Adam/Eve: From Rabbinic To Scriptural Anthropology

Steven Kepnes
Ph.d. Colgate University

As a form of group reading of scriptures by Jews, Christians, and Muslims the Society of Scriptural Reasoning has naturally focused on Abraham. Abraham is the father of the three monotheistic faiths through whom all the nations of the world are blessed. Yet behind or before Abraham there are others that serve as common figures for the three traditions. As a figure of scriptural imagination and reasoning there are few that surpass Adam, the first human.? As both image of God and red clay, male and female, spirit and body, proud and shamed, perfect and flawed, Adam represents all the potential and danger that we, as humans, are. The midrashic readers of Torah clearly see this and Adam therefore gives rise to some of the most creative reflections on the questions of philosophical anthropology that we have in the Jewish tradition. But Adam is not only an important figure for rabbinic anthropology. As the first human, Adam represents all humans as beings created in the image of God and therefore of infinite value. Reflection on Adam therefore not only gives rise to philosophical anthropology, it also issues in the ethical imperative to address the suffering of all humans regardless of their connections to the traditions of monotheism. Since Adam is created in the image of God, he also poses a deeper question that we may also ask of God: if this human is in your image, what does he tell us about you?

When we move away from issues of human nature and theology to the specific characters of Adam and Eve, we find different sorts of midrashic reflections on the first humans. Genesis paints a picture of Adam as a passive personality and Eve as outgoing and inquisitive.? Midrash fills in the scant character sketches in Genesis to provide us with a peculiarly pious and contemplative Adam. Together, this pious Adam and the active and worldly Eve are suggestive of two modes of being in the world religiously and two different styles for scriptural reasoning. This leads me, at the end of this essay, to some final thoughts on the nature of scripture and the goals of scriptural reasoning.

I. In the Image of God

As an absent/present figure and a bundle of questions, Adam is the perfect figure for midrash. In the expression that we often see in midrashic parlance, Adam “cries out, interpret me!” The mystery of Adam is perhaps nowhere more present than in his origins.

And God said, let us make Humankind in our image, after our likeness?
And God created the Human in His image, in the image of God he created Him; male and female He created them. (Gen 1:27)

These verses begin with the puzzle of the monotheistic God speaking in the plural: “Let us make…” It continues with the creation of an androgynous being, a male/female. The easiest solution to the first problem is that God is speaking in the “royal we” or, perhaps, he is speaking to the angels. But he has created all the celestial bodies, plants, and animals by himself: “Let there be….” And we have heard nothing about the creation of angels or divine helpers thus far. So, we have reason to be perplexed by this “Let us make…” One striking interpretation can be developed from a suggestion of the contemporary interpreter, Aviva Zornberg. Zornberg argues that humans are not fully formed by God but that their formation is a joint undertaking of God and humans. [1] Thus, here, the “Let us” is neither directed to God as the royal we nor the angels, but to the human him/herself! So we then have: ‘Let us, you and I, make you!’ This suggests that human nature is not a finished product but a process. Human nature is not a given essence but a free potential that must be finished in human choices and in the human response to God.

Male And Female

The paradox of the plural and the singular in reference to God returns again in reference to humans when God creates the human (singular) both male and female (plural).? The use of the Hebrew word with the definite article Ha-Adam, “the Adam,” seems to suggest, as the NRSV translation has it, “humankind.” This translation means that God is creating, not a man who is androgynous, but the basic qualities of “humankind.” One of the qualities of humankind is that we are created both sexually embodied and sexually differentiated. This leads Phyllis Trible to make a good case that male and female are created, at first, in sexual equality. She points us to the summary statement about the creation of humankind in Genesis 5: “When God created humankind ( adam )….male and female created he them.” Trible states, “the parallelism between ‘ ha-adam [humankind] and ‘male and female’ shows, further, that sexual differentiation does not mean hierarchy but equality.” [2] The continued reference to male and femaleness as a quality of humaneness means not only that each of the sexes is equally human, but that gender and sexual activity is essential to humanity. This is affirmed by God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply…”(Gen. 1:28). Rashi amplifies the positive view of sexuality in his famous discussion of when intimate relations between Adam and Eve began. Rashi uses a simple Hebrew syntactical rule [3] to argue that we must translate Genesis 4:1 not as “Adam knew Eve” but, rather as “And Adam had known Eve [before the expulsion from Eden); and she become pregnant.” Thus, sexual relations between men and women occurred while in the ideal state of Eden.

