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a talk by Bonnie Evans-Hills

Bonnie & Rabiha

Bonnie & Rabiha share tea & cake as they plan their talk

Good afternoon everyone! I hope you’ve all got your own cups of tea? Coffee? Cake?

Rabiha & I are colleagues in Leicester. Both of us work across the faith communities building relationships and building friendships. When we were challenged to work on giving a talk here together we knew we wanted to look at what we thought could be the root cause of some of the rather misogynist views taken within our own religions, and this year’s theme of ‘Saving Paradise’ provided the perfect inspiration for us. It all goes back to creation, was woman created inferior to man? Was Eve responsible for The Fall? Is she to blame for a loss of Paradise. And is there an undercurrent of blame within our religious traditions that holds Eve, holds women, responsible, and seeks the redemption of humanity through the redemption of Eve? If Eve’s waywardness can be controlled perhaps the whole of humanity will be saved. If we save Eve, we will save Paradise.

Perhaps the title of our talk today is a bit of a flippant take on things. Is the redemption of the Christian woman in being servile, her place being in the house (and not in this case the House of Bishops)? Or is the redemption of the Muslim woman in using the veil to cover her shame? This is a provocative statement. Whenever British culture pictures a Muslim woman, the first picture is not of an intelligent highly articulate woman, participating fully in society. The first picture people come up with is that of a subservient, veiled woman. And the first picture our culture comes up with when it comes to Christian women is that of Women’s Institute, middle-aged women baking cakes, making tea and, in a rare instance of breaking the mould, posing for risqué’ calendars.

Rabiha and I want to look at Eve in our respective scriptures and perhaps ask some provocative questions. Is Eve responsible for The Fall from Paradise? And is her redemption found in servility? Or is there a counter-narrative?

(Rabiha’s introduction)

The Book of Genesis has two creation narratives. The first begins with a systematic description of the process of creation, a narrative which I understand continues to be borne out by scientific developments, to be compatible with evolution, the latest thinking in cosmology and the development of the earth and its creatures. At the end, after the forming of the heavens and the separation of the seas, of plants yielding seed and the forming of light in the darkness, of the day and the night, of the creatures to inhabit the earth – God pronounces there is goodness. The culmination of this narrative is Genesis 1:27-28, ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…’

God gives the whole of creation to humanity to have dominion over it. Humanity is not separated out into a special garden. Humanity is a part of a creation which God pronounces very good, and then God rests and blesses his creation. This narrative takes up the whole of the first chapter and part of the second of Genesis.

But at verse 4, chapter 2, another narrative begins. Here we have man formed out of dust, the dust of the earth. There is no one to till the soil or scatter the seed or make the rivers run and the rains come down. God creates a garden in which to put this man he has made. And in this garden called Eden God places all the plants for food a man could want for. This garden has a location, it is placed between certain rivers, rivers that exist to this day. The man is told to till the garden and to keep it. And he is told to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It is at this point God decides man is lonely and forms a woman, adamah, from the rib of the man, Adam. The very words themselves reveal a distinctive and intimate connection with one another.

‘This at last is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh…Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and they were not ashamed.’

Man and woman belong to one another, created to be helpmates for one another, to be a comfort and a joy for one another – and they share their life in the Garden in peaceful and innocent co-existence. Their nakedness is a sign of their innocence, their lack of guile and their real vulnerability before one another. There is no fear, they do not have anything to fear, in the Garden, from one another and from the wild beasts – even from the Serpent.

But then one day the Serpent and the woman have a little conversation. ‘The woman’ has not yet been named; she is still adamah. Genesis tells us that Adam was there during this little conversation. The Serpent, not identified at this point in the Bible with any concept of Satan, asks the woman about the tree, why doesn’t she eat it? She has, in this second narrative, only heard the commandment from Adam second-hand, not directly from God. She understands she is not only not to eat it, but not to touch – is this an added precaution on the part of Adam? And of course when she does touch it nothing happens. Some Jewish tradition states this addition to the word of God is what enabled doubt to first creep into the mind of the woman – his lack of trust in her, his deceit about the word of God. So if blame were to be apportioned, perhaps it is really the fault of Adam for his deceit. Nothing happens when she touches the fruit, so perhaps nothing would happen if she also ate. But then is this apportioning of blame really helpful? The fruit of the tree is a delight to the eye, good to eat, and promises wisdom. Together, the woman and Adam eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree. The woman questions, doubts, what she is doing. And for all his earlier precaution, Adam takes from her hand without question.

So what happens?
Genesis 3:7-15 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.
But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”

They are given simple instruction by their Creator – to care for the garden and to not touch the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Tanakh, or Jewish Torah commentaries, relate this knowledge of good and evil as being more about receiving the joy and the pain that true wisdom brings – the ability to see the cost, to ourselves and to others, of our actions.

