There was no sin in the Garden. Through eating the forbidden fruit, Eve became life's channel – bringing within the sphere of the human all that for good and for ill, life represents.

by Mary Phil Korsak


Biblical interpretation has often connected Eve's transgression with sin and death. In the second century B.C.E., Ben Sirach commented:

From a woman sin had its beginning
and because of her we all die (Sir 25,24).

From Paul onwards, Christian theology has enlarged on this them

Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Tim 2,14)

and the accusations aimed at a malignant Eve have not stopped since....
          Today, however, feminists are trying to check or challenge this trend: claiming that Eve has been maligned, they are opening up new perspectives for discussion.
          As a Bible scholar and translator who has spent many years with the Hebrew text of Genesis in an attempt to produce a fresh rendering in English, I wish to draw attention to certain textual implications concerning Eve, that merit consideration. This article will highlight certain words, their etymology and context, to propose a different portrait of Eve.

          The purpose of my work with the Hebrew text of Genesis, devoting days or weeks to the translation of each word, was to produce a translation that captures the formal qualities of the text and thus to convey something of its poetry to the English reader. The new version is entitled At the start... Genesis made new. Listening to commentaries on Genesis, after plunging into the text in this way, sometimes proves perplexing.
          This past year, for instance, I attended two lectures on Adam and Eve by Hebrew scholars, both university-level teachers, who on these two occasions were addressing public audiences. The first lecturer spent a great deal of time talking about the apple that was not there. The non-existent apple was an illustration of how ill-founded textual interpretation can survive and flourish independently of the original text. It served as a light introduction to another absentee: the first lecturer said that there was no sin in the garden of Eden. Personally I heartily agreed with him, but most of the audience reacted differently: this statement caused a mild uproar. People got up and claimed their faith was being attacked, that the "felix culpa" was a necessary precursor of the redeemer and so on.... Feeling ran high, and the lecturer got a bit left out, while members of the audience made public declarations about their beliefs.
          The second lecturer, on the other hand, dwelt at length on the nature of sin in the garden. The analysis of Ricoeur was invoked to develop a picture of sin in three dimensions. The sin of the woman was said to be stupidity: in this she represents all humankind (not only womankind). The sin of the man lay in his bad decision-making. The serpent was said to symbolize that part of the human being which escapes our control. In the summary, the serpent, the man and the woman were seen to represent three relationships to sin: the serpent that part of us which is victim, the man that part of us which is responsible, the woman that part of us which is guilty.
          The declared subject of my article is Eve and the accusation levelled at her of having brought sin and death into the world. Has she been maligned? The freeing of the garden from sin, effected by my first speaker, would seem to suggest so. Is she guilty, though not alone in her responsibility, of introducing the evil of sin into the world? The second speaker defended this interpretation. To clarify the matter, I wish to turn to the early chapters of Genesis, where Eve is to be found.
          I would like to invite you to broach the text as you would a literary masterpiece, rather than as an object for historical analysis, to listen to it, as you might listen to a piece of music, to be aware of its wholeness and to be receptive to its suggestiveness: I will allot myself the role of music-lover, who wishes to share what she hears. If, in the end, you feel that there is a possible shift of emphasis from the importance of being to the importance of becoming, from an absorption with right and wrong to a celebration of growth, our time will not have been wasted. My concern will be to follow Eve, observing her as she comes to be, and so setting her free of judgmental definitions that lock her in a given position.
          I wish to explore the first five chapters of Genesis from divine creation (Gen 1 and 2) to human pro-creation, as recorded of Adam's breed (Gen 5). Repetitions and reminiscences lead the listener backward and forward through the text as the different parts relate to the whole: the movements of this piece of music do not follow on one another in an unbroken line of continuity. Each movement has a new beginning and an ending of its own. Each movement has a different center of interest, a different context, a different tonality. Eve, if I may steal a march on the text by giving her this name, appears in one form or another in each of the first three movements.
          The first movement is a grand overture. The days of creation crescendo to a climax on the sixth day, before falling away to stillness on the seventh. There are two leit-motifs here. Elohim creates by separating, "light" from "darkness", heavenly "waters" from earth's "waters", "earth" from "seas", "day" from "night". In the second motif all forms of life created by Elohim are fertile: plants, trees, water creatures, flying things. On the sixth day, Elohim makes a human, adam, different from other living creatures: it is specifically described as being in Elohim's "image" and "likeness". The sexual nature of ha-adam, "the human" is explicitly mentioned: "the human" is zachar u neqeva, "male and female". Male and female are potentially fertile but at this stage they do not appear to be separated. Referring to the human couple, the text switches from "them" to "it" and back to "them" again. Some commentators conclude that ha-adam is androgynous. The human, male and female, is, are instructed to be fruitful, to subject the earth, to govern other creatures and to enjoy a vegetarian diet. Here is a first glimpse of a future Eve. She is the female side of ha-adam.

