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Book Review: The Gospel According to Eve

Wednesday, 23 September 2020  | Barbara Deutschmann




The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation

By Amanda Benckhuysen

(Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019)


It’s not unusual to hear that the push for women’s inclusion in all aspects of church ministry is a response to ‘feminism’ in our culture. This book puts paid to that notion. Amanda Benckhuysen has done us the service of researching the many women who have found in the first few chapters of Genesis inspiration and resources for countering patriarchy.

From the Middle Ages through the early modern and then modern periods to the present day, Amanda carefully charts the strenuous efforts of women to read differently the narrative that has been responsible for narrow life-scripts offered to women. They have had to ‘tell it slant’ (to quote Emily Dickenson), working against the pull of strong forces that assigned them their roles and realms.

The author sets the context by outlining the questions and silences that exist in the story of the woman and man of Eden. Why did Eve eat the fruit? Did Adam eat out of love for his woman or for selfish reasons? And what of God’s response? Was it describing the consequences of their transgression or prescribing the punishment? These gaps have been closed by traditional interpreters who have replaced the ambiguity with certainty. Reflected in Philo’s work in the first century, and well-settled by the Middle Ages, the association of the female gender with sin was one such conclusion. Women have been trying to scramble out of that particular hole ever since. Amanda shows that Genesis 1–4 has played a part not only in the condemnation of women but also in the recovery of her stature, as women brought fresh eyes and a great deal of courage to its analysis.

One example is a Viennese writer, Christine de Pizan (1363–c.1430), perhaps Europe’s first professional female writer. Her writing, which disputed contemporary images of women in literary works, is considered to inaugurate the querelle des femmes (‘women’s question’), an intellectual debate about the nature of women. Her prime text was Gen 1:26–28, which to Christine spoke of sameness not difference. Like many after her, she highlighted the image of God shared by both sexes. In interpreting Genesis 3, she imagined good motives for Eve’s eating of the fruit. Amanda comments: ‘As Christine notes, then, ascribing to Eve malicious intent is the work of the interpreter, not the text’.

Amanda situates groups of female interpreters within their historical context. She charts the broad movements that coloured attitudes to women. After a long period, beginning with Aristotle when people believed females were aberrant versions of males, there began to emerge in the eighteenth century a more positive awareness of women’s biological difference. This welcome realisation quickly congealed into a rigid binary that stressed women’s natural virtues as being best suited to nurturing home and family. Men and women each had ‘separate spheres’.

The push to accept women as preachers initially gained impetus from the growing appreciation of the different perspectives of women as they increasingly proved their giftedness for the task. In the early nineteenth century, for example, Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore both read Genesis and the Pauline epistles as encouraging female preaching. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the pushback from patriarchal churches became too strong. The separate-spheres ideology hardened into a biological determinism that reaffirmed preaching as the domain of men.

Gradually women began to see the connection between gaining acceptance in church and home and the wider cause of women’s rights. Catherine Booth (1829–1890) in England and Frances Willard (1839–1898) in the United States reflected this change. Catherine Booth became a powerful preacher and, with her husband, William Booth, began work among the poor in London, which later became The Salvation Army. Frances Willard, also a gifted teacher, became president of the National Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1879. Under her leadership the NWCTU advocated for a range of women’s issues, including alcohol control and women’s suffrage. Both Catherine and Frances were sophisticated Bible interpreters, reading the Eden narrative as an ideal of female and male partnership, with both appointed by God to have dominion over the earth. They pointed out that Genesis does not indicate the inferiority of women nor delineate separate roles or spheres.

With these women and the many others portrayed by the author, the ‘women’s question’ had gone beyond intellectual circles and established itself in the public square, becoming a matter of public debate and eventually giving rise to the first wave of feminism and the women’s rights movement. This found expression in Australia in the establishment of many branches of the WCTU through the advocacy of evangelicals such as Bessie Harrison Lee.

Amanda Benckhuysen shows how the arc of women’s history has bent to the spirit of the times as each stage unfolded. Interpretation of the Adam and Eve story has borne the impress of each phase, being read with misogyny at times, gender essentialism and rigidity at others. But the women with the courage to ‘read it slant’ found in it the grounds for their empowerment. In Genesis 1, they found the shared divine image. In Genesis 2–4, they found shared sinfulness and a God who deliberately creates gendered difference. Not every interpreter was a radical feminist and many affirmed traditional roles, even while using the story to correct warped views of women. Amanda’s book shows how these women used it to make cases for women’s education, for support as wives and mothers, for forming the character of children as well as for public reforms.

With an eye to how she wants her book to be used, the author has added discussion questions for each chapter at the end of the book. Groups interested in learning lessons from history as well as from the richness of women’s approaches to the Adam and Eve story will find this a book to treasure. One small quibble is that the book has no index, which would increase its value for researchers.

This book is an essential resource for twenty-first century church debates on the place of women and perhaps. As Amanda suggests, ‘...Eve’s story will come to be heard as a call and invitation to respect, celebrate and honor God’s blessing to the world in the daughters of Eve’.

Barbara Deutschmann is a post-doctoral research associate with the University of Divinity working in the area of gender in the Old Testament. She shares life with partner, Peter, three adult children and grandchildren.

A shorter version of this review will be published in the upcoming October issue of Equip, Ethos’ bi-annual magazine for churches, on ‘Being Read: From Informative to Transformative Bible Reading’. You can subscribe to Equip at http://www.ethos.org.au/publications/Subscriptions.


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