Redeeming Eve and Other Lessons in Scriptural Selectivity

I want to begin by telling you the background of the creation of this sermon. The topic was a U.U. church member’s winning bid in her congregation’s annual goods and services auction. She asked me to speak about the story of Eve, how its biblical version has negatively impacted our lives, and how there are other, more positive versions of the story that link Eve to the Great Goddess.

My first thought was, Sure. I can do that. I’ve spoken about the Sacred Feminine before, even at her church. I can talk about how Eve got a bum rap –– and rep –– as a result of being cast in the role of the first transgressor in the drama of human history. Biblical history, that is.

At that time there had arisen all this debate about and fascination with the Gnostic scriptural stories described in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. Was Jesus married to Mary Magdalene? Did they have a child, a daughter named Sara, who was the ancestor to a whole divine bloodline?

And, as if that weren’t enough, there was a later discovery of a Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which overturns the role Judas played in Jesus’ death. No longer might the apostle be seen as a betrayer; he might, indeed, have been Jesus’ closest ally in fulfilling his spiritual mission.

And soon after that discovery, there were claims that the tomb of Jesus and his family was found, containing bone boxes, or ossuaries, of, among others, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their possible child, a son named Judah.

How these stories continue to stir up the emotions of many people: traditional believers and spiritual seekers alike. Orthodox theologians have written books decrying the sacrilegious nature of these myths as they try to wrestle to the ground the possibility that alternative takes on spiritual stories might be not only interesting but possibly beneficial and even redemptive.

So on this Mother’s Day, as I did those years ago, I’ll let Eve serve as a springboard to a larger discussion about the relationship, if any, between faith and fantasy, between fact and fabrication, between religion and reality, between history and story. Are these pairs mutually exclusive? Or can each of us, by accepting the possibility of alternative scriptures and myths, find that honoring a variety of perspectives can be enriching rather than damning?

To explore this, we need to look closely at Eve –– what her character might have represented when the Hebrew scriptures were written more than 5,000 years ago, how her depiction changed three millennia later, and what she might mean to us today.

So what do we know about Eve from the Genesis stories?

I chose to focus today’s first readings on the creation of Adam and Eve rather than on the fruit-eating scene at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That’s because even before the act of so-called disobedience, Eve had already been set up as Adam’s inferior, the weaker and thus more gullible one. So naturally, given that diminished position, it makes sense that the serpent would choose her as the easier target.

So let’s take a look at that first Genesis story. God created Adam and Eve at the same time. We don’t know how, exactly, but in this initial story there certainly is no mention of a rib. And God gives both of them dominion over the earth. They are co-creators of the human experience.

But in the second Genesis story, it’s as if that storyteller needed to insure Eve’s second-class status. She was formed from Adam’s rib. And when Adam sees her, he says, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”

Do you see anything unnatural about this description? Nature has been turned on its head. Adam gives birth to Eve. What’s more, if we go back a step, we see that a male God gives birth to Adam. Not bodily, mind you, but by a breath. Woman as life-giver is nowhere in the picture. That is, until Adam and Eve are punished by God for having eaten the forbidden fruit. Then God tells Eve that it will be her sorry lot to give birth and to suffer greatly in the process.

Here’s something I never noticed before: When God first instructs Adam not to eat the fruit of the tree lest he die, Eve had not yet been created. Adam was alone in the garden. Eve had to learn of God’s command from Adam. So she had no direct communication with God until after she sinned. Again, the storyteller puts Eve in a secondary role and Adam as the intermediary between Eve and her divine source.

Now here’s the catch: Since Adam and Eve didn’t know the difference between good and evil before they ate the fruit, how could one justify God accusing them of the evil of disobedience and punishing them for it? As I see it, it’s either a naïve literary error on the storyteller’s part or else it’s a divine set-up. I think it’s the latter. I’ll come back to this point.

