Woman the Temptress
by Dr Geraldine Sharp, University of Plymouth.
The three ‘Abrahamic’ religions – Jewish, Christian & Muslim – carried forward many ideas from the Hebrew bible, which provided ‘divine’ justification for ideas about women and about men. Genesis 2 and 3 have been used as ‘proof’ that woman should be subordinate to man. The explanation involved the Hebrew notion of a monotheistic, male God. They also believed in a former ‘perfect world’, which had somehow been contaminated and despoiled by a woman. Eve was cast as the temptress. Adam’s downfall illustrated why men must forever be on their guard against the wiles of a woman. In the early Christian Church the patriarchal interpretation of Genesis 2-3 was evident in Corinthians when Paul points out that women should be subordinate to men. This negative view of women reflected the Hebrew construction of woman and patriarchal notions of the day. This negative construction of woman was later re-enforced by the three ‘Fathers of the Church’ Augustine, Albert and Aquinas who are the subject of a later article. They cemented the notion of woman the temptress, an inferior being into Christian sexual theology; and supported and sustained social and religious patriarchy. By the time of the Reformation the patriarchal views of women are accepted as ‘truth’.
In order to understand how woman became described as ‘temptress’ and how this idea was perpetuated, it is necessary to consider the Hebrew beliefs about the creation of the world. The Hebrew story of creation was later fundamental to an emerging Christian sexual theology which supported and sustained patriarchal beliefs and organisation. The Hebrew bible and the creation stories, in which woman was clearly identified as man’s helpmate and subordinate to him provided one of the earliest religious justifications for the subordination of women. The creation story ensured that woman was seen as the site and cause of sin and every man must be on his guard against her As Christianity developed out of Judaism it took with it traditional ideas about women and about men. Around five hundred years later the new religion of Islam also accepted many of these traditional ideas. These three ‘Abrahamic’ religions carried forward many ideas from the Hebrew bible, which provided ‘divine’ justification for ideas about women and about men. Genesis 2 and 3 have been used as ‘proof’ that woman should be subordinate to and controlled by man.
Feminist biblical scholarship has suggested that traditional explanations for Genesis were speculative and strongly influenced by patriarchal Hebrew society.1 Feminist critics have challenged Christian interpretations of the creation stories, 2 for example, Carol Meyers (1983) considers that Genesis 2–3 is a ‘wisdom tale’ that attempts to address the complexities of human life. Christian theologians later linked Adam’s downfall to the temptations of Eve and the sexual act; and subsequently to the Original sin.
The Hebrew creation story is significant. It was rightly assumed that the world had developed over time, and humans had been one of the last to develop. In the absence of the later understanding of evolution the Hebrews constructed an explanation which involved their notion of a monotheistic God. They believed in a former ‘perfect world’, which had somehow been contaminated and despoiled.
In simple terms, the Hebrew explanation for creation is that God took seven days to create the world; then he completed his creation by creating man. Surprisingly, the God who had managed to create the universe realised that he had not thought this last bit through. He noticed that man was lonely, so he decided to create woman, not as man had been created, but created out of a part of man’s body – his rib. Man and woman lived in the most beautiful and wonderful place called Paradise. The man and woman, later named Adam and Eve, enjoyed life and ‘everything in the garden was perfect’.
Then everything changed. Why? What happened? The story explains: there was a serpent (who was really the Devil), that snaked its way around the garden looking for an opening to get back at God for throwing him out of heaven. He found it. There was a fruit tree in the garden, the fruit of which the man and woman must not eat. The serpent persuaded Eve to eat from the tree. Eve then persuaded Adam to eat from the tree. God was not best pleased and punished them by throwing them out of the garden. Cast out of Paradise, they would now have to work for their living. The woman had spoiled it for the whole human race. Eve was picked out for special attention. She and all her descendants would bring forth children in pain as an extra punishment
The context of this story is significant, because according to the story, if it had not been for a woman we would all still be enjoying life in Paradise. A perfect creation had been spoiled. This spoliation of and exodus from Paradise was entirely the woman’s fault. The inference is that Adam was minding his own business when Eve sidled up to him, and put the idea of eating the forbidden fruit into his head. He clearly needed little persuasion. Nevertheless, it was Eve’s fault. When God challenged Adam and Eve about what they had done Adam said in effect that it was Eve’s fault as … ‘she gave me of the tree, and I did eat’. Adam had been dragged down by her; if she had not persuaded him to eat the fruit everything would have remained perfect. Nothing was said in the story about joint responsibility or that Adam should have dissuaded Eve. It was a story biased in favour of Adam. Eve got the blame. Barrister Helena Kennedy’s book Eve was Framed 3 says it all in its title. Shame she was not there to defend Eve at the time.
