02/14/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Apr 16, 2013

St. Valentine's Eden

Imagine a man and woman. Naked. Together in the great outdoors. Alone.

You wouldn't be the first person to imagine this as a great setting for romance, likely to include a bit (or a lot) of sex. Even Shakespeare's famed couple Romeo and Juliet doesn't compare to this fantasy. But who are the man and woman from this seemingly salacious fantasy land? Adam and Eve -- the first couple -- in their utopic Garden of Eden.

Ever since the story of Adam, Eve and their Garden was crafted, readers have returned to the first couple time and again to figure out how all couples should act. On Valentine's Day, interpretations of their story serve both as cautionary tales and as inspiration for couples in the 21st century.

It's no surprise than many have reduced Adam and Eve's relationship to sex. After all, they ate from the tree of "knowledge," didn't they? Eve somehow managed to persuade Adam to eat the tree's forbidden fruit, didn't she? Although the story never says so, some readers have been quick to conclude that it must have taken some serious seductive methods on Eve's part to get Adam to do what God had expressly forbidden.

Throughout Western culture, representations of Eve capitalize on her supposedly sexy, seductive wiles. Advertisements, for example, that use Garden imagery to commercialize Eve -- and let's not forget her fashion model daughters -- "tempt" consumers into buying their products. One adult entertainment chain aptly named Adam & Eve understood the first couple's "brand" appeal well enough to make it their namesake!

But imaging Eve, and thus all women, as temptresses denies women their full humanity, transforming them into flawed creations, not good ones. Reducing Eve's relationship with Adam to sex alone comes at a price. While sex is at the heart of physical intimacy, in this version of the Garden story genuine tenderness and mutuality between man and woman are impossible, since woman is duplicitous by nature. Inevitably, depicting women as temptresses threatens the trust upon which good relationships depend. At the heart of the Genesis story is the understanding that God created Eve and Adam for physical, emotional and spiritual communion. They are bone of each other's bones, flesh of each other's flesh. They are called to delight in one another and to grow into full maturity before God as stewards of the natural world. Eve and Adam, in short, stand on the brink of a great adventure, an undertaking made all the more thrilling by the love and support they can offer one another.

Interpreters have always struggled with the mutuality implied by this scenario. To that end, these readers of the story have preferred to conclude that women should be subordinate to men in all relationships. Men's pervasive fear that women would dare attempt to act out of place, as they believed Eve did, has plagued gender relationships for centuries. One medieval handbook on witchcraft warned that women bore men inscrutable malice and delighted in disrupting male sexuality, either by depriving men of their virility, making them obsessed with sex, turning them into beasts, or, when all else failed, stealing their genitals during the night and depositing them in nests for later sport.

In the 1667 classic, "Paradise Lost," John Milton depicted God creating Eve inferior to Adam but so irresistible that, despite pep talks from the angel Raphael reminding Adam that he was created "for God only," while Eve was created "for God in him," Adam ultimately could not resist being her love slave. The result, as we know, was disastrous. Adam was left to characterize women as creation's "fair defect" and to predict that women would afflict men with infinite adversity. Some men have been blaming women for their own shortcomings ever since.

Subordination of women to men has yet to go out of fashion. Millions of Americans today hold to theologies that encourage men to be initiators in their relationships with women -- as Adam should have been -- and admonish women to be passive recipients of this initiation, all while fancying themselves princesses locked away in lonely towers waiting patiently for their one, true, godly Prince Charming. If Charming never appears, online dating services can fill the void. But even in the electronic realm, the mere act of a woman initiating communication -- forget proposing a date -- mirrors Eve's disobedience. In dating and in marriage, women are taught the ways of subordination: never usurp the decision-making power of the man even by something so simple as suggesting where to eat. Just think of oneself as a power outlet, careful to allow only husband and God to plug in. It's fair to say that this is not the language of romance!

Even more interpretations abound, if you can believe it. But what positive message can the first couple's story convey to 21st century couples this Valentine's Day? Ironically, most people remember Adam and Eve from Genesis 3, where everything falls apart. Instead, try looking at their relationship in Genesis 2, when everything was as it "should" be. There, the relationship between Adam and Eve holds the promise of a remedy for the loneliness that is part of the human condition. Man and woman are one flesh -- counterparts of the other. They are naked, yet not ashamed. They are at peace with the natural world and with each other. Although the ancient writers lived in an age full of violence and power brokering, they never lost sight (or hope) of a better way of relating to each other. That vision and that promise are their Valentine gifts to us.