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The woman’s body

· ​Symbols in the Bible ·

The biblical woman is a body, not as material in oppositionto the soul but as personal flesh, in reference to man (and other human beings) and to God, in a messianic history open to future fulfilment. This woman’s body in the Bible can be studied from different perspectives covering various themes, which I explain here in a general way, outlining a vision that extends from Genesis to Revelation, in the perspective of canonical or believing exegesis.

The creation of Eve in a relief by Andrea Pisano for the bell tower of the Cathedral of Florence

Genesis 1-2. A woman’s body isa relationship. The biblical woman is not a goddess-body like Venus or the divine Mother, with a large stomach and a full bosom of the kind that we find not only among the peoples of that area but also in the land of Israel itself, where together with the man-bull it was the most frequent sign of divinity. This woman-goddess (Ashera, Ishtar/Astarte or queen of the heavens) was obliterated and rejected by the Bible but her shadow (a void) often reappears, from the Pentateuch to the Revelation of John.

The goddess body disappears and in its stead the concrete body of the woman as aperson emerges, bound to the man in equality as Genesis 1:27-29 says (“male and female he created them”), thereby forming the one humanity, in the image and likeness of God. Thus the first symbol of humanity is not a man or a woman but the two united, as a dual body, bearers of life (be fruitful and multiply); with common dominion over the earth.

Yet immediately after saying “male and female he created them” Genesis 2:4-25 declares from a different perspective that God began bycreating an Adam or (“human being”) in his totality, with dominion over the animals, but in solitude, without company. A little later, so that theman should have a companion, God caused a deep sleep to fall upon him, took one of his ribs, and made of it a flesh and bloodwoman so that the man as a unit (totality) disappeared and at the same time two were born as people: the man (with a part outside himself, in the woman) and the woman (she too with a part outside herself in the man).

In this way the man and the woman came into being at the same time, already as people, which is why the resulting mancould proclaim in his own words (like those of God in Genesis 1), ratifying the identity of the woman who is already standing before him, as a body in a relationship, namely, as a person. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh (basar) of my flesh [...]. Therefore a man (ish) leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife (issah), and they become one flesh (basar) (Gen 2:23-24).

Thus he was in the first place not a man born first, from whom the woman was subsequently born, but an undefined human being who, inbeing divided by God, was recreated in the form of a man and a woman, two people at the same time, one before the other and with the other, in such a way that they were each at the same time in themselves and outside themselves. In this sense the man and the woman were born incomplete, but in such a way that their very lack ended up by presenting itself as their greatest richness, because each one found his or her completeness in the other and they were both able to speak to each other and to unite, forming a complete flesh (basar, sarx), the whole of humanity, as word and body shared.

Genesis 3:1-8. A woman’s bodyis the risk and riches of God. The biblical woman is not a goddess-body like Ashera-Ishtar, but is close to divinity, as the text continues to indicate. The man beginswith a song of praise for the woman. (“this at last [...] is flesh of my flesh”) but is then silent and leaves the initiative in her hands. She takes it on and places herself before God’s mandate in a gesture of both risk and greatness.

So it is that the woman explores the meaning of the word of God who has ordered them (both herself and the man): “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree [of knowledge] […] lest you die” (Gen 3:3).The man remains passive before these words, as if he had no other desire than his wife. The woman on the contrary converses with her inner thoughts that appear as a sacred serpent, she risks and eats the fruit of the tree, offering it to the man so that he will eat it too.

This woman who explores and eats, taking the risk of penetrating the path of knowledge despite God’s warning, is the expression of a corporality made word, on the one hand before the God of life and on the other before the doubt of God, which is the serpent, interpreted in the later tradition (cf. Rev 12:1-6) as an anti-divine dragon.

Genesis 3:14-20. Mother of all the living. Only at themoment when the woman has eaten of the fruit of knowledge and has given it to the man to eat (in a certain manner taking the place ofGod), does the text confront us with the most profound truth: “The man called his wife’s name Eve, (hawwa, zoe), because she was the mother of all the living” (Gen 3:20).

Thus the man says that the woman is not only “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” but indeed hawwa, that is, “living”. She has not succeeded in becoming God (she ate of the fruit of knowledge but not of the life of God), but was made Eve, (hawwa, zoe), in other words mother of all that lives (kol hai, “of all the living”, ton zonton).

Of course, the woman is not God in herself but is a materialization of God, as a human incarnation of infinite life. She is not a mere rib/flesh of man, who finds in her and with her his personal completeness, but the presence and language of God because she appears as the mother not only of men but of all the living, for her life-body is a sign (living word) of cosmic fecundity.

Genesis 4:6. The body, a cause of sin? We read on and see that the first fight and death among human beings do not occur through any fault of women, as has sometimes been said, but between brothers who confronteach other (Cain and Abel in Gen 4:1-16); immediately afterwards, however, comes a war caused by women, as Lamech’s words indicate. He took two wives, threatening to kill anyone who touched the body of one of them (cf. Gen 4:19-24). Thus emerge boththe first tradingand the first war of history, as a dispute between men because of the body (and motherhood) of women. The men fight because of them (in order to possess and stealthem), establishing a law of domination and revenge. The text continues along these lines, narrating the first “total” sin in history.

Gislebertus “The Temptation of Eve” (detail, Autun)

“When men began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were fair (tobim, good, appetizing, like the fruit of knowledge which was tob, cf. Gen 3:6), and they took to wife such of them as they chose […]. The Nephilim were on the earth in those days […], the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown” (Gen 6:1-4).

