The Biblical story of Adam and Eve has left us with a legacy of sexual shameby Miri Rubin / December 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The recent revelations of historical sexual abuse and harassment by men in powerful positions mean we are now thinking a lot harder about the relations between men and women. While Stephen Greenblatt’s new book is a reflection on the nature of storytelling in human history, rather than a polemical sally about male-female relations, it did make me consider how we might have got to the latest wave of gender trouble.
The story of Adam and Eve is our founding myth. It begins with a man and a woman created to live in a garden where they are provided with all they need to eat; they feel no shame, fear no one. It goes on to an act of folly—or curiosity. They transgress the only rule laid down by God: to leave the fruit of the tree of wisdom alone. Satan, in the form of a snake, tricks Eve into eating the fruit, and she in turn convinces Adam to do the same. For this they are both expelled from the garden and forced to live in toil and shame—a legacy passed down the generations. This biblical story has for centuries been read as an allegory for sexual desire, and has perpetuated an obsession with thinking of men and women as being inevitably bound by sex: its glorious fulfilment, its bitter deceits.
The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve explores the story from many fascinating vantage points, ranging from Babylonia to contemporary palaeontology. It is a chronological road trip with stops on the way to appreciate the landscape and visit old friends: Augustine, Dürer, Milton. The reader is refreshed by the breeze such high-speed travel generates. Greenblatt is utterly engaging, as we have come to expect from the Harvard professor, the author of several acclaimed books on the Renaissance.
The journey begins with the Babylonian creation myth, a story based not in a garden, but a noisy city ruled by the lusty god-man Gilgamesh whose sexual appetites are causing havoc and must be tamed. On the rivers of Babylon in the 6th century BC lived a group of exiles, some thousands strong, banished from Judaea after the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Over the decades in Babylon the Judaists—who later came to be known as Jews—had learned a great deal from the local culture, but their creation story, though it touched on similar themes, was very different from Gilgamesh.
Genesis opens with the story of creation. It tells of an all-powerful and unseen God, who created a perfect pair of compatible humans in his image (“Male and Female created he them”). He placed them in a perfect garden called paradise. Like the Babylonian version, it too introduces an element of disorder and confusion, from which human history was to evolve. Enter the serpent, Eve and the forbidden fruit. Their act of disobedience causes shame and pain, but also lays the ground for family and community—in short, the human condition.
The religious groups that developed centuries later embraced the story of Adam and Eve as a touchstone for human perfectibility. The Nag Hammadi library in Upper Egypt contained a Life of Adam and Eve (1st century AD) that offered a novel interpretation: that the first humans—in their perfection—had incurred the envy of God. The suspicion that God could be vengeful and cruel was not uncommon in the Roman world. Such views were later marginalised by Christianity and its commitment to human salvation through grace. Nicaean Christianity offered a theology which could underpin a church; henceforward priests could offer hope in salvation, erasing the weight of sin with the water of baptism.
Yet the legacy of sin continued to perturb thinkers such as Augustine (354-430) in North Africa. Greenblatt frames Augustine’s formative ideas about sin, sexuality and conjugal life against a racy account of the family romance played out in Thagaste (in present-day Algeria). In his Confessions, desire and self-loathing merge. Later, in his Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine concluded that once Adam and Eve saw their own genitals, they “lusted after them with that stirring movement they had not previously known.” They blushed in recognition of a new, mutual attraction.
But whose body was it anyway? If humans could not command their bodies—neither the adolescent nor the “aged monk, tormented in his cell” by memories of past pleasure, then how might a moral system be built around human frailty? Had they stayed in paradise, Adam and Eve would have reproduced without lust or delight, but this was no longer possible after the fateful act of rebellion that led to their exile. The perfect untainted act of sexual union had never taken place.
Adam and Eve’s sin created the human condition of sinfulness, a state of restlessness and vacillation, and so Augustine became an advocate of marriage as a necessary framework for containment. It is interesting to note that Augustine’s understanding was not particularly misogynistic, but attaching human sin to sexual desire allowed others—like Jerome—to plant misogyny deep in Christian soil, making good use of the rich resources of classical antiquity, such as the legend of Pandora and her box.
