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SIDIC Periodical XX - 1987/2
Mary the Jewess (Pages 15 - 21)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

The Beauty of Eve Reflected on the People on Mt. Sinai, on the Church and on Mary
Aristide Serra


In October, 1986 a symposium entitled Mary in Judaism and in Islam Today was held at the Marianum, Rome. One of the contributions to this study: Ancient Judaism. Starting Point for a Renewed Understanding of the Relationship between Israel, Mary and the Church', developed six themes on this subject, the first of which, with the author's very gracious permission, is reproduced here in an abbreviated form. Our readers are referred to the Acts of the Sixth International Mariological Symposium, published by the Pontificia Facolta Teologica w Marianum a, (ct. Presentation, p. 23) for this masterly presentation in its entirety, without neglecting its extensive and scholarly notes.

By the expression Ancient Judaism the author includes, not only the Hebrew Bible itself, but also the vast literature which comments on it, extending from the 2nd century b.c.e. to the 5th century c.e., including such works as the Talmud, the Targumim, the Tosetta, the Midrashim, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Flavius Josephus, etc., a literature, that is to say, which, at the time when Judaism had determined its canon of Sacred Scripture, went hand in hand with this latter to elaborate and explain it.

Readers are referred also, in connection with this article, to the Acts of the Third International Mariological Symposium: The Mothers of Israel in Ancient Jewish Literature and the Mother of Jesus: A Research. Our author noted on that occasion that, when ancient Judaism speaks of Mothers in Israel, it makes use of doctrinal themes and concepts which are extremely close to those which Christianity uses when referring to the Mother of Jesus. Remarkable similarities are seen at the level of typology and we could well ask whether Christian authors actually drew from Jewish sources, or whether these parallels occurred by Jews and Christians reflecting separately on the same biblical texts.


In ancient Judaism there is a tendency to connect the first creation account in Genesis(notably that which concerns Eden) with the revelation on Mt. Sinai. A few examples only must suffice:

In the first creation account there is a week (Gen 1:3 - 2:3), the human person being created on its sixth day (Gen 1:26-31).

The revelation on Sinai is spoken of in terms of a week. On the sixth day of this reckoning God created Israel as his people, bestowing on it the Torah of the Covenant.1

In Eden,
'God made to grow . . . the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen 2:9).

Mt. Sinai, on the contrary. is considered as an apple tree, that is to say, one on which grows the holy words of the Torah. These are sweet to the palate of the bride (Israel) as are the apples of the garden of Eden. This is taught in the Targum on the Song of Solomon (2:3,5),' which represents Sinai as a second garden of Eden.

In the first creation, God said: "Let us make man" (Gen 1:26), that is, he who will be the first to say: we will do, (the one Hebrew verb renders make and do) and only afterwards: we will be obedient (lit. we will hear) (Ex 24:7). In fact, the word of the Lord: Let us make man is echoed in the word of Israel on Sinai: We will do and we will be obedient.3

In addition to these parallels, there is another which has a deeper meaning again, that is to say. the beauty of Eve in the garden of Eden and the beauty of Israel on Sinai when receiving the Torah.

The Beauty of Eve in Eden

In Judaism, Eve is looked upon as the first of the Mothers in Israel.4 It is true that she was
tempted by the serpent and fell. Nevertheless, the beauty with which God adorned her at the dawn of creation is celebrated in a special way.

With regard to this, the rabbis began their reflection by commenting on the verse:

"The rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man" Gen (2:22).

Some of the rabbis, for example, remarked that, in certain coastal towns of Palestine, a woman's tresses are called bnit, from the verb to build (bnh) from which root comes the Hebrew verb for this text from Genesis: ...he made (lit, built) into a woman. From this play on words they went on to the following considerations: God not only created Eve from Adam's rib, but at the same time he plaited her hair, adorned her as a bride, and then, as a paranymph (friend of the bridegroom, beat man), brought her to Adam.5

R. Chama b. Dhanina (260 ca.) goes on to say that God first clothed her with twenty-four precious stones (those described in Is 3:18-24 for the women of Jerusalem) and then brought her to the man. There is applied to her, therefore, what the Lord said through Ezekiel of the princes of Tyre:
You were in Eden, the garden of God;
every precious stone was your covering,
carnelian, topaz and jasper, chrysolite, beryl and onyx,
sapphire, carbuncle and emerald;
and wrought in gold were your settings and your engravings.
On the day you were created they were prepared
(Ez 28:13).6

