Or do they? The case of Adam and Eve at least, is different from the other primordials. As the first man and woman, they are our ancestors, no ifs ands or buts about it. Because of this, Jewish or not, every man and woman is connected to these primordials and seeks their likeness in them.
For over a decade, scholars, especially feminist scholars, have been reading the Bible stories with new eyes. They have attempted, in many ways, to read beyond thousands of years worth of interpretations and give the female characters a chance to escape from the molds they have been formed to and the personalities and roles to which they have been assigned. Now I think it is time to turn our new eyes to a male character, the first man.
In general, Ha-adam is an object acted-upon rather than an actor and a listener rather than a speaker. His character, therefore, is opaque. He is formed, dust from Ha-adama, and called Ha-adam. This name, which is not truly his but a description of his material, is the only one he will ever have. Being the first human, perhaps he did not need a name. Does not this name, comparable to ‘The carbon based life form,’ ‘The black,’ or ‘The blond,’ lack dignity? Perhaps this belittling is not felt so harshly by the unique one in existence; still, the lack of a name is telling because it is accompanied by the lack of an individual person-hood. When God blows into Adam’s nostrils, he becomes a ‘living being’ (Gen 2:7). This is the same word that describes the animals, which are, like Adam, formed from the dust of the earth. God then places Adam in the Garden, "to work it and to guard it"(Gen 2:15), and commands him not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. Adam does not respond. God decides that the man needs "a helper corresponding to him" (Gen 2:18). Adam makes no response. Then the animals are brought before the man, who gives them their names, "but as for man, he did not find a helper corresponding to him" (Gen 2:20). The Hebrew is ambiguous, it could mean ‘a helper was not found,’ ‘God did not find a helper for the man,’ or ‘The man did not find a helper corresponding to himself.’
In any case, God puts Adam to sleep and builds up a woman from his side. Adam is generally given credit for naming the woman ‘isha,’ but the term is used in the line before Adam pronounces it. In any case, he recognizes her as an isha, and then for the first time he speaks, concluding, "This shall be called Isha, for from Ish was she taken" (Gen 2:23). This is the first time the word ish appears. It seems to me that Adam sees this being that is derived from him, and derives a name for him from her name. Maybe after bestowing names upon all those creatures, he is not satisfied to be the earth thing any longer. In any case, it is an interesting moment of the text that is unexplored. If it was an attempt by Adam to give himself a name, it was not a very successful one. Although men will be called ish, Adam remains the earth thing for the rest of the story.
Then there follows a dialogue between the serpent and the woman. During this conversation, Adam is entirely ignored. We only know for sure that he is there at the moment that the woman gives him from the fruit that the serpent recommended to her. He takes it from her and eats it. Adam listened to God’s commandment against eating from the tree, but when Eve offers it to him, he follows her understanding of the situation and disregards God’s command. Here again, he is a listener.
After they have eaten, they see that they are naked and they hide. They hear God coming. Then something very curious happens. God calls "to the man and said to him ‘where are you?’" (Gen 2:9). Just as the serpent ignored Adam, God ignores Eve and speaks only to his first created. When pressed, Adam tells God that he ate because the woman God gave him gave him the fruit to eat. To Adam this is a sufficient defense. This response implies that Adam believed he was supposed to obey his wife. After all, she is his helper and his guide.
God then metes out punishment, to the serpent, to Eve, and to Adam. Carol Meyers points out that these verses of consequences can be descriptions of life in early agricultural Palestine, in which case the story of Adam and Eve becomes a fable to explain how things came to be the way they are. Nevertheless, the consequences that God spells out for Adam are still striking in their generality. Eve is punished by increased pain in childbearing and domination by her husband; this is a punishment that is at least specific to her sex. In Adam’s case, the earth is cursed. "Thorns and bristles shall sprout for you," God tells Adam, "and you shall eat the herb of the field" (Gen 2:18). Yet if the earth is cursed, it is cursed for Eve also. In such agricultural societies, women generally worked in the fields alongside the men, and Eve would certainly eat the same food as Adam, the same crops from the earth. Motherhood is specific to women, and so Eve can be specifically punished in her capacity as a mother. Working and toiling with the land is not specific to either sex. Something is missing from Adam’s punishment. Why is he not punished in his capacity as a father?
