Danger and Desire – Edenic reflections

Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)
Adriaen van der Werff, Adam en Eva (c.1711)

As you will recall from a previous post, I’ve been teaching a course this semester on the Bible and visual exegesis, exploring visual culture as a source of biblical interpretation. Classes have been going well, so I thought I’d share some images and insights we’ve covered in some of the lectures. I’ll start off with our lecture from a few weeks back on Adam and Eve in art and advertising.

We began with an overview of some of the ambiguities in the text of Genesis 2-3, particularly in relation to what Genesis 3 – the story of the ‘Fall’ – says about gender and female sexuality. Does Eve’s creation after Adam – and from Adam – suggest that woman is subordinate to man within the divinely mandated created order? Why does the snake talk to Eve, rather than Adam – does it suggest women’s greater vulnerability to temptation and disobedience? Why did Adam eat the fruit given to him by Eve – did she have to persuade or tempt him to eat it or did he bite into it quite willingly? And what was the forbidden fruit anyway – and why was it forbidden by God in the first place?

Countless interpretations of these textual ambiguities have been put forward over the centuries, many of which have pointed not only to woman’s secondary status in the created order but also to her textual characterisation as weak-willed and naive, prone to sin and solely to blame for the ‘fall’ of humanity and the loss of Edenic relations between both male and female and humanity and God. Moreover, Eve also stands accused of being the archetypal temptress, who uses her sexual allure to entice men away from their natural godliness and to indulge in the ‘forbidden fruit’ of untrammelled sexual desire. As the early Christian and Jewish readings of Genesis 2-3 quoted below suggest, this biblical narrative does not only recount the misdeeds of the first female biblical character, it advances an ideology about all women, explaining their dangerous nature and justifying the need for male dominance and control.

  • 1 Timothy 2.12-14: ‘I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor’.
  • Ben Sirach 25.24 (2nd Century BCE wisdom text): ‘From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die’.
  • Philo (Jewish philosopher, 25 BCE-50 CE): Women are ‘the beginning of blameworthy life’. Their bodily appetites are ‘the beginning of wrongs and violation of law, the pleasure for the sake of which men bring on themselves the life of mortality and wretchedness in lieu of that of immortality and bliss’.
  • Augustine (Christian theologian, 354-430 CE): ‘[Eve] was of small intelligence and … lives more in accordance with the promptings of the inferior flesh than by the superior reason’.
  • Clement of Alexandria (Christian theologian, 150-215 CE): ‘Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman…the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame’.
  • Tertullian (Christian theologian, 155-245 CE): ‘And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert— that is, death— even the Son of God had to die’.
  • Jerome (priest, theologian 347-430 CE): ‘Woman is the root of all evil
  • 15th Century with-hunter’s manual, Malleus Maleficarum: ‘In the Old Testament, the Scriptures have much that is evil to say about women, and this because of the first temptress Eve and her imitators’.


Yes, throughout the long history of interpretation surrounding Genesis 2-3, Eve gets the blame for all humanity’s woes; moreover, all women are Eve, all women are associated with sin, guilt, temptation, and evil. No wonder men have to exert power over us, lest our evil natures wreak further havoc in this divinely ordained patriarchal world. We might be tempted to roll our eyes at the outdated views of these early interpretive efforts, dismissing their horrible misogyny as the result of archaic responses that no longer wield power in our contemporary Bible-reading cultures. Alternatively, we may tend to agree with their general interpretation of Genesis 2-3, but seek to whitewash the violence and vitriol of of such readings with platitudinous appeals to the far more equitable creation account of Genesis 1, where ‘male and female’ are both created – concurrently it seems – in the ‘image of God’. And yet, despite the fact that these early interpretations of Genesis 2-3 are indeed products of their time, their legacy across time and space has been ubiquitous and far from harmless; indeed, it’s almost a truism to say that the Genesis 2-3 text has had and continues to have a real and deleterious effect on women’s social, political, and religious lives: as feminist theologian Mary Daly noted:

0704339935.01.MZZZZZZZ‘The myth [of Gen 2-3]  has projected a malignant image of the male-female relationship and of the “nature” of women that is still deeply imbedded in the modern psyche … The myth has in fact affected doctrines and laws that concern women’s status in society and it has contributed to the mind-set of those who continue to grind out biased, male-centred ethical theories … [It] undergirds destructive patterns in the fabric of our culture’.

Beyond God the Father, 1973.

