All About Eve and Me: Genesis 3:16 and Autobiographical Criticism

By Julie Bogart 

To the woman Godde said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you will bring forth children, yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16).

When the Bible is approached as both an ancient document with original meaning and a living message with contemporary significance, the bridge to a comprehensive and satisfying biblical hermeneutics may have been found. The reader’s final focus is not upon the original circumstances but upon the text in the contemporary context of reading.1 

Interpretations of particularly well-known passages of the Bible, like Genesis 3:16, must be grasped on multiple levels in order for them to break through with relevant meaning for us today. In my reading of Genesis3:16, I journeyed through three distinct stages of interpretation that have enabled me to move from a literalist, ideological interpretation to the quest for finding my own voice as an interpreter of the Bible. I began with an evangelical, patriarchal interpretation of the passage, followed by an examination of the text using the historical-critical method which uncovered the hidden ideology in that literalist interpretation, and most recently, have become interested in the ways the “curse on Eve” has mirrored my journey as an interpreter of the Bible in my own right. Autobiographical criticism offered me a vehicle for critical reflection on the process of interpretation so that I might explore the biblical text confident in my powers of reading without being controlled by those voices to which I had delegated authority in the past. This process has opened a way for me to continue a relationship with the Bible that informs and creates meaning in my life.

The critical methodology of autobiography may be meaningful to the task of interpretation as a way of throwing light on the “complexity and ethics of our appropriation of [the Bible]”2 as over and against new insight into the Bible itself. It is this bird’s eye view of the interpretive process that has proved so beneficial to my reflections. In order to shake the influences of twenty plus years of biblical literalism, I had to come to terms with my personal and spiritual history that enabled those interpretations to be meaningful to me. In the Semeia issue devoted to autobiographical methodology, Jeff Stapley, one of the editors, asserts, “No one autocritographer’s reading can or should ever represent the only way to read a given text.”3 I am less attached to a correct “for all time” interpretation (even my own) as a result.

One of the compelling reasons to examine the Bible autobiographically is that produced meaning results in real life choices. For instance, we can argue over whether the readings offered by evangelicals are faithful to the original intentions of the authors, but we cannot ignore the meaning-making, life-altering results of their literalist interpretations. Without a more self-conscious interpretive hermeneutic, evangelicals will continue to believe that their interpretations of the Bible are from Godde, and therefore will order their lives and seek to order the culture accordingly. Stapley reminds us that “[a]utocritographers must critically reconstruct their own historical circumstances and those of the interpretive communities to which they belong, as well as those of other places and times. They must engage in critical self-reflection.”4 In using the autobiographical model to do this kind of work, I evaluated my relationship to evangelical teachings and found the process liberating. I was able to shed the lingering power of ideological interpretations while creatively exploring alternatives. The historical-critical methodology did not result in that same kind of discovery for me. It led to the death of a particular ideological viewpoint, which was essential to my ability to see anything new in the text, but it stopped short of awakening my imagination and relationship to the Bible so that I might interpret it newly, in my own voice.

At the point that the reader experiences a shift in her reading (moving from devoted, theologically-interested, ideological reading to dispassionate, historical, scientific criticism), questions emerge: of what good is this text now in my life? Do I have a relationship to it anymore, or am I free to discard it and go on without it?

Many former literalists have done just that. The wreckage of their faith at the hands of the historical-critical method has caused them to abandon Christianity altogether. They defend the scientific discrediting of the Bible with the same zeal they once defended the inspired tradition. There is relief at being freed from the prison of literalist interpretations, but often there is no alternative vision offered for engaging with the Bible. Ironically, post-evangelicalism may be the perfect home for autobiographical criticism since “an exploration of the personal and personal testimonies are part of the [evangelical] tradition.”5 Stanley Grenz (evangelical theologian and author of Primer on Postmodernism) admonishes evangelicals to move beyond modernist tendencies in biblical interpretation: “Rather than yielding a collection of isolated facts designed to enhance our knowledge, theology [ought to become] the delineation of a ‘mosaic’ of interrelated beliefs, the goal of which is wisdom for living as Christians.”6 Grenz hints at what the autobiographical approach asserts outright – that our theology ought to be more than the unpacking of right doctrine or the accumulation of biblical facts.

