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It may be the world's oldest love story a naked Adam and Eve in a garden, surrounded by forbidden fruit and a seductive snake but it still carries a remarkably modern message.
That's because the biblical tale includes reciprocity and mutual need between the lovers. It celebrates resilience and forgiveness as essential qualities in any lasting relationship. It acknowledges sorrow and separation in the human family, yet also heralds second chances.
Trouble is, lots of readers don't get that.
Faiths that embrace the first-couple chronicle have spent eons telling believers the Edenic fall is about sin, sex, disobedience, death and husbands ruling over their wives in a dreary world of daily toiling and tragic family relations.
Conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants who look to the Bible as sacred scripture have drawn on some details to defend traditional male and female roles.
In its often-preached 1995 document, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," Mormonism even has enshrined the idea that men were meant to "preside" in the home, while women were born to "nurture" children insisting this is a divinely decreed truth.
"Organized religions by that, I mean men got ahold of [the Adam-and-Eve narrative]," says best-selling author Bruce Feiler, who has written several volumes on the Bible. "They read into it hierarchies: Which god is superior? Which people are superior? Which sex is superior?"
But those interpretations were conceived during male-dominated eras, rather than clearly laid out in the verses themselves.
What Feiler instead draws from the ancient account is a rich and timeless portrayal of a prototypical family, one that continues to resonate on this Father's Day some three millenniums later.
Adam and Eve were not just first marriage partners. They were first parents.
They were "tasked before anyone else with learning to love their children as they learned to love each other," Feiler writes in his new book "The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us."
In other words, there were no guidebooks to consult. No Dr. Spocks. No previous parents. No mentors. No college courses. No couples counselors. No Pinterest pointers. No YouTube training videos.
"Their children turn out to be not all barrels of laughs and bundles of joy," he writes. "They're also rivalrous, irascible, abominable, and adorable all at the same time."
Just like most children.
After one son, Cain, kills the other, Abel, and is sent into exile, Feiler says in an interview, "the first family's got problems."
Yet, the couple come together once again and, in another act of reconciliation, take a risk to create a third child, Seth, who goes on to populate the human line.
"He's the child," Feiler explains, "who allows them to fulfill God's commandment to be fruitful and replenish the Earth."
The whole story is about starting a family, he says. In that, Adam and Eve famously succeed.
It's about balance • It's no accident that the Bible story begins not with a single individual but with two humans learning to live as one. After all, that's a journey every couple must walk.
"No matter if you're a believer, a nonbeliever, a seeker, a meditator, an I-go-to-services-twice-a-year-otherwise-leave-me-aloner, every part of your interaction with the opposite (or even the same) sex," Feiler writes, "is shaped to an astonishing degree by a 3,000-year-old story that has fewer than 2,000 words."
Whether the first parents were living people or mythic figures is beside the point.
Their storied experiences express "a fundamental truth about being alive," he writes. "Our biggest threat as individuals is feeling left out, isolated, fearful, alone; our biggest threat as a society is succumbing to similar forces of disunion, disharmony, fear, hate."
But does the text spell out specific gender-based roles in which Adam is the boss who goes off to work and Eve is a subservient partner who stays home to take care of the little darlings they create?
No, Feiler says. "That would be a misreading."
However, the age-old story also doesn't mention equality between the sexes, the way modern couples may see it.
Instead, the Bible presents a picture of "seesawing" strengths, emphasizing that no parent can do it alone.
Eve is formed from Adam's body, while at other times the first man clings to her, the writer says. Adam is OK with Eve going into the garden alone; Eve gives Adam the option of whether to eat the fruit. Eve takes a bite; he follows suit. When they are expelled from the garden, Adam chooses to be with Eve rather than God. It is Adam, not God, who gives Eve her name, which means "the mother of all living."
Adam initiates lovemaking. Eve produces the children.
"Right there," Feiler says, "is a co-parenting lesson."
Every set of parents divides up duties cooking meals, making money, washing cars, booking trips, coaching baseball, dropping off kids, scrubbing toilets, ironing shirts, vacuuming rooms and those responsibilities "have nothing to do with gender."
In many contemporary cases, roles are divvied based on time, skills, temperament and availability.
"If we interviewed 100 families in Salt Lake City about how they divide up their daily jobs," Feiler says, "there would be a thousand different reasons for the assignments."
That's evident in the Adam and Eve story, he says, "and that's what is electrifying about it."
Are there gender differences? • Feiler has written before about fathers, mothers and their offspring, including in "The Secrets of Happy Families" and "The Council of Dads: A Story of Family, Friendship & Learning How to Live."
During his research, the New York-based author came across several intriguing studies.
The first one analyzed the distinct strategies employed by moms and dads to teach a reluctant child to swim.
Women typically stand between the pool and the tot, beckoning, cajoling, reassuring and promising to help. By contrast, men often position themselves behind their children, ready to push, if need be.
The moms are more comforting, he says, the dads more "rambunctious." Kids sometimes need a pusher, sometimes a puller.
Another parental study focused on language.
Because moms tend to spend more time with their children, they are aware of the words their toddlers know and repeat them back to communicate in a familiar way. Dads don't know the particulars of their kids' vocabulary as well so they include more unfamiliar sayings when conversing with the youngsters.
Researchers concluded that mothers talk more effectively with their children, while fathers stimulate more language.
"Children benefit," Feiler says, "from both kinds of parenting."
To hear the Bible tell it, deity includes male and female.
"After starting off masculine at the beginning of the story, the singular, male God suddenly declares in Genesis 1:26, 'Let us create a human after our likeness,' " Feiler writes in his book about Adam and Eve. "This use of plural is shocking, and it's followed by an even more startling elaboration: God creates a single human entity that mirrors this plurality."
The man and woman are, indeed, one.
Blame, reconciliation • To Feiler, the Adam-and-Eve story is like a three-act play.
They meet in the first act. All the drama with the fruit is in the second act. (God tells them not to eat. They disobey and are cast out).
Yes, they blame others for tempting them with the fruit Eve points to the devilish serpent, Adam faults the woman but, significantly, they leave the garden together.
The third act "is the most interesting," he says. "It's all about their relationship and the children."
Later, when Cain slays Abel, the parents are horrified, but they do not attack each other or cite bad parenting as the cause.
"Right there is another powerful message," Feiler says. "You shouldn't blame parents for misdeeds of children."
Plus, they forgive each other, another essential element. And they don't split up.
These days, the common perception is that when a child dies, each parent grieves separately, triggering what is believed to be a higher incidence of divorce.
That's a myth, writes Feiler, pointing to studies showing that bereaved couples break up less frequently.
"Traumatized couples face problems from displaced anger to reduced intimacy," he writes, "but they manage to work through them."
Feiler attended a gathering of Compassionate Friends, a support group for those who have lost a child.
"There's a reason Adam and Eve had to experience the death of a child, and that all of us have to keep repeating the pattern," a man named Tim is quoted as saying. "It's a way to teach us what relationships are for. I would never wish what happened to us on anybody, but I do think it made us realize that our love can withstand it. And the same goes for them."
The Bible makes it clear: Children can be hard. They compete. They struggle to get the eye of their parents. They take distinct paths, like being a farmer rather than a city dweller.
Genesis presents "an extreme version of the kinds of tensions all families have," Feiler says. "It is a warning not to let our tensions become extreme."
But it also tells of reconnecting and rebirth and ordinary people.
Most ancient love stories are about kings and queens, gods and goddesses, the rich and powerful all with their lusts and longings.
The story of Adam and Eve, Feiler notes, is not about royalty. It's about husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, parents and children.
It's about us.
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