So, if we turn to some of the visual depictions of Genesis 2-3 created across the centuries, what can we tell about the way artists have interpreted this biblical text? Do they likewise reflect the views of those early readings given above, pinning the blame on Eve for the whole sorry mess that was ‘the Fall’? Carrying out a survey of artists’ presentations of Genesis 3 from the Medieval period through to the nineteenth century fin de siècle and on to the present day, it becomes clear that the notion of Eve as Adam’s temptress – and her close affiliation with the snake, that source of sinful temptation – remained alive and well in visual culture. In some artworks, for example, Eve and the snake share a rather spooky resemblance, confirming the artists’ association of woman with this serpentine symbol of evil.

Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
Masolino, Temptation of Adam and Eve, 1425
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470
The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes, c. 1470

In other visual portrayals of Genesis 3, Eve may not look like the snake, but her close affiliation with it is clear to see. In William Blake’s Eve Tempted by the Serpent, this bizarre couple sashay around the tree of knowledge together, while Adam lies snoozing, oblivious to the disastrous events about to unfold.

William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800
William Blake, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, c.1800

In works by Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Henry Fuseli, and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, there’s even a wee bit of flirtation going on between Eve and the snake, while in Franz von Stuck’s work, Adam and Eve, Eve and the snake appear to become one flesh, the lapis lazuli creature mimicking the serpentine curves of the woman’s body until they coalesce to form one terrible fanged mouth that offers the man that fateful fruit.

Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer, Eve, 1896
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
Henry Fuseli, The Serpent Tempting Eve (Satan’s first address to Eve), 1802
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Eve Tempted (c.1877)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)
Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve (1893)

Also, note how in some of these paintings, Eve is alone with the snake, accentuating the closeness of their relationship and, as J. Cheryl Exum has suggested, allowing Adam to be acquitted of at least some of the blame for his and Eve’s act of fruity disobedience. And even when he is present in the picture, some artists seem to insist that Adam was an unwilling partaker of the forbidden fruit, driven to this disastrous act as the result of Eve’s feminine wiles and skills of temptation.

William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
William Strang, The Temptation (1899)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1570)
Titian, The Fall of Man (c.1550)
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923
Victor Brauner, Adam and Eve 1923

But how did Eve tempt Adam to eat the forbidden fruit? And what was this fruit anyway – what did it represent? The biblical text doesn’t explicitly tell us, but as Katie Edwards has suggested (in her fabulous book Admen and Eve), given the rich biblical tradition of pairing together the themes of female sexuality and fruit (see Song of Songs 2:3-5 and 4:12-16 for example) – not to mention the sexualised implications of female nakedness found throughout the Hebrew biblical traditions – it may be that Eve’s ability to tempt her man to disobey the divine word was due to the overwhelming power of her sexuality. In other words, she didn’t simply persuade Adam to eat a piece of fruit – she seduced him until he was powerless to resist her charms, until he forgot about any divine prohibition and, throwing caution to the wind, sank his teeth into the delights of the flesh. And certainly, artists such as John Liston Byam Shaw make quite explicit this association between female sexuality and the sin of the ‘Fall’. Eve – as woman – is shamelessly seductive here – framed by the rich colours and exotic creatures of Eden (including a rather ginormous snake), she appears to have entranced poor Adam to the point of catatonia as he stands, trapped between those two most deadly of creatures – the woman and the snake – with nowhere left to run.

John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)
John Liston Byam Shaw, The Woman, the Man, the Serpent (1911)

Even in contemporary depictions of the Adam and Eve biblical traditions – for example, advertising images that use iconography from the Genesis 2-3 text – this sexualising of Eve persists, along with that same insistence that Adam, while not entirely blameless, was rendered helpless by the overwhelming (and thus dangerous) power of woman’s sensual allure.

Bobby's Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advert
Bobby's Taproom and Grill ad
Bobby’s Taproom and Grill advertising image
TSUM department store ad
TSUM department store ad

These contemporary images – although created under the banner of (hetero)sex positive postfeminism – may still convey an implicit message that such allure may need to be proscribed and policed. As Edwards notes in Admen and Eve, women’s sexuality and self-objectification before the male gaze can now be advertised as a source of their social and sexual power; yet, there is a concomitant claim that such potent female sexuality poses a threat to men and masculinity. Meanwhile, both of these ideological responses blissfully ignore the daily reality for countless women that their sexuality is less a source of their power than a site of shame, vulnerability, and violence.   While Paul, Philo, the Church fathers, and countless others insist that women’s sexuality led man to lose his paradise, the reality may be that the paradise of patriarchy never did get lost in the first place, but remains very much a reality, sustained by those myths and misperceptions surrounding female sexuality – given voice in Genesis 2-3 and their interpretive traditions – that serve to keep women firmly in that marginal space of shame, subordination, and sexual sin.