This passage sums up the subject of a tradition that is very widespread in the Apocrypha (1 Enoch, Jubilees, various texts fromQumran) in which it is said that in the past certain angelical beings descended from their heaven to rape women, begetting through them the warrior giants and/or demons. According to this account, the “original” (fundamental) sin of history is the lascivious and possessive violence of certain “sons of God” (mighty men) who possess and rape women who for them are a “body” of attraction-sin, thereby giving rise to a violence which led to the flood (Gen 6-8) which would have destroyed all humanity if God had not repented, saving Noah and his family.

The woman in Genesis 3 had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, thereby beginning a life of risk, for which she appears as “mother of all the living”. Yet in the strict sense of the word the “original” sin was that of the sons of God (flesh and blood men or guardian angels) who beganto possess women and thus begetthe gibborim, male warriors and rapists.

A woman’s body isa risk. Of course, according to Genesis 6, the origin of the evil was not the desirable-good (tob) body of Eve, which the first Adam in Genesis 2:23-24 had desired with innocent joy, but the evil eyes of the “sons of God” (angelic or human). From this point, however, a large part of the subsequent theology was to attribute the guilt of sin to women for having beautiful bodies and for attracting even angels (as in the thought that Paul himself expresses when he tells women who prophesy to wear a veil on their head, “because of the angels”).

The two meanings above of the woman’s body (mother of all the living and an object of desire/sin for men) run through the entire Bible as is indicated on the one hand in the tale of Sarah who is desired/possessed by the demon Asmodeus (in the Book of Tobit) and on the other hand in the mother of the Maccabean martyrs (cf. 2 Macc 7), where her motherhood is presentedas evidence and a supreme testimony of God’s creative presence.

The whole of the Old Testament moves between these two ways of understanding the woman’s body (a sign of the devil or a revelation of God), with the foreign women who temptand destroy the Israelites (cf. Ezra and Nehemiah), but also with the matriarchs and/or women friends who offer the most beautiful testimony of the God of life, from Hagar to Sarah (wives of Abraham) to the Shulamite in the Song of Solomon whom the book exalts with images and supreme marksof beauty and human fullness.

At the heart of this story lies the suffering body of many women, turned into a messageand a request, such as that of the concubine of the Levite, handed over, killed and dividedinto pieces (cf. Judges 19) to begin a war of vengeance against the Benjaminites, or that of the daughter of Jephthah, sacrificed by her father to the God of victory (cf. Judg 11). Then there areother women, such as Esther and Judith, whose bodies arouse the desire of enemies and of powerful kings, whom they overcome or put to the service of the life of the people of God. And lastly there remains the Daughter-Sion, (daughter of Sion), a woman’s body as a symbol of the city of God, Jerusalem.

To conclude, let us look at the New Testament. I limit myself to reporting three significant references.

Paul takes up a tradition which presents Jesus as “born of woman, born under the law” (Gal 4:4), thus binding him to woman with a type of submission. But just before this (Gal 3:8), he had declared that “there is neither male nor female”, because all are “one” in Christ, as believers, people, in order to reinterpret, on this basis, the post-Pauline theme of Ephesians 5:21-33, where the man-husband appears as the head and the wife as the body.

The tradition of the Infancy Gospels (Mt 1-2 and Lk 1-2) binds Jesus’ mother to the Holy Spirit, presenting her as a woman who converses with God, not in order to take possession of his “knowledge” (like Eve in Gen 3), but to receive God’s life in her body-person, thus becoming Mother of the Son of God. In this sense she appears as the “strong woman”, that is, as the gebira (cf. Lk 1:43: “the mother of my Lord”), taking up and overcoming the sign of mother-goddesses (womb and breasts; cf. Lk 11:27).

The Book of Revelation presents the metamorphosis of four women. In 12:1-6 the womanis a celestial mother, who appears in the pangs of giving birth, pursued by the serpent of Genesis 3, transformed here into a dragon-devil. In 12:13-17 she is the faithful woman-Church, the messianic community persecuted on earth. In 17:3-6 she is the woman prostitute, her wealth absolute, served by military power (the first beast) and by ideological power (the second beast), namely, the anti-messianic Roman Empire as it appears in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation. In 21:2:the bride coming down from heaven. She is the woman of definitive salvation, who is a city (the new Jerusalem) and bride of the Lamb, an expression and compendium of the nuptials of God with humanity. The Bible’s contribution to the central symbol of the woman’s body followsthe path that leads the mother-goddess of the oriental myths to the woman-bride of the Lamb, the new Jerusalem.

Xabier Pikaza

The author

A lecturer at the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical University of Salamanca (1973-2003), Xabier Pikaza is an expert in biblical exegesis and the history of religions. A former Mercedarian he is married to María Isabel Pérez Chaves. His works include: Hombre y mujer en las religiones (Estella, Verbo Divino, 1996) [Men and women in the religions]; Evangelio de Marcos (Estella, Verbo Divino, 2011) [The Gospel according to Mark]; Las mujeres en la Biblia judía (Barcelona, Clie, 2013) [Women in the Jewish Bible]; Gran diccionario de la Biblia (Estella, Verbo Divino, 2015); Great dictionary of the Bible]; Evangelio de Mateo (Estella, Verbo Divino, 2017) [The Gospel of Matthew].

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