The Creation of Woman
Feminist commentators might think that the story of the creation of Adam and Eve is an example of the misogyny they find in the rest of Genesis. Never mind that the characters in the patriarchal families are real enough to stand out as individuals and so are not vehicles for allegorical purposes alone, and that you see in the rest of Genesis a struggle between men and women that does not always go the way men want: Sarah gets Hagar expelled from the camp to go off into the desert and die with Ishmael; Isaac’s wife concocts the plan that gets Esau to pass on his inheritance to the son she favors; and, of course, Tamar gets her revenge and has herself and her son taken care of though she seems a mighty quirky person, willing to become a prostitute so as to make a point. The texture of the Adam and Eve story, for its part, is legendary and mythical, tales of how human traits came to be, such as that men and women each labor in their own way to make their lives. The Adam and Eve stories are meant to be problematic, while most of the Genesis stories set up problems for the reader to discern: does it make sense for Abraham to have been willing to sacrifice Isaac? Why is Noah to be shamed despite his marvelous achievement?
The question is whether the story of the creation of Adam and Eve is misogynistic in any way. Yes, in the second of the two creation stories, Eve is created later than Adam, out of his rib, even though in the first creation story she had been created at the same time as Adam. Eve might therefore be regarded as a secondary creature added on to the rest of creation only because Adam needed a companion, an afterthought to fill out creation, rather than part of the original, grand conception. That may be the sense of things that lies behind the belief that Catholic priests must be men: Jesus was a man and priests are to serve in the stead of Jesus and so should be like him. Well, Jesus was also a Semite and never reached the age of forty. Does that mean that priests have to be Semites and have to retire from the role when they are forty? Of course not. Those demographic qualities are not essential. So why is being male essential? Because women were not part of the original creation and so are essentially inferior to men in that their design is less divinely inspired even if their creation was also carried out by God, who did not even bother to make a new creature from scratch but took a rib from Adam, as if God did not have or need the energy for a fresh creation, this new creature not worthy of being a fresh creation.
But ponder why God came up with this afterthought. It was not so that Adam could procreate. God had already created all the other animals, and they were told to be fruitful and multiply. So God knew all about that use of sex. God, however, does not tell Adam and Eve to multiply but simply informs them of how unpleasant that will be for a woman. He later tells Abraham to be fruitful and multiply, but that is much later, and about how a tribe might flourish even if it has what might seem to be too many mouths to feed. God, at the beginning, seems content to leave Adam perfectly alone and so, one assumes possessed of what he would gain if he ate from the tree of life, which is immortality, just what the angels say God fears and why Adam and Eve had to be expelled from Eden, for otherwise, having eaten both apples, they would be like the angels, which may not have been a problem for God, but was certainly a problem for the angels. And if Adam had not been originally created as immortal, he would have died off and God would have had to keep making Adams, which would have made Adam more like a disposable toy than the high point of creation.
God creates Eve because he does not want Adam to be alone there talking only to the animals (or, as Robert Alter suggests, not talking at all. That would drive him crazy. What he needs is a companion, someone to share life with. Anything less than that would be cruel. So creating Eve is an act of compassion for Adam without it being an act of cruelty to Eve because if God hadn’t created her, Eve would have been no worse off; she simply wouldn’t have been. If a feminist thinks that it is awful to contemplate a world without women, that the absence of such makes the world a lesser place, then the feminist would have to rethink whether the world is a worse place because of all those fetuses, on the way to creation, that were snuffed out before they could be people. There are a lot of other creatures that God could have created, like unicorns and space monsters, and He didn’t create them, as best we know, and it is hard to say that the actual world is worse off without them. It would have just been a different world.
The purpose of the creation of woman, therefore, is companionship, not procreation, and anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows how important to life that is: not having a pal, which God could have provided by creating a second Adam, but a creature to cleave to in many senses of that term. Companionship is the essential feature of the relationship of men and women. They are different from the animals in that they can speak to one another and preside over the world of animals even though they can also do something animals do, which is to reproduce.
Now, where does the Catholic Church get off saying that the primary purpose of sex is reproduction rather than furthering companionship? It neglects the Bible and instead adopts a version of natural law theory that posits everything to have an essential function that can be identified with whatever in that creature’s behavior is crucial to maintaining an ongoing society or system. If only bees make honey, then the important thing about bees is that they make honey, and if only queen bees can mate, then what is important about queen bees is that they do mate. If people have to procreate in order for society to proceed, then procreation is the essential thing that couples can do, and has priority over any other thing that couples have going for them, those other things, like affection or companionship, simply being there so that the primary purpose of the relationship can be accomplished.