Image and Likeness

But if it is the case that being created in the image of God means to be sexually differentiated, what does that say about God and sexuality? Obviously, a central polemic of the Bible and the monotheistic traditions that grow from it, is that God is beyond body and sexuality. However, a close reading of the text suggests that the phrase the “the image of God” does not have to be seen as a representation of God but, instead, it can be understood as an instrument that God employs in making humanity. Thus, Bara Elokim et ha-adam b’tselmo could be translated: ‘God created humanity with [or through] his image.’? Rashi suggests that the Hebrew word, tselem, can be translated as a “type” or a mold or form. He argues that whereas God created all the other creatures by word, “Let there be…” he created human with a tselem , with a form. This preserves the transcendence of God from his image and from materiality and sexuality.

Yet the mystery of being created in the image of God is not exhausted by the material and sexual meanings. If the essence of humans was their bodily and sexual nature, then God could have created them alongside the animals and in the same way. As well as relating humans to the creation of nature and the animals, the assertion that humans are created in the likeness and image of God suggests the distinction of humans from animals.? For this distinction, Rashi points us to certain cognitive qualities. He tells us that being created in God’s “likeness” ( dmut’ ) means being created ?with the power to comprehend and discern.? This must be so because, after Adam is created, he is given the commandment not to eat of the tree of good and evil. The power to comprehend and discern is necessary to understand God?s commandment. This already suggests a certain amount of freedom of the human will and the ability to deliberate on how to use it.

However, if we come back to the literal sense of the terms tselem (?image?) and dmut’ (?likeness?), we come to a deeper query. What does it mean to be created in the image of a being that has no image and to be like a being that has no likeness? Perhaps this ties back to our earlier discussion of the openness of human nature. Being created in the image of God means that there is no one determinative and definitive image that determines us. Being created in God?s image means that there is no one mold or picture for the human because each makes herself through the decisions that she makes in relation to God?s love and commandments. There is no one likeness for humans because as beings who comprehend and discern and choose, we are constantly changing and growing and developing.? Maimonides stresses, in his ?Laws of Repentance,? that the fact of human free will means that our moral and spiritual characters are never set. At every moment we are able to renew ourselves and achieve great spiritual heights. At the same time we are, at every moment, tempted by sin and can destroy a life-time of good deeds by turning away from God. [4]

There is a long line of interpretations from the midrashim to Maimonides to the modern neo-Kantian thinker Hermann Cohen to the existentialist Martin Buber, that suggest that the meaning of being created in the image of God is that the spiritual and moral character of the human lies, not within the self, but outside the self in its relations to God and to other humans. Lying outside the self in acts of relating to God and others, the spiritual and moral self is not only made in every moment, but also made new at every moment. Here, we are not talking about psychological characteristics and personality traits that may be permanent fixtures of the self. Instead, we are talking about the moral and spiritual self which lies outside the psychological ego in the triad of relations whose elements are the person, God, and other persons. If the moral and spiritual self lies in this web of triadic relations, we have yet another reason why the image of the human cannot be a definite given: it must be an open-ended image because it is constantly being made and remade in the dynamic movement of its relations.

The Heteronomous Law

The fact that the moral and spiritual self lies outside the self provides us with a way of understanding the moral status of the heteronomous law. This law must remain outside and “above” the self, in order to maintain itself as an unyielding and stable guidepost for the moral and spiritual self. The Jew certainly tries to internalize the heteronomous law and become morally and spiritually “autonomous” as Kant would have it. But the law must remain outside and even beyond the self because morality and contact with God are always beyond us as the goal and ideal to which we must strive.

