 billion) – but it must be distributed equitably. Finally, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have hope that we shall not simply return to dust when all is said and done.
But we can’t ever go back to not knowing good and evil. We can’t go back to the Garden of Eden. All we can do is look forward to the Kingdom of God. All we can do is live up to the responsibility that knowing good and evil entails, and Jesus gives us a way to do this. Jesus shows us how, in his life and teachings, we can take our knowledge of good and evil, which is like God’s, and act on it like God. Of course, we are not God. But neither are we that man and woman who, so long ago, had their eyes opened and realized they were naked. We’ve come a long way. We’ve matured. And we have Christ.
Now all of this, too, is an interpretation of what the Bible says. Like the church fathers, it reads the text a certain way and adds things that aren’t there. It pays attention to some parts more than others. I have not given you the right way to read this text. There is no rightway to read the Bible. Everyone reads the Bible differently – how can there be just one right way? I’ll be honest with you, we don’t even know what the “original” text of the Bible was. This story was transmitted orally over countless generations before it was written down. And it was copied for countless generations after that. My translation is from the earliest copy of the Hebrew text we have – it’s just over 1000 years old (that’s 1000 years after Jesus). Point being – you really can’t say with any confidence how the original composer of the story meant for it to be understood. So there is no one rightinterpretation of the text. That said, there are many right interpretations of the text, and I would argue there are many wrong ways of interpreting this text. 1 Timothy 2:12-14 is just such a wrong interpretation.
Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, drew on St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of natural law when he made the distinction between just and unjust laws. He says a just law is one that squares with the natural law, and an unjust one does not. In other words, a just law is one that uplifts human personality, and an unjust law is one that degrades it. We might use King’s distinctions to similarly determine whether an interpretation of Scripture is right or wrong. In practice, does it do more harm to human persons than good? Does it in any way deny the recognition of the image of God in human persons? Is it reflective of the love of God and love of neighbor that Christ so earnestly advocated?
In my humble opinion, the author of 1 Timothy provides an interpretation of Genesis 3 that does not uplift human personality. The problem with this particular interpretation is that it is also Scripture. What do we do with it?
I’ll answer that with a question. Is it absolutely necessary that everything the New Testament writers wrote be without fault? Is it necessary that what they wrote to particular church communities should be universally applicable? Could it be, perhaps, that the truth of the text of 1 Timothy 2:14-16 is that this kind of interpretation leaves a bad taste in our mouths and forces us to look for other, more faithful ways of interpreting Genesis 3?
Or should we even keep 1 Timothy in the canon? It has a lot of good stuff in it, but with such polemic against women, it cannot be held up as perfectly infallible. That might sound like heresy to you, but Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, had absolutely no problem with throwing entire books of the Bible out of the canon. The Catholic Bible has eight more books in its Old Testament than ours, plus parts of Esther and Daniel that we don’t have. The Greek Orthodox Bible has even more books in its canon. I actually think we should keep 1 Timothy, but we should continue to read it critically. We cannot accept blindly that “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor”, because our Hebrew text tells us otherwise. What other things in the Bible have we been reading uncritically that perhaps warrants closer examination and deeper understanding?
Folks, this book has been used for many, many different purposes. In the Book of Eli, the antagonist of the movie is searching for a Bible after a nuclear war has left the world in shambles, lacking civilization. He realizes how powerful this book is, and he wants to use it for his own advantage. There is no doubt that our Scriptures have been used to justify torture, war, mass murder, slavery, genocide, sexism, racism, classism – all sorts of things we recognize as unspeakable evils, contrary to the core message of Christianity, which is Christ. So we need to be very careful about how we read this text.
Eve was not a temptress. She was not a deceiver. It was not she who beguiled the man in the garden. She is not somehow less imago Dei than the man. She is not a temple built over a sewer, she is not the devil’s gateway, she is not misbegotten man. She is not weak, frail, impatient, feeble, and foolish.
Eve was the first theologian. She was a tragic heroine. It was both she and the man who were deceived in the garden. She is the bearer of the divine image, a temple for the very Spirit of God. She is fully human in her own right. She is strong, spirited, persevering, dynamic, and intelligent. And she deserves to be heard.