So these are the Genesis stories. But let’s pull back from this vantage point and see a larger socio-historical picture. Listen to this passage from an even older creation myth in the Assyrian scriptures: “The Mother-Womb, the Creatress of Destiny, in pairs she completed them. In pairs she completed before her.” Sound a little familiar?

The first five books of the Bible, that is, the Jewish Torah, didn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. They were influenced by the much older, established, matriarchal, agricultural peoples whom the early Hebrew nomadic herders encountered. Would you be surprised to know that at one point in time the early Hebrews worshiped a goddess called Astarte and her consort, named Yahweh, also called Jehovah?

In their book, The Great Cosmic Mother, Monica Sjöö and Barbara Mor describe the social, political, and theological dynamic as the two cultures clashed:

“The settled people of the Old Testament, like everyone else in the Near East, practiced Goddess worship. The Old Testament is the record of the conquest and massacre of these Neolithic people by the nomadic Hebrews, followers of a Sky-God, who then set up their biblical God in the place of the ancient Goddess….Yahweh, like all male gods, was first the bisexual Goddess herself, then her son, then the lover of the Goddess….Eventually he was turned by his priests and warrior followers into the supreme and only God; to enforce this new regime, the old Goddess religion was damned, her people slaughtered, and the …mythology of the new male God was written down by male prophets, and thus given textual authority as ‘the Word of God’.”

If this is the case, we should be able to detect evidence of this deliberate male co-opting of female power in the Genesis stories. And we do, in Eve’s creation, in her second-class status, and in her separation from direct communication with God. But there’s even more proof: Throughout Neolithic cultures, one of the most important symbols of the Goddess was the serpent, because it represented constant transformation, as in the periodic shedding of the snake’s skin, which metaphorically reflects a woman’s menses.

Of all the possible creatures to choose from, why did the Genesis storyteller use the Goddess’ symbol as the villain of the tale? After all, it is because of the serpent that evil enters Paradise –– never mind that by Genesis’ definition, the serpent was a creation of God. The first verse of chapter 3 says, “Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made.” Remember that divine set-up I mentioned earlier? I think this is part of it.

And if there is still any doubt about this supplanting of the matriarchal by the patriarchal, all we need do is remember the story of the sacrifices offered by Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel: Cain, the farmer, offers up vegetation to God, while his brother, Abel, the shepherd, offers a lamb. God rejects the older Cain’s matriarchal, agricultural sacrifice and accepts the younger Abel’s patriarchal, nomadic one. Cain, in his jealousy, kills Abel. The first murder –– committed by a metaphorical follower of the Goddess. If the Hebrews didn’t get the priests’ and prophets’ message from the story of Adam and Eve, this one was hard to miss.

There are innumerable examples of this shift throughout the Old Testament. Eve’s decision to eat the fruit might be considered the first act of human assertion. And it was her choice. What does it mean for a creation of God to want to acquire knowledge? How could that creature go about doing it? Perhaps it can be done only by separating oneself from the unifying source and creating an independent identity. To create oneself, so to speak. In this way, Eve does become like God by asserting her own creative powers, the fruit-eating result, as the serpent accurately told Eve.

Later on throughout the Old Testament, it’s as if the assertive energy of the Great Goddess couldn’t be completely suppressed. The concept of wisdom takes on a woman’s aspect in the character of Sophia (“Chokhmah” in Hebrew), a celestial being whom the Hebrews considered their link to God and whom they invoked for inspiration.

She appears in the Bible most prominently in the Book of Proverbs, Chapters 8 and 9, in which she speaks for herself. In one particularly powerful passage she says in part, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth….then I was by him, as one brought up with him….Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways.”

Sophia also appears in the Psalms, in the scripture known as the Apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, and in the New Testament. Wisdom in the form of self-knowledge became for the Jews a supreme virtue, the way that humanity forms a stronger bond with its creator.