Along with our qualities of gender, cognition, and free will, the rabbis conceptualize forces within the self which push us toward good and evil. They call these forces? yetzer ha- ra and the yetzer ha- tov , the bad and good impulses. Without the Torah, we are thrown back and forth between the two impulses. The gift of the Torah, however, is the provision for a stable guide, a series of ethical imperatives and discussions and the constant presence of God as an inspiration and motivation to follow the yester tov . “My sons I have given you the evil inclination, (but I have at the same time) given you the Torah as an antidote. As long as you preoccupy yourself with the Torah (the evil inclination) will have no dominion over you.” [5] ?

Human Uniqueness and Infinite Value

Still another way of understanding the meaning of being created in the image of God is provided in the mishna. In Sanhedrin we learn that that being created in God’s image means that every human is unique.

The greatness of the Holy One blessed be He is thus demonstrated. For whereas man prints many coins from one die, each one is a replica of the other, the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, stamped every man with the die of Adam and yet no one exactly resembles his fellow. [6]

This mishna responds to the obvious question:? If humans are created from the same mold why aren’t they all alike? In the process of answering this question, the mishna makes a startling statement about human diversity.? For the mishna the key word in Genesis 1:27 is not tselem but the word that is repeated three times, barah , created. The verse then is telling us something about what it means to be created by God. It means to be created unique. Unlike humans, who like to make replicas (and who are now fascinated with the idea of “cloning”) God creates life new and different every time. Thus, the mishna is saying that implicit in the fact that humans are created by God is the value of human diversity. In reflecting on this point the mishna makes one the most beautiful statements about the value of every human life in all of the Torah.

Therefore man was created on his own, to teach you that whoever destroys one soul is regarded by the Torah as if he destroyed a whole world and whoever saves one soul, is regarded as if he had saved a whole world. [7]

Here, the mishna suggests that not only is every person unique, but every person is equal in complexity and unity to the creation of a whole world! God, who created the world, creates each human being as a microcosm of the world. And each person possesses the value of an entire world.

So to return to our question: What does it mean to be created in the tselem Elokim , the image of God? It means to possess the complexity, unity and the infinite value of a world. It means to be created different. It means to be created male or female, white or brown. The image of God, then, does not work like a mold or mirror, giving us like attributes; rather it is a kind of inverted mirror or prism which gives each of us our unique light. It is a spark of diversity which makes us uniquely us. And if we stay with the metaphor of the tselem Elokim as the infinitely valuable spark of uniqueness within us, perhaps we could gain a deeper understanding of the nature of God. God, the creator and source of difference, uniqueness, value, and oneness, must himself be the infinitely different, unique, valuable and one. And that, of course, is the basic assertion of Deuteronomy 6:4 and the words of Judaism’s most basic prayer, the Shema : God is one. God is unique.

II. Ayeka — Where Are You?

Having explicated the meaning of being created in the image of God as a key to the basic qualities of Ha-Adam, of humanity, we still may want to return to Adam as a particular and unique figure in the opening chapters of Genesis. Here, questions remain about who this person is, and, more importantly, what he was doing while all the action was taking place. After all, Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate and keep it;” but we do not really see him working or watching over the trees and plants in the garden. He is given power over all the other created animals; but other than naming the other animals, he is not seen exercising this power. He does not appear to do very much at all. He says little and fails to take initiative. He is asleep when Eve is created and absent when the serpent appears. Eve is far more active than Adam, as she speaks with the serpent and is bold enough to interpret the word of God. Thus, she adds to God’s prohibition against eating of the tree, “neither shall you touch it” (Gen 3:3). Eve admires both the physical form and the inherent wisdom of the tree, then takes and eats its forbidden fruit, and gives it to Adam to eat. He then performs one of his few actions, which is to eat, but he then avoids responsibility for doing so.? Later, when he emerges from Eden, he is an absent husband and father who appears to take no responsibility for the upbringing of his two sons.?

Adam is a bundle of contradictions and questions, and therefore the reader is happy that God voices the question that we all want to ask of Adam: ” Ayeka , Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).? Midrash Tanhuma supplies us with a wonderful answer to the question of where Adam is and what he is doing while the momentous events of the opening chapters of Genesis are occurring. Tanhuma tells us that Adam is admiring the glory of creation, composing and reciting psalms, and contemplating the majesty of God. Thus, when Adam was created and beheld the world about him, he broke into praise of God and encouraged all creatures to join him in praise. “Let us all see the creation that God has created. And he was astonished to his heart. And he began to praise and extol, saying ‘How great are your works (Ps. 104:24)'” [8] Adam then recites the 93 rd psalm.

