This is the promised continuation of my recent post on the idealization of women, both as paragons of virtue and as the epitome of temptation. In that post, I tried to show that men, through many centuries and even millenia, have exhibited a tendency to portray women as either entirely virtuous or as complete temptresses whom they, the men, cannot resist. I also raised a number of questions about whether this treatment is justified, biblically speaking.
For, as I said in that previous post, this dual characterization of women is at least as old as the book of Proverbs where it is a major theme — Wisdom personified as a woman calls the young man toward virtuous living while the Wicked Woman calls him toward a life of sin.
Now I would like to look more closely at the biblical evidence. Let’s start with the negative: evidence that women are the cause of men’s moral downfall. One must start, of course, “In the Beginning” with Genesis and particularly the fall of Adam in Genesis 3. As the story unfolds, it is actually much like the movie depiction of the beautiful temptress — the serpent must reason with Eve to get her to eat; she gives the fruit to Adam and he eats without questioning. When God come to accuse them, Adam blames Eve (and to some extent God Himself for having given her to him in the first place) and Eve blames the serpent. What this tells me is that this story is as old as time, or at least as old as humankind (depends on your view of creation, I suppose 😉 ). Not only is the basic outline all there, the man’s blaming his sin on the woman and painting himself as only an innocent victim unable to resist is also there. I have never really thought before about how Eve has to be convinced and yet Adam follows her into sin unquestioningly. Kind of puts a different spin on things, doesn’t it?
At any rate, the question we must then ask is: Is this version of the story true? I’m not doubting the Genesis account; what I am asking is: Is Adam really a relatively innocent dupe?
If you will allow me to digress a moment to establish some terminology — I am not a literary scholar and am not sure of what terminology to use, but if you will allow me, I am going to call the bare bones outline which appears here in Genesis and in the film noir movies that first started this discussion the metanarrative (no idea if this is how the term is usually used). As I am using it then, the metanarrative is the outline of the story with all its most essential elements, most, if not all, of which then appear in the various versions of the tale which take the basic outline and apply specific characters and circumstances to it.
Returning now to the main argument — in the metanarrative, the man certainly blames his downfall on the woman, but I do think that we, the audience, are also made to understand that he is not completely innocent. It is understood that he has done wrong, but he is relatively innocent in that the woman who lured him is the primary mover and is pictured as having a greater moral responsibility for what happened. His crime, whatever it may be, is somewhat inadvertent; he has been lured or tricked in some way and has not made a conscious, clear-headed choice. She has been clear-headed all along and her actions are deliberate; they are not muddied by emotion as his are because she has no real emotion for him.
This only partially fits the biblical picture. There is a level at which Eve has considered her actions and Adam has not. But she was no more committing deliberate evil than he was. I Timothy tells us that it was Eve who was deceived:
“And Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” (I Tim. 2:14; ESV)
If anything in the biblical story, it is the serpent who knowingly and without emotion lures both Adam and Eve into sin. When God punishes all three, He says to the serpent “Because you have done this” (v. 14) and to Adam “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’” (v. 17), but He does not comment on the why of Eve’s punishment. Rather than holding her more responsible, as our metanarrative does, God seems to hold her less responsible in that her curse is shorter and no reason for it is given. I Timothy, of course, somewhat makes up for this in that it seems to blame her more and ties her submission and more lowly role (not being allowed to teach or have authority over men) to her sin.
The role of speech and listening deserves mention here. In Genesis, God faults Adam for listening to his wife’s voice (see Gen. 3:17, above; compare this also to Genesis 16:2 in which Abraham listens to Sarah and Genesis 21:12 in which God tells him to listen to Sarah; there is really a lot to this whole “should I listen to my wife?” thing). In Timothy, Eve’s punishment is that she must be quiet:
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (I Tim 2:12)
Who then is more to blame, the one who spoke or the one who listened? Genesis 3, based on his longer curse, seems to lay the blame at Adam’s feet (that’s a pun; see Gen. 3:15); Timothy seems to single out Eve, though I am doubtful myself as it whether it holds her more responsible. In the metanarrative, the one who is deceived bears the lesser blame. Timothy doesn’t make it abundantly clear who bears the greater blame but it does make it quiet clear that Eve was deceived while Adam was not. There is a hint that Eve is more at fault since it calls her a “transgressor” but it would be hard to believe in the context of the whole New Testament that Timothy did not realize that Adam was a transgressor as well. And then there is Romans in which the Apostle Paul tells us that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:19). Note that it the man’s disobedience — Adam’s and not Eve’s — which produced the downfall of the whole human race.
Let us return then to our original questions: Is Adam an innocent dupe? I would have to say no, Adam does not fit the innocent dupe role as seen in the metanarrative. He does not consider his actions but he is clearly held responsible for them in that he bears a greater curse than Eve. She also does not fit the metanarrative in that she is not a dispassionate deceiver. She of all characters is the most deceived in the story. The serpent instead fills the role of deceiver.
What is the relationship then between the biblical story and the metanarrative? It is hard for me not to think that the metanarrative finds its roots in Genesis 3, this story which is so old, so well-known and so formative for the human race. And yet it seems to misunderstand the story of mankind’s fall. Indeed, the metanarrative does what Adam himself does — it blames the woman. This, then, is the real truth behind all those innocent(ish)-man-lured-to-his-destruction-by-the-beuatiful-temptress stories. The truth behind the stories is not that women are the source of evil but that people, since the beginnings of time, have been passing blame for their own actions and that men in particular pass the blame onto the women in their lives.
Looking elsewhere in the Bible, Proverbs undoubtedly helps to propagate the story that men are caught between to ideal women — one perfectly good and the other perfectly evil. But we must also recognize that the women of Proverbs are types, not real women. Wisdom is clearly the personification of a concept, not a flesh-and-blood woman. And while the adulteress of Proverbs is quite fleshly, she too is not a particular woman. The virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, while also an ideal to some extent, is the most real woman in the book. And while good, she is by no means the naive yet innocent figure of the film noir depictions. Neither, of course, is Wisdom since she by her very nature is neither naive nor innocent in the sense of being uninformed. I suppose Solomon, to whom much of Proverbs is attributed, had reason to know that women can lead a many astray. Proverbs is a very idealized book; it presents a black and white view of the world in which the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished. Ecclesiastes shows us that things do not always work out that way in the short-term.
This has been a very thinking-as-I-write sort of post (you can probably tell; hopefully it is not too disjointed). If I have to sum up, I would say that the roots of this idea, the good woman-bad woman idealization, are certainly found in the Bible. But to narrow it down and say that women are responsible for men’s downfall or that they even have so much power over his moral state is to misunderstand Genesis 3 and the message of the Bible as a whole which is certainly to point out our sin and its only solution. And yet this misunderstanding is itself present in the Genesis account and seems to be deeply rooted in the hearts of men who do not want to take responsibility for their own actions.