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The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us, by Bruce Feiler. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. 306 pages.

The author of this new book, Bruce Feiler, writes the “This Life” column for the Sunday New York Times and is the author of six consecutive New York Times best-sellers on topics such as the Bible and happy families. He is also the writer/presenter of two PBS series and is a popular speaker. Although Feiler’s writing clearly indicates that he is a Christian, the book does not list any particular denomination for him, and neither do the various bios and articles one can find about him on the Internet, including his own webpage.

This book was chosen for review because it presents a fresh, well-researched account of the story of Adam and Eve. Many of the statements in it will be of interest to Latter-day Saints because they are familiar to our own understanding of the first couple.


THESIS

The author says that the story of Adam and Eve needs to be reexamined and that old myths about it need to be corrected. The author’s two main claims are: (1) the world unjustly blames Eve for her eating the forbidden fruit and bringing evil into the world; (2) the thing that matters most in the story of Adam and Eve is love. The first couple are indeed in love, according to Feiler, and they provide examples and role models for us to follow in our lives. Feiler also notes that the story of Adam and Eve and their children is depicted by much of the world’s art and literature.

One note to readers: the author makes no mention of LDS doctrine and does not seem to be aware of it.


DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK

The author begins by telling of the incident which got him interested in writing this book. He was touring the Sistine Chapel with his two daughters. When they looked at the ceiling, one asked where the woman was in the famous picture of God creating Adam, while the other noted that Eve seemed be under God’s arm. In considering these questions, he came to the conclusion that the world’s understanding of the Adam and Eve story is minimal and flawed. That led him to investigate the matter and ultimately to write this book.

The five sections that follow are, roughly, the main ideas that Feiler uses, considerably condensed.


1. The basic story.

Feiler discusses the conventional view of the Adam-Eve story, that they are blamed for being selfish, lustful, disgraceful, and for bringing evil and death into the world. Eve in particular receives most of the blame because she was the first to partake of the forbidden fruit. That is the basis for much of the world’s opinion that women are inherently evil or second class. Adam and Eve are the first anti-heroes. The author remarks wryly that this is the biggest case of character assassination in history. The original sin is often interpreted as their engaging in sex, which fact has resulted in sex as being considered “dirty,” not, as Latter-day Saints understand it, the divinely approved method for bringing souls into the world.

Feiler notes that when God asks Adam whether he ate the forbidden fruit, that he blames Eve. My response to that is that it wasn’t a matter of blame but of simply stating the fact. Eve blames the serpent; that also was just noting what happened. The author agrees, but says that Adam and Even didn’t tell the whole story—that is, that they wanted to eat the fruit. The LDS view is not so much that they wanted to eat the fruit as that they felt, in fact knew, that it was necessary in order to open the way for our Father’s children to come to Earth and to progress here.

Feiler says that the earliest source to link Eve’s eating of the fruit to the decline of humanity in sin and evil is a Jewish text from the second century B. C. E., the “Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach.” He gives no indication that there is any earlier description of this theme. Christian writers took it from there, commenting, for example, that the serpent chose Eve because she was weaker than Adam and would be easier to deceive, a theme echoed by Martin Luther. They also excoriate Adam because of his failure to stand up to the enticements of Eve.

Much of the current view of marriage and sex is due to St. Augustine, who at first rejected Christianity and lived a hedonistic life. Later returning to the faith after abandoning his common-law wife and child, Augustine constructed a theology based on the supposed sinfulness of the sexual conduct of Adam and Eve. That is, Adam squandered his free will by having sexual relations with Eve—now referred to as the “original sin,” inherited by us all. Augustine’s views on the immorality of sex became the prevailing attitude in Christianity. Other early Christian writers had harsh views on sexual love, including sexual love in marriage. The fourth-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa called marriage the first thing to be left behind in the journey toward Christ, while Luther wrote that a subservient wife is needed for a happy and tranquil marriage. A more positive view was expressed by Irenaeus, who claimed that eating the fruit was a necessary sin, because “it allowed humans to have the ungodly lives that Jesus would redeem.” Although this reason seems strange to me, it is closer to the LDS view of the Fall, that is, that the Fall was foreordained and was a progressive step in our eternal destiny. Our view is best expressed in Moses 5:10, which quotes the words of Adam: “Blessed be the name of God for because of my transgression my eyes are opened and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God,” and in Moses 5:11, in which Eve says: “Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” I like Eve’s statement better than Adam’s. For one thing, she seems more unselfish in that she says “we” and not “I”, and for another, her statement is more profound and all-encompassing. Why did Eve eat the fruit? Was she coerced, in rebellion? No. Did she want more meaning in her life? Was she looking for knowledge and wisdom? Feiler, taking a cue from John Milton (see below), says yes, and also says that she got Adam to eat because she did not want to be without him.