The Lord is King;
He is robed in grandeur
The Lord is robed,
He is girded with strength.
The world stands firm;
It cannot be shaken.
Your throne stands firm from of old;
from eternity you have existed.
The Ocean sounds, O Lord,
The ocean sounds its thunder,
The ocean sounds its pounding
Above the thunder of the mighty waters,
More majestic than the breakers of the sea
Is the Lord, majestic on high.
Your decrees are indeed enduring;
Holiness befits your house,
O Lord, for all times

Thus, in the Tanhuma, Adam is elevated to the level of a singer poet, a natural philosopher, and visionary. As the first human, the first to behold God’s creation, Adam responds with astonishment, and deep appreciation. Adam is the visionary who, in beholding the world, sees the complex and simple beauty of the ocean as itself a form of praise for God. Adam calls to mind other psalms: “The Heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims his handiwork” (PS 19:1). Adam not only perceives signs of praise for God in the ocean, heavens and sky, but he hears the sounds of praise in all life.? “All that breathes praises the Lord” (Ps. 150:6). [9] ?

In the midrashic imagination Adam has more important things to do than cultivate and watch over the garden. [10] Being God’s last creation, right before the creation of the sabbath, Adam recognizes that Eden is the perfect creation, the ideal space and time before history and outside of profane space. Eden is the eternal time, the time that is referred to in the Shabbat liturgy, as sh’kulo Shabbat, the time in which all time is Shabbat. Eden is the perfect space in which the human needs only extol the wonders of creation and contemplate the majesty of God. Midrash tells us then that it is Adam who composes a sketch of the psalm for Shabbat that David later fills in. [11] Eden is the paradigm of redemption, and therefore, Adam is doing what he should, resting, praying, and midrash adds, studying Torah (doing “textual reasoning”), and performing mitsvot. [12]

Genesis 3:? Now the Serpent was More Subtle Than Any Other Animal of the Field.

The midrash seems to have offered us both a plausible and a beautiful vision for the Adam of the first creation of the human, the human that was created in the image of God. But things get more difficult when the plot thickens and the serpent enters on the scene. Here, Adam seems to remain in his pious condition of prayer, contemplation, and innocence even though the world around him is being threatened. Though he remains in Eden, even in Eden–the ideal and natural naked state–there is a fissure. The fissure appears precisely in the nakedness. Adam and Eve are naked ( arumim ) but the serpent is “more naked” ( arum m’kol ) than they. Perhaps, his nakedness is derived from the fact that he is only naked nature, that he has not been created “in the image of God.”? The serpent is certainly the basely physical but what makes him dangerous is that he is also smart. He is subtle, crafty, shrewd. I could launch us into a discussion of base physicality and how what I have called the “fissure” in Eden got there. This could get us into discussion of the status of evil in the Hebrew scriptures, and midrash, and philosophy and kabbalah. But I would like to leave this issue alone for now and return to Adam in his prayerful and contemplative and studious state. I do this because Adam’s piety is, I think, instructive for us as scriptural reasoners. Adam is instructive for us, for we, too, like to stop the world and retreat to our wonderful tents of meeting to contemplate and study.? This is a crucial part of our “work” precisely because the art of contemplation and study of scripture seems to have been lost to many in the academy and even the church and synagogue and mosque. The communitas of our gathering and studying together recreates something of the awe and wonder of what Adam must have experienced in beholding the glory of God’s creation. But as we gather, we want to remain in touch with the world outside of our tents that is rent with fissures. Indeed, those fissures are not only outside our world, but they exist right with us in our idealistic tents of meeting.? Is it not a cautionary tale, that while Adam was contemplating, Eve was left to negotiate with the snake? Is it not instructive, that while Adam was giving God his gifts of praise, Cain and Abel were left to decide how to properly give gifts to God? And while Adam continued to pray, Cain was thrown into utter despair by the impropriety of his gift so that, as Adam continued to contemplate, Cain rose up and killed Abel his brother. And while Adam continued to study his son answered the question that God had asked him too, the question Ayeka , “Where are you?” now enlarged in scope to the question: “Where is Abel thy brother?” And Cain’s answer, like that of his father, was the answer of the failure to take responsibility: “I do not know, am I my brother’s keeper?”