If Eve is mother of all the living, then Adam ought logically to be the father, yet his role as a parent is continuously ignored and even undermined. God does not recognize Adam as a future father in his punishment speech, and Eve does not recognize Adam as a father when she names her children. When she names Cain, she says "I have created a man ‘et’ Adonai" (Gen 4:2). ‘Et’ has been translated as with or like, but whatever it means, it is God who she includes in her creative process and not Adam. When Seth is born, she says, "God has provided me another child…" (Gen 4:25). In his role as a creator of life and as a participant in the birth of Eve’s children, God seems to supplant Adam as the father of the living. Poor Adam, even in his own story he is shoved into the recesses.
Adam’s role as a father is sketchy. So what does Adam do? Although he has work assigned to him, tilling the soil, we never see him work, and we do not know if he even needs to, in the garden. Is he with Eve when she speaks with the serpent? Why doesn’t he talk to the serpent? Why does Eve ignore his role as a parent when she names her children? What does he think? Why does he take the fruit? How does he feel about farming? Being alone? Being moved around and put to sleep and never talking back to God? The Biblical text is not concerned with these questions – as it is not concerned with the thoughts and feelings of so many other characters, especially women. It is up to us to fill in these blanks.
Yet our Jewish tradition has, for the most part, continued this practice of marginalizing Adam. He is not our father. He is a like a non-person, a bush or a column - indispensable to the story of humanity, but not interesting in his own right. How did Adam get lost?
Vital and dynamic characters surround him. God is the actor par excellence; he is active, making things happen, and verbal, voicing his feelings and thoughts. The serpent is a protagonist, instigating Eve to eat the fruit, instigating the beginning of the end of paradise. He speaks and he creates changes. Eve is also a protagonist. She engages with the serpent and acts decisively. She chooses the advice of the serpent against the command of God and greatly alters her relationship with God. Although Adam speaks to name the animals and also to name his wife, he has only one action that affects the course of the story, and that action is encompassed in a single word that he doesn’t speak. He ate. Perhaps there were not enough roles in the story. Adam is mostly in the background.
What have Jews made of Adam? I will examine and analyze the treatment of Adam in Genesis Rabba, the rabbis’ midrashic commentary on the book of Genesis. In this text I found three views of Adam: First, a fleshed out Adam whose agency and person is enlarged, then a diminished victim Adam whose small role in the next is even further cut, and lastly the who is not an individual at all but a generic man. The rabbis tell stories of each of these Adams because they face the same struggle with the text as we do, and they offer these three ways to make sense of the first man.
First, some examples of the enlarged character:
"The king by justice establishes the land but a man of gifts overthrows it. (Prov. 29:4)" A man of gifts overthrows it refers to the first man."(149)
In the Biblical text it is not Adam who overthrows paradise, at least not alone. The serpent is the iniator, Eve is the first to take the fruit, and she passes it on to her husband. To say that Adam overthrows Eden exaggerates his role and increases his agency.
"R. Nehemiah said ‘[God] enticed him [to enter the Garden], and the matter may be compared to the case of a king who made a banquet and invited guests.’" (164)
This attempts to mitigate Adam’s passivity, R. Nehemiah addresses verse 2:8, "…and there God put the man whom he had formed." To be put like a doll or a toy implies a passive powerlessness, whereas to be enticed implies desirability and importance.
"[God] said to [Adam], ‘What is your name?’ ‘As for me, what is proper is to call me ‘Adam,’ for I have been created from the earth.’ ‘And as for me, what is my name?’ ‘As for you it is fitting for you to be called, "The Lord," for you are the Lord of all that you have created." (183)
"[God] then went and brought before the first man each beast with its mate. [Adam] said, "Every creature has a mate, but I have no mate.’ ‘But for the man will there not be found a helper fit for him?’" (183).