Rabbi Jeremiah b. Eleazer 1270 ca.) said: This teaches that God acted as best man to Adam. Here the Torah teaches a maxim of behaviour, that a man of eminence should associate himself with a lesser man in acting as best man and he should not take it amiss.7

Eve's beauty, as the rabbis say (although indirectly) was such that it seduced the serpent who decided to kill Adam.8

R. 'Azariah (380 ca.) and R. Jonathan (220 cal in R. Isaac's name said: Eve's image was transmitted to the reigning beauties of each generation.9

We can think, for example, of Sarah's beauty, when Abraham led her into Egypt (Gen 12:71) and that of Abishag, the Shunammite of David (7 Kgs 1:4) as being a reflection of that of Eve.

We may, however, go further. The innocence which God bestowed abundantly on the person of Eve became a symbol of the pure behaviour of the pious Israelite who lives in absolute fidelity according to the law of the Lord. We have a type of such: conduct in the fourth book of !Maccabees written about the end of the first century b.c.e. In an extremely touching verse. the author of this work introduces the exhortation which the heroic mother addresses to her seven sons:

"I was a pure maiden and I strayed not from. my father's house, and I kept guard over the rib that was builded into Eve. No seducer of the desert, no deceiver in the field. corrupted me; I lived with my husband all the days of My yOuth." 10

As we have seen, the mother of the Maccabees recalled the moral integrity of her earliest youth in reflecting Eve's integrity at her coming forth from the hands of her Creator. Since the author of IV Maccabees greeted this woman:

"O mother of the race, vindicator of our Law, defender of our religion…11

we may conclude that she incarnates in very fact the sentiments and ideals of Judaism in the first century. Raising its eyes to Eve, the people of God (represented by the woman — mother of the Maccabees) felt within itself nostalgia for the first love bestowed by God when he walked in Eden.

The Beauty of Israel on Mount Sinai

The eschatological renewal of the people of Israel is envisaged also as a being clothed again with Eve's resplendent beauty which was lost after the seduction of the serpent. One example must suffice in evidence from the rich variety offered on this theme.

Jewish theology affirms with a singular insistence that, on the occasion of the Covenant and of the gift of the Torah on Mt. 'Sinai, God radically renewed the Israelites. This renewal is looked upon as the exemplary prelude to the perfect renewal that the Lord will work for his people in the fulness of the messianic age. Among the many voices of this chorus there is one ascribed to R. Johanan (d. 279) which is thrice repeated in the Babylonian Talmud:

"When the serpent came upon Eve he injected a lust into her; as for the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai, their lustfulness departed." 12

This logic clearly relates the fall of Eve in the garden of Eden to "the day of the assembly" (cf. Deut 4:10 LXX), the day on which the tribes of Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Between these two scenes there is an antithetical relation: Israel's attitude at the foot of Sinai was the opposite to that of Eve in the serpents presence.

But, we might ask, what happened to Israel on that distant day, on that memorable third day on Sinai? On this point, different testimonies of Judaism come to mind.13

The midrashim express it in the following ways. When the Israelites were in Egypt they adored false gods (cf. Ez 20; 23). They were afflicted, therefore, with enmities. Polytheism, in fact, leads to discord among the people of God. After the Exodus from the slavery of Egypt also, the stages of their journey to Sinai were fraught with dissent. It is written, so the rabbis argue, that

...the people of Israel set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth... (Num 33:5).

In the Hebrew text the verbs are plural (which happens right throughout this chapter), indicating that, while they travelled, there were enmities among them.' Some rabbis of the second to the fourth centuries teach, in addition, that when the Israelites left Egypt, those who were physically well were in the minority. Having undergone such bad treatment during their forced labors, there were lepers, the lame, the blind, the mute, the deaf among them. 15

All this was changed when they reached Sinai, because God wrought a marvellous transformation in his people." He thought, in fact:

"The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart...
the ordinances of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether"
(Ps 19:8-9).

Is it consonant with the dignity of the Torah that I should give it to a generation of cripples?" 17

Thus it was that God decided to cure all the Israelites of their infermities, both in body and in spirit.

In spirit, because they became reconciled to one another. We read in the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael:

"For when they all stood before Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah they all made up their mind alike to accept the reign of God joyfully." 18

Scripture itself testifies to this when it says that

"There Israel encamped before the mountain" (Ex 19:2).

