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WhereWas Adam?

Scandinavian Journal for the Old Testament



Where Was Adam?

Charles David Isbell

Louisiana State University




            The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2.4a-3.24) has formed the basis for numerous Jewish and Christian theological positions. Ideas about human mortality, sexuality, male-female relationships, sin and temptation, and even the identification of the serpent with the later figure of Satan have all been traced back, appropriately or not, at least partially to this narrative. The purpose of this short note is to reexamine the biblical depictions of Adam and Eve in order to determine where early post-biblical interpreters have lifted their roles from the text itself (exegesis) as well as where later ideas about their roles have been inserted into the text (eisegesis) in an attempt to forge from the biblical narrative some justification of positions brought to the text on the basis of prior ideological commitments.


The best-known interpretations of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2.4b-3.24) place responsibility for the first human sin entirely on Eve. A primary example of this perspective comes from the pseudo-Pauline New Testament epistle of First Timothy: “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (2.14). The ideological bias of the author becomes clear from the fact that this statement, presented as undeniable fact, provides justification for his confidence not only that he knows how women should dress, fix their hair, and wear jewelry (2.9), but also that they should “receive instruction with total submission” (2.11). In addition, the anonymous author avers, “I do not allow a woman to teach or hold a position of authority over a male, but rather to remain silent” (2.12). In fact, because Eve (and not Adam!) was at fault in the garden, the only hope of salvation for all females must be that they bear children and keep a good attitude about it (2.15).

Granted that this passage in First Timothy taxes the idea of Eve’s responsibility rather melodramatically, it is important to note that the writer was not expressing an original idea in offering his own personal spin on the Genesis narrative. Among Jewish authorities, the second-century BCE teacher ben Sira had earlier stated the matter equally unequivocally: “The beginning of sin was from a woman, and because of her, we all die” (Ecclesiasticus 25.24), and a similar sentiment is echoed in Philo,[1] Josephus,[2] and elsewhere.[3] In particular, as noted New Testament authority Raymond Brown observes aptly, “the prohibition against women teaching in the assembly or having authority over men resembles synagogue practice.”[4]  

            A cursory reading of the Genesis text appears at first blush to support this position. In the narrative, clearly Eve was the first to partake of the forbidden fruit, and just as clearly, she was the one who gave it to Adam after she herself had eaten (Gen 3.6).[5] What is more, while the text portrays Eve as having disobeyed God, the chief failing of Adam appears to be that he had “listened to the voice of [his] wife” (3.17). What is more, the narrative portrays Adam himself as the first male to blame a female for his own disobedience, and notes that he even went so far as to indict God for having given him Eve in the first place (3.12). Little wonder, then, that subsequent interpreters placed the blame on Eve. They were not blaming Eve, the Bible itself was!

            But there is another aspect to the biblical story as well as to its subsequent interpretation. A closer reading of the text reveals that throughout their conversation (Gen 3.1-5), both the serpent and Eve consistently employed the plural:

[The serpent] said: “Did God really say, ‘you (pl.) may not eat from any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said, “We may eat the produce of the garden trees, but concerning the produce of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘you (pl.) may not partake of it, and you (pl.) may not touch it, lest you (pl.) die’.” So the serpent said to the woman, “You (pl.) will not really die. But God knows that on the day you (pl.) partake of it, your (pl.) eyes will be opened, and you (pl.) will become divine,[6] knowing (pl. participle) everything.”[7]


It is thus obvious that throughout the entire exchange between the serpent and his wife, Adam was close at hand. And this point is underscored not only by the plural forms in the text assuming him to be within earshot, but also by the fact that when Eve wished to share with Adam the taste of the new fruit she had just eaten, she did not need to act as a temptress, and faced no objections from him that had to be overcome. Nor did she have to search for him. She simply “gave some to her husband who was with her” (‘immah), i.e., who had been standing mute beside her all along. In the words of Nahum Sarna, “the man was all the time within ear’s reach of the conversation and was equally seduced by its persuasiveness.”[8] In other words, far from being persuaded by Eve, Adam heard and fell victim to the same argument that confused her.

Not only does his presence throughout the serpentine dialogue involve Adam directly in disobedience along with Eve, it refutes in advance his later attempt (cited above) to excuse himself in the eyes of God. And as will be noted below, even if Adam had not been close enough to overhear the conversation between Eve and the serpent, the fact remains that he alone had heard the original prohibition directly from the mouth of God.[9] Either or both of these facts deny to Adam any possibility of excusing himself from blame.

