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Are women under punishment since creation?


Drawing by Michaelangelo, in the Louvre Museum, Paris

According to the second creation story, Genesis 2,4b - 3,24, women have been subjected to men in punishment for Eve's sin.

* God said to the woman: " . . . your yearning shall be for your husband, yet he shall rule over you!" Genesis 3,16

The same creation story is used in 1 Corinthians 11,2-16 and in 1 Timothy 2,9-15 to keep women subject to men.

* "Man did not come from woman; no, woman came from man; and man was not created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man." 1 Corinthians 11,8-9

* "Adam was created first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin." 1 Timothy 2,13-14

Does this apply to women today?

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First Observation


Just like the first creation account [Genesis 1,1 -2,4a], the second creation account [Genesis 2,4b - 3,24] is a story with a restricted teaching purpose. The details of the presentation should not be taken as a literal description of actual events.

The presentation has four sections:

focus of attention
I 2,4b-17 God creates a human being and places him/her within a lush garden (Eden). God demands obedience. Human beings are God's favourite creatures with key responsibilities.
II 2,18-24 God first creates animals, but they are inferior to the human being. God then splits the human being into a man and a woman. Men and women are equal, sharing the same body.
III 2,25 - 3,13 Seduced by the snake, the woman and the man eat from the forbidden tree. Sin consists in wanting to be like God. It leads to shame and guilt.
IV 3,14-24 God punishes the snake, the woman and the man. The effects of living in a sinful world are suffering and death. This includes women being subject to men.

The story should not be taken as a description of literal events:

  1. This is clear from the way the story is told: God moulds the human being from clay, God walks in the afternoon breeze, the serpent talks, etc. etc.
  2. If the details of the presentation represent real events, they contradict the details given in the first creation account. For instance, according to this story the animals are created after Adam and before Eve. In Genesis 1, the animals are created first, then Adam and Eve together

We will now analyse parts 2, 3 & 4 separately since each of them has been used to discredit women.

Second Observation

Contrary to misogynist interpretations, the creation of Eve intends to bring out the full human equality of men and women.

In the Middle East there was an ancient conviction that men and women were half-beings. The original human being had been spit into two halves: a male and a female, by the Creator God. We find this idea described by Plato (428-348 BC). It is worth reading these extracts from Symposion:

The primeval human being was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he/she had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears,two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He/she could walk upright as people now do, backwards or forwards as he/she pleased, and he/she could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he/she wanted to run fast . . . [the human being upset the Gods by their strength and pride,etc.]

At last, Zeus [the uppergod] said: "Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; humans shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg."

At this Zeus cut humans in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the [halved] human might contemplate the section of himself/herself: they would thus learn a lesson of humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms. So Apollo gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as a shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last; he left a few, however, in the region of the belly and navel, as a memorial of the primeval state.

After their division the two parts of the human being, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them, being the sections of entire men or women, and clung to that.

Since in this way they were being destroyed, Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue . . . Plato, Symposion ch. 14 - 16.

The story in Genesis starts from a similar presumption, namely that the original human being [the 'earth creature': Adam from 'adamah'=earth] was split by the creator in two halves to form a man and a woman. The two have intercourse because fundamentally they remain one body. In many traditional translations the Hebrew word tsela = 'side', 'half', has been mistranslated as 'rib'. More details are explained here.

The text therefore should read as follows:

Yahweh God said, ‘It is not good for the earth-creature to be alone. I will make it a companion like unto itself.’

So from the earth Yahweh God moulded all the animals and the birds of heaven. These he introduced to the earth-creature to see what it would call them; each one was to bear the name it gave them. The earth-creature gave names to all the cattle, the birds of heaven and the wild beasts. But not one of them was a companion like unto itself.

Illustration from medieval manuscript of Metamorphoses in Bibliotheque National of Paris

So Yahweh God made the earth-creature fall into a deep sleep.
While it was sleeping, he took one ‘side’ from it

and closed the gap with flesh.
Then Yahweh God built a ‘wo-man’
from the side he had taken from the earth-creature.
And he introduced her to the earth-creature.

The earth-creature exclaimed:
‘This at last is bones from my bones and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘wo-man’ because she was split off from a man.’
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his ‘wo- man’. And so they become (again) one body.
Genesis 2,18-23

From this analysis it is clear that the inspired author wants to teach that men and women are equal and complementary to each other.