          Elohim said
          We will make a groundling (adam)
          in our image, after our likeness
          Let them govern the fish of the sea
          the fowl of the skies, the cattle, all the earth
          every creeper that creeps on the earth
          Elohim created the groundling in his image
          created it in the image of Elohim
          male and female created them
          Elohim blessed them
          Elohim said to them
          Be fruitful, increase, fill the earth, subject it
          Govern the fish of the sea, the fowl of the skies
          every beast that creeps on the earth
          Elohim said, Here I give you
          all plants seeding seed upon the face of all the earth
          and every tree with tree-fruit in it seeding seed
          It shall be for you for eating
          And for every beast of the earth
          for every fowl of the skies
          for all that creeps on the earth with living soul in it
          all green of plants for eating
          It was so
          Elohim saw all he had made Here! it was very good
          It was evening, it was morning
          The sixth day (Gen 1,26-31)

It is noteworthy that, until it is given as a proper name to the father of Seth and his descendents in chapter 4, verse 25:

          Adam knew his woman again
          She bred a son
          She called his name Seth (Gen 4,25)

ha-adam remains a generic term. It applies to the human couple. That is why in 3,23, for instance, I translate the pronoun for ha-adam by "it" and not "him":

           HWH Elohim sent it away from the garden of Eden
          to serve the ground from which it was taken (Gen 3,23)

In cases where ha-adam refers to the male alone, careful observation shows that "the woman" is always mentioned. The expression ha-adam v ishto, "the groundling and his woman" in 2,25, to quote one instance, is comparable to the phrase "the bear and its mate", in which the female is as fully "bear" as the male:

          The two of them were naked
          the groundling and his woman
          they were not ashamed (Gen 2,25)

           The second movement of my so-called symphony begins with the second account of creation in chapter 2, verse 4, and ends with chapter 3, verse 24, when ha-adam is expelled from the garden. The central theme of this movement is the garden in Eden and what occurs there.
          Verses 21-23 of chapter 2 describe how Elohim takes a side from ha-adam and builds it into woman. Though the creative act is not explicitly described as an act of separation, (the verb badal, "to separate", which appears five times in chapter 1, is not used), there is a reminiscence here of the separation of light from darkness, earth from seas, day from night. The zachar u neqeva, male and female of chapter 1, 26-28 appear to be united. In chapter 2 they are separated from one another and receive new names, ish and isha, man and woman:

         YHWH Elohim made a swoon fall upon the groundling
          it slept
          He took one of its sides
          and closed up the flesh in its place
          YHWH Elohim built the side
          he had taken from the groundling into woman
          He brought her to the groundling
          The groundling said
          This one this time
          is bone from my bone
          flesh from my flesh
          This one shall be called wo-man
          for from man
          she has been taken this one (Gen 2,21-23)

As in chapter 1, when the couples "light and darkness, etc..." are created, no witness is present. In chapter 1, Elohim is alone. In chapter 2, ha-adam is in a comatose state, tardema, "torpor" or "swoon": it is asleep. Like the separated couples of chapter 1, ish and isha, man and woman, are similar and dissimilar. Like them, they are close to one another and, at the same time, they strain apart in a state of tension that is characteristic of life in general and of the human couple in particular.
          At language level, the sameness of the couple is expressed in the common syllable ish, found in ish and isha, "man" and "wo-man". The odd syllable in isha, "wo-man", expresses their difference. "Wo-man" is also said to be negdo, "the counterpart" of ha-adam (Gen 2,18.20). The root neged expresses proximity and opposition. Here, in the differentiated form of a "woman", confronting her partner "man", is a second glimpse of Eve. Thanks to her appearance, ish, man, recognizes his own identity. Although tradition has often taught otherwise, there is no mention of "man" as a potentially independent human being before this point in the text.

          Presented first as the female aspect of the human being, second as "wo-man", the counterpart of "man", Eve emerges from anonymous womanhood as a complete human being in chapter 3. She speaks (albeit with a serpent), she invents (by adding the words "you shall not touch" to Elohim's injunction: "you shall not eat"), she desires (the fruit of the tree), she chooses (between the serpent's suggestion and Elohim's command), she acts on her choice (by taking and eating) and then gives the fruit to her man:
The woman said to the serpent

          We will eat the fruit of the trees of the garden
          but of the fruit of the tree
          in the middle of the garden, Elohim said
          You shall not eat of it, you shall not touch it
          lest you die
          The serpent said to the woman
          Die! you shall not die
          No, Elohim knows that the day you eat of it
          your eyes will be opened
          and you will be as Elohim knowing good and bad

