THE BIBLE'S first couple isn’t exactly a role model for romance.
Most modern interpretations frame Adam and Eve as sinners who can’t follow simple directions. Banished from Paradise, they end up naked and afraid. One of their sons turns out to be a murderer. But could all those troubles add up the foundation of a great relationship?
There’s no better person to answer that question than Bruce Feiler.
The author of Walking the Bible, Abraham and several more bestsellers has always approached the stories of the Old Testament with a combination of journalistic fortitude and faithful curiosity, bringing fresh life to the tales we thought we knew.
He turns his lens to the Garden of Eden in his latest book, The First Love Story: Adam, Eve and Us. Mining holy sites, tropical islands and pop icons, this is a look at the original baes that might surprise the most cynical among us, religiously and otherwise.
Born and raised in Savannah by stalwart power couple Ed and Jane Feiler, Bruce now lives in New York City with his wife and twin daughters, Eden and Tybee. The regular New York Times contributor returns to his hometown this weekend for a series of book signings and hopefully, a bit of family beach time.
We chatted with him between national TV appearances about the inescapable relevance of the Bible, gender fluidity, and whether Eve would have swiped right or left.
Adam and Eve, with their bad behavior and unfortunate parenting, are hardly the ideal couple. What led you to examine their relationship through the lens of love?
Bruce Feiler: For me, the process begins at my kitchen table. I’m surrounded by strong women—I have a working wife, twin daughters who are about to be 12, involved grandmothers—and I’m struggling like everyone else to figure out how men and women relate to each other. And like a lot of writers, I talk about the latest science and the latest research and the newest app, but there’s this part of me that’s very attracted to the ancient world, and I just feel like we can’t be throwing everything out. I tweet, but I Talmud, too. [laughs]
At the beginning of the book I describe being in the Sistine Chapel with my two girls trying to blow their minds, and they’re like, “Well, that’s just two men. Where am I in this picture?” And I thought, this story has been around for three thousand years, maybe it has something to tell us.
I started tugging on these strings and this amazing story popped up of all the people who had encountered the story Adam and Eve: Michelangelo, John Milton, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Bob Dylan and Beyoncé. And suddenly I discovered I was writing a book about love and how it has changed.
What was the strangest place this trek led your physically and philosophically?
The Galapagos, for sure. I mean, I’m the fool who’s going to write a book about Adam and Eve and devote a whole chapter to Darwin [laughs].
On the surface, the people who are interested in Adam and Even are not interested in Darwin, and the people interested in Darwin are not interested in Adam and Eve. Yet they’re actually best friends in a way.
Darwin really explains why we need love: Animals essentially just pass along their genes, as we know, and that’s a vertical way of living. But love is horizontal: I don’t just care about passing along my genes, I also want to make a relationship and a family with someone that I love.
That’s what Adam and Eve invent. God says be fruitful and multiply, and they could have had children with no relationship. The Bible understands that making a relationship is difficult. It requires a balance of independence and interdependence, it requires forgiveness, it requires resilience. Their relationship is actually laying the ground work for what Darwin would discover three thousand years later.
Speaking from the experience of someone who’s been married a long time, how do Adam and Eve reflect how we keep relationships together through time and inevitable difficulties?
Yes, Linda and I will be married 14 years in June! So it’s about that resilience, the constancy, the stick-to-it-iveness. Adam and Eve start off together, they part. They get kicked out of Eden. They could part again, but instead they come together and have children. The children disappoint. They could separate—in fact, the text suggests they do—but they come back together and have Seth, who populates the human line. That is a textbook case of resilience. And what to do modern psychologists tell us? The key to relationship is being able to heal rupture, to mend a broken heart.
Also, there is what I call balance, the give and take, a see saw of power that it is very contemporary.
The other thing is co-narration. “Love is a story that we tell with another person,” I wrote in the book. We each have our own story, and there is the two-story on top of that. We are rewriting our own love stories in real time.
How does the story of Adam and Ave apply to same sex relationships and gender fluidity?
So, the second story about Adam and Eve is the story we all know about: Adam and Eve being created from the earth, Eve being created from Adam’s body, the forbidden fruit, etcetera. But there’s a first story that no one talks about, which to me is shocking.
