Women Othered in Genesis

In Simone de Beauvoir’s introduction to The Second Sex, she considers various interpretations of Genesis, which are useful to consider. She states:

“What people have endlessly sought to prove is that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man: created after Adam, she is obviously a secondary being, some say; on the contrary say others, Adam was only a rough draft, and God perfected the human being when he created Eve; her brain is smaller, but relatively bigger; Christ was made man, but perhaps out of humility. Every argument has its opposite, and both are often misleading. To see clearly, one needs to get out of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, inferiority, and equality that have distorted all discussions must be discarded in order to start anew” (15).

A standard feminist reading of Genesis might emphasize that Eve was made of Adam’s rib and that he named her, that is, the first man named the first woman: “this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken” (2:22-23). Whereas Adam was named and created by the Lord God, “from the dust of the ground,” Eve was created for him, because “It is not good that the man should be alone;” in other words, though she was created to be “his partner” she is instructed that he is the superior human being, and that her “desire shall be for [her] husband, and he shall rule over [her]” (2:7-18; 3:16). However, this reading may be challenged with passages from the first chapter of Genesis, such as verse 27: “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Whether or not this conception of creation is in harmony with the account in the following chapter is not entirely clear. Eve can be construed as wiser than Adam for eating from the tree but it is also important to note that the default human being is male and that God is referred to throughout Genesis with male or gender neutral pronouns and never female pronouns. Most of the passages detailing genealogy focus on or only mention male names and Adam and Eve as a couple are often defined by the male in the relationship, referred to as “the man and his wife” rather than “the man and the woman” or “the woman and her husband.” “Adam knew his wife,” “to Seth also a son is born:” proper nouns are used to define males but females are are clearly distinguished as the Other. In Genesis chapter 6, “the sons of God…took wives for themselves” because they “saw that they were fair.” The women’s agency, in what footnotes suggest was divine-human intercourse, is glossed over, and this is the only example given to indicate that “the wickedness of humankind” was so “great on the Earth” that God chose to destroy most of his creations. The editor of this version of Genesis notes that “nothing appears to happen to the sons of God…who instigated it all:” is there some victim blaming going on here?

Claims such as these have been made many, many times and Simone de Beauvoir suggests that getting caught up in the semantics of superiority, inferiority, and equality, as I have just done, is not useful. If this is the case, how is any progress to be made? Does considering gender relations in Genesis have some useful purpose? To what extent have accounts in Genesis contributed to the historical oppression of women?

Catherine MacKinnon’s suggestion that women cannot really claim their power leaves no room for progress, but that feels very unsatisfying. Is gender parity simply an idealistic, unrealistic goal? On the other hand, Adrienne Rich calls for a politics of radical solidarity and asks women to consider lesbian relationships, and to recognize the power of heteronormativity and compulsory heterosexuality which, she claims, limit women’s potential to make informed choices about their own sexuality. How can “‘lesbian existence’ be potentially liberating for all women” when some women’s sexual orientation is heterosexual (659)? Would this path be effective but, more importantly, is it possible?

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3 thoughts on “Women Othered in Genesis

  1. The connection you draw between your analysis of Genesis and the advice deBeauvoir provides to her readers is interesting and insightful– thank you for sharing! I think further developing what we mean by “equality” and “parity” may be helpful in discussion, as I am a bit unclear myself. I remember one of the authors discusses the two terms, but I forget which. If anyone remembers, let me know!

    • Hi Andrea, I’m actually not entirely sure.
      Dictionary.com says that parity means “equality, as in amount, status, or character” or “equivalence; correspondence; similarity; analogy.” When I Googled “define parity” it said “the state or condition of being equal, esp. regarding status or pay.” So I guess they have similar meanings but gender parity might focus on pay or equivalent amounts. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Pingback: Dignified role for the woman | Stepping Toes

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