The use of the verb in the singular (and not in the plural as in Num 33:5) means that the tribes were united as one.19 According to Josephus, they prepared a banquet on the two days preceding the Covenant and feasted sumptuously.2° Table fellowship was a sign of fraternity!

And in body: because at the moment of the imposing theophany on Mt. Sinai there was no longer anyone who had previously suffered from any physical defect." In that solemn moment, therefore, the community of Israel appeared in the eyes of God as a beautiful and spotless bride of whom the Song of Solomon speaks?

Moses consequently was able, in the role of best man,' to present Israel the bride, completely renewed, to God. And there, before the holy mountain. Israel uttered its nuptial "I do":

"And all the people answered together and said, "all that the Lord has spoken we will do'" (Ex 19:8 cf. 24:3, 7).

This propitious engagement confirmed the people as bride of the Lord through the Covenant on Sinai. Eve's disobedience was turned into Israel's "fiat".


Beauty of the Church

At this point the author analyses three pauline texts (2 Cor 11:3; Rom 16:20; Eph 5:31-32 and Rev 12). The section below takes the first of these texts only.

Paul looked upon the Christian community as a chaste virgin to be presented to Christ. As for himself, Paul envisaged his role as that of the paranymph, the friend of the bridegroom, whose function, in this mystical marriage, was to present the Church, the pure bride, to Christ, her one husband (cf. II Cor 11:2).

The context of the chapter shows that the purity and integrity with which the apostle is concerned is precisely the faith of the Christians of Corinth. False apostles had infiltrated already into the community. The Corinthian neophytes. scarcely become Christians, risked being tossed about by all the winds of new doctrines (v. 4). With subtle irony, Paul defines these preachers as superlative apostles N. 5). He does not spare them from his fiery rhetoric:

'For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds" (II Cor 11:13-15).

The young Corinthian community, exposed to such perils, was in the same situation as was Eve when tempted by the serpent:

"But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ' (1.1 Cor 11:3).

In so far as the Church of Corinth perseveres in the true faith, Paul seems to say, it is like a chaste virgin. Such was Eve before the fall.' But on the day on which it lent an ear to the deception of the false apostles, it became like unto Eve, deceived by the serpent. The turn of events in Genesis in its concentration on the figure of Eve, a virgin who was seduced, is taken up by Paul who uses the same imagery in what concerns the Christian community of Corinth.

The virgin, Eve became a symbol of the virgin Church.

The Beauty of Mary

Let us now outline with broad strokes three possible applications to Mary.

We have seen that the revelation on Mt. Sinai is looked upon in Judaism, as several texts have attested, as a return to Eden. In particular, the beauty of Eve, an undefiled virgin before the fall, sheds its brilliance on Israel the bride when, on Sinai, she obeys the voice of God.

This teaching of Judaism is the one which most probably inspired Justin Martyr I+ 165 ca.) when he elaborated the parallel between Eve and Mary in reference to the annunciation.' On Sinai, the people of Israel redeemed Eve's fall by believing in the words of Moses, the leader sent by God. At Nazareth, the virgin Mary (the personification of the Daughter of Zion according to Luke), reversed Eve's fate by believing in the word of the angel sent by God. 26

It is well to note that Justin came from a family of hellenistic pagans from Palestine at Flavia Neopolis. In his Dialogue with Trypho he demonstrated his knowledge of the doctrines of the rabbis of Israel. In this same strain, we may remark that Irenaeus (+ 202 ca.), another pioneer of the Eve-Mary parallel,' had contact in his youth with the Christian East as a disciple of Polycar. 28

The conviction is well known in Judaism that, at Sinai, God completely purified Israel of every imperfection, whether physical or spiritual Precisely because the Torah is perfect, so should the people be perfect.

The Church of the East, beginning with the fourth century, spoke of a pre-purification of Mary through the work of the Holy Spirit, in view of the fiat of the annunciation. In body and soul she was sanctified, because she was destined to receive the Divine Word, Sanctity itself.29

Remembering this tradition, the Second Vatican Council has written:

"Thus the daughter of Adam, Mary, consenting to the word of God, became the Mother of Jesus. Committing herself whole-heartedly and impeded by no sin to God's saving will, she devoted herself totally, as a handmaid of the Lord, to the person and work of her Son, under and with him, serving the mystery of the redemption, by the grace of Almighty God." 30

The mention of the beauty of Eve is accompanied naturally by the recollection of the garden of Eden in which she is framed.

