This is about “federal headship” and all that, though it raises interesting questions about biblical teaching on authority, accountability and so on.
The place to start is the way that the rest of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, talks about sin as Adam’s problem, rather than Eve’s, even though she was the first to sin by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.
It’s true that Paul on two occasions refers to Eve’s deception by the serpent as an example for the Church (2 Cor 11:3; 1 Tim 2:9-10). But whilst this may be saying something about male-female relationships or a difference in gullibility – their application is not that clear – neither is about placing the blame for human sin on women: Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15 put Adam firmly in that role.
Yet the Genesis 1 account of mankind’s creation is clearly “gender neutral” – the image of God, and dominion of the earth, is either shared equally by male and female, or is complete only in the two sexes’ complementarity. Something more, though, is indicated by the fact that the generic term is “adam”, which becomes the name of the male progenitor in ch2.
In the Eden account, by contrast, all the “covenant” arrangements – the creation of the man from dust, his placing in the garden, the permissions and prohibition on diet, and the naming of the creatures – occur before the creation of the woman. And she is derived from Adam’s rib, and named “woman” in (etymologically dubious!) recognition of that derivation.
Now, there is still a repricocity and interdependance in the the narrative. Eve completes Adam, and the saying about a man leaving his parents and becoming one flesh echoes the sense of love and unity of purpose in ch1. Furthermore, whilst Adam is able to say that with the help of God he’s gained a woman from his own substance, Eve is later able to say, on the birth of Cain, that with the help of God she’s gained a man from hers.
So there’s no question of woman being spiritually or ontologically inferior to man. Yet we are left with the fact that Adam is the author of sin, and Eve the one deceived by the serpent.
We must, I think, assume that Eve’s conversation with the serpent takes place without Adam, though he is with her when she actually eats the fruit, because she gives it to him. So although she is aware of God’s prohibition, and should have told the snake where to get off (as it were), she actually received that prohibition through her husband, not directly.
So there is a clash of authorities going on here. On the one side the snake is, if Michael Heiser is correct, a spiritual being in God’s divine council – or at least he certainly seems to have sufficient intimate knowledge of God’s real intent to convince Eve. On the other side Eve’s husband has told her what God commanded him. Two versions of God’s command, so whom should she heed – the guardian cherub or her old man? Put like that there is no contest – Adam was the one made responsible for her knowing God’s will, not the snake. She was (as Irenaeus’s treatment emphasises) scarcely punishable for being more naive and less cunning than Satan. But she was punished not for that, but for accepting the serpent’s authority rather than Adam’s. Whether that authority came from his role as husband or as her federal head is another discussion.
As for Adam, it’s equally interesting to consider what he should have done when offered the fruit by Eve. The text is, of course, underdetermined. But we know that, whilst death came to both of them according to the terms of God’s prohibition, the cursing of the soil for Adam came “because you have listened to the voice of your wife.”
Did he decide that, as equal and responsible partners, they should discuss their interpretations of God’s words and reach a consensus (with the helpful input Eve had had from the serpent)? And did he defer to her as, quite probably, having the better judgement? Or did he simply abdicate his own authority for less noble reasons? Either way, he should (it is clear) have simply preferred God’s words to hers and refused the fruit.
But what would have been the result if Adam had remained obedient, and Eve had eaten alone? Surely Adam also had some responsibility for the “flesh of his flesh” too? Can we envisage that he would have been right to say, “Well, I’m not going to eat because of how I understand God’s command – but you’re an autonomous adult, so you must make your own choice without interference from me”?
My instinct is that, despite the postmodern theory that all power is oppression, the right thing for him to do – again, whether as a husband or as the federal head of the race – would be to have in some way to have exercised the authority he had been given as God’s spokesman on this matter.
To me, at least, the scurrilous question arises as to whether that would have involved beating his wife into submission or wresting the fruit from her grip by superior force. And I think, in context, that is an irrelevance. Eve’s problem was being deceived, not resisting against her victim status as a female. Adam should have undeceived her – and that must surely have involved the question of authority, for in terms of “rational argument” it was still a matter the interpretation of Adam versus the interpretation of the serpent. In that pre-sinful state, surely a reminder of how God had set up the human condition would have been sufficient to save both Eve and the human race from disaster.
In the end Adam was not punished for being a bad husband, and Eve was not punished for being a bad wife, although Scripture does draw later lessons from both which are, despite modern ideas of equality, worth pondering. Perhaps Genesis is a text imposing patriarchal oppression… or perhaps the postmodernists take the role of the serpent in deceiving people into believing that God has not said what, in fact, he has said through his appointed spokesmen.
Adam was held the more accountable than Eve even within the story, for he is the one named as being exiled from the garden, Eve being simply assumed to accompany him. And that must be because it was Adam who is considered to head up not only his family, but the race. In other words, the garden narrative does not only treat of a primordial couple as representative of the human race in both genders – even though Genesis 1 has stressed the essential duality of humanity in God’s image. The male progenitor, Adam, is the theological focus of the story of the Fall and, as we read in Romans and 1 Corinthians (but also, perhaps, in the parallel of the Kings of Israel and Judah who bring about the Exile through their poor leadership) the redemption.
It is hard to see how that could make any theological sense apart from his historical reality.