Initially, the dispassionate, scientific method breathes some space between the vested reader and the dominating Christian community’s interpretation that was handed down as from Godde. The historical-critical method is seductive because it unhooks the “binding” text from its doctrinaire force in an individual’s life. Of all the methodologies I have used, the historical-critical method has been the most effective tool for “disarming” the text. However, as I have reviewed my interpretive journey, I noted a fundamentalist tendency in myself that wanted to supplant one authority with another. The historical-critical method can lead to a different kind of allegiance. Without having mastered the languages myself, without the academic skills necessary to evaluate scholarly claims, I yield my perspective again to an authority outside of myself. I give up being an interpreter and the text remains external to my life and imagination. In both cases (literalist and historical-critical interpretive methodologies) there is a tacit agreement that the lay interpreter is not adequate to the task of interpretation. The lay reader must defer to either the voice of Godde or the academy rather than struggle with the text herself.

The unfortunate fact is that interpretations lead to lived lives so that the appropriation of someone else’s interpretation causes me to make life choices that don’t come from within, but rather are created by conforming to external sources of power and authority. Should I let those authorities define who I am? Or should I take the risk to become responsible for the interpretive choices I make that shape how I live my life? Autobiographical criticism allows the interpreter to examine how an authoritarian interpretation becomes entangled in the individual’s life so that she can then choose to divest it of its usurping power and open the door to alternative interpretations. Autocritography suggests that we examine more than our doctrine. We must also make visible our motives, our experiences and our needs so that these become dialogue partners rather than invisible influences on our reading of the Bible.

Using one’s life as the heuristic lens for biblical interpretation is something anyone can do. It is inherently democratic in that it allows multiple voices to exercise their relationship to both the biblical text and their personal choices in matters of faith and practice. Autocritography affirms that a person’s life experiences and level of education help to create readings that have intrinsic value, even if they are deeply personal.

Consequently, in this essay I consider my journey through three stages of interpretation of Genesis 3:16 as influenced by my history as a white, middle-class, evangelical woman who grew up during the women’s rights era of the 1970s. My attempt to read Eve in Genesis 3:16 comes out of my desire to account for how someone of my background would accept a patriarchal interpretation of that passage seemingly out of step with my autobiographical details. I cycle to the present to show what steps in my process freed the text from the prison of limited self-awareness and literalist ideology. Finally, I reconstruct my reading of Eve based on my new set of experiences that open the text to me. In that process, I discover Eve as a mirror for the experience of wrestling with how to make interpretive choices as I study the Bible today. I intend to share an  autobiographical journey of interpretation that changes with personal and academic growth as a way to imagine the task of interpretation – not a once-for-all-time definition of meaning, but a living and breathing exercise that is created by the reader through taking responsibility both for the meanings I have appropriated into my life in the past as well as my current choices. Eve becomes, for me, an appropriate archetype for that self-discovery.

Literalist Method

Following the third wave of feminism, at least two reactions to Genesis 3:16 function in my peer group (white educated women in their forties): debunking the text by asserting one’s female identity while rejecting the traditional interpretation of the passage, versus the need to retreat from the battle to emerge as a self-determined woman in a man’s world. My interest in Genesis 3:16 began when I first encountered the Bible after my conversion to Christianity as a college student. My aunt and my mother were role models of feminism for me. Each one kept her maiden name when she married and both managed to raise children while working in fields they found meaningful. They sought egalitarian marriages where both partners cooperated in decision-making and earning. My mother came to these attitudes later in life. She had lived the traditional model of marriage for nineteen years and it failed her. She developed a career in the mid-1970s and became more assertive in her marriage. My father rewarded her self-affirmation by leaving her for another woman. When my mother remarried several years later, she entered that marriage on different terms. She reclaimed her maiden name, continued her career and kept her own bank account.

My mother’s experience was the most powerful in my life at the time. Because of her, I saw myself as a competent person first, and as a woman second. On the other hand, I feared that marriage would be a dangerous place to be an assertive woman. When I converted to Christianity in college, I hoped that by joining a movement of young adults committed to moral ideals, I might avoid the pain my mother had suffered. An entire theology of a woman’s role in the Christian evangelical community had been developed and was repeatedly taught until I accepted it – namely, that Godde had instituted an order for the family with men as the heads of household, and that this order would protect marriages from failure while bringing about social harmony. Why would a young woman with wonderful role models of self-sufficient women be drawn to a movement of Christians who viewed women as “the glory of man” rather than the “glory of Godde” (1 Cor. 11:7)?  Evangelicals use biblical texts ideologically. Michèle Barrett, in The Postmodern Bible, defines ideology as “a generic term for the processes by which meaning is produced, challenged, reproduced, transformed.”7 Evangelical women find a surprising sense of power and meaning in challenging the cultural shift to feminism by choosing to be on the lower rung of the patriarchal power structure as an act of personal transformation under their control. My “choice” to be subordinate in my relationship to men could not have occurred without the feminist revolution. During the women’s rights movement of the seventies, white middle-class women were thrust into the cold world of male dominance and often were left high-and-dry by their husbands in the process. The resulting insecurity of place for women drove many of my peers (the offspring of these newly liberated women) to a surprising snap-back to pre-feminist values. The difference for us, however, was that we chose to be subordinate. 