It is fitting to observe here that Jewish-Christian biblical thought looks on the garden of Eden as a prototype of three other gardens: Sinai, Golgotha and the New Jerusalem. In each of these four gardens we find at least two common elements: a tree and, at the foot of the tree the figure of a woman, created by divine power to be bride and mother, and of stupendous beauty.

Let us try now to see each of these elements one by one. The last will be Golgotha with a view to better emphasizing the Marian implications of this pattern, pointing to Mary's beauty at the foot of the cross.


This is, obviously, the garden planted by God (Gen 3:8). At its center, God caused to grow the tree of life (Gen 2:9). Here we meet the woman, Eve, whom the same Lord God had created from Adam's rib and brought her to him as his wife. Thus Eve became the mother of all living (Gen 2:18-25; 3:20; 4:1).

Judaism, as has been seen, emphasizes the beauty of Eve as she came forth from the hand of her Creator.


According to a strand of tradition in Jewish thought, as has been demonstrated above, the holy mountain of the Covenant is envisaged as a replica of the garden of Eden. The tree in the midst of the garden is this same Mt. Sinai, considered by the same analogy as an apple tree whose fruits symbolize the words of the Torah, the source of life.

On the slopes of this mount, this mystical tree, we find the woman, Israel, whom God created (constituted) as his bride, making her thus mother Of the sons and daughters who would be born of her.31

The beauty of Israel on Sinai, as we have seen, is one of the most celebrated reflections of Judaism.

The New Jerusalem

The seer of the Book of Revelation speaks of the new Jerusalem as the paradise (the Eden) of God (Rev 2:7).

In its midst, and on the banks of the river which water it, grows the tree of life (Rev. 2:7; 22:2).


John the Evangelist has taken care to note that on Golgotha — the place where Jesus was crucified and buried and where he rose from the dead — there was a garden (Jn 19:77; 41-42; 20:15)? This garden seems to evoke both the garden of the Song of Solomon and also the garden of Eden.

In the garden of Golgotha was raised up the tree of the cross of Jesus (Jn 19:17). Close to the tree there stood the woman, Mary. She who is referred to as the mother of Jesus (Jn 2:1; 19:25), is created (proclaimed) by Jesus himself, as mother also of all his disciples, represented by the beloved disciple. The words of Jesus:

"Woman, behold your son!" "Behold your mother!" (Jn 19:26f).

are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). They bring into being, they create what they express. In this case, the son creates the mother! On accepting that beloved disciple as her son, Mary could say, as did Eve:

"I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord" (Gen 4:1).

She who had become mother of the Word, not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man (Jn 1:13, singular) has been constituted mother of all the disciples of the Word incarnate.

For this last image, we may well ask: it there not, as we see Mary at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25-27), a certain accent on the beauty of this woman? Our question does not seem out of place if we take into account that in the other three gardens described above (Eden, Sinai, the New Jerusalem), the beauty of the woman, bride and mother created so by God, is referred in each instance to the person of Eve.

In replying to this question. I believe that we should look carefully at the blood and water that flowed from Jesus' side (Jn 19:34). The blood symbolizes the passion and death of Jesus, while the water signifies the energy of the Spirit, which is the fruit of the sacrifice that Christ has made of his own life to the last drop of his blood (Jn 7:37-39).

Now both of these elements possess a purifying virtue which winnows, which cleanses, which gives birth to new life. John affirms this in his first letter:

"The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us tram all sin" ( Jn 1:7);

and in his gospel:

"Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (Jn 3:5).

"(Jesus) breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit ... if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven (in 20:22-23) 33

Mary also, be it said, has received the redemptive and sanctifying effects of the Spirit, transmitted by Jesus at the supreme moment in which he sealed the gift of his life with his own blood:

"and he bowed his head and gave up his Spirit" (Jn 19:30).

The tradition of the Church will understand by this later on that the virgin, in her Immaculate Conception, was redeemed above all others (sublimiori modol.al The fact remains, however: she too could be seen to be resplendent in beauty in virtue of the blood and water flowing from the side of her Son.

In conclusion, one thing seems to be clear. The beauty of Eve in the garden of Eden constitutes the attractive model for the renewal of Israel, from Sinai to the messianic age. The apostolic Church was able to recognize, in the work of Christ Jesus the Messiah, the fulness of this breath of the Spirit.

Eve's radiance will shine forth anew in all its strength when the New Jerusalem will be respendent with the shining glory of the Lord God and of the Lamb. On that day there will be manifested in all its brilliance the beauty that the Lord, once crucified on Golgotha, shed forth on the Church. represented there in the person of his mother.

