The Gospel According to Eve, Amanda W. Benckhuysen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.
Summary: A history of women who have written on Genesis 1-3 since the fourth century, treating their worth, education, their roles as wives and mothers, whether they may teach and preach, and as advocates of social reforms.
One more book on women and issues of biblical interpretation? Yes, but the reason you want to add this book to your library is that Amanda Benckhuysen has done something I’ve not previously seen. She has dug through history and found over sixty women spanning the time from the fourth to the twentieth century who have written on Genesis 1 to 3, either in works focused on interpretation of these passages, or works that reference the passages. [The work also includes one paragraph biographies of the women mentioned in this work in the back matter.]
Why is this important? When it has come to the interpretation of Genesis 1 to 3 with regard to women, most of the work through history has been done by men. For many, the focus has been on the deception of Eve, and the authority or dominance of men over women. While some of these women have taken similar approaches to Genesis, Benckhuysen shows that long before the contemporary discussion, women have been looking at Genesis 1 to 3 and many have reached very different conclusions that anticipate contemporary findings.
A few that stood out to me:
- Many women interpreters focus on Genesis 1 that presents men and women equally as made in the image of God. The only stated dominion is over the other creatures.
- In the Genesis 2 account, interpreters noted the creation of woman from Adam’s side, an image of partnership. God forms her separate from Adam so that she has a relationship with God before being brought to Adam, who recognizes her as a helper (ezer), the same language used of God’s help of his people. Nothing in the text indicates any inferiority of Eve to Adam, who celebrates Eve as like him in flesh and bone.
- While many interpreters read Eve as the one leading Adam astray in the fall, these interpreters suggest other motives to Eve, including Adam’s benefit in growth in knowledge. Instead of putting all the blame on Eve, they note Adam’s culpability, particularly if Adam was present, as the text suggests. What these interpreters emphasize is that each bears responsibility equally in this tragic episode.
- In Genesis 3:14-19, these interpreters noted that only the serpent was cursed. Many observe that the statements about men and women are descriptive of the consequences of the fall, not prescriptive of role relationships as God meant them to be.
Benckhuysen organizes the book around the way women interpreters who had insights like those above applied these to concerns of women of their day. She begins with tracing the interpretations of the early fathers of the church and subsequent interpreters. She then considers how women used the material on Eve to advocate for the worth and dignity of women when they were treated as chattel, how they advocated for greater educational opportunities for women, befitting their equal status with men and how they wrestled with Eve’s story as they considered the role of being a wife and mother.
Benckhuysen considers women as teachers and preachers of the gospel. One of the things that mark interpreters here, and elsewhere, is their canonical approach to scripture, interpreting scripture by scripture, noting not simply prohibitions, but the many examples of women in both Old and New Testament of women preaching and leading God’s people, all with the apparent approbation of God. We are introduced to Margaret Fell, a seventeenth century interpreter, along with other seventeenth century millenarian writers: Antoinette Bourignon, M. Marsin, and Rebecca Jackson. She considers the contribution of Deborah Peirce and Harriet Livermore, who speak of the gospel being entrusted to women, and Catherine Booth and Francis Willard, whose careful exegetical work defended the role of women in preaching. This is an example of the pattern followed in each chapter.
Concluding chapters focus on the representation of women in children’s Bibles and literature and the contribution of women to this literature, and the use of Genesis 1 to 3 in advocacy for social reforms in working conditions and opportunities, suffrage, and advocacy against the exploitation and abuse of women. The last two chapters consider the history of patriarchy in the church and the value of listening to these interpreters from other times. These women both questioned the foundations for patriarchy that male interpreters established in Genesis, and offered cogent alternatives. They used this to advocate for the flourishing of women in the home, the church, and the wider society, and against the ways they saw their sisters being abused in these different spheres.
Someone might argue against this gendered reading of Eve. But isn’t that what men have been doing for two millenia, often to the great harm of women and to the church? Benckhuysen doesn’t argue that women’s reading is superior to men. The truth is, her women vary in their interpretations and disagree, just as do men. Rather, what was striking to me was to listen to their collective voices through history as a man and to realize that they see things we have missed. We need their voices if we are truly to hear the whole counsel of God in this very important area of how men and women live together, upholding each other’s dignity, worth, and gifts as image bearers of God, and experiencing the redemptive work of Christ in relationships marred by the Fall, but intended for better.