Eve’s name means “Mother of All Living.” But there’s a greater connection between her and God. Leonard Shlain points this out in his fascinating book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess:

“Eve’s name in Hebrew, Haweh…and God’s name, Yahweh, both derive from the Hebrew verb to be. Haweh also closely resembles Hewya, which is Hebrew for serpent, and Hawa is the Hebrew verb to instruct.”

Thus a metaphorical relationship was unconsciously formed connecting Eve, God, and the Great Goddess, based on the impulse toward self-knowledge. If we fast-forward three millennia, to the time shortly after Jesus walked the earth, we see how the female impulse is used to solidify this relationship.

After Jesus’ death around 30 A.D., stories about him abounded, oral stories that described things Jesus did and said. Followers of Jesus had all kinds of perspectives about him, from a healer, to a rabbi, to a messiah, and even to the living son of God. These stories flourished from the 1st to the 4th centuries A.D. and tended to fall into two general schools of belief: the literalists and the Gnostics. The literalists emphasized the historical parts of Jesus’ life, his fulfillment of Jewish law and prophecy, and the principle of salvation of humankind through his sacrifice on the cross.

The Gnostics, on the other hand, maintained that salvation comes through knowledge, not sacrifice, and thus they emphasized Jesus’ teachings about how to live in the world. They continued the traditions of Eve and Sophia, applying the feminine impulse easily to Jesus, who broke away from the patriarchal teachings of the Hebrew scribes and Pharisees. He placed less value on following the literal word of God’s laws and greater value on embracing the heart of those laws. In his emphasis on love, compassion, relationship, and tolerance, and on his inclusion in his ministry of women such as Mary Magdalene, as well as Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, he re-established a balance between the male and female that the Hebrews hadn’t experienced for thousands of years.

Some of the Gnostic stories were written down and hidden, and were discovered in 1945 in the Nag Hammadi valley of Egypt. From these writings we learn that some Gnostic Christians believed that there was a true God who preceded the creator god. This true God was androgynous, incorporating male and female energies, and who soon gave birth to the universe and to a lower male god, the creator god Yaldabaoth, or Yahweh, and to a female goddess, Sophia, or Wisdom.

Another Gnostic belief was in Sophia as the ordering principle in the world. The wisdom she represents is not learned by following laws but is instead revealed intuitively from within the human spirit.

And finally, the Gnostics believed that as a result of the creation of the universe, a spark of the divine resides in each human being. And it is through inner wisdom that this divinity is manifested and humanity reaches enlightenment.

So how does Eve’s character relate to all of this? It’s impossible to summarize all the variations of Gnostic Christian stories about the creation of the world, but here’s what scholar Stephan Hoeller writes in an article called “The Genesis Factor”:

“The Gnostic Christians who authored the Nag Hammadi scriptures did not read Genesis as history with a moral, but as a myth with a meaning. To them, Adam and Eve were not actual historical figures, but representatives of two intrapsychic principles within every human being. Adam was the dramatic embodiment of psyche, or soul, while Eve stood for the pneuma, or spirit. Soul, to the Gnostics, meant the embodiment of the emotional and thinking functions of the personality, while spirit represented the human capacity for spiritual consciousness. The former was the lesser self (the ego…), the latter the transcendental function, or the ‘higher self,’ as it is sometimes known. Obviously, Eve, then, is by nature superior to Adam, rather than inferior as implied by orthodoxy.”

So how were these Gnostic stories lost to us for thousands of years? Why weren’t they included in the Bible? Here’s where we get to the heart of the entire issue of scriptural selectivity. We all know that history is written by the winners. It turns out that so is religious scripture. The literalists were the power brokers of the early Christian church. And it was they who took those writings they agreed with and established them as authoritative theology, suppressing and even destroying other texts that threatened their hold on power. And here’s where I need to tell you about two men: Valentinus, the Gnostic, and Irenaeus, the literalist.

