06/06/2014 06:17 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

"Exonerating Eve"

In the epic film Noah, the screenwriters do the impossible: they give a positive twist to the famous raging flood by saying it cleansed the world of pollution. A similar cinematic twist is needed for the Garden of Eden story, for it too has a problem with pollution: for millennia it has polluted the birthright of Eve and all her daughters.

In long-standing biblical interpretation and the popular mind, Eve gets what's coming to her, because she disobeys God's order not to eat the fruit of a particular tree. She not only eats the fruit--a fig--but also gives it to Adam. For defying God, the story goes, she is hit with a three-fold punishment. First, she and Adam must leave Eden; second, she must suffer the pangs of childbirth; and third, she must die.

For Eve's daughters, popular acceptance of this story has meant perpetual second-class citizenship with its resultant loss of self-esteem, because to many people, they, along with Eve, are somehow responsible for the world's sin and corruption. Whether or not the story is believed, it shapes the social attitudes people develop as children toward Eve and then, arguably, retain toward women in general.

An unbiased person, hearing of the severity of Eve's punishment for nibbling on a fig, may conclude that God is overreacting. But, in this instance, God doesn't deserve the bad press, because, I would contend, God does not punish Eve. The idea of divine punishment is rooted in a fundamental misreading of the biblical text that goes back to the campaign by Nehemiah, governor of Judah (445-433 BCE), to control the religious and social life of Judahite women. Surely it is high time to right the wrong.

Eating the fig is not forbidden. Eve is warned about what will happen to her physically after she eats the fruit that confers fertility and, ultimately, pregnancy. In the act of delivery, she'll experience intense pain, not because of something she's done, but because childbirth, by its very nature, is accompanied by pain.

Nor are Eve and Adam being punished when they have to leave the garden. If they or their children were to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life in the middle of the garden, they would bring on a Malthusian nightmare, with everyone living forever on a starvation diet, cramped in a locale the size of a postage stamp. Envisioning the rapid growth of the family of Eve and Adam in their new setting, God introduces death not to punish, but to relieve the pressure a growing population will exert on the earth's limited resources. In the original narrative Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb is anticipated by over two millennia. Death, resulting from the body's depletion of energy, is assigned the same life-saving role the screenwriters establish for Noah, only this time death saves the earth from overpopulation.

In such a scenario, Eve must decide if she wants to bear a child with its attendant pain and eventual death. In choosing to become fertile by ingesting the seeds of the fig, Eve fulfills God's design that she "be fruitful and multiply." In the original story, whose overriding theme is procreation, the narrator describes in terms of biblical biology how Eve rejects the stagnation of Eden for the creation of life.

Choosing life over inertia is approved by God, for He clothes Eve and Adam in tunics of linen (not the hides of animals) prior to their leaving the garden. After Genesis 5, they are never mentioned! What is extraordinary is the silence of the pre-exilic prophets, some of whom have been accused of being misogynists. These men would have used Eve as a punching bag if she were guilty of disobedience. Since they were constantly harping on Israel's insubordination, they would have blasted her for her disobedience, but they didn't. Their silence says that Eve and Adam did nothing wrong in eating the fig and becoming fertile.

Further evidence that procreation is the dominant theme of the original narrative is the statement that the eyes of Eve and Adam open after eating the fig. Here the Hebrew for "to open" is not used as a figure of speech signifying enlightenment, but as a special biological term that reveals an individual's procreative capacity.

The reader may wonder where the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad fits in. The answer is: it doesn't. In the original story, the second tree in the middle of the garden is the Tree of Procreation. Its name change appears later--five hundred years later--when Hellenistic Jewish translators in Alexandria produced the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Pentateuch/Torah. These translators, recognizing that the one million Jews of Alexandria were confronted by defamation in some quarters and widespread ignorance of Judaism in others, and determined to present Judaism in the best light possible, trace Jewish respect for learning and ethical behavior to the Garden of Eden story. Here the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad serves as evidence of a Jewish veneration of philosophy and ethical values that matched that of non-Jewish Alexandria.

Along with the name-change of the tree is God's change of character. In the earlier version with its alternative definitions of key Hebrew words, God is nonjudgmental and benevolent; in the Septuagint God is harshly punitive--a personality change that reflects not only the theology of the Septuagint translators but also the earlier theology of Nehemiah, whose autocratic administration of Judah presented the God of Israel as demanding complete obedience.

Most contemporary ideologies will not be receptive to this new perspective on Eve, for too much has been invested theologically to disturb the status quo. But the implications of a fairer and more sympathetic reading of the Eve story--after all, only she can do what the Creator of the universe can't, which is to conceive a child--has profound implications for the present day: fortifying, for instance, demand for equal pay for equal work.

Hollywood, are you listening? And how about Washington?