In summary, God created the world and in this world was a place called Paradise. Man was created in order to enjoy Paradise. Woman was a mere afterthought created for man’s benefit. The woman, Eve was tempted by the Devil, she then tempted Adam who could not resist her pleas. Woman was therefore a danger to men and must be controlled. Patriarchal attitudes towards women found justification and a convenient resting place in religion.
The early Christian Church perpetuated the patriarchal interpretation of Genesis 2-3. In Corinthians, Paul points out that, ‘…neither was man created for woman, but woman was created for man’. 4 Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian theologians and a polemicist against heresy, especially Christian Gnosticism, spoke to women saying:
‘And do you not know that you are each an Eve? …you are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily, God’s image man.5
Over time, Eve has been the villain of the piece purely through speculation and interpretation influenced by patriarchy. Man, left alone would be perfect. It was a woman who tempted man to evil; therefore, man must be wary of woman for she is a temptress and will lead him astray. Men must control women otherwise women will be their downfall. Cultural and social life is full of contradictions and this attitude towards women is difficult to reconcile with expectations laid on women to take responsibility for controlling male desire.
This is not the end of the story. This negative view of women was re-enforced by the three ‘Fathers of the Church’ Augustine, Albert and Aquinas who are the subject of a later article. They cemented the notion of woman the temptress an inferior being into Christian sexual theology.6 By the time of the Reformation the patriarchal views of women were accepted as ‘truth’. Martin Luther, a German theologian who challenged practices in the Christian Church did not challenge the literal ‘truth’ of the creation myth. There was no Reformation for women. Luther preached that:
‘Satan’s cleverness is perceived also in this, that he attacks the weak part of the human nature, Eve the woman, not Adam the man.’7
Following the Reformation, the hegemony of Christendom was destroyed. The Catholic and the various Protestant churches that emerged from the Reformation did not change the patriarchal interpretation of Genesis with regard to women. Over the past 2000 years, the Christian churches have perpetuated and sustained the inferior position of women in society and in the churches. Woman as temptress, useful only for procreation and the containment of male lust remains an on-going feature in Christianity.
- Phyllis Trible Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread. Andover Newton Theological School.
- Carol Meyers (1983), Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context. Oxford University Press.
- Helena Kennedy (2011), Eve Was Framed: Women and British Justice. Random House.
- Cor. 11:7-9. 1 Corinthians 11:7-9
- Tertullian. (1999). On the Apparel of Women in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim
Reading of Genesis. pp132-133. Indiana University Press.
- Sharp Geraldine (2017) Woman -The Failed Male: The Missing Link in Theories of Male Superiority. Honora Publishing.
- Luther, M. (1999). Letters on Genesis in ed. Kirsten E. Kvam, Linda S. Schearing and Valerie H. Zieglar. Eve and Adam, Jewish Christian and Muslim Reading of Genesis. pp267-274. Indiana University Press
- Kate Millett (1969), Sexual Politics. Granada Publishing.
- Mary Daly (1973), Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston, Beacon Press.
- Mieke Bal (1987), Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories. Bloomington and Indianapolis. Indiana University Press.
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1818), The Woman’s Bible. New York: European Publishing Company. Republished 28 Mar. 2003, Dover Publications Inc.
For a fuller discussion on this and other topics see: –
Sharp Geraldine (2017), Woman -The Failed Male: The Missing Link in Theories of Male Superiority. Honora Publishing. ISBN 978 099 558 7502