I’ll be back soon with more reflections from our Danger and Desire course – next time, we’ll survey the cultural phenomenon of ‘Salomania’ – that centuries-long artistic love affair with the young royal dancer who caused John the Baptist to, quite literally, lose his head.

References for this discussion:

Edwards, Katie B. Admen and Eve: The Bible and Contemporary Advertising (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012).

Exum, J. Cheryl. “Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Frederick Pickersgill’s Delilah.” In Bible Art Gallery, edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96 (The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011).

Danger and Desire: New course offering for Theology at Auckland


Those of you who have visited the blog before will be aware that I have a bit of a thing for exploring the Bible in the visual arts (see our annual December Advent offerings, for example, or some previous posts here, here, and here). So I’m thrilled this year to be teaching  on this very topic. Titled Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture, this brand new course will introduce students to the concept of visual exegesis, showing them how visual images (including art, film, TV, and advertising) can be valuable tools for the biblical interpreter to use in their readings of biblical stories, themes and, characters. These pictorial presentations of the biblical material are rather like biblical commentaries or scholarly articles in visual form – the image maker is an interpreter of the text, not merely its illustrator. And, through their particular visual media, they gift to us fascinating retellings of the biblical stories, multicoloured afterlives of biblical characters, and reflections on biblical themes that can at times be thrilling, surprising, and even challenging.

Robert Lentz
Robert Lentz, David and Jonathan (c. 2005)


In case I’ve whetted your interest, I’ve listed the course description and lecture topics below, along with a very select bibliography of some resources we’ll be using. And, as the course progresses, I’ll share with you some of the insights that I get from each lecture, not to mention some of the wonderful images we’ll be looking at each week.

Franz von Stuck, Adam and Eve

Danger and Desire: The Bible and Visual Culture

An exploration of the ways that biblical characters, themes, and stories have been represented in the visual arts, including fine art, advertising, and film. Students will consider the interrelationship between biblical and cultural texts, learning various methods of biblical interpretation which utilise visual images as interpretive tools to make new sense of the biblical traditions and their history of interpretation.


  1. Introduction to visual exegesis and hermeneutical aesthetics
  2. Sin, sexuality, and selling power: Adam and Eve in art and advertising
  3. Don’t lose your head: Judith and Salome as biblical femmes fatales
  4. Querying masculinities: exploring biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (David and Jonathan; Jacob wrestling with the man at Jabbok)
  5. Querying femininities: exploring more biblical ambiguities in the visual arts (Ruth and Naomi)
  6. Highlighting or hiding the abject body? Hagar in art
  7. Bathing beauties and peeping toms: Bathsheba and Susanna in art
  8. Giving shape to suffering: the book of Job in art (focus on William Blake and Samuel Bak)
  9. Retelling familiar tales: the parable of the good Samaritan in art and on screen
  10. Visualizing the (masculine) holy: Jesus and messiah imagery in art, film, and advertising
Samuel Bak Journey
Samuel Bak, Journey (1991)

Select bibliography

Adams, Ann Jensen. Rembrandt’s Bathsheba Reading King David’s Letter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Allison, Dale C. Jr., Christine Helmer, Thomas Römer,  Choon-Leong Seow, Barry Dov Walfish,  and Eric Ziolkowski (eds.) Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009-

Clines, David J. and J. Cheryl Exum (eds.). Biblical Reception (2012-2013).

Clanton, Dan. Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. New York: T&T Clark, 2009.

Edwards, Katie B.  Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. The Bible in the Modern World, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2012.

Exum, J. Cheryl. The Bible in Film: The Bible and Film. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Exum, J. Cheryl.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012 (2nd edn).

Exum, J. Cheryl and Ela Nutu (eds.). Between the Text and the Canvas: The Bible and Art in Dialogue. The Bible in the Modern World, 13. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009

Harvey, John.  The Bible as Visual Culture: When Text Becomes Image. The Bible in the Modern World, 57. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013.

Joynes, Christine E. (ed.). Perspectives on the Passion: Encountering the Bible through the Arts. London: T&T Clark, 2007.

O’Kane, Martin (ed.). Bible Art Gallery. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.