We are thus enabled to identity better the probable biblical roots of the Eve-Mary theme, not only seen at the annunciation, but also through Mary's presence at the foot of the cross. 35

The author concludes by remarking that a study of Ancient Judaism, such as he has presented, can help Jews and Christians together to deepen their knowledge of each others traditions which are so close. For Christians, in addition, it can contribute to a better and a richer understanding of Mary's role in the Church, of her who is both daughter of Abraham and daughter of Zion.

Fr. Aristide Serra, O.S.M. is Professor of Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Mariology, the Marianum, Rome.

1. Shabbat 86b ft.
2. Cf. author's essay on 'Dimensioni ecclesIall della Figura di Maria nell'esegesi bib/ica odierna' in Maria e la Chiesa oggi. Acts of the 5th International Mariological Symposium Rome, Oct. 1984. Marienum-Dehonlane, Roma-Bologna 1985, pp. 234-235.
3. Shabbat 88a.
4. Erubin 53e.
5. Aboth de Rabbi Nathan. 19b; Gen. Rebbah 18;1-2; Berakhoth 61a.
6. Cf. Baba Bathra 75a.
7. Beiakhoth 61a.
8. Sotah 9b.
9. Gen. Babbah 40:5.
10. IV Mace. 18:6-9 (RH. Charles, ed., The Apocrypha and Pseudo-Apocrypha of the Old Testament, Vol. II, C/a endon Press, Oxford 1984, p. 684.
11. Op. cit. 15:29, p. 681.
12. Shabbat 146a; Vebamoth 103b; Abodah Zarah 22b.
13. In what follows, the author has summarized his contributions to the Mariological Symposium. Rome, Oct. 1978 in the following: -Contributi dell'antica letteratura giudaica..:, pp. 358-362: "Maria, segno operante di units dei "dispersi figli di Dio" (Gov 1152)' In I/ mob di Maria nelloggi della Chiesa e del mondo, ed. Marianum, Roma 1979, pp. 77-79; 'Eva, Donna dell'Alleanza' in Parole, Spirito e Vita. No. 13, gennaio-giugno 1986, pp. 173-175.
14. Lev Rabbah
15. Num Rabbah 7:1.
16. Book of Jubilees 6:19 in Charles, op. cit.. p. 22.
17. Num Rabbah 7:1.
18. Mekhilta di Rabbi Ishmael. Bahodosh, 5:10.
19 Lev Rabbah 9:9.
20. Antiquities of the Jews III, 5. 1-2.
21. Num Rabbah 7:1.
22. Cant Rabbah 2:14.
23. Deut Rabbah 3:12.
24. Cf. Letter to Dlognetus (150 ca.) XII: 7-8 (A. Ouacguarani: 1 Padri Apostolici, CPO Nuova, Roma 1978. p. 363).
25. S. Alvarez Campos: Corpus Marianum Patristicum, I, ed. Aldecoa. S.A., Burgos 1970, pp. 30-31, nos. 34-35.
26. For possible links between the annunciation of Mary and the Sinai traditions, cf. note 112 in the full text to which reference is made in the introduction to article.
27. Alvarez Campos. op. cit., pp. 46-52. nos. 79-95.
28. Eusebius, Historiae Ecclesiasticae V, 20. 4-8 (SC no. 41, pp. 61-63).
29. Cf. E. Tonio 'La presenza dello Spirito Santo in Maria secondo l'antica tradizione cristiana (sec. II-IV)', in Acts of 4th Symposium: Maria e to Spirito Santo, Rome. Oct. 1982. odd. Marianum-Dehoniane, Roma-Bologna 1984, pp. 218-228.
30. Second Vatican Council: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Ch. II, The Function of the Blessed Virgin in the Plan of Salvation, no. 56.
31. Ez 16:8,20; for other quotations concerning Zion Jerusalem as Bride and Mother of the Covenant, cf. the author: 'Contributi dell'antica letteratura giudalca.' pp. 316-325 (cf. note 13 for reference).
32. M.R. James, ed. The Apocryphal New Testament, The Gospel of Peter, 24 (the garden of Joseph) Oxford, Clarendon Press 1972, p. 92.
33. The author has indicated references in his study: 'Dimensioni ecclesiale (cf. note 2), p. 318. note 290.
34. Art. cit.. pp. 334-341; also 'Eva, Donna dell'AlleanzaT pp. 186-188 (cf. note 131.
35. Art. cit.. pp. 339-341.


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