Why did Adam eat? Is he afraid that he will lose Eve? Feiler says yes; Adam eats the fruit because he loves Eve. Does he choose Eve over God? Yes. In the LDS view, of course, Adam loves God and Eve. The author states: “Only by eating the fruit could Adam and Eve be fruitful. Only after falling from grace can Adam and Eve fall fully in love with each other.”

In understanding the relationship between Adam and Eve, it helps to review the original Hebrew. The word used in Genesis 1:27 is ha-adam, which does not mean a single man, or man in general, but all of humanity. The word ezer kenegdo is translated as “helpmeet” in the King James Version, but it can also be translated as sustainer or partner—which suggests equality more than helpmeet. The word tsela’, translated as “rib,” may mean simply that woman stands at man’s side as a partner. When used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, it means “side” or “side room.” The fruit of the tree is peri; but in the Latin Vulgate, the tree of knowledge of good and evil is rendered malus, which sounds like malum, the word for apple, and so the fruit came to be seen as an apple. There are sexual overtones as well; the author notes that in the Song of Solomon apples are compared to female breasts. The Biblical statement that God tells Eve that Adam will “rule” over her, the source of much controversy, was clarified by President Kimball to say that Adam would preside, not rule. Our general authorities have made it clear that husband and wife are equal partners, working side by side.

In an observation which originates with Plato in The Symposium (a fact noted to me by a reviewer of this review, not by Feiler), the author views the creation of Adam and Eve as a single being who is then divided into two beings. The two then long to be reunited. This claim is wrong from an LDS view; for us, they are separate beings from the beginning, but we also know “neither is the woman without the man, or the man without the woman, in the Lord.” The longing for God and the longing for one’s spouse have common roots in our divine heritage.

I note that besides the Adam and Eve story, there are other historical elements tending to the view of women as degraded. One example is the Greek myth of Pandora’s opening the box of troubles and releasing them into the world (although there is a positive side in that at the bottom of the box was “hope.”) Feiler does not mention Pandora, but does describe Greek culture, in which no one expected husbands and wives to love each other. Men might have a wife, a concubine, a courtesan, and a young boy—and the wife was considered to be least important. Ben Sirach’s comments, noted above, are much later than this Greek view; I wonder whether there might have been a connection, but have no evidence for any.

Does the author prove his claim that it is unjust for the world to blame Eve for bringing evil into the world? I think so. He certainly speaks of many good things we can learn from the story of the first couple: love of God and each other, constancy, patience, righteousness. The scriptural account is brief, to be sure, but we can infer many of these things. Feiler rightly holds them up as good examples.


2. Are Adam and Eve in love?

Most couples start clothed and finish unclothed; with Adam and Eve it is the other way around. Most couples talk, flirt, coo, exchange words of affection; we assume that Adam and Eve did so, although the scripture is silent on the matter. But they are committed; they have a future together. And despite the disaster of the murder of one son by another, they stay together and have other children. They work together, mourn together, worship together, live together.

Feiler spends considerable time discussing John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, which is the world’s most famous literary treatment of Adam and Eve. It treats the war of Satan and his angels waging war against Heaven and being banished to hell, but also tells the story of the marriage of Adam and Eve, as complete, well-rounded, and romantic, and, interestingly, with conflict over division of labor, which they negotiate. They also have sex (Book IV.) They have freedom to choose; Adam lets Eve go off on her own, and she lets him make the choice to eat the fruit after she does.

Milton has a lovely description of their life after the expulsion: “The world was all before them, where to choose/ Their place of rest, and Providence their guide./ They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow/ Through Eden took their solitary way.”