Valentinus was probably the most influential Gnostic of his time. He was born in Egypt about 100 A.D. and in the year 143, he was a candidate for bishop of Rome –– what today is called the Pope –– but he lost the election to Pius I, a literalist. Now consider how Christianity might have been different if Valentinus had been in charge of things. And consider how the history of the Western world would have changed. The place of women would have been exalted. A greater balance between the male and female impulses in every human might have been restored.

Irenaeus was also an influential early Christian. He was the bishop of Lyon in Gaul, what is now France, around the time of Valentinus. He called for a need to organize Christian beliefs to better strengthen the church against Roman Empire persecution. Around the year 180, he wrote a document called “Against Heresies,” in which he claimed that only four Gospels –– Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John –– should make up the New Testament. Ironically, his reasoning was based on metaphor. As he said, “there are four corners to the earth, there are four winds, there are four beasts of the Apocalypse.”

The leaders of the church eventually agreed with him, and around the year 367, they met and decided the Christian canon. For them, it was important to establish a factual account of New Testament events, that is, to combine religion and history, unlike Valentinus and the other Gnostics, for whom true spiritual enlightenment was based on the metaphorical meanings found in story.

So there you have it. A group of powerful people deciding which religious stories were acceptable and accurate and which were doomed to the flames.

We’ve seen this happen not only with religions but also with cultures, political beliefs, and even with the lives of people. Consider such things as Hitler’s embrace of the myth of the Aryan race, his absolute intolerance of other realities, and his persecution of those who embodied them. Millions of people were slaughtered because of this selectivity of story, solely due to the fact that the people of Germany –– and the rest of the Western world –– allowed this selectivity to occur.

And what about in the 21st century? What myths are the powerful seeking to impose on their populations today? What “unpatriotic” alternative perspectives on those stories are they trying to suppress? What additional myths are being created to convince us to fear one another, to bar and reject refugees, and to doubt our democratic institutions?

And let’s not forget about the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. These myths still maintain a powerful influence in the minds of billions of people. Globally, women still have second-class status, even after millennia. They are raped, beaten, genitally mutilated, treated as property, and sold into slavery and forced prostitution. Our environment has come under assault by the enduring patriarchal directive to Adam and Eve to dominate Nature. And, still embracing the ways of Yahweh, we promote war and other violent interactions with other cultures based on power, fear, and retribution.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to be vigilant when others try to force their mythologies on us while they edit out our opinions or those of others. For what happens to us in the world when we let others pick and choose what’s acceptable to believe? Like Eve, we risk becoming disconnected from our spiritual source. We lose sight of the fact that spiritual insight cannot be externally imposed but must arise from within. We begin to doubt the validity of our individual imaginations and creativity. And, if we fail to stand up for the right to our own beliefs and those of others, we risk our freedom, our security, and even our lives.

So what can we do when faced with other versions of reality or religious belief? Here’s what I think.

First, we should entertain the possibility that all ideas are potential sources of wisdom. We needn’t automatically cast aside opposing versions without subjecting them to honest scrutiny based on our own intuition and experience.

Second, we should ask ourselves if what we are hearing comes from a place of love or fear. Does the idea or belief promote relationship and peace, or is it alienating, chauvinistic, divisive, and confrontational?

Third, we can listen for metaphor, even in the most literal of scriptures. There are always levels of meaning we can derive from any scriptural narrative. One way to search for these levels is to identify with each character in any story. For example, in what ways are you Adam? In what ways are you Eve? In what ways are you the serpent? And in what ways are you God?

Finally, leave yourself open to the possibility of changing your own religious stories and beliefs as you yourself change.

Remember: When myth is mutated and becomes history, the implication is that there is only one factual account. But when myth is cherished as story, there are an infinite number of facets to it, and thus it contains for us a far greater potential for knowledge of self and of the world.

Ultimately, this may be Eve’s greatest contribution to humankind: That in seeking to know and to pass on that knowledge to another, she is the catalyst for self-understanding and self-realization. By her action, she forges a bridge between the human and the divine. What greater gift can the Mother of All Living bestow on her children?