________ (ed.). Imaging the Bible: An Introduction to Biblical Art. London: SPCK, 2008.

________. Painting the Text: The Artist as Biblical Interpreter. The Bible in the Modern World, 8. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.

Renan, Ernest. Christ in Art. New York: Parkstone International, 2010.

Rowland, Christopher. Blake and the Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Terrien, Samuel. The Iconography of Job through the Centuries: Artists as Biblical Interpreters. University Park: PSU Press, 1996.

Salome and John the Baptist John Vassos 1927
John Vassos, Salome and John the Baptist (1927)
Adam and Eve Underwear Ad
Adam and Eve imagery in Bench/ undies ad
Banksy, Crucifixion

Advent offering 7 December

For today’s advent offering, something a little different. I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen recently and one of the highlights of my visit was a trip to the Carlsberg Glypotek art museum. This museum has the most amazing collection of 19th and 20th Century European art and sculpture, including many works by Scandinavian artists. The sculpture galleries especially took my breath away, but one particular work really caught my eye: Paradise Lost by 19th Century painter and sculptor Jean Gautherin. The sculpture presents us with a depiction of Adam and Eve post-Fall, a common enough motif for artists throughout the centuries. Yet what is different about this art work is the dynamic we observe between the two subjects. In the biblical tradition of Genesis 3, once the couple’s act of disobedience is discovered by God, Adam’s initial response is to blame his female partner: ‘The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”‘ (3:12). There is no sense of shared responsibility, and the author leaves unspoken the emotions and reactions of the couple after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This missing element to the story is the focus on Gautherin’s work and he explores it in what I think is a fascinating way.

Adam and eve 1
Jean Gautherin, Paradise Lost (1881-83)

Adam and Eve sit together, lost in a moment of bewilderment. Eve’s face is engraved with pain, disbelief, and slack-jawed regret. She stares ahead of her, as though not quite sure what has just happened, unable to fully understand the immensity of the deity’s response to their fruity disobedience. Perhaps, as the biblical tradition may itself hint at, she feels the more responsible of the two for the catastrophe that has just occurred. Perhaps she’s playing back in her mind that conversation with the snake, that fatal bite, that divine response, wondering why she acted as she did and, even more tragically, what might have been had she not. Regret is the bitterest of pills to swallow. Adam and eve 3Adam, meanwhile, appears to show an emotional side of him that we just don’t hear in the biblical tradition. His arms gently circling his devastated partner, he shows only care and concern for her. His eyes resting upon her, he seems to be focused only on her grief, rather than his own sense of loss. God is nowhere in this sculpture, just his two creatures, left alone, East of Eden, to experience for the first time the human curses of regret, loss, and grief, but perhaps also to share for the first time those immensely precious gifts of consolation, empathy and concern for the Other. Adam and eve 2

Picture this

ImageDuring the past few years, when I’ve been teaching courses on the Hebrew Bible, I’ve developed the habit of brightening up my PowerPoint slides with images from the visual arts which depict the biblical scene or character that I’m lecturing about. I initially did this in order to make my slides more visually appealing for the students and to avoid the PowerPoint death blow of having excessive amounts of text and bullet points oozing from each slide. After a few weeks, however, I noticed that students enjoyed dwelling on these slides, contemplating their deliciously dramatic depictions, laughing at the anachronisms of biblical characters dressed in period costume, and asking questions about the (sometimes unconventional) ways in which the artist appeared to have imagined the biblical text in visual form. These slides thus came to serve as more than mere illustrations to the texts we were discussing; they provided for the class an additional source of interpretation of these texts, one that was colourful, immediate, and engaging.

ImageOf course, the use of the visual arts as an interpretative tool in biblical studies is far from new; seasoned scholars, including Cheryl Exum, Caroline Vander Stichele, Martin O’Kane, and Hugh Pyper have been thrilling us for years with their imaginative explorations of the intersection between ‘text and canvas’. At the Chicago Annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature last year, I was lucky enough to attend two sessions put on by the Bible and Visual Art panel which is dedicated to exploring the interpretation of biblical texts in art throughout the centuries. During both sessions, I encountered a real sense of excitement amongst both speakers and audience members as together, we explored the potential for dynamic and engaging biblical interpretation through the visual arts. Despite grumbling reservations from some of the more traditional arenas of biblical scholarship, this decidedly civil partnership between the Bible and art will, I believe,
stand the test of time as a valuable and lasting addition to the biblical studies family.