Third Observation

Contrary to interpretations put on it in tradition, the story of the Fall does not present Eve as bearing more guilt than Adam.

The serpent was the most cunning of all the wild animals that Yahweh God had created. It asked the woman:

"Did God really say that you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?"

The woman answered the serpent:

"We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden. But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said: 'You must not eat it, nor touch it, under pain of death'."

Then the serpent said to the woman:

"No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."

The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that it was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they ralised that they were naked.
Genesis 3,1-7

The original story presents both Eve and Adam as equally guilty. This was how unbiased readers understood it, like Irenaeus (140-203):

Hugo van der Goes, 1470. Typical medieval picture presenting Eve as seductress, imaging the face of the seducing serpent.

And if you say that the serpent attacked her as being the weaker of the two, [I reply that], on the contrary, she was the stronger, since she appears to have been the helper of the man [to prevent] the transgression of the commandment. For she did by herself alone resist the serpent, and it was after holding out for a while and making opposition that she ate of the tree, being circumvented by his cunning; whereas Adam, making no fight whatever, nor refusal, partook of the fruit handed to him by the woman, which is an indication of the utmost imbecility and weakness of mind. And the woman indeed, having been vanquished in the contest by a demon, is deserving of pardon; but Adam deserves none, for he was outdone by a woman,-he who, in his own person, had received the command from God. Read full text here.

But in rabbinical literature Eve was blamed for the fall, as if she had demonstrated the nature of women to beweaker than men and more prone to sin. This is reflected in a New Testament passage.

"Adam was created first and Eve afterwards, and it was not Adam who was led astray but the woman who was led astray and fell into sin." 1 Timothy 2,13-14

The remark in Timothy is clearly a rationalization. You will remember what we have seen about rationalizations. The background and context of the Timothy passage can be studied here.

Unfortunately, the rabbinical slant and Timothy's rationalization led to serious prejudices against women in Christian tradition. This has been well brought out by Anne Baring in 'The Myth of Creation and the Fall' and 'Eve the Mother of All Living'.

The theme of woman as seductress and cause of man's fall which permeated Christian tradition in preaching, spirituality, art and theology until almost our time, has no valid scriptural basis.

Fourth Observation

The punishments in the second creaton story are socalled aetiologies, that is: narratives grown up around the popular explanation of ancient names or customs.


1. Babylon (Genesis 11,1-9)

Babylonian sources and confirmation from all Semitic languages justify but one derivation for the word Babylon. The Semitic components of the name are: 'bab' (gate) and 'il' (God). Babel means simply "Gate of God", and no Semite, whether Babylonian, Ugaritic or Hebrew, could miss its meaning.

Yet in Genesis a different explanation of the name is given. The author first narrates the fantastic attempt of humankind to build a tower reaching into heaven. Here he obviously alludes to the well-known ziggurat (multi-storeyed) temples at Babylon. Then he reports on God's counter-measure: the confusion of human speech into many languages. The author concludes: "Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused (Hebrew: 'balal'} the language of the earth" (Genesis 11/9).

It is obvious that the story originated from popular imagination! The fact of the diversity of languages all over the world required an explanation. Human pride, such as manifested in the Babylonian temples, must have been the cause! With a little stretch of the imagination 'Babel' can be seen as a pun on 'confusion' (Hebrew: 'Balal'). From this grew the story which attributes the confusion of language to God's intervention at Babel!

2. Jacob (Genesis 25,19-34)

The struggle between Jacob (the Jewish patriarch) and Esau (ancestor of the Edomites) greatly appealed to Israelite imaginations. According to one tradition they wrestled even in the womb of their mother Rebekkah. Their fight apparently concerned the life-long superiority of whoever was going to be born first. The tension rises when an oracle informs Rebekkah that in actual fact 'the elder shall serve the younger'. Then the moment of birth has come :

'The first came forth red.... Esau;
Afterwards his brother came forth, and his hand
had taken hold of Esau's heel (°aqeb);
so his name was called Jacob" (Hebrew: Ja° aqob)
(Genesis 25,26)

When Jacob eventually manages to secure the rights of the firstborn son from his elder brother by 'stealing' his father's blessing, Esau complains, punning on Jacob's name:

"Esau said : 'Is he not rightly named Jacob ? For he has
supplanted me (Hebrew: ya° aqebeni)
these two times. He took away my birthright;
and behold, now he has taken away my blessing!"
Gen.( 27/36) (

The name Jacob is interpreted by him as 'supplanter', deriving it from the Hebrew root °aqab.