Greenblatt covers the next centuries swiftly, though one important figure rightly attracts his attention: the Virgin Mary. (“Eva-Ave” was a felicitous anagram appreciated by medieval poets.) Mary came to help save the world from the sin of Eve; the naked and abject Eve was matched by the modest and equally beautiful Mary, though some artists could not help making the Virgin look alluring, even seductive. When artistic, scientific and theological interests shifted in the 15th century—and here Green-blatt’s scholarly instincts are more assured—an anthropological, even psychological, approach is evident in the carefully crafted and closely observed works of northern European artists such as Jan van Eyck, Dürer, and later on those by Masaccio.
Greenblatt is keen to arrive at his destination—the 17th century and John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, what he calls “the greatest poem in the English language.” Milton’s early life had been a search for creative fulfilment and a sexual path more appealing than the whoring and drinking he saw around him. In his thirties he chose marriage, but this unconsummated misalliance ended badly, inspiring him to become a vocal early advocate of no-fault divorce. (Later in life Milton married again and had daughters). As a chapter in the story of Adam and Eve, his contribution is novel and startling.
Like Augustine, he took the biblical story seriously, and imagined the garden as a place of sociability, with angels dropping in for a meal. While Adam had been created first, and worked alone for a while naming the beasts and conducting exhausting conversations with God, he needed a mate. Like the rabbis centuries earlier, Milton considered whether an animal might have been a sufficient partner; but no, another human was needed. And so from his bone was fashioned she whose creation “infused,/sweetness into my heart, unfelt before.” Adam came to depend on Eve and delighted in her more and more. It was their anxiety to stay married, based on terms of freedom and interdependence, that led them to sin—to the fruit which would bind them forever.
In pain and fear, Eve begs forgiveness for the transgression as she “with tears that cease not flowing,/and tresses all disordered, at his feet/fell humble.” Milton has Adam accept her plea. Off they go down the hill, to the world as it has now become for humans: full of illness and misfortune. Yet Adam says to Eve, “and we shall live.”
In a 17th-century England of regicide and civil war, in a Europe of bloody and seemingly unending conflict, in a world where Europeans were encountering Edens they were soon to destroy, here is a vision of a moral order in gentle conjugality. Yet, as Greenblatt shows, Milton still makes Eve bear the burden of responsibility: for her powers to seduce, allure and distract; for her ability to elicit love and give so much in return.
One legacy of Adam and Eve is that it does not help us think about men and women as friends, though Milton comes close. The medieval centuries are interesting here in offering a few unexpected pathways beyond the sin that is woman.
As the church developed a vision of a Christian society that sought to touch the many, not just a few religious strivers, it influenced all areas of life: work, marriage, commerce and more. Early in the second Christian millennium, those who worked in theology and law tested an idea of marriage that was consensual and companionate, a moral act which could be solemnised as a sacrament. This was a challenge to traditional marriage practices, which were directed by parents and often conceived of as an alliance between families through the joining of property and blood.
The new Christian marriage, taught by preachers and parish priests, emphasised advice and support alongside the sexual debt. They sometimes cast women as “preachers” to their husbands, leading their spouses artfully to a more virtuous life. Patriarchal assumptions were never dissolved, but something like a space for agency was imagined. Our historical sources sometimes show that couples even worked together companionably, as the letters of Francesco Datini, the merchant of Prato, and his wife Margherita attest.
Friendship may also be glimpsed in the spiritual associations between celibates drawn together by mutual enthusiasm for the religious life. Here a monk might submit to the example of a charismatic woman, while she benefited from his clerical services from which women were debarred. Some men sat at the feet of women they admired, like Guibert of Gembloux, who was fascinated by the formidable 12th-century nun and composer Hildegard of Bingen and lived at her nunnery in the Rhineland. Such friendships, perhaps enhanced by the awareness of sexual difference, did not fit the boundaries drawn so powerfully by the biblical origin myth.
The influence of the story of Adam and Eve has meant that friendship between men and women has few models for us to follow. And once we acknowledge the variety of human sympathy and desire, with men loving men, women desiring women, and men who wish to be desired as women, we may be able to move beyond the powerful legacy of Christian morality—to a place where shame is replaced by empathy.
Augustine’s father took pride in seeing his son’s first erection in the baths of Thagaste. He wanted a son who would give him grandchildren. Augustine’s mother Monica wanted a learned and virtuous son. Men have been raised for centuries with the expectation of sexual prowess and worldly success. If the story of Adam and Eve has helped bring us to the predicament we are in, with so many men disregarding, misreading and outright abusing the wishes and needs of women, then we urgently need a new set of stories about our bodies and ourselves.