Genesis 3:16 was read, therefore, prescriptively for how women (daughters of Eve who caused the fall) could reclaim their right relationship to man and to Godde. We did so through a rejection of feminism and a rigorous submission to a patriarchal model of faith and life. Evangelical pastors, theologians and women Bible study leaders used New Testament commentary on Genesis 3:16 to direct the reader how to understand the passage (1 Cor. 11: 8-12; 1 Tim. 2:13-15). A vision of a restored order where harmonious relationships reigned sustained this interpretation for women like me. We had the power through our choice to “be last,” to “self-sacrifice” in order to bring about the transformation of the family and society.

Historical-Critical Method

My first pregnancy, however, provoked me to re-examine the “Fall” passage. The suggestion that pain was my due in childbirth as a consequence of Eve’s sin did not “sit right” with me. I discovered that while men had consistently searched for ways to ease the toil of working the land to produce food (reversing their particular curse in Gen. 3:15), centuries of Christians had used Genesis 3:16 to deny women pain relief in childbirth. One famous case occurred in the late sixteenth century. Eufame MacLayne took an herb to lessen her labor pains, but when the church authorities found out, they claimed Eufame had violated Genesis 3:16 and called her use of the herbs “sinful.” Her twins were forcibly removed from her and she was chained to a stake and burnt to ashes.8 Until Queen Victoria used painkillers for her births, the use of pain relief for childbearing was thought to be an act of defiance against Godde.

As I used my limited skills to look at the terms in Genesis 3:16, one idea became clear. The word translated sorrows, pain, toil or labor can be understood to mean physical pain or increased work.9 Both the man’s increased “toil” in working the fields and a woman’s “pain” in childbirth come from the same root word: issabon. The development of agricultural technology that reduced a man’s toil in the fields was lauded as progress while generations of Christians resisted similar advances in pain relief for women giving birth. These sorts of discoveries led me to reconsider the ideological bent of the literalist interpretation of the Bible. In peeling away the layers of authoritarianism and biblical inerrancy through the continued use of the historical-critical method, I became disillusioned with evangelical teachings and lost touch with the Bible as relevant to my life. Was there any more to say about Genesis 3:16, for instance, now that the literalist interpretation was discredited? Or was it time for me to move on and leave that passage behind?

Autobiographical Method

Recently, I returned to the text in question and the surrounding narrative. In Genesis 2:21, I noted that Eve is second-made, formed from Adam’s rib. Elizabeth Johnson, in her seminal work She Who Is, counters that impression, writing,  “[T]he Yahwist author of Genesis 2 constructs the narrative in such a way that the ‘earth creature’ does not become sexually differentiated until the divine act radically alters ‘adam to create woman and man together as one flesh.”10 She argues that both the Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 creation accounts show man and woman as acts of simultaneous creation – therefore not sequential, therefore not indicative of hierarchy. While I appreciate this insight, my reading of the passage through the lens of autobiography has led me to a different interpretation, which helps to explain my interpretive journey. Eve’s extraction from man is hauntingly similar to the experience of white middle class women in my age group as we faced the ramifications of the third wave of feminism. Eve joins Adam in the garden after Adam has already lived there, has already made it his home. Eve did not receive a boundless paradise to explore because she was created in relation to another, in relief against man. The story suggests that for women, learning to negotiate the world means navigating previously established rules, relationships and routines while simultaneously hewing out space for an original self. Likewise, for my peer group of white middle class women, we are conscious of being second to the playground of work and the academy. Our choices will continue to be measured against another’s, our achievements compared to the work of men who have gone first. In that sense, we were not free, like Eve, even if of equal value.

This perspective is born out in the garden pericope, Genesis 2:4b-3:24a. The reader is not told whether Eve was given the direct command from Godde to not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. She misquotes the instructions (Gen. 3:3), which leaves us wondering if she heard them secondhand and therefore heard them incorrectly. In either case, it is a disturbing moment for a modern woman reader. Who is responsible for woman’s actions? Is she accountable to man or to Godde for her limited knowledge? What is inherently wrong with her desire for knowledge or wisdom? The story implies that Eve is meant to interpret her world in the same way Adam is commanded to, yet the story does not report direct contact between Eve and the divine source. She is at a clear disadvantage.