Comparative study of names leaves no doubt as to the fact that the original form of the name was 'Ya°aqob-'el' As such the name occurs on Egyptian scarabs dating from the Semitic Hyksos-dynasty and in ancient Babylonian records. Moreover, the full name has been rediscovered in the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 33/28 which should read:

"So Israel dwelt in safety,
undisturbed the fountain of Jacob-el 1"
(D. N. Freedman, Israel Exploration 13 (1963) pp. 125-126).

The meaning of this name is "May God (='el) protect (=ya°aqob)". When the name was abbreviated by dropping the ending 'el', the interpretation of the name gave rise to speculation and the creation of aetiologies. The shrewd character ascribed to Jacob in the popular traditions originated with the fanciful interpretations of his name!

There are many examples of such stories in the Old Testament. Reflection on a name (e.g. Babylon) and its characteristics (e.g. racial pluriformity) are expressed in the form of a story (the tower of Babel). An aetiology is not a literal account of things that happened, therefore, but a reflection on key features of a place or a person. An aetiology is a peculiar literary form that needs careful analysis to uncover its meaning.

This also applies to the punishments described after the story of the Fall (Genesis 3,14-19).

Punishment of the serpent -

Genesis 3,14-15

Yahweh God said to the serpent:
"Because you have done this, be accursed beyond all cattle, all wild beasts.
You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust every day of your life.
I will make you enemies of each other: you and woman, your offspring and her offspring.
It will crush your head and you will strike its heel."

1. People had noticed how snakes have no legs. Snakes were thought to eat dust.
2. People were also struck by the hostility of everyone (especially housewives!) to snakes.

Popular explanation was that the snake must have done something terrible for which it was punished by God. This gave rise to the story of how the snake seduced the woman.

Punishment of the woman -

Genesis 3,16

To the woman he said:
"I will multiply your pains in childbearing, you shall give birth to your children in pain.

You will desire for your husband, yet he will rule over you."

People had been struck by the fact that women suffer pain at childbirth & that they are usually dominated by men.

The popular explanation was that women were being punished for some crime they had committed. It led to story of Eve's involvement in the Fall.

Punishment of the man -

Genesis 3,17-19
"Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering you shall get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles, and you shall eat wild plants. With sweat on your brow shall you eat your bread, until you return to the soil as you were taken from it. For dust you are and to dust you shall return."

People had been wondering why life was so hard and why everyone eventually dies.

They saw the explanation in punishment given by God for some sin. This was expressed in the story of the Fall.


Consequences of this analysis:
The story of the Fall should not be taken literally. There was no garden of Eden, no tree of life, no serpent, no eating of the fruit by human ancestors. The story expresses the fact that the human race is in a situation of sin - which is true.
* The 'punishments' should not be taken literally as a curse inflicted by God, rather they express the situation men and women are in.
* It is entirely wrong to infer that social domination of men over women is something expressly willed by God.

whatever the view of the Old Testament author of Genesis 2,3b - 3,24, in the New Testament the fundamental equality of men and women had been established.

"You have put off your old nature with its practices.
You have put on a new nature
which is being renewed in knowledge
in the image of its creator.
In that image there is no room for distinctions
between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised,
between barbarian and Scythian,
slave and free.
But Christ is all, Christ is in all."

Colossians 3,9-11

"Neither circumcision matters, nor uncircumcision,
but whether you are a new creature . . . .
For all of you who have been baptised in Christ,
have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
neither free nor slave,
neither male nor female.
For you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Galatians 6,15; 3,27-28

The teaching of the second creation story (Genesis 2,4b - 3,24)

Now look at this video (click on start arrow):

The second creation story helps us reflect on important aspects of our human existence: our integration with the rest of creation, the interdependence of men and women, the damage done to our world through human sin.

The story is not a literal account of events. It may not be used to bolster cultural prejudices against women.

© John Wijngaards


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10