Continuing the discussion from Why were Adam and Eve cast out of Eden?:
There are certainly both good and bad interpretations of Genesis. There is often a lot of debate about what our sense or feel of the meaning of the text. I’ve always found more value in seeing how different people read Genesis and why.
One of the more interesting cases I came across a while ago was this Jewish midrash on the garden, a feminist reading made into a play. Many people would call it a bad reading of Genesis, but it certainly still is interesting:
The story is epic and archetypal; The Lord creates Adam, but not Eve just yet; instead, he creates Adam in twain with a perfect female counterpart to his own nature. For instance, Lilith is born of the dirt and breath, like Adam. One day, Adam is barking orders at Lilith to clean up around the garden and bring him his afternoon figs, and Lilith decides she has had enough. She walks off into the jungle. When God comes back to check in on the little human family, Adam tells him that Lilith has run off into the wilderness.
God tries to convince Lilith to return, but Lilith refuses to live in a family where her only role is to be a slave to a lazy husband who has no respect for her sovereign nature and divine worth. God threatens her, but she is not swayed. Then, he puts Adam into a deep sleep (resuming the scriptural narrative), and Eve is born from his ribcage. After a while, though, the Lord continues analyzing his handiwork and he notices that, actually, Lilith had a point, and Eve’s role as “helper” has spoiled Adam’s character.
Eve learns about Adam’s first wife and ends up very curious about Lilith. She climbs the forbidden wall and visits Lilith in her side of the garden. They are very cordial and familial, and they instantly strike up a fascinating and conversational dialogue about life and reality, and Adam. They laugh together and cry and tell stories. At home, this encounter has an immediate effect on Eve’s character. She is no longer passive and helpless. God decides that his own nature must be dynamic, because his reality demands chronic improvement toward a new ideal.
This is a midrash:
Historically, rabbis wrote midrash to explain problems they found in biblical texts. If there seemed to be a missing piece to a story, an inconsistency between two different passages, or a redundant word or verse, the rabbis would explain the problem by writing a new midrash, filling in the missing dialogue, reconciling the seeming contradiction, or showing how there is no redundancy since each word is there to teach a specific lesson or practice.
In 1972, one such woman—the feminist theologian Judith Plaskow—wrote “The Coming of Lilith.” It is a midrash about the Garden of Eden, told from a feminist point of view. “The Coming of Lilith” is actually a midrash on a midrash. In the original Lilith midrash, the rabbis wondered how to reconcile the two different accounts of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. Genesis chapter 1 describes God’s creation of man and woman at the very same moment. But Genesis chapter 2 recounts how God makes man and puts him in the Garden of Eden, and then realizes he needs a mate, and creates woman.
The rabbis tried to reconcile these two stories into one coherent narrative. What happened to the woman created in Genesis 1, such that Adam was alone and in need of a mate in Genesis 2? To answer this question, the Rabbis created the legend of Lilith as the first woman. In this legend, Lilith was Adam’s equal, but when he insisted on dominating her, she left him. So God created Eve to be Adam’s second mate; created from his body, she was more willing to be submissive to him. Thus, Lilith was the woman mentioned in Genesis 1, and Eve the new woman created in Genesis 2 after Lilith fled.
In the ancient rabbinic tradition, Lilith was vilified. The rabbinic stories turned her into a demoness who sought to kill human infants unless they were protected by amulets. However, in “The Coming of Lilith,” Plaskow transforms the fearsome, baby-stealing Lilith into a wise and brave woman. Instead of being a rival to be feared, she becomes Eve’s friend and empowerer.
“The Coming of Lilith” also examines the potential power of sisterhood to transform the world and right its inequities. Eve and Lilith build “a bond between them” by telling each other stories, laughing and crying together, and teaching each other many things. This bond between women has the potential to be a catalyst for change, as shown by the concluding line of the story: “And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”
Interestingly enough, in this version of the story, God is cast as patriarchal, learning from his creation, and not entirely honest about the consequences of eating of the tree. These are places of artistic license that most people would say departs far from the best reading. Still, it makes for a good story.
The allure of Genesis is that it draws you into many questions about the meaning of important realities, like our relationships with one another and with God. It certainly does not give all the answers. Genesis, like most works of great literature, leaves us with more questions than answers.