While I think it’s true that Adam and Eve represent us, a lot of times they’re taken as mainly representing their sex. For instance, Adam shows passivity that men need to avoid, or Eve shows how women may be deceived. Among the many problems with those tropes is that they don’t fit how the story of Humanity’s family* uses those two characters.
The man and woman both represent humanity, but different aspects of it. While their characters are split by sex, they represent different sides of human nature that apply to both men and women.
The man is about humanity’s connection to the ground: working it, getting food from it, being made of it and returning to it. The Adam–earth pun is made early (Genesis 2:7) and repeated later (3:19). God’s punishment to the man also focuses on his connection to the ground through the difficulty in growing food. None of this is true of just men. Women die too! And women work in fields, prick their fingers on thorns and prepare food too. The man shows us one part of human nature, not the male nature.
The woman is about humanity’s social connection. While patriarchal cultures associate families with the father (as in the genealogies or the “house of David”), in this story family is linked to the woman. Her arrival (to cure loneliness) prompts the observation that a man will leave his parents’ house and be united to his wife. He will move under her roof – a shocking reversal of the actual cultural practice.
The woman’s punishment is about raising children and spousal relations: relational strife. Right before that, the serpent’s curse mentions the woman’s seed/descendants. While many see special meaning in this, it fits how this story makes no mention of the man’s seed. The later genealogy connects children to Adam (5:3–4), but this story links them to Eve (4:1–2, 25). The man even names the woman Eve, “mother of all who live.” Throughout, this story portrays humanity as the house of Eve.
Once again, family and social connection is not something that only applies to women. Men and women together raise families, establish households. If we don’t limit Eve to a picture of women or Adam to a picture of men, we can get so much more out of their story.
It also means we don’t have to avoid details that would seem demeaning to one sex. For instance, the man is portrayed as more primitive and instinctual than the perceiving, reasoning woman.** The woman is deceived into sinning; the man reflexively eats what’s handed to him. Both fail, but differently. This is repeated in their encounter with God. The woman admits she ate because she was tricked; the man simply because he was given – as if whatever is put in his hand automatically ends up in his mouth.
As a portrayal of the sexes, that’s pretty harsh. But when we recognize that both of them speak to all of us, we can hear a caution about our instincts and our reason. And more broadly, we can see how we are essentially connected both to the ground and to each other.
*. The account goes from 2:4 to the end of chapter 4, with “these are the generations” separators at both ends. The story shows humanity as a family, first focusing on the man and woman, then their sons.
**. Ironically, some ancient interpreters flipped this script, seeing the woman as sensual and the man as the thinker, showing how easy it is to read in what our culture trains us to expect.