Eve Alone? The Curious Tale of the Missing Adam

Temptation of EveIn her 2013 Journal of Biblical Literature article, “Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of עמה in Genesis 3:6b,” Julie Faith Parker documents the curious omission of “[her husband who was] with her” (Gen. 3:6b) from many English translations. She carefully explores the biblical text, commentaries, ancient sources, grammars, fifty English translations, and translation committee reports. A well-organized chart documents eighteen out of fifty translations where she has discovered the phrase is missing. The guilty translations in the list include influential and familiar editions of the Bible: Wycliffe, Coverdale, Douay Rheims (both 1609 and the American text of 1899), Challoner, Moffatt, the RSV (1952), New Berkeley, New English Bible, Living Bible, Today’s English Translation/Good News Bible, Bible in Basic English, JPS New Tanakh, the Revised English Bible, Robert Alter (1996), The Message, and the Contemporary Torah (2006).

This omission is not the result of variations in the original biblical texts. As Parker notes, the Hebrew word is undisputed in the MT, and ancient textual witnesses all include it, with the noteworthy exception of Jerome’s Vulgate. And the omission is a critically important one. Without this phrase, the reader is left with the impression that Eve sins alone. Parker is generally persuasive in her argument that the translators appear to be motivated to excuse the man and blame the woman. This certainly comports with history of early and medieval Christian imaginings of the Eden saga, alongside which we see a tradition of female inferiority developing. Jerome’s infamously low view of women may be an example of this, particularly since both the MT and the LXX from which he worked include the phrase, and yet his Vulgate does not. (Readers should consult Parker’s article for a refreshing note from Robert Alter, who had also neglected to translate the word in his edition. In 2011, Alter e-mailed Parker on the matter, saying “I should have written ‘with her’ but didn’t realize I had skipped the word. Thank you for pointing this out.”)

However, the theological consequences of the omission which Parker has capably documented reach more deeply than matters of translation and Edenic mythologies. Without appreciating that Adam was in fact “with her” when Eve was tempted, we lose a critical feature of his sin: he failed to act upon his charge as the priestly guardian (Gen. 2:15, priestly samar) of sacred space, namely, the garden-temple and especially Eve herself. Just as Genesis 1-3 is in many ways written through the lens provided by the center of the Torah, Leviticus, so the Eve of Genesis is conspicuously framed in terms of the Levitical woman (cf. Lev. 12, 15); she is therefore a kind of sacred space requiring priest-like protection and care. Adam’s failure is of the order of a priestly failure to protect sacred space from defilement.

This, in turn, fits the overall biblical trajectory of the eschatologically-ultimate, feminine sacred space which the faithful husband protects and cares for, and who is his glory: from Lady Zion to Lady Wisdom (especially of Prov. 31) to the Church-Bride to Mother Jerusalem, old and new. Without Adam’s presence and failure in these terms, we lose much of what Gen. 2-3 teaches regarding the divine design for fruitful, faithful relations of a husband toward his wife. Indeed we lose much of how Christ is himself the faithful Adam of his Bride, the Church.

It appears that the omission of the phrase from many early modern translations informed the rapidly embraced mythology in which Eve’s sin was taken as an example of feminine inferiority and folly. On this reading, Eve should have stayed by her husband’s side but foolishly wandered off, and it was because of this that the serpent was able to exploit her in her moment of vulnerability. The serpent took advantage of the woman’s independent move away from the side of her protective, stronger man. With the Hebrew phrase of Gen. 3:6b, such a reading is impossible; but without it, as the history of theological anthropology and marriage theory shows, it’s a compelling image ready to be deployed in the service of generalized accounts of the alleged intellectual and spiritual differences between men and women. As a misunderstanding of the Genesis scene, it is quite deeply rooted in the English-speaking conscience because of Milton’s gripping and — as far as biblical understanding goes, fatal — portrayal of Eve’s temptation in Paradise Lost exactly along these mistaken lines. Despite many other ways in which Milton is thought to represent the cause of reform for women’s status and rights, his account of Eve’s fall is, in this instance at least, the example par excellence of imagination untethered by what is in fact the real biblical text.

Where, then, did we get the idea that Adam wasn’t there? The early modern version of Eve’s fall is familiar to us, but the hermeneutical roots of the omission are in fact much, much older. Parker notes a wide range of examples of this reading of Genesis, ancient and modern, Jewish and Christian. While researching Matthew’s divorce material I, too, came across a very early instance of this curious reading. In the very early Protevangelium of James (late 2nd c.), the author casts Joseph of Matthew 1 as an Adam-figure confronted with a newly soiled Eve, writing (from the imagined perspective of Joseph):

(13:4) Who has set this trap for me? Who has done this evil deed in my house? Who has lured this virgin away from me and violated her? (13:5) The story of Adam has been repeated in my case hasn’t it? For just as Adam was praying when the serpent came and found Eve alone, deceived her, and corrupted her, so the same thing has happened to me.

The relationship between this reading of Genesis and the history of theological models of male and female merits close investigation, but will have to await treatment elsewhere. But for now, I suggest the consequences of the curiously missing Adam merit attention.

For more on the Genesis passage, on Milton, and on the ancient and modern features of this gender and theology question, join the Milton class this summer or the Theological Anthropology class starting this fall.


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