As scriptural reasoners we have given ourselves a twofold task, we want to preserve our tent of meeting both as a sacred space, a place of group study and communitas and as a place in which our awareness and sense of responsibility for suffering in the world is enhanced and not diminished. We want to be both like Adam, whose deep appreciation for the gift of creation brings him to praise God, and like Eve, who actively embraces her freedom and courageously meets the serpent. We want to be like Eve who boldly interprets the word of God and follows her senses and with the “help of God” brings human life to the world. Our goal, then, is perhaps best expressed by a desire to bring the two faces of humanity, sometimes posed as the dichotomy of Adam and Eve, back together. Our goal is to bring study of scripture and action together so that the image of God in the world can once again shine forth.

III. Postscript: Scriptural Anthropology and Scriptural Reasoning

Given the consistent use of doubles: Cain/Abel, Abraham/Lot, Sarah/Hagar, Isaac//Isaac, Jacob/Esau, Rachel/Leah, Joseph/His brothers, one could say that the Adam/Eve double provides a hermeneutical key to understand Genesis. The written scripture gives us the human dynamic of doubling and shows us the destructive and ruinous consequences when the doubling turns into dichotomies. In this sense, scripture is descriptive of human failing. Scripture is a mirror meant to show us the splits and fissures within us and within our societies that prevent the disclosure of the image of God. But scripture does not want to fix the problem by itself. It wants us to live up to our potential by figuring out the solution ourselves. The nature or “anthropology” of scripture is to provide a description of human failing together with keys and clues to solutions. Scripture then calls out to us as readers and reasoners to fix scripture and in so doing fix ourselves and the world. This is the redemptive dimension of the work we do in our collective acts of reading.

What I have provided parallels rabbinic notions of the written and oral torah of which midrash is a part. The oral torah fills in lacunae and answers or “fixes” problems in written torah. The oral torah teases out the secrets in the lacunae in the written word and thereby releases deeper levels of its divine meaning. Yet oral torah is the activity of Jews alone. Scriptural reasoning is group interpretive work done by Jews, Christians, and Muslims together. Scriptural reasoning begins with a sense that the solutions provided by Jews or Christians or Muslims alone are now not enough to redeem us from the dichotomies and violence of our contemporary world. Scriptural reasoning is therefore a kind of super-midrash, a midrash done in the context of a new world with new challenges. Scriptural reasoning is a kind of super-midrash that starts from the realization that at least some of the fissures in the world stem from fissures that have occurred and are occurring between the children of Abraham. This is difficult and bold and dangerous work that we hope to do with both the courage of Eve and the piety of Adam.


[1] Avivah Gottleib Zornberg , Genesis: The Beginning Desire . (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995), 19.

[2] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 18.

[3] When the perfect form of the verb follows a series of verbs in the vow conversive, [as in Gen 3:23-24, va-yishalhahu , and he sent, va-igaresh , and he drove out, vayashkan and he stationed] we translate the perfect, yadah, (4:1) in the pluperfect sense, “he had known.”

[4] Maimonides, Mishna Torah Sepher Ha-Madah , “Hilkot Teshuva,” ch. 3:5.

[5] Sifre Deuteromony, par:45.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin: 37a

[7] Ibid.

[8] Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 3 (end).

[9] There are many references to animals praising God in Talmudic literature. See Avodah Zarah 24b; Rosh Hashanah 8a.

[10] Bereshit Rabba 16:5.

[11] Ginzberg cites Seder Rabba d ‘Bereshit , 7-8 and Pirke Rabbi Eliezer 19 for the midrashic sources here. See Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Phildelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1925) p.110, n.101 and p. 112, n.103.

[12] Bereshit Rabba, 16:6.

Title Page | Archive
© 2004, Society for Scriptural Reasoning