Feiler notes that there is a lesson from Eden—that it is hard to live in paradise—and also observes that perhaps Eden is not so much an actual place as a location we must create for ourselves. This allegorical interpretation is consistent with the beliefs of many people in today’s world.

In understanding how love grows, Feiler gives the example of the interchange between Tevye and Golde in A Fiddler on the Roof; after 25 years, and after their second daughter falls in love and leaves to be with her husband in Siberia, they wonder about love. Do they have it? Yes. They decide that what they have experienced is indeed love.

Augustine’s view of the first couple was eventually, at least somewhat, overturned in the modern era. Ironically, Feiler gives some credit for this to Mae West and her lusty approach to life, as she suggests to everyone that sex is natural, although saying nothing about marriage. But other people viewed sex as something that was good, but only within marriage. Feiler gives as an example John Mark Comer, a fundamentalist Los Angeles preacher. Comer supports, in his messages to his young people, the view that sex is positive, not “dirty,” and that flesh is not dirty either. Feiler summarizes Comer’s message: God’s mandate to humanity is to have children, build societies and nations, and that this depends on relationships—which depend upon love, which depends upon sex. That is the creation of God. I comment that Comer gets it backwards. Love is the basic feeling and sex is part of it, but there is much more to love than that; there is sharing, living together, growing old together.

Does Feiler prove his claim that Adam and Eve were in love? No—but there is little information in scripture about it. He suggests it as a reasonable proposition, bolstered by Milton’s picture of them. This, of course, depends upon the definition of love, whether just erotic and romantic, or the more mature, long term values of commitment and covenant. My own view, informed by LDS scripture, doctrine, and the temple ceremony, is that they were indeed in love, in the highest senses of the word. Just as our Father in Heaven chose Jehovah to be the Savior, knowing somehow that He would go through the awful Atonement to the final terrible end, the Father would have chosen an extraordinary couple to begin the human race. It is clear to us that they filled that role admirably.


3. Adam and Eve and children; the difficulty of having children

Feiler uses the example of Adam and Eve as parents to discuss the difficulty of having and raising children. They were the first father and the first mother of all of humanity. Yet their journey as parents was not smooth. One of their sons murdered another.

He remarks on the matter of raising children today and quotes the study of a Nobel Prize-winning economist who, in a statistical study, found that having children is sixteenth out of nineteen activities that parents enjoy, even coming after housework. That is shocking to average Latter-day Saints, who regard their families as blessings. To be sure, children sometimes are disappointments, as with, Feiler notes, the tragic story of Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one the 1999 killers in the Columbine school shootings.

Parents blame themselves in situations like that. I once heard Marion D. Hanks talk about such an incident. He was at a stake conference in St. George in which the stake president was talking about the good things his children had done. Elder Hanks noticed that many parents in the audience were squirming and asked one of the counselors what was wrong. The counselor told him that on a recent high school graduation night, many young men—sons of these parents—had taken girls across the state line for immoral purposes, possibly rape. To make matters worse, a Catholic friend asked to be let out at the state line because he wanted no part of it. When the stake president sat down, Elder Hanks told him he wanted to speak now. The president said, “Now?” “Yes!” Then Elder Hanks spoke about the Old Testament scripture (Jeremiah 31:29, Ezekiel 18:2) that says that the saying, “The parents eat sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” is a false saying. As I understand the meaning of this saying, it is that the sins of the children may be blamed on the parents. Whenever a child goes wrong, parents blame themselves; Elder Hanks was trying to ease that feeling.

Losing a child produces a strain on a marriage. Feiler discusses cases in which it made parents closer, but in my own experience as a campus bishop, I had a couple who divorced after losing one of twin daughters to SIDS.

We may take heart in Adam and Eve’s story, that even though there was trauma in their marriage, they got past it. We still regard them with honor as our first earthly parents.