            But the biblical text may implicate Adam in a more serious fashion. Interpreters have often noted that the original commandment of God to Adam did not include a prohibition against touching the tree, leading to the assumption that this more stringent element of the divine prohibition was added gratuitously by Eve. As a result, Eve appears to have been either confused or willfully resistant to the divine instructions. Yet when God gave the prohibition to Adam (Gen 2.16-17), Eve had not yet been created! It is not until Genesis 2.22 that “YHWH ’Elohim formed into a woman the rib that He had extracted from the man.” Thus whatever information Eve had about the forbidden tree could not have come directly from God, but must have come from Adam’s repetition to her of what God had said to him earlier, well before her arrival. In short, since everything Eve knew about the matter had been relayed to her by Adam, apparently the one who was confused or willfully resistant was not the woman but the man.[10]

This idea was noted as early as the era of the Tanna’im (ca. 100 BCE-220 CE). In a third- century commentary on the mishnaic tractate ’Avot, the following statement occurs: “Adam did not choose to tell the words of God to Eve accurately, as they had been spoken [to him].”[11] In other words, Adam’s willfully false information had left Eve ill-prepared to comprehend the divine decree and thus unable to handle the arguments of the tempter. This explains, according to the commentary just cited, how Eve’s lack of understanding allowed the serpent to touch the tree with Eve watching, and convince her that since mere touching of the tree did not produce death, perhaps everything else told to her by her husband had also been incorrect. In other words, if Adam intended to make the divine prohibition more stringent in order to be certain that his wife would not violate it, “the plan backfired.”[12]

Recent modern scholarship has often sought to alert readers of the Bible to the male orientation that colors numerous texts, and not a few scholars have sought to highlight interpretative possibilities that are more sensitive to the concerns and perspectives of female characters.[13] While it is impossible to rewrite the Bible to make it appear more egalitarian than was in fact the case, it is nonetheless important to take seriously the clues contained in narratives like the one under consideration, especially when they show a more balanced view of the male-female orientation than has been commonly supposed. In other words, while the fact that many post-biblical interpreters depicted Eve harshly as the sole cause of sin and death in the world cannot be denied, such depictions cannot be laid entirely and uncritically at the feet of the biblical narrative itself. In the mind of the narrator, Adam was present, strangely detached from the whole affair, weak to the point of whining not only about his wife but about God, and deserving of his punishment every bit as much as were the guilty serpent and Eve.        

Thus we are brought to a salient point about the history of the interpretation of the narrative. While some early interpreters indeed blamed Eve, as shown above, others laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of Adam. And sometimes the same interpreter held both opinions. Thus Philo, cited above as blaming Eve, also accuses Adam: “Abandoning immortality and a life of happiness, you crossed over to death and unhappiness.”[14] A late first-century pseudepigraphal work notes that God established only a single prohibition for Adam, “but he violated it.”[15] Another late first century author agreed, stating simply that, “Adam sinned.”[16] And even the sometimes misogynous Paul noted that, “… sin came into the world via one man.”[17]

These opinions should not be taken to mean that Adam rather than Eve ought to be blamed for the first sin. What should be clear is that the biblical story itself chronicles enough guilt to implicate them both, and a fair reading of the text indicates dual culpability to be shared equally between the man and the woman. At the same time, careful interpretation demands that the stereotype of the woman as confused, weak, easily misled, and a temptress, be set aside, along with the idea that the male in the story was stronger, wiser, braver, or protective of his wife. In the end, the narrative is about human beings, male and female, both genders of which fail their initial test and both of whom endure harsh punishment from God as a consequence.

[1] Creation, 151-152.

[2] Jewish Antiquities, 149.

[3] James L. Kugel, The Bible As It Was (Cambridge: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997, 69-72) lists these and a number of similar references.

[4] An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1977), 660, note 18.

[5] In addition, the punishment of Eve was handed down before God sentenced Adam, who had been created first, perhaps implying that she was the more guilty of the two (see Gen 3.16). See note 10 below.

[6] Or, “like divine beings,” i.e., angels. ’elohim is often used to refer to angels. See Harry M. Orlinsky, Notes on the New Translation of the Torah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1969), 63-64.

[7] “Good and evil” form a merismus here. If one understands both good and evil, one is truly omniscient. In like manner, to say that God created “heaven and earth” is a poetic way of affirming that He created everything.

[8] The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: JPS, 1989, 25).

[9] Gen 2.16-17, on which see further below.

[10] It is interesting in this regard that although the author of First Timothy thinks the fact that Adam was created first was important (2.13), he makes no comment on the fact that whatever information Eve had about the divine prohibition must have come from Adam rather than from God directly.

[11]’Avot de Rabbi Nathan, Chapter 1.

[12] See Kugel, The Bible As It Was, 78.

[13] See especially the closely argued and persuasive article by Reuven Kimelman, “The Seduction of Eve and Feminist Readings of the Garden of Eden,” Women in Judaism, Vol. 1, No 2 (1998). Two important treatments of early narratives in Genesis are Linda S. Schearing, Valarie H. Ziegler, and Kristen E. Kyam (eds.), Eve & Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999); and Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 1st Vintage Books Edition, 1989).

[14] Questions and Answers in Genesis I:45.

[15] 4 Ezra 3.7.

[16] 2 Baruch 17.2.

[17] Romans 5.12. See also First Corinthians 15.21-22.

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