Let me give you an illustration. I’m currently teaching a postgraduate course on the books of I and II Samuel and last week, we began by looking in detail at the opening chapters of this remarkable narrative. We focused in particular on the rather bizarre scene set out in chapter 1: Hannah, sick of the cruel mocking she has to endure from her husband’s other wife, escapes the family feast at Shilo and retreats to the local temple, where she utters a fervent prayer to her God that he fill her barren womb with a longed-for male child. Eli, the elderly priest who is sitting nearby, sees Hannah’s lips moving in silent prayer but cannot hear her words, so concludes (rather mystifyingly) that she is drunk (was the spectacle of inebriated women in the temple common in those days?) He tells her to sober up, she retorts that she’s distressed not drunk, and he then shoos her off with assurances that God will have heeded her prayer (whatever it may have been – he doesn’t ask).

In my search for images capturing this colourful scene, I came across a woodcut by 19th Century artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872), whose stained glass window designs adorn St Paul’s Cathedral in London.Despite its monochrome simplicity, von Carolsfeld still catches the moment of high drama in the Shilo temple with a delightful clarity. Hannah is portrayed kneeling in prayer just left of centre in the picture. She is framed by two heavy curtains, which drape around her in a manner reminiscent of theatre curtains, thus giving the impression that she is an actor – or opera singer, perhaps – performing her sacred aria before us, the audience. A heavy wooden pole, supporting the temple ceiling, frames her to the right, completing her seeming separatedness from the rest of the scene and splitting her from the shadowy figure of Eli who sits in the background. Hands grasped in prayer, she is awash with light, suggesting to us her central role in this dramatic moment and perhaps assuring us that a heavenly presence is indeed listening to her heartbroken words.


To Hannah’s right, Eli sits, lurking in the wings of her well-lit stage. The contrast between the two figures is startling.There is no heavenly light shining upon him; rather, a heavy gloom seems to drench the corner of the room in which he sits, shrouding him from our scrutiny.  This darkness that enfolds the aging priest may be understood as both literal and metaphorical, foreshadowing not only his eventual loss of sight in his old age (I Sam. 4:15) but also his current ‘blindness’ to just how corrupt and useless the Israelite priesthood has become under his family’s dynastic reign (I Sam. 2:12-17, 22-25). Yet, through the shadows, we can see his figure reposing on the priestly throne. His body posture is utterly relaxed and in a state of non-movement; leaning right back in his chair, his hands rest folded in his lap, and his legs adopting a position that suggests he is in no rush to get up and approach the woman who kneels just a short distance away from him. Through this perfect study of a body in stillness, von Carolsfeld draws our attention to Eli’s refusal or incapacity to react to Hannah in a way fitting for a priest. He sits back and passively watches; rather than leaning forward to try and hear her words, to find out what is wrong, he prefers to reach the lazy assumption that she is drunk without having even to leave his comfortable throne.

In her distress, Hannah has come to the temple to call to her God; the priest who should have mediated this communication for her chooses instead to remain very much off centre stage, unwilling to get involved, uninterested in her predicament. That the woman encroaches on Eli’s priestly world of shadows is left in no doubt by his somewhat sneaky gaze which seems to rest lazily upon Hannah’s kneeling figure, and also by the small detail of her robe, whose hem breaks out from her theatrical frame and lies on the floor, just to the right of the pillar, within the priestly space of the temple. This small corner of Hannah’s garment lies like a crumpled accusation, confronting Eli with her distraught presence and asking why he continues to sit, passive and shadowed, rather than reaching out to meet her. It draws our attention to one of the central concerns of the early chapters of I Samuel – the brokenness of the priesthood and its ineptitude as a conduit between God and his covenant people. Hannah is left to enact the performative duties that the priest should have carried out on her behalf; she, not Eli, is on the temple stage, pouring out her heart directly to God without help from a priestly intercessor. Eli, sitting frozen like a statue in the gloaming can neither see nor hear her properly. Yet, he makes no effort to move closer to her, to participate in her performance, to offer her his help. Rather, he prefers to remain unseeing and unhearing, gazing dispassionately at the woman before him.

To my mind, Von Carolsfeld’s woodcut captures this narrative’s moment of high drama, with Hannah performing centre stage and Eli relegated to the wings. But more than that, it presents its own interpretation of the text. Hannah, illuminated in light, becomes more than a barren woman beseeching her God for a child; she is a religious functionary, communicating effectively with the deity in this holy space and signalling to the shadowed, silent priest behind her that his performance in Israel’s religious life is fast drawing to an end.