Discernment in the garden: considering the wisdom of Eve

A homily for the second Sunday of Lent 2022, following readings from A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church by Wilda C. Gafney.

Woman in a garden holding an apple, by todaydesign, Getty Images Pro, Canva Pro

For human beings, very few things are as powerful as a story. Narrative has the power to persuade, encourage, challenge, subvert, control, and liberate. As listeners, we have to be able to discern truth and good fruit.

Think about Ukraine and Russia right now. For Ukrainians, stories of hope, unity, and possibility matter. President Zelenksy uses narrative to inspire and persuade fellow Ukrainians, Europeans, and global allies to band together for their survival. By contrast, in Russia, Vladimir Putin exerts control over the media. His acts of censorship are so extreme that even mentioning the word “war” can land Russian journalists in prison. Storytellers always have an agenda.

Our biblical authors are no different. And yet we rarely encounter our biblical narratives with respect to their original context. In part, this is because our lived experience is so dramatically different from the biblical scene. Most of us aren’t fluent in biblical Hebrew or Greek, and we depend on others’ translations. Not to mention, Christianity has a strong tradition of passing down interpretations that pass for biblical truth, when in reality, they are the product of a theologian’s imagination. This is the case with the story most of us know as ‘Adam and Eve.’

I’ll be clear with my agenda today: it’s time to look at Eve as a holy example rather than the downfall of humankind!

The woman we recognize as Eve does something extraordinary in this narrative: she becomes the first biblical person to participate in an act of discernment! She weighs multiple narratives, and then she ponders the fruit for herself before making her decision to eat. We’ve always been told that her bite was an act of disobedience, a sin that corrupted the rest of humanity. But let’s hit the pause button and back up a bit, because the concept of what we know as “Original Sin” is not native to the text. It’s an Augustinian interpretation that has dominated our Church story for centuries with special implications for women, and we’ve been told not to question it. As with all the important narratives of our lives, one of the things we must be able to do is discern their fruit. Who do these stories help, and who do they hurt?

Let’s rehash some common beliefs about Genesis 2–3: God created paradise, God made woman as man’s subordinate, the snake is the devil, God set some rules, devil tempted Eve, Eve listened to the devil and broke the rules, she caused the fall of humankind, and the rest of us suffer for it in eternal exile. Eve is bad. These ideas have long been used to define women’s place in the Church and world. We can thank the storytelling power of Thomas Aquinas and Augustine for that because they aren’t native to the Genesis story itself.

What is? A woman and a man made in the image of God (Gen 1). A human made of dust and the breath of the divine (Gen 2). When God sees the human is alone, God creates an ezer kenedgo for the human — a “companion corresponding to it” from its side. The Hebrew word, ezer, means helper but is most commonly used to describe GOD as Israel’s helper in the Hebrew Bible. If the woman is the man’s ezer, what does that mean?

In the garden story, the woman is nameless; she doesn’t become Eve until after the expulsion from the garden. She has an encounter with a snake who the Genesis writer tells us had more naked intelligence (arum in Hebrew) than any other creature in God’s creation. (Translation by Wilda C. Gafney) The serpent is capable of subversive speech! Did God create it to have more intelligence than the humans? Or equal? Why?

The Genesis story always leads to more questions than answers when we approach it for ourselves. For example, the snake is not the devil in Hebrew scripture or Jewish lore; this means it wouldn’t have been part of Jesus’ worldview. Furthermore, when satans (or adversaries) are named in Hebrew scripture they actually act at the hand of God! That’s a problem to unpack on another day. In reality, the story of Satan and the fall of angels we have long associated with the Genesis story is a Catholic construct. That doesn’t make it bad or wrong. We’re allowed to have our own stories. It’s just important that we know this wasn’t the original story. Catholic men crafted it.

In reality, the woman of Genesis did something really valuable in our reading today. She took it upon herself to trust her own senses, insights, and reasoning to make an independent decision. There are so many gaps in this text. We have no idea how she learned about the forbidden nature of the fruit because the text doesn’t tell us. Did the man tell her? Did God have a sit-down with her after creating her? We don’t know. What we do know is her conversation with the snake. Faced with contradictory information, she didn’t have an option but to discern her next steps for herself. In her evaluation, the food was pleasing to the eyes and good for eating. And, in fact, when she ate, she did not die, but she awakened into a new stage of life.’

Did she commit a sin? Scripture doesn’t say so. God never accuses the couple of sin. God does not accuse the serpent of sin. God sets new boundaries and conditions for life, and God sends them on their way. This is how the history of Israel begins.

What scripture does say is “don’t put a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev 19:14). It’s an uncomfortable thing to ponder, but God seems to be the one who has violated a law. Let’s look at it this way. I adopted a puppy recently. She’s got free rein in my home, with some exceptions. We keep some doors closed, and I put harmful objects out of reach. I would never in a million years put a bag of chocolate chips in the middle of the room, tell her not to touch it or she’ll die, and walk away. They certainly look and smell good! If something happened to her, who would be to blame?

One of the first things we do when our kids are young is “baby proof” our houses. We make sure that harmful things are out of reach. I give my teen safe boundaries, too. Why didn’t God do the same? This story tells us that the snake had more intelligence than any other animal, and yet God intentionally placed the snake in the garden with two newly crafted humans along with a beautiful fruiting tree that would open the door to knowledge of good and bad. God designed the setup. It sounds to me more like a timed challenge. Oh, and God said the tree would cause death, but it didn’t. So the woman discerned well! It just led to a new stage of life, one where the first humans began to bear responsibility for themselves. What if God wanted it this way?

In Genesis, it was only after leaving the garden that the woman received her name: Eve, the mother of all that lives (Gen 3:20). Note: she’s not the mother of all sin. Her name is one of honor. Throughout scripture, men who exercised her same skills of discernment were called wise. It’s time she claimed her place among them as a wise woman whose choices yield life.

What do you think? What stories in your life might deserve a second look?

Want to read more? I’m happy to share my thesis. Also, check the pros:

Womanist Midrash by Wilda C. Gafney
Wisdom in the Garden by Kimberly Dawn Russel, in I Found God in Me
Poor Banished Children of Eve by Gale A. Yee
God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality by Phyllis Trible
The Hebrew Bible by Robert Alter



Homilies & reflections from Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community (BICC). Our independent community practices shared leadership, gender equality, and full LGBTQ+ affirmation and inclusion. Our pastors are Roman Catholic Women Priests. https://binclusivecatholiccommunity.org

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Angela Nevitt Meyer

She/her. Mama bear. Catholic priest. Mind-Body Medicine certified practitioner. Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) 🌈