Maybe the ‘sin’ of this action, of partaking of the fruit of the forbidden tree was not really about the consequences of touching the fruit. What would God’s reaction have been had Adam simply admitted his guilt and sought forgiveness of God? Perhaps rather Adam’s ‘sin’ if you like is the blame he apportioned to the woman. He blamed her for his own action, his own decision to touch what was forbidden. He blamed God for giving her to him. He tried to claim innocence for himself while inflicting guilt upon someone else. That, I believe, is the first sin – not the disobedience, but the attempt to blame someone else – and that someone else being the very person who is flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, to whom he is to cling, to cherish and to love.

And what of the woman’s sin? Again, I don’t really believe it was in touching the forbidden fruit. The art of spiritual direction in Western Christianity developed first within monastic circles where it was felt man’s first sin was pride, a lack of readiness to acknowledge guilt when appropriate, an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions. And perhaps this is what Adam’s role symbolises within this second narration. Perhaps this second narrative is less about the actual physical development of creation, and more about the inner development of the psyche and of the heart.

Eventually spiritual directors realised that pride was not the first sin of women. For women it tends to be a lack of confidence in the gifts God has bestowed on her. Woman is too ready to admit guilt, taking upon herself more than is reasonable. Rather than admit to her own eating of the fruit, and seeking God’s forgiveness for her own actions, she takes both her own and Adam’s actions upon herself – and then points to the Serpent.

There is in this a lack of faith on both their parts in God as creator and sustainer.
The woman takes on the guilt for them both in admitting she was duped by the Serpent. Even though she ate, she claims it is not her fault. The Serpent told her everything would be alright. Perhaps in blaming the Serpent she is blaming the natural world, blaming her circumstance. Is the serpent perhaps that part of our nature, that part that is devious and will do anything to get out of a situation? There is in the action of Adam and his adamah an instinct for survival, that will work hard to survive, but will also fight for survival, sometimes at a cost to others. The sin is the cost to others of that fight to survive, of doing everything we can to cover our guilt, symbolised by the sewing together of fig leaves, we sew together a story of blame.

We have been created to long for one another, to love and care for one another – and our sin is when we forget that and cling to our own selfish desires rather than clinging to each other. The loss of Paradise for both Adam and the woman took place when that bond was severed through blame. If this second narration is an examination of the human heart, it is an examination of the role blame can play in destroying the tenderness of intimacy our lives in creation were meant to celebrate. The relationship between Adam and the woman were meant to be a symbol of the intimacy of our relationship with God. Blame and deceit destroyed this relationship and Adam ruled over woman and named her Eve, the mother of all. The garden of their delight, the joy of their innocence, was destroyed by the sin of their blame.

But there is another part of the Bible which speaks of a garden, and I think this is where I would like to lead us – to this other garden, a garden of delight spoken of in the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon; the wedding song of the Old Testament. The imagery is of lovers, tasting one another’s fragrant sweetness. Here ‘the garden’ is that balm they find in one another. The garden, this paradise of God, is to be found in one another. Here is the apple tree, among the trees of the forest, beloved, a shade to sit in and whose fruit is sweet to the mouth. Here is Paradise saved through the innocence of love freely given. The Song of Songs is famously a favourite of mystics – those for whom the language of Lover and Beloved are the language of worship, where that intimate relationship with God is found.

(5:1) ‘I have come to my garden, my own, my bride. I have plucked my myrrh and spice, eaten my honey and honeycomb, drunk my wine and my milk. Eat lovers, and drink. Drink deep of love!’

Perhaps it is in that love for one another that God uses Adam & Eve, to be tillers of the soil, to be gardeners. Despite their loss of innocence, despite all the blame and pointing of fingers, Adam & Eve remain together, flesh of one flesh. They till the soil, they rear their children, enduring much hardship and sorrow – but they remain husband and wife, and they grow and multiply and make fruitful the earth. The Song of Songs is full of these gardening images, of promise beneath the apple tree, of children conceived:

(7:11-13) I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me. Come, my beloved. Let us go into the open; Let us lodge among the henna shrubs. Let us go early to the vineyards. Let us see if the vine has flowered, if its blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give my love to you.

(8:6-7) Let me be a seal upon your heart, like the seal upon your hand. For love is fierce as death, passion is mighty as Sheol; its darts are darts of fire, a blazing flame. Vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it. If a man offered all his wealth for love, he would be laughed to scorn.

The Song of Songs successively presents love and desire and love-making as mutually sought in an equal way thereby hinting at how paradise can be regained. The saving of Eve is in the saving of them both. The placing of blame on one sex or the other, the demonising of men or the humiliation of women can only perpetuate that first sin.
(The women of the gospels are not ruled by their husbands and thereby point to a new freedom in Christ Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the women who followed Jesus in Luke 8.1-3.)
The price of love is pain. This is the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge that within one another can be found the joy of love shared, flesh of one flesh, bone of one bone, heart of one heart, soul of one soul; and also the greatest pain when we betray and blame one another, for our own mistakes. Together we are paradise found.