If this sounds like evolutionary thinking, so be it. It is, however, a very inferior version of evolutionary thinking in that nature does not have priorities, even if God does, and so what God does cannot be reduced to the laws of evolution. In nature, a useful trait for survival is whatever turns out to be that rather than a trait designed to be that way and only then becoming what is essential about the creature, that then identified with what is distinctive about the creature, as if people were not distinctively creatures interested in art and love rather than just creatures who happen to have opposing thumbs, which is fairly distinctive, and have sexual relations, which they share in common with all other non asexual species. The essence of the giraffe may be his big neck, in that it dominates every other aspect of his existence and is the most distinctive thing about him, but the evolutionary trait that makes the giraffe possible and is most truly inventive biologically is the hydraulic system for his blood that allows his brain to get some oxygen, and that is different from the hydraulic system of other mammals only by degree. And, anyway, that biologically crucial feature is not what people mean by the essence of the giraffe, except as a joke, because it is clear that one is substituting what makes the essence of giraffe possible for the essence itself. So people procreate. So what? Birds and bees do it. What people do is love, which means more than animal devotion; love develops some sense of the essence of the other person, and the taste for essentiality is the essence of human beings.
The fractured evolutionary argument is at least superior to the main way the Church argues for procreation as the guiding imperative for people, allowed to dominate their lives even at the cost of their health or safety and to the detriment of whatever other considerations people might chose to value, such as the creation of poetry or science or running a big business, none of which are in themselves considered unworthy by the Church so long as they put those things aside if procreation takes place. The more popular argument is that the prevention of procreation by mechanical means which, of course, have occurred to the mind of man and so is natural for people, is unnatural. Birds don’t use contraceptives; so why should people? Silliness abounds, as in the argument I recently read that the use of contraceptives shows a lack of commitment. Well, first, love is not always about commitment but can only be an intimation of commitment, a try at finding out what commitment means. Why is exploration prohibited? Moreover, sex need not be about love and so about commitment at all, unless one wants to insist that it has to be for some other reason, such as the sacredness of virginity. But there are stages of sophistication. We allow women to serve as nurses; we allow widows to remarry; we allow men to sow their wild oats—that is, to the extent that the double standard still exists. So what is happening is that Victorian customs are being enshrined as universal requirements of the moral life that is ordained by God. It would seem that such an argument has been rotted by time, but you have a leading contender for the American Presidency saying such things and I wonder when he will be challenged in public about beliefs he thinks he can take into the public arena without being answered. But Rick Santorum does not have a deep mind.
Why the Catholic Church, as an institution some two thousand years old and given to very profound theology from its very beginnings, ties itself up in such knots is a very profound question. However much the texts of the Fathers of the Church set a very high standard for thinking through theological and philosophical problems, the Church is now dominated by old men whose theology was formed in seminaries rather than in the forum of secular universities. Few of their theologians could get tenure in secular departments of philosophy—though the present Pope could have, his own scholarly work driven enough by the spirit of intellectual inquiry to earn that. And, anyway, most churchmen are not driven by intellectual concerns, however much that may have been the case during the period of Medieval Scholasticism. Most Churchmen see themselves as pastors, caretakers of their flocks, and we know how successful they have been at that job!! Maybe it is just that most of them, by the time they become Archbishops and Cardinals, are just too tired to take up the good fight. But it is important to Catholicism that it thinks it is reasonable and its doctrines concerning natural law and public policy are always defensible to anybody who would care to listen. And so I would hope they come up with some public figures that do a better job of holding up their end of an argument.
It may be thought a grand mistake to try to rationalize the legends and myths that are at the beginning of Genesis by the use of theology or philosophy or literary criticism. To do so is to flatten the stories, to try to give them a degree of verisimilitude by having a particular set of causes and consequences operate within the world of the story for the duration of the story. That kind of flattening takes place in the novel, and certainly the redactors of the later parts of Genesis were trying to do that with the legendary material they had inherited. They created characters and left motives no more mysterious than they are in real life. But the Adam and Eve story, and others like it, are known for the individual lines and images, such as the eating of the forbidden fruit, rather than for whether the story hangs together, given that, to cite just one paradox, Adam and Eve make a moral choice before they know the nature of moral choice or, to cite the paradox under consideration, how Adam needs a companion, just as the animals have companions, even if he is to be something quite different from the animals he is to preside over. I give my sentimental reading (that he needed to express love, and that includes sex) and somebody else gives their own perhaps less sentimental reading, which is that he needed to procreate. Well, the text is not being stretched when I give reasons to prefer my reading to another, but there are other things to be done with the text, such as let its images wash over you. I wonder, though, if being so scrupulous as to refuse to interpret even mythic stories rubs against the grain of human nature. From Ovid through Freud, everybody meaning mongers over myths and legends. So why stop now?