BROOKLINE, Massachusetts — In the beginning, there was one couple, one relationship: Adam and Eve. And it was good.
So says Bruce Feiler, New York Times best-selling author of “Walking the Bible” and “Abraham,” in his new book, “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve and Us.”
Feiler reexamines the first couple and their relationship, not as a story of Adam’s fall when Eve offers him the forbidden fruit, but as an equal partnership between man and woman, husband and wife.
“This story has been weaponized by men to hold down women,” Feiler said in a recent interview with journalist Robin Young of WBUR’s “Here and Now” at Temple Sinai in Brookline, at an event organized by the Jewish Arts Collaborative. “Eve is a victim of the greatest character assassination ever.”
To rectify this, Feiler went on what he called “the ultimate Adam and Eve road trip,” with one of its stops the place where it all began: the site of the actual Garden of Eden in Iraq.
‘Eve is a victim of the greatest character assassination ever’
“The Bible says [Eden is] at the confluence of four rivers,” Feiler told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview afterward. “The Tigris, the Euphrates, and two we don’t know. The Tigris and Euphrates meet in a tiny town called Qurna. There’s a little garden there.”
In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden until Eve tastes the forbidden fruit offered by the serpent and gives it to her husband as well. Noticing that they now wear fig leaves, God uncovers their transgression and expels them from Eden.
Qurna did not sound particularly Edenic when Feiler visited in 2004, about a year after the Iraq War began.
“Saddam [Hussein] diverted the rivers,” Feiler said. “They were only there since the mid-’80s. I went there with security. It was quite dangerous some years ago. I wore a flak jacket.”
‘It was quite dangerous some years ago. I wore a flak jacket’
Adam and Eve’s story lives on in great works of literature and art. Feiler mentioned John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” both of which challenged contemporary views of the First Couple. And while visiting the Sistine Chapel with his twin daughters, Feiler himself began to consider Adam and Eve as an equal partnership wronged by history.
“We looked up,” Feiler said, at Michelangelo’s famous depiction. “One of them saw Adam and God across the ceiling.” But, he said, she wanted to know where women were represented in the mural.
“Under God’s arm is a woman,” Feiler recalled. “She asked, ‘Is that Eve?’… I thought, maybe Adam and Eve have something to teach us about relationships today.”
In “The First Love Story,” Feiler presents this alternate view of Adam and Eve as equals.
“Adam is created from the earth,” he said. “Eve is created from part of his body.” But he emphasized that Eve was created from Adam’s “tzela,” not his rib.
“The word ‘tzela’ is mentioned 38 times in the Hebrew Bible,” Feiler said. “It means ‘side’ or ‘side room.’ Side by side — there’s no hierarchy there.”
Feiler also reminded the audience that there are not one, but two Adam and Eve stories, and that taken together they present a more equal picture.
“The first has most of the iconic moments,” Feiler said. “Adam comes from the earth, Eve from a part of his body. Eve is bored and eats the fruit, and the two get kicked out. They stay together and have two kids.”
Their first two children were Cain and Abel, and, Feiler understated, “It did not work out well.”
But, he added, “the third child, Seth, populates the human line. That’s the second story.”
The first story, though, poses the question, “Who does God really prefer, male or female?” said Feiler. “On the sixth day, in Genesis, humans are created in God’s image and divided into male and female, entirely in equality. That gives the second story a whole new meaning. Adam takes the lead, [then] Eve takes the lead. It’s a real relationship. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s not just an interesting story, it’s profoundly relevant for men and women and how we relate to each other today.'”
‘Adam takes the lead, [then] Eve takes the lead. It’s a real relationship’
One challenge to this view of Adam and Eve as an equal, ideal relationship is Adam’s betrayal of Eve when he told God that it was his wife who tempted him with the forbidden fruit.
“He did [betray her],” Feiler said. “Absolutely… There’s disappointment, bad behavior.”
But, he added, “It’s our relationship.”
After all, Adam and Eve do stay together after he chooses to eat the forbidden fruit, Feiler said, and they go on to have children. While their first two children’s lives turn to tragedy — Cain kills Abel, and is banished by Eve — the third, Seth, goes on to populate the earth.
“It’s a beautiful state of resilience,” Feiler said of Adam and Eve. But if this is a story of resilience, it is also one of resistance to reinterpretation.
“Laws were made, women were kept out of jobs, leadership, because of this story,” said Feiler. “For most of human history until 1800, most people on Earth thought the Bible was true and the word of God. It was written, it was truth. Adam was primary, Eve was secondary.”
Those who tried to view the story through a different lens sometimes faced bitter responses — including women’s rights pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the 19th century and legendary actress Mae West in the 20th century.
“For 50 years, [Stanton and Susan B. Anthony] fight for women’s rights in the law, in divorce courts,” Feiler said. “Elizabeth Cady Stanton is the first woman candidate for Congress. Later in life, she realizes this is not working. In the Bible, Eve is secondary, made from a rib. [Stanton’s] biggest problem is not politicians, it’s preachers.”
As a result, in the 1890s, Stanton wrote “The Woman’s Bible,” positing that Adam and Eve were created equal.
While the book was a success, it was also “a disaster,” said Feiler, noting that Stanton, who was then in her 70s, was subsequently voted out of the women’s movement at an election in Baltimore.
“[She] took on Adam and Eve and got flattened,” Feiler said, noting that it was not until “the second wave of feminism, 100 years later,” when Stanton’s legacy began to be resuscitated.
In the early 20th century, actress West made her own unique reinterpretation of Adam and Eve — and suffered consequences as well.
West made “more money than anyone, [had] more fame than Picasso,” Feiler said.
That all changed on December 12, 1937, when she appeared with Don Ameche for an Adam and Eve skit on the Chase & Sanborn Radio Hour — the number one radio program in the US.
“She sexes it up,” Feiler said. “‘Are you happy to see me or is that a wooden nose?’ And when she takes the apple, she makes it into applesauce and serves it to Adam. There’s lightning. She’s thrilled. It’s the first big wet original kiss.”
But the public was incensed.
“It’s the first example of an organized letter-writing campaign,” Feiler said, adding that letters were sent to places such as the Roosevelt White House and Congress, “a deluge, ‘Mae West is ruining religion.’ Mae West was banned from the radio for life.”
Feiler noted that “it was the second time in 40 years that the most famous woman in America had taken on Adam and Eve and got flattened.”
More recent history has provided perspective — and vindication for Anthony and West.
‘For the second time in 40 years the most famous woman in America took on Adam and Eve and got flattened’
“In the Bible, what’s last is often first,” Feiler said. “[Feminist] Phyllis Trible asked, ‘Can anybody say that man and woman do not stand equal before God?’ We have Eve to thank.”
Perhaps now is the right moment to give Adam and Eve their long-awaited due.
“We forget that the Garden of Eden is a long struggle,” Feiler said. “It’s a period of decisions. We’re recognizing that’s love.”
“If you want to share and deepen your own relationship, in the divided world we are in, we all need a little love, so that in the end you will be uplifted,” he said. “We need some of Adam and Eve, the first love story.”