Women and Christianity: representations and practices

II. Genesis and its traditional interpretations

1. The Story of the Creation of Man and Woman

The book of the Genesis opens on 2 cosmogonical stories integrating two myths on the origins of man and woman. The first text reads as follows:

"And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them. Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Genesis 1; 26-28)

In this first narrative, God simultaneously created Man and Woman. In the second, however, he starts with the creation of Man, who he puts in the Garden of Eden. However, judging that "it is not good that man should be alone", he decides to give him "an help meet for him":

"And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." (Genesis 2; 18-24).

This second tale is obviously aimed at legitimising marriage, which in a way is presented as a return to their origins: by unifying, man and woman become once again one flesh. However, this tale also suggests that women must be subordinate to men, having been created after him in order to bring him "an help meet for him". And this is how it has been interpreted in the Jewish tradition, Islam and Christianity alike. The Koran for example quotes this text twice (Sourate VII, 189; XXXIX, 6), whereas the first creation myth is never mentioned. Sourate XXXIX reminds us that women were created for men. In the text of the first Corinthians where Paul, Christ’ s Apostle, justifies the obligation for women to cover with a veil in churches example once again of the women required submission to men:

"For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man. For the man is not of the woman; but the woman is the glory of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man" (Corinthians I, 11, 7-9).

2. The Narrative of the Fall

Already mentioned in the two tales of creation, the idea that women are obedient to men appears explicitly in the rest of Genesis, which recounts how the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, were expulsed from the Garden of Eden. God placed there two trees - the tree of life, whose fruits gave immortality and the tree of knowledge of good and evil - and had forbade Adam to touch the latter, under threat of death. The snake, however, the "most cunning animal in the fields" persuades the Woman to break this command and pushes the Man do the same. God, having discovered the transgression, condemned the guilty pair to leave the garden: "and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life" (Gn., 3; 24). Thus, unable to eat the fruits from this tree, men lost their previously enjoyed immortality.

This text shows woman - and the whole of Christian tradition keeps on reminding us - as the agent of the transgression which made humanity into a mortal species. As a result, Adam and his descendants were also condemned to work for a living (Gn., 3; 17). As for the Woman, she was not to give birth in pain and suffering and submit to her husband:

"I will greatly multipy thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." (Gn., 3; 16).

This extract has without a doubt helped to justify, for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, the belief that the women must obey men in marriage. Just as important (especially in Christianity), is the fact that the text attributes the sexual desire to the woman and not to the man. Christians drew the conclusion that women are, more than men, a sexual being - equivalent to condemnation without appeal; unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity profoundly disapproves of sexuality. 

Following the Biblical texts (i.e. the divine injunction: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth") Jews, Muslims and to a lesser extent, Christians, value procreation. Sexual pleasure, for Jews and Muslims is also valued as long as it takes place within wedlock. This is the case especially in the Jewish tradition. Sexual relations are considered the normal expression of love between husband and wife, which means that it should be the result of free consent from both partners: a man has no right to impose sexual intercourse on his wife if she has no such desire. Sexuality in Judaism has even a sacred dimension to it. Thus the Talmud says: "when man is united with the woman in holy matrimony, the divine presence (Chekhinah) resides next to them" (Dic. Enc. of Judaism, art. "sexuality").

Christianity however disapproves of any carnal pleasures. This is because Christian thought is dualistic: on the one hand it took after Plato’s idea that man is made of two substances, the soul and the body, and that only the former is "linked to the divine" and thus immortal. In order to guarantee a happy eternity, men should avoid material goods and the pleasures of this world, which would provide distraction from their spiritual development. 

Christian theologists have thus concluded that man must be weary of women, even avoid her: it was the women who made Adam disobey God; consequently it is the woman who incites men to sin, and notably to commit the sexual sin. This idea of women explains that the witch-hunts organised in 16th and 17th centuries both by Protestants and Catholics were mainly aimed at women: historians estimated that 80% of the accused were women. Henry Institoris and Jacques Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum (The Mallet of the Witches, 1486), (see R. Muchembled, 1978: 297 and J-M. Salmann, 1991: 455-60), the most widely spread instruction manual for the inquisitors, wrote a chapter explaining why according to them, women more than men are predisposed to ally with the Devil, being weak, vain, and easily tempted by the pleasure of the flesh offered by the demon.

The idea that the Woman made the Man sin has without a doubt encouraged Western and Eastern Churches to impose chastity on monks. Chastity is also, in Catholicism at least, the ideal of a Christian woman. This idea is present as early as the Middle Ages, but took full strength from the Counter Reformation. This is the second issue we will examine.