          The woman saw that the tree was good for eating
          yes, an allurement to the eyes
          and that the tree was attractive to get insight
          She took of its fruit and ate
          She also gave to her man with her and he ate (Gen 3,2-6)

Her giving of food recalls the giving of food by Elohim to ha-adam in 1,29: "Here I give you... all plants... and every tree. It shall be for you for eating".
          The woman takes the initiative, her man follows her in eating. Together they become aware of their nakedness, cover themselves, and hide. They hide. Where? In the tree in the middle of the garden:

          They heard the voice of YHWH Elohim
          walking in the garden in the breeze of the day
          The groundling and his woman hid from YHWH Elohim
          in the middle of the tree of the garden (Gen 3,8)

I will come back to the tree later.
        Eve's initiative brings about a change of context from the symbolic world of the garden to the real world such as we know it, with its alienation from God, and the fear and insecurity that accompany self-awareness and self-determination. The change that occurs is marked by a transformation of the status of serpent, woman and man. The talking serpent is reduced to an ordinary serpent. The woman knows birth-pangs and her husband's ruling. ha-adam must toil to procure food and enters the cycle of life and death. The listener realizes that the text so far has involved a looking backward from the vantage point of everyday reality to the imaginary world of myth. In the symbolic world, the woman played a key role. At this point in the story, at the brink that divides the symbolic from the real, Eve is given her name by ha-adam. The Hebrew text reads:

          The groundling called his woman's name Life (Eve)
          for she is the mother of all that lives (Gen 3,20)

The wordplay between hawwa and hay is vital to a correct reading of the text. It is usually understood from translations that Eve receives her name because she is the mother of humankind. In The Revised Standard Version, for instance, Genesis 3,20 reads: "The man called his wife's name Eve because she was the mother of all living". As the wordplay on hawwa and hay is relegated to a footnote, the reader naturally puts the stress on the word "mother". The text does not say, however, that "she was the mother of all living" but that "she was the mother of all living". The root hava, from which Eve's name derives, is cognate with the root haya, with its derivation hay. Both roots connote living, the first in the sense of dwelling, the second in the sense of being alive. However, it is the sound of the words that makes an impact here on the listener. The assonance between hawwa and hay suggests a link at the level of meaning. Translators of the "Buber School" convey this by calling Eve "Leben" (Buber and Rosensweig, 1930), "Vive" (Flegg, 1946), "Vivante" (Chouraqui, 1982), "Life-Giver" (Fox 1983), "Life" (Korsak, 1991). The main point of verse 3,20 is Eve's connection with Life. Only secondarily, but very suitably, can she be considered the mother of humankind.
         It is argued here that the appellations, hawwa, mother of hay, connect Eve with the symbolic world of the garden, in which the central reality is the tree grown by YHWH Elohim among "all trees attractive to see and good for eating". The tree is first presented as ets ha-hayim, the "tree of life":

          YHWH Elohim made sprout from the ground
          all trees attractive to see and good for eating
          the tree of life in the middle of the garden
          and the tree of the knowing of good and bad (Gen 2,9)

hawwa, hay, ha-hayim: the assonance of these words points to the woman/life/tree-of-life relationship.
        It has been shown that Eve plays a key role in the scene with the serpent in chapter 3. The central reality around which the action turns is the tree, first described in chapter 3 as "the tree in the middle of the garden". This tree is at the heart of the woman-serpent discussion. It is also the center of the woman's activity. Eve takes and eats of the fruit of the tree. An examination of the nature of the tree reveals the nature of Eve's act. In Genesis 2,9, three things are said of the tree: it is the tree of life, the tree in the middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowing of good and bad. In Genesis 2,17, YHWH Elohim says of the tree of the knowing of good and bad:

          on the day you eat of it
          die! you shall die (Gen 2,17)

This tree is also the tree of death.
        If the symbolic nature of the tree is decoded, the message reads as follows: by eating of the fruit of the tree, Eve becomes life's channel bringing within the sphere of human experience all that life represents for good and bad. The gift of life is attended by its concomitant, death. The only aspect of life denied the human being is life forever, again symbolized by the tree of life, this time guarded by "the Cherubim and the scorching, turning sword":

          He cast out the groundling
          and made dwell east of the garden of Eden
          the Cherubim and the scorching, turning sword
          to keep the road to the tree of life (Gen 3,24)

Here is a third picture of Eve. First female, then woman, she is here perceived as fully human: she plays a role in human destiny and receives a personal name.
          The name Eve not only points backward to the symbolic world: it also points forward to the real world. In the symbolic world, Eve eats of the tree of life. In the real world she will hand life on by giving birth to sons. This secondary implication of the name "Eve" should not conceal its primary meaning, although she is also the "mother of humankind".