Embedded in this story is woman’s deference to those in authority over her – Godde, Adam, even the suggestions of the serpent. This is similar to how women read and experience many male-generated interpretations of the Bible today as well. We are not urged to make the connections for ourselves. We intuitively know that we are supposed to listen to the male voices, or the academic voices, or the theologically powerful voices that have come before us, and take them in as definitive, or at least as the important counterpoint to our own. There is no open playground for us. We interpret the Bible and our lives in relief against already established authorities. Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza puts it this way: “One of the major tasks of feminist bible study consists in making conscious the mechanisms and implications of oppressive modes of knowledge production. Wo/men and other theologically muted persons must learn to demystify the dominant structures of knowledge in order to find our own intellectual voices, exercise personal choice, and achieve satisfaction in our intellectual work.”11

The temptation of the serpent, then, comes as a very real voice to me as a woman. Like Eve, I have had to ask myself: What will I risk for the sake of knowledge I can call my own? Can I stand my ground before Godde, before the academic community, before male theologians of the past and present? Can I carve out space for an original work in spite of the “Adams” in my life? Women know that if we do not take the risk, we live in man’s shadow. Yet if we do, we risk death – death to a safe way of living and knowing. Choosing the evangelical interpretation of Genesis 3:16, then, was a choice to live and know in safety. To choose to create meaning for one’s self, to risk the knowledge of “good and evil,” means to die to that safety. The garden pericope lands the ill-impact of Eve’s decision on Eve. We modern women identify with the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” position in which Eve finds herself.

Today, in looking at Eve, I saw the “curse” with new eyes. My life’s see-sawing struggle between self-affirmation through personal responsibility versus my retreat into the shadows of male leadership was played out in this powerful Genesis narrative. Perhaps the story created the conditions in which I found myself. Past interpretations have conspired against women, creating and facilitating a culture that leaves them without voice or place in a man’s world, even in the field of biblical interpretation. Feminist interpretations rework this passage in order to restore dignity of origin and place to women today. Yet it is only in recognizing myself in Eve that I was able to find resources in Genesis 3:16 that freed me from the twin dangers of interpreting this passage: a choice to submit to men, or a rejection of the passage entirely as out of step with my 21st century life. Instead, I now read the passage as a clarion call. Godde describes Eve’s predicament and it is one with which I identify. I have desired the “rule” of a husband – that is, an authority, interpreter, biblical scholar, priest or doctrine – which will chaperone me through life. It is risky bringing forth personal insight in biblical studies. But rather than accept Genesis 3:16 as my fate, I am challenged to “reverse the curse” for my own sake as well as for the women who will come after me, namely my two daughters.

Conclusion

Eve attempts to dethrone the powerful voices in her life when she chooses to eat the forbidden fruit to gain knowledge. She suffers for it. Godde promises that she will give birth, even while it will be painful to her, and warns her that she will want to scurry back to safety – the rule of her husband. I identify with Eve. In challenging the Adams of my life, I must choose to face the pain of labor so that I might produce an original work of interpretation that will express my unique constellation of personal history, education and spiritual autobiography. I look forward to entering that journey more fully, east of Eden.

Notes

This essay was developed from a paper originally presented at the Eastern Great Lakes & Midwest Bible Societies of the Society of Biblical Literature on April 7, 2005.

1McKenzie, Steven L., and Stephen R. Haynes, eds., To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville:Westminster John Knox Press), 1999, p. 239.

2Anderson, Janice Capel, and Jeffrey L. Stapley, “Taking it Personally,” Semeia 72 (1995), ATLA Religion Database, EBSCO, Xavier U, (Cincinnati,Ohio), 27 Mar. 2005, p. 253. <http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,uid&db=rfh&an=ATLA0001020494&gt;

3Ibid., p. 11.

4Ibid., p. 14.

5Ibid., p. 11.

6Grenz, Stanley. “Engaging our Postmodern Culture: An Interview with Stanley Grenz.” Interview with Rogier Bos.  The Ooze 2 Oct. 2002. 27 Mar. 2005 <http://www.theooze.com/articles/article.cfm?id=15&gt;

7The Bible and Culture Collective. The Postmodern Bible (New Haven and London: Yale University), 1995, p. 272.

8Gundry, Patricia, “Medicine,” Woman Be Free, Suitcase, 1993. N. pag. Biblical Equality for Women, 27 Mar. 2005, ch. 5. <http://www.patriciagundry.com/generic.html?pid=12&gt;

9Strong, James, LL.D., S.T.D., “Sorrows,” The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson), 1996. Used for translations, p. 109.

10Johnson, Elizabeth A., She Who Is: The Mystery of God In Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad), 2002, p. 70.

11Schussler Fiorenza, Elizabeth, Wisdom Ways (Maryknoll: Orbis), 2001, p. 34.

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