Girl and snake part one

After the creation narrative, of course, the second Genesis account moves on to perhaps the most famous of all Biblical narratives, that story of the ishshah, and the serpent, and the two strange trees. Genesis 3 is hardly ever quoted in our current controversies, and although it has historically been used to undermine the position of women in marriage, society, and the church, it is rarely openly employed that way in Anglican contexts today. Nevertheless, it is a story which has often been (though incorrectly) perceived as a story about sex, and it is certainly a story which touches on issues of gender differentiation – as well as, of course, being the rupture which effectively structures the shape of the entire succeeding narrative – so it is worth re-reading it.

Sexual differentiation of some kind already exists in Genesis 3, has existed since the woman was formed from the bone and flesh of the original human creature – there is now ish and ishshah, in partnership, but it is unclear how much meaning this differentiation initially has. When the human couple are placed in the garden and directed to care for it, they are not assigned different tasks; nor, at this stage of this version of the story, is biological reproduction even mentioned. There is no distinction in qualities attributed to them, nor is there any real indication of a hierarchy of power.

Then the rupture occurs, a taboo is violated, and the creatures themselves are changed. One of the advantages of the folk tale genre – like the parables which Jesus favoured – is that a great deal of potential meaning can be contained in a few simple symbols. Was the rupture created solely by disobedience as such? Is the act of consumption part of the nature of the transgression? Is the woman driven by curiosity, by pride, by hunger, greed, or desire? And what, after all, does it mean to eat the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil – and why does doing so shake the nature of creation? That these questions have been answered in so many different ways, over the millenia during which this story has been told, is part of what makes it so resonant, a story we cannot give up. We recognize the rupture. We spend our time, as generations before have spent their time, trying to understand it.

The immediate consequences of the rupture, as spelled out by God in the garden, include mortality, unpleasant and difficult agricultural work, biological reproduction which is a source of pain or sorrow, exile from the garden, and from the “tree of life” within it, and gendered inequality. The two human creatures are now suddenly sharply differentiated, and assigned different labours.

And the man names his wife Eve. This is a far more serious and significant moment than most readers of the text seem to note. Previous to this, the man has named all the subordinate creatures who are brought to him – but not the one fit to be his partner, bone of bone and flesh of flesh. Her identity, until this point, has been her own. This naming is arguably the first act of domination in the human world, one human presuming to define, to prescribe, the identity of another, and it is gendered domination. And while the name Chava/Eve means, more or less, simply “life”, the text makes it clear that the naming means that she is now to be defined by her procreative function, as “the mother of all those living.”

Before the murder of Cain, there is this – one person moving to enclose, to confine, to assert ownership of, another person’s identity and being. The woman, now Eve, the first casualty, perhaps, of the fall.

This raises interesting questions, then, with regard how we think about all of these postlapsarian phenomena. Certainly, they are all part of how we experience human life in this world. But if social differentiation based on sex or gender, biological reproduction, and relationships of gendered inequality are all described as results of the fall, this does suggest that none are to be regarded as part of the essence of human nature.

This has been, in fact, the near-universal reading of this story in the Eastern church. Going back to the doubled structure of the sentence in Genesis 1 which describes the creation of humankind (“God made humankind in his own image, male and female he made them”), and taking seriously also Galatians 3:28, the Greek Fathers proposed, and the Eastern church has continued to hold, that the original human creature was not sexually differentiated at all; that this differentiation was a sort of second step in creation, taken with a view to the impending fall (or possibly even after it); and that it did not become actively important until after the fall, when mortality required that human beings replace themselves by having children. One need not believe in the fall of humankind as a literal event within history to understand the meaning embedded in this – that both binary sex and binary gender are essentially epiphenomena, and indeed highly problematic epiphenomena, experienced as very real to us now, no doubt, but not part of the ontological truth of the human person, and founded in our alienation from God. The eschatological human person, fully realized in Christ, may well exist without gender or sexual differentiation – and certainly without the human power hierarchies constructed around sex and gender.

This could sound, and in the hands of some theologians does sound, rather thin and unappealing as a picture of humanity. Most people are fairly attached to their experience as sexed and gendered beings, and put off by the idea of the redeemed human person as a sort of neuter (especially as, when carefully examined enough, this often ends up being a dilute crypto-masculinity). On the other hand, one of the most subtle of the patristic writers, Gregory of Nyssa, creates throughout his work an image of humanity in which embodiment, and even sexuality, are central, complex, and intrinsically part of our relationship with God and our eschatological destiny – eros is transformed and redirected, but preserved, in our spiritual progess into the life of the Trinity – but in which both sex and gender seem surprisingly fluid and mutable. For a late antique man who could write convincingly from the perspective of a bride in the throes of passion, who imagines Jesus the Bridegroom feeding his bride from his own breasts, who casually violates grammatical gender categories to call his sister he didaskalos, and whose ideal vision both of human relationship to God, and of generation within the Trinity, is Mary’s virginal conception, gender is clearly a complicated matter, and to say that the eschatological human person is not shaped by the confines of a gender binary may suggest something other than an erasure of all difference.

I’m not intending to imply that the Eastern reading, even in its most subtle versions, is the be-all and end-all of the interpretation of gender in Genesis. I take to heart Sarah Coakley’s reminder in Powers and Submissions (Blackwell, 2002) that the Eastern church has had more difficulty accepting women in leadership than almost any Western denomination, which suggests that the theology fails a certain sort of on-the-ground test. Nor does this particular eschatological vision fully honour the experiences of those who experience their own sexual or gender identities (whether or not those two align) as deeply important on an ontological level. It is one reading of a rich and mysterious story, and not the only one; there is much more to say about how we may imagine redeemed humanity in Christ, and how the story of the garden may inform that imagination. But it is crucial to remember just how much depth of mystery we are dealing with.

Of course, it would be possible to argue that we are required, in this world, to live within the consequences of the fall; that, as fallen creatures, we are obliged to live in the binaries and the hierarchies and the inequities. And yet, Christian theologians have consistently maintained that, in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, the fall has been meaningfully reversed, that we have been meaningfully made a new/renewed humanity. We cannot fully live out our eschatological destiny now; but our practices and disciplines should be such as to root us in this new humanity, begin to form us towards it, not such as to embed us in our failure.

What this could mean about marriage, or indeed about other convenantal relationships between human creatures, is an underexplored question – how we may strive in this world to construct relationships which understand human partnership as a gift of our original created nature, while knowing that even covenant partnerships exist in bounded and socially provided forms, in which we struggle with our fallen constructions of sex, gender, power, and hierarchy; as well as how we may think about the persistence of relationship eschatologically, or begin to imagine how, or whether, there might be enduring personal convenant between created beings when these constructions are stripped away or profoundly changed, and eros is transformed towards God. It is not impossible that same-sex/same-gender couples, who have historically been far less able to slot their relationships into neat and socially accepted categories, may be able to add a particular insight to this imaginative theological effort.

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