The name "Eve" appears only twice in the book of Genesis. The second mention is in chapter 4. At the beginning of what I have called a third movement, the opening verse tells how Eve gives birth to Cain:

          The groundling knew his woman Eve
          She conceived and bred Acquisition (Cain)
          She said, I have acquired a man with YHWH (Gen 4,1)

Chapter 4 is mainly taken up with Cain's murder of Abel, his banishment from before the face of YHWH, and the violence of his line. At the end of the chapter, Eve gives birth to a third son, Seth, who replaces Abel and whose line is said to invoke the name of YHWH:

          Adam knew his woman again
          She bred a son
          She called his name Seth
          "for Elohim has set another seed in Abel's place
          yes, Cain killed him"
          A son was bred for Seth also
          He called his name Enosh

          Then they began to call upon the name of YHWH (Gen 4,25-26)

When Eve gives birth to Cain, she is called by her proper name. Her man has not yet received a proper name. He is still ha-adam, "the groundling" with the definite article:

          The groundling knew his woman Eve (Gen 4,1)

At the end of the chapter, when Seth is born, the situation is reversed. Eve is no longer called by her proper name: she is "his woman" and Adam is given his proper name for the first time. This is signaled by the absence of the definite article: he is Adam, not ha-adam:

          Adam knew his woman again (Gen 4,26)

The naming of Adam prepares the last movement of the "symphony", in chapter 5, which is taken up with the record of Adam's line, descending through Seth, and the disappearance of Eve from the Hebrew Bible. Her death is nowhere mentioned.
           The Eve of chapter 4 speaks at the beginning of the chapter, when she gives birth to Cain, and again at the end, when she gives birth to Seth. Can anything be learned from what she says? A psychologist might well discern a certain self-absorption in her attitude to the first birth. She situates herself at the center of this experience:

          The groundling knew his woman Eve
          She conceived and bred Acquisition (Cain)
          She said, I have acquired a man with YHWH (Gen 4,1)

The new-born son and YHWH are given secondary places and Eve ignores the husband-father.

          When Seth is born, on the contrary, Eve's words situate Elohim as subject of the action, responsible for the birth, and Eve assumes a background position:

          Adam knew his woman again
          She bred a son
          She called his name Seth
          "for Elohim has set another seed in Abel's place
          yes, Cain killed him (Gen 4,25)

The comment Eve makes on the birth of Seth and the murder of Abel by Cain appears to me to be non-judgmental. Nothing indicates, as is suggested by Cassuto, in his Commentary on the Book of Genesis (1961), that her words are "meekly" spoken. Eve expresses the facts with stark simplicity: the tragic loss of two sons (one dead, the other exiled) is effaced by a third birth, which ushers in a new, God-centered beginning for humankind:

          Then they began to call upon the name of YHWH (Gen 4,26)

In the intervening story about Cain, sin and death enter the world for the first time. The word "sin" does not appear in the text before the fourth chapter. Indeed, Eve is not the instigator of sin and death here: she is their victim. The death of a son is a terrible experience. In Mary's case, Christianity has made much of this theme. It is a more terrible experience, however, to have one son murder another. Yet no-one pays attention to Eve as mother in this context. The fourth picture of Eve is generally ignored.

I have tried to present here four images of Eve. These images do not follow on one another in a logical sequence. Rather, they are superimposed upon one another. Coexisting at different levels, they play one against the other. Nevertheless, their sequence carries the listener/reader forward in a dynamic movement that speaks of growth: male and female precede man and woman, who precede Adam and Eve.
          More rational commentators than I tend to develop certain aspects of the text so that textual interpretation concerning Eve has too often been limited to a concern for what is good and what is bad. My approach has been different. Working with the words of Genesis has led me to perceive the text as a literary masterpiece, as poetry. In poetry, words are not limiting. They invite the listener/reader to set out without necessarily seeing the end in view. They open up possibilities that expose the listener/reader to the risk of involvement. For this reason, I prefer to end this essay without coming to definitive conclusions about Eve.
          Nevertheless, I will add one comment. The current interpretation, which depreciates woman, seems to me alien to Hebrew thought. It acts as an obstacle to reading the text in a dynamic fashion, to perceiving that the text is concerned with "becoming" in the Hebrew sense, rather than with "being" in the Greek sense. The way in which these two conceptions of reality differ may be illustrated by the following comparison. In the middle ages, Rashi understood God's self-definition in Exodus 3,14 to mean "I will be what I will be". This definition is open-ended. Translations current in English Bibles, on the contrary, still give preference to a static formula: "I am; that is who I am" (New English Bible, 1970).

Published in the review Cross Currents, U.S.A. winter 1994/1995.