The Similar Stories of Eve and Cain
We have started the annual cycle of reading the Torah. Every year, I come to a familiar, beloved text, and invariably see something new.
The Bible can be read, sung and looked at in multiple ways. In our cultural world, we tend to focus on reading a text — and in the process, we ignore the sounds of the words and the way that repetitions can intentionally convey ideas to those listening.
Here is an example of when the sounds of two words convey a completely new way of understanding an ancient text — Eve’s encounter with the serpent, and Cain’s encounter with sin.
Some religious traditions or theologies take what happened to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden as proof that humans are inherently bad, and only Divine Grace can offer us a way out. Others see it as one example of how human beings make mistakes, and are forced to face the consequences.
The main Jewish position on sin is that there is a constant, fluid struggle between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara — the tendency to do good and the tendency to do bad. In Genesis 9:21, this tendency is described as coming into humans during their youth, rather than birth. Even so, poor Eve gets the blame for everything.
Males have subjugated females long before the Bible. But as the foundation text of all monotheistic religions, the Bible shares the blame — along with ancient Greek culture — for the way that women were regarded as subjects to males. In many places in our world today, they continue to be. The text — as read superficially — condemns females to a secondary, dependent role.
In the Genesis narrative, the serpent is the worst offender; he gets to crawl on his stomach, find his food in the dust, and be locked into a permanent hate relationship with humanity. Eve, who is next in line, gets nine months of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth and will be ruled over by her husband. Adam is told that he will have to work hard daily to produce bread by the sweat of his brow.
In the transliterated Hebrew of Eve’s punishment it says, “VeEl iyshech teshukatech, veHu yimshol bach” — “Your desire will be towards your man and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16) The Hebrew root word for desire is TESHuKA and the word for rule is MSHL. The capitals indicate the root of the word, which is its essential meaning — devoid of gender. And on the surface, this explains why women were regarded for so long as subservient.
But there is a fascinating parallel in the language used of Eve to that used regarding Cain. Two words in both stories resonate to create a message that only listening to the repetition of sounds conjures up.
Cain originated the idea of sacrifice. But he gave God “some of the produce of the land.” Whereas his younger brother Abel gave “the firstborn of his flock and the fattest” (Genesis 4:3-4). God accepted Abel’s sacrifice rather than Cain’s. Cain was angry and felt rejected. God responded by saying, “Why are you angry? If you do the right thing it will be accepted. But if you do not to the right thing, then sin will lie across your door, it will desire you but you can rule over it [overcome or master it].” (4:7)
Here the two core Hebrew words applied to Eve are used to describe Cain: “Lapetach chataat rovetz, eylecha teshukatoveata timshol bo.” The Hebrew usage for desire, TESHuKA, in the Cain narrative mirrors the one in the Eve narrative, even though it is used of sin desiring Cain rather than Cain desiring sin. Remember that someone hearing the words (and this text was mainly heard by people for thousands of years before everyone had access to a written text) would immediately recognize the similarity, the resonance, the music of the sounds — and, therefore, the message.
The same goes for the word for rule tiMSHoL. This idea of rule is also used to describe man’s role in regard to nature. In Genesis 1:28, God tells man and woman that their responsibility is to rule over the animal world. But there the Hebrew root word is RaDAH — which is also used later to describe Pharaoh’s cruel treatment of the Israelite slaves. It is a different and much harsher word than MSHL. I have come to feel that the word MShl means the less offensive word responsibility, rather than rule. A kind of social contract that gives the female protection, while pregnancy makes her vulnerable.
This traditional idea that women are supposed to be dependent on men can be understood in two ways: It can be intrinsic and necessary, or it can be simply social conditioning and therefore contingent and not necessary. Perhaps we can understand this statement of female “dependency” in quite a different way.
Since these crucial words are identical in their roots, and the sound of them resonates, it makes sense to suggest that the message intended is similar in both narratives.
The condition of dependency can be negative as well as positive — like children continuing to be dependent into adulthood. Even if sometimes it is necessary or preferred, the ideal is not permanent. If Cain is told to overcome dependency and tendency towards sin, so Eve has to try to overcome the dependency on man, particularly if such dependency impedes her self-development. Either after her vulnerability is over or in general, she should strive for her own independent identity. If she sacrifices some of her dependency temporarily or initially, this need not be permanent. In parallel, Adam is required to sacrifice some of his independence in order to accommodate and provide for Eve.
By repeating similar sounding core words in both texts, the Torah is asserting that this subordinate state need not and ought not to be permanent.
You might ask why, then, Jewish law gives women fewer rights than men.
I would argue that this is what our inadequacy as men, our original sin — so to speak, has imposed on women. But we should rebel against this — not necessarily by modifying our male modalities, but rather by asserting the specific religious needs and identities of women. And if the law then still discriminates in any way, it is indeed up to our authorities to face the issues, instead of throwing up their hands and claiming that there is nothing they can do. The Torah empowers them and encourages them to act.
But, of course, it all depends on how you read, understand or hear the original written and oral text.