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Etiologies in Genesis 1-3

Q. What is an etiology? What is its role in biblical literature? 

A. An etiology concerns itself with the study of causes and origins. As a philosophical investigation, the philosopher tries to understand the nature of existence and how it came to be. In Genesis for example, etiologies serve to explain the origin of a custom, an event, a name, a geographical formation, an object, a shrine, and so on. The first Jewish thinker to arrive at this was the 15th century Jewish thinker, R. Joseph Albo, who noted that the stories of the Edenic garden are meant to account for the difficulties of life that human beings experience.[1]

More often than not, etiologies[2] in the Tanakh correspond to a negative evaluation and many people throughout the ages have read the story of Genesis 3 as a justification for  why women must be subordinated to men. This is precisely the point of encounter where a modern reader must insist that while etiologies provide explanations for the causes and origins of a social attitude, they should not be read as prescriptions for how the world ought to be. To go one step further, many of these prescriptions characterize a world as it ought NOT to be.

Etiological explanations have their limitations, especially when ethical issues are involved; they should never prevent a person or a community from critically reexamining the basis of the etiological explanation’s internal logos. The failure to do so can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences. One example that comes to mind is the use of anesthetics in childbirth. In 1847, Church leaders quoted God’s curse to Eve: “in pain shall you bring forth children.” How could she fulfill the biblical punishment of bearing children in pain while being under the influence of chloroform? One wise doctor countered that scripturally, there was no harm in giving anesthetics to men, because God Himself put Adam into a deep sleep when He extracted his rib. However, the ecclesiastical bodies remained unconvinced when it came to the suffering of women who were in childbirth.[3]

Former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Immanuel Jakobovits writes in his Jewish Medical Ethics that as late as 1853, even before the discovery of anesthesia, there was an incident in France where two women—one pregnant and one who aided her with some artificial means to ease the pain of her delivery—were both burnt to death for attempting to circumvent Eve’s curse. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, chloroform was banned by the Catholic Church. The ban remained in effect until 1949, when painless births were permitted.[4] A society’s etiological explanations when left unanalyzed, can become a source for social dysfunction. There are broad implications that go beyond just the Edenic story, and a contemporary believer ought to take etiological explanations of any practice and hold them up to ethical scrutiny.

Lastly, in the Pseudepigraphal Book of Adam and Eve, the ancients propose a surprisingly sensitive reading of the text that demonstrates a willingness to deconstruct the text in a manner that is respectful toward women in general, and Eve in particular: “And he went and found her in great distress. And Eve said: ‘From the moment I saw thee, my lord, my grief-laden soul was refreshed. And now entreat the Lord God on my behalf to hearken unto thee and look upon me and free me from my awful pains.’ And Adam entreated the Lord for Eve.”[5]


[1] Sefer ha-Ikkarim, 1:11.

[2] Other etiologies include: the first act of Creation, the first day, the first week, the first Sabbath, the origins of marriage, menstruation, pregnancy, family dysfunction, the first dietary law, the first farmer and shepherd, the first conflict between the shepherd and a famer, the origin of sibling rivalry; the first fratricide, the first fugitive, the first city, the first ship-builder, the first natural catastrophe, and so on.

3] See Andrew D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, originally published by Appleton in 1896, reprinted in 1993 as part of the Great Minds Series by Prometheus Books, Vol. II, p. 60.

[4] Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics (New York: Bloch Publishing, 1959), p. 104.

[5] Book of Adam and Eve 20.1.