On the sixth day, God creates humans in His image. And what He creates is actually this ungendered human being in the image of God—and God suddenly becomes plural at this point in the Scripture. You have this singular/plural God that creates this singular/plural being in Its image, and then divides it into male and female.
First of all, this tells us that what’s true for male is true for female, so you have total equality. But even more intriguingly, especially in this age of gender beyond the binary, to think that humanity is this singular thing that gets divided in half suggests that male and female both have the other within them.
By the way, for the first thousand years of Judaism and Christianity, everyone agreed that this first human was hermaphroditic—that is in the commentary. And by extension, God was both male and female. This was how people talked about it for hundreds and hundreds of years.
So today, as gender goes beyond the binary and sexuality is fluid, it’s just remarkable to find this in the opening chapter of Genesis. In the very next verse, kind of the signature line of the story, it says it’s not right for humans to be alone. To me, that means we’re all called to find connection with another.
For the devout, the story of Adam and Eve is definitive, original sin and all that. What about the secular perspective?
Well, there were thousands of stories, maybe millions, in the ancient world. Only several hundred make it into the Bible, and within that, only two or three are as well-known as Adam and Eve. Therefore its ability to be relevant is just accepted. It’s an existential fact. This story has been at the heart of our civilization for three thousand years, and the idea that we can just wipe it away because we think it doesn’t apply is absurd.
As I quote in the introduction, Adam and Eve may or may not have existed back then, but they surely exist now. You can see them on the Sistine Chapel, you can read them in Paradise Lost, you can watch them in the movies, you can hear Pope Francis talk about them. They are central to our culture.
So do you think Eve would have swiped right or left?
Hmm, I see going for the fruit as essentially swiping left—maybe she was thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck playing second fiddle to you!” Let’s remember what happens: he’s created first, and just like any other guy, he falls in love right away. “Bones of bones, flesh of my flesh,” he’s ready to go. The two of them are naked and know no shame.
But then she grows bored. She goes off and eats from the Tree of Knowledge. She wants independence, she wants autonomy. But as soon as she’s got it, she goes running back to him.
Then Adam has a choice between duty to God and love, and he chooses love! And they get booted out of Paradise. And here they could part, like the Real Housewives or like half of People magazine. But they don’t. They forgive each other.
A lot of interpretations of the Eve story have added up to centuries of misogyny, of which we’re seeing an ugly resurgence. Why should she matter to women now?
It matters because women are trying to take back their own spirituality from men, who took it from them. Nothing has been more aggressively—even violently—discriminatory towards women than organized religion.
As organized religion has become voluntary, who can blame women for running the other way? Yet women are the ones keeping religion alive. They pass on the traditions to their children, they volunteer their time, they’re essentially propping it up.
Hers is a powerful story for those of us who are in the struggle every day to figure out the rules. I find it valuable to find they also were struggling in the first story, and they got it right.
It’s been a minute since you’ve been back to speak in Savannah. What’s it like to return home to the garden of good and evil?
I always feel that I have two parts of my brain—the one that lives in Brooklyn and travels all over the world, the other is all Savannah. Whenever I have thought, I run it through both sides. To me, what’s most interesting is the mix between timely knowledge and timeless wisdom.
I love coming home to my parents. We call my father a professional Savannahian because he loves the city so much. And it’s important to me that my daughters—one is named Eden, the other is named Tybee—feel connected to and appreciate Savannah for all its many wonderful things and acknowledge that it’s different from the world they’re growing up in.
I have a piece in Garden & Gun this month about Savannah, and I refused to tell the story that’s been told all these years about how it never changes. Many things have remained constant, but there is progress, there is open-mindedness.
It’s been a place that we all thought doesn’t change, but that myth is not true. Savannah can change, it has changed. The Bible can change. All of us can change.
Bruce Feiler and The First Love Story
Sat., April 1:
3pm Barnes & Noble Oglethorpe Mall
6:30pm, First Presbyterian Church, 520 Washington Ave.
Sun., April 2: 2pm, JEA, 5111 Abercorn St.