4. Women’s rights

The story of Adam and Eve, as we have discussed, has been manipulated to assert that women are inferior to men, and thus their story is offensive to those who believe men and women to be equals. In a chapter on the women’s rights movement, Feiler tells the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, beginning with her father’s unconsciously searing comment to her when she was a child of ten, after her twenty-year-old brother had died: “Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!” That painful memory fired her the rest of her life. She became an indefatigable activist and spoke for women’s rights of all kinds, abolition, temperance, voting. At age 75 she wrote her own version of the Bible, published five years later. In it, she selected passages from the five books of Moses, with extensive commentary. Excised was most of the first chapter of Genesis—including the entire story of Adam and Eve—leaving only three verses, including, “Let us make humanity in our image after our likeness.” She says that clearly there was consultation in the Godhead and that masculine and feminine elements were equally represented. Then she debunks the rib story and calls the eating of the forbidden fruit an act of courage and dignity. Three years later she published a second volume with the story of Jesus Christ. These writings were a bombshell to her audience. Her Bible sold widely, but it was a disaster to her reputation.

Feiler gives another example of relating the story of the first couple to women’s rights. Phyllis Trible, who was a female faculty member at Union Theological Seminary, loved to ask her students, “Why was Adam superior to Eve?” They inevitably replied, “Because he was created first!” Then she would say, “Then why aren’t the animals superior to humans?” and note that the order of creation was that the superior being was last. And who was last? Eve.


5. Other literary and artistic allusions to Adam and Eve

Feiler notes that the story of the first couple has been an inspiration to many artists and writers over the centuries. For example, he discusses the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel extensively, particularly the three central scenes about the Creation and the Fall and the symbolism Michelangelo put into them. This was the most interesting part of the book for me.

A few other artistic works about Adam and Eve were discussed by Feiler, but there are a large number but could not be presented because of space. We may not even realize that some authors are building upon the story of Adam and Eve in their works. One example that he gives is that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. We are all familiar with the story of Frankenstein’s monster, but what we may not realize is that it was meant to be analogous to the creation of Adam. Frankenstein is playing God. When he finishes his creation he pronounces it good. But then things go downhill. His admiration for his creation turns sour; he bolts from the laboratory. The monster murders Frankenstein’s brother and then goes out into the world. Listening to a family inside a cottage, the monster grows attached to them and learns to speak by listening to them. He comes across a satchel of books and teaches himself how to read. One of them is Paradise Lost. He sees the connection to his own situation and realizes “I am Adam!” But knowing that he is alone, as was Adam, he pleads with his maker to make him a companion. Frankenstein refuses; the monster then murders Frankenstein’s wife, and the novel ends with the two pursuing each other throughout the earth. Other examples that occur to me, not mentioned by Feiler, are Lucas Cranach’s artistic rendition of the expulsion from the garden and John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden.

The Frankenstein story attests to the need for companionship, an echo of the realization that “it is not good for man to be alone.” Feiler mentions the examples of the unhappiness caused by being alone, such as Heathcliff’s loneliness for Cathy in Wuthering Heights, or accounts by contemporary writers Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates of the devastation of losing a husband. Latter-day Saints, of course, can point to comments made by leaders, like Richard G. Scott and Gordon B. Hinckley, of the indescribable loneliness they felt when their wives died. Mark Twain, on losing his wife Livy, wrote a book called Eve’s Diary, reflecting on that feeling. He commented to a friend, “I am a man without a country. Wherever Livy was, that was my country,” and Twain imagined Adam’s lament when Eve supposedly dies: “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.”


6. Final remarks

Feiler finishes his book by telling of Pope Francis’ off-the-cuff remarks in Philadelphia in 2015. The Pope spoke about the need for a family and for togetherness, noting that it is not good for man, or woman, or children, to be alone. Feiler sees that as reflecting the love that Adam and Eve had for each other.

To truly honor Adam and Eve, we can learn what is really involved in love. It is not “happily ever after.” It is “the continuing story of self-definition, in which plots, themes, characters, beginnings, middles, and ends are very much up to the authorship of the indeterminate selves engaged in love.” Feiler, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, gives these steps of love: covenant, connectedness, counterbalance or equilibrium or give and take, constancy, care, and co-narration, a list with which Latter-day Saints can agree. As spouses, as lovers, as equal partners, we must create our own story. That is the right lesson to be taken from the story of Adam and Eve.

I recommend this book for readers interested in views about Adam and Eve that are somewhat similar to those of Latter-day Saints. There is much information that the author has gathered about their story, from history, literature, art, and social science. That helped to expand my understanding of Adam and Eve and made the book valuable to me.



Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2018) "Book Review: The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us," SquareTwo, Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring 2018), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHarrisonFeilerReview.html, accessed <give access date>.

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