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“The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate’” (Gen. 3: 12): Shifting the blame in the story of The Fall

Beaux-Arts de Carcassonne – La fille de Jephté – Edouard-Bernard Debat-Ponsan

Sara Stone (@wordsfromastone), University of Glasgow

Kate Millet (1970: p. 53) declares that the myth of The Fall is “designed in order to blame all this world’s discomfort on the female.” With this in mind, I will use a literary perspective to investigate the link between The Fall as told in Genesis 3 and the existence of a victim-blaming culture in the Hebrew Bible. Specifically, I will explore how the case surrounding Jephthah and his unnamed daughter in Judges 11 echoes the blame-shifting attitude we see in Genesis 3. By “victim-blaming culture,” I mean a society that places the blame for a crime or act of violence (whether sexual or otherwise) onto the shoulders of the victim rather than the perpetrator. In other words, the victim is held entirely, or partially, at fault for the harm that befell them.

The Bible is an influential book that holds great significance, both historically and in contemporary society. Therefore, by investigating the notion that the very first book of the Bible exhibits harmful attitudes and highlighting how these attitudes are reflected in narratives that come later, we can recognise a pattern of toxic traits held by those in higher positions within biblical power structures. Regarding the relevance that this has today, I suggest that the presence of victim-blaming in the opening book of the Bible has paved the way for the same victim-blaming to take place historically as well as from a narrative perspective. Victim-blaming is part of the wider phenomenon of rape-culture, which describes a culture whose prevailing social attitudes normalises, or trivialises, sexual assault and abuse (Gay, 2014). By recognising the blame-shifting attitudes that exist in biblical texts, we can challenge them and recognise these same attitudes as they materialize in contemporary society.

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The events of The Fall in Genesis 3 are integral to the story of humanity’s creation (Genesis 2). After discovering Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, God asks Adam, “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Gen. 3:11). In his response to God, Adam attempts to shift the blame onto both Eve and God: “The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I [subsequently] ate’.” (v. 12). Verse 12 suggests that Adam only ate the forbidden fruit because the woman whom God had created gave it to him, implying that if Eve had not been present then Adam would have kept the command that God prescribed him in Gen. 2:17. Moreover, his words “The woman whom you gave me” implicates God in the blame too. Everybody but Adam seems to be at fault for the actions that Adam himself did. However, we are able to hold Adam accountable for his actions for a number of reasons.

First, as Eryl Davies (2003: p. 102) notes, to claim that Eve was ultimately responsible for the events of The Fall is a complete misunderstanding of the narrative. For, the serpent addresses the woman with plural rather than singular Hebrew forms in Gen. 3:1–5. Therefore, the original Hebrew suggests that the man was indeed present with the woman when she was being seduced by the serpent. If that were not evidence enough, Gen. 3:6 explicitly tells us that, after taking a bite of the fruit herself, Eve gave some to the man, “who was with her.” Eve was not alone in the initial disregard of the command in Gen. 2:17.

Second, in Gen. 3:6, Adam took the forbidden fruit from Eve without question and therefore denies his own individuality. Yes, Eve did initially take the forbidden fruit. However, Eve was not told directly by God to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil because Gen. 2:16–17 only addresses the man; woman was not created until after this command from God. Therefore, the responsibility to uphold God’s command was arguably left in the hands of Adam. Indeed, it can be speculated whether or not Eve could hear God’s command, as at that point, she was still a rib in Adam’s side. However, we know that Adam was undoubtedly present and had the ability to hear God’s instruction.

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Nevertheless, Eve herself is not entirely irreproachable in this blame-shifting scenario as she attempts to relocate the blame that Adam gave to her onto the serpent: “The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I [subsequently] ate’” (Gen. 3:13). Indeed, Gen. 3:12–13 demonstrates that neither man or woman are taking responsibility for their actions and the subsequent harm that will befall them in Gen. 3:16–19. Instead, the couple both project their guilt onto someone else. Notably, both Adam and Eve blame others that are below them in the perceived power structure; Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Thus, both Adam and Eve are illustrating a blame-shifting mentality at the very start of humanity. And, as parents to humankind (Gen. 3:20), they are setting an example for their descendants to follow.

Regarding contemporary society, similar acts of blame-shifting are still very prominent, both in cases of sexual assault and otherwise. For example, during the sexual assault case involving Brock Turner, Turner was characterised as a promising student and “champion swimmer” by the media, whilst the woman he attacked (Chanel Miller) simply became known as the “drunk girl at the party,” strongly suggesting that she was responsible for the harm that Turner perpetrated against her (Brockes, 2019). In a similar act of victim-blaming, Jacob Rees-Mogg made comments whilst doing a radio interview claiming that the Grenfell Tower fire victims did not use their “common sense” and leave “the burning building”; according to Rees-Mogg, they should have ignored the advice given by the fire department to “stay-put” (Proctor, 2019). Both examples illustrate the way that people can shift blame from themselves onto victim(s) whom they perceive to be lower than them in the power hierarchy, in a similar way to how Adam and Eve blamed those whom they believed had less power than them.

The story of The Fall thus suggests an inherent propensity for a perpetrator to shift the blame onto their victim; this allows us as readers to recognise the existence of a blame-shifting mentality in our own social context. If we fail to recognise and challenge this mentality, then we allow for the dangerous rhetoric of victim blaming to continue. The victim-blaming culture illustrated in Genesis 3 is also echoed in other parts of the Hebrew Bible, and I turn now to the unnamed daughter of Jephthah who appears in Judg. 11:34–40. When the elders of Gilead are being threatened by the Ammonites, they turn to Jephthah and appeal to him to be their commander (Judg. 11:5–6). Jephthah agrees after being enticed by the promise that he will become the leader of “all the inhabitants of Gilead” (Judg. 11:8–9). Jephthah subsequently turns to YHWH for a guarantee of success by vowing that he will sacrifice “whoever comes out of the doors of my house [first] to meet me” if his success is assured (Judg. 11:31). Jephthah proves to be successful in battle, however his rejoicing is short-lived when it is his daughter that comes out of his house to greet him, and therefore it is she whom Jephthah needs to sacrifice in order to fulfil his vow to YHWH (Judg. 11:34).

Jephthah remains committed to his vow and yet blames his daughter for his misfortune: “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble for me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow’” (Judg. 11:35). Arguably, this is a mournful cry from Jephthah, and the tragedy of this affair is emphasised in Judg. 11:34, where we are told that his daughter is his only offspring. This deepens Jephthah’s conundrum as the eradication of a linage was one of the worst fates that could befall any person in biblical Israel (Frymer-Kensky, 2002). The shifting of blame from Jephthah onto his daughter indicates his sense of horror and tragedy at the situation he has found himself in. Arguably, Jephthah’s anguish is a disguise for his self-centred expression of self-pity; he is only distressed because of the loss he will face, rather than feeling guilt or lamenting over everything his daughter will lose as a result of his vow. Jephthah’s daughter has unknowingly dealt her father an unavertable blow simply by being the first to greet him after his return home.