This commentary speaks about Adam’s advantages over the angels, specifically in wisdom. The angels cannot name the creatures of the Earth, only Adam can. Furthermore, in this story, Adam also names himself and God. This praise is a great testament to Adam’s intelligence and perception, although it is also a praise of men over angels in general and so also fits into the category of generalizing Adam. The fact that Adam here names himself may be an attempt of the rabbis to grapple with the shocking quality of Adam’s ‘name,’ or lack there of. It becomes acceptable instead of degrading if Adam himself chooses it.
"When the first man heard this statement, his face began to sweat. He said, ‘Now am I going to be tied up to a crib like a beast?’ Said to him the Holy One, blessed be he, ‘Since your face broke out in a sweat, you shall eat bread.’" (224)
This is ambiguous. Describing Adam fearfully questioning in this manner does not seem flattering. However, it adds to our understanding of his character, and so enlarges him. It also portrays him in dialogue with God, as opposed to the text, which shows him passively receiving God’s judgement. It also shows that he is able to influence God.
Now some examples of the Adam that is more easily seen in the text, the passive Adam waiting for somebody else to act, and the diminished Adam that we might be ashamed of and want to see disappear.
"[Adam] was the dough-offering, marking the completion of the world." (149)
The comparison of Adam to an inanimate object, albeit a sacred and unique one, is telling. Adam is often inanimate. He is placed, he is put to sleep, he is awoken, he is fed, and he is spoken to. He is like God’s doll.
"But the Holy One, blessed be he, thought, ‘Perhaps something may go wrong, and there will be no one to repair matters. Lo, to begin with I shall create the first Adam, so that if something should go wrong with him, Abraham will be able to come and remedy matters in his stead.’" (154)
This commentary reveals clearly the preference of the rabbis for Abraham – and their sensitivity to Adam’s lack of person-hood in the Bible. They see Adam as a placeholder. Why else would God create somebody else instead of Abraham? Especially someone else who is so lacking as Adam.
"’On what account is the religious duty involving the menstrual period handed over to them?’ ‘Because woman spilled the first man’s blood...’ ‘And on what account was the religious duty of separating dough offering handed over to woman?’ ‘Because she ruined the first man, who was the dough offering of the entire world…’ ‘And on what account was the religious duty of kindling the Sabbath light handed over to woman?’ ‘It was because she put out the soul of the first man.’" (188)
This version of the story contradicts the first quote by putting the responsibility for the end of paradise directly on Eve’s shoulders. At the same time as it exonerates Adam, and men, from responsibility for the exile, it also turns Adam into a victim. He must be very vulnerable and weak if woman could do all this against his opposition. While Eve is vilified, Adam is diminished.
Finally, some examples of the Adam who leaves his own character behind and becomes simply a blue print for human, or mankind.
"He created [Adam] in four traits applicable to beings of the upper world and four of the lower world." (151)
"Judah b. Rabbi, said, "This teaches that God made him a tail, just like a wild beast. But God then went and took it away from him, on account of the dignity owing to man. R. Huna said, "He made him a freed bondman, set forth on his own, who, if he does not labor, does not eat." (158)
These two quotes are descriptions of Adam, but they do not add anything to our understanding of Adam as a person. They work to describe humanity in general, treating Adam as the mold the rest of us are cast in.
"If a man has merit, the wife is a help, and if not, she is in opposition to him." (180)
"Said R. Isi, ‘making a living is twice as hard as giving birth.’ R. Eleazar says, ‘The Scripture links redemption to making a living and making a living to redemption.’" (223)
Here, Adam’s life story is again made into a model for the rest of men. From God’s description of Adam’s partner, and from Adam’s punishment at the moment of exile, the rabbis extrapolate to their own lives thousands of years later.
"[The noble lady] said to him, ‘But why was it done in secret?’ He said to her, "To begin with [God] did create her for him and when he saw her filled with discharge and blood, [he was not attracted to her, so God] took her away from him and then went and created her a second time.’ She said to him, "I can indeed add to what you have said. I was planning to get married to my mother’s brother, but since I had grown up with him in the same house, I became ordinary in his eyes, so he went and married someone else, who in fact is not so pretty as I am." (186)
At first this may seem to be adding to Adam’s personal character – he is somebody disturbed and discomfited by the sight of blood. This could indeed be a telling personal trait. But the noble lady’s addition to the rabbi’s answer reveals it as another general description of men being unimpressed by women who are too familiar to them.
The rabbis’ ambivalence about the role of Adam reflects the difficulties and tensions they confronted in dealing with the story of the first man. I think the difficulties, and their methods of dealing with them, are very comparable with the modern efforts of feminists and women to come to terms with Eve. As women, we feel a connection to the first woman – perhaps it is a natural one, or perhaps one that has been assigned to us by years of interpretation, nevertheless, that bond is there. Some writers attempt to build up Eve, and make her a character we can admire and liken ourselves to. In Countertraditions in the Bible, Ilana Pardes uses her theory of the heterogeneous nature of the text to find an Eve who stands up to patriarchy in the Garden – an autonomous being, she seeks knowledge and is unafraid to confront God, and bring her husband with her. In her naming speech for Cain, she turns creation on its head and claims her own role as a creator, comparing herself with God and Adam to newborn baby. Others attempt to distance themselves from Eve as far possible. They accept the reading of her as oppressed and duped, and they turn to legends and stories of her predecessor, Lilith, to find a woman to admire as a mother. This is like the tactic of the rabbis of belittling Adam even more than the text does, and attempting to replace him as father with Abraham. Finally, there are some like Carol Meyers, in Discovering Eve, who attempt to make Eve disappear into history as a description of a generic woman in an early agricultural age, denying her importance as an individual in an individual story.
Why is it not sufficient to allow Adam to be a generic man? The easy answer is that if it were, we would not see these struggles in the Midrash. Not only is it unsatisfying to leave Adam less than a human character, it also has serious pitfalls. Because the story has so many holes and gaps in it, it easy to read contemporary conditions into it and generalize them for all times and all people. Because these kinds of judgements are subjective, this can be step towards dangerous dogmas, including familiar ones such as ‘women are more easily seduced,’ or ‘men eat anything given to them.’
What is the problem with seeing Adam as more than he is? Is it not desirable to use Midrash and story telling to flesh out a character and fill in the gaps? It can be; in the case of Adam however, it is very easy to flesh Adam out by rubbing out Eve or the serpent or both of them. When the rabbis say that Adam overthrew the kingdom of justice, they reduce the story of the Garden of Eden to the interaction between Adam and God. When we sacrifice Eve for Adam, we do not gain much.
What about diminishing even the role that Adam clearly has in the text? When the rabbis write that Adam would never have existed if it weren’t for the need for Abraham later in time, they attempt to squeeze Adam out of our history and deny him his role as father as father. This is unfair to Adam and it is also unfair to us; we have a right to our ancestors. When the rabbis write that Adam was an innocent victim of Eve, they relieve his burden of guilt. While this may be a valid reading of the text, it sets up Adam as a passive and weak victim at the same time as it turns Eve into a conniving villain or a stupid manipulator. To the extent that men see themselves in Adam or Adam in themselves, this is very disempowering and perhaps even dangerous. Furthermore, it creates a distrustful and possibly destructive dynamic for the relationship between Adam and Eve, and men and women.
The story of the first people is too compelling to be ignored. It needs to be confronted and it is time to meet Adam anew and to free him to be a real person with the other characters around him instead of instead of them. I was going to try to write a story about him, but then I thought that would not really fit into a research paper, so either I’ll do it next time or somebody else can go first. He has to be a father, but not only to us, to everybody. Furthermore he must be worthy of Eve, a fitting partner for her. That is all.