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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Sunday Study: Gender in Genesis a take on Adam's Rib

In the comments on The Problem of Evil: Why does God Allow Suffering? Marc suggested that the scriptures denigrate women. In the comments on The Inconsistent, Condescending, Paternalism of Left-Wing Feminism, Anna has also raised some thoughtful questions about the scriptures and how they portray women, many of which are worth addressing. The issue, however, is a large one; numerous different texts could be discussed and there is too much to deal with in a single blog post. Here I thought I would elaborate on some reflections I made a few years ago in response to a comment by Hugh Young, a thoughtful, Wellington based, historian. (A reflection, I later used as the basis for a homily I preached at Lost Soul’s wedding last year.)

The discussion began when Young stated that the creation story in Genesis 2 “denigrates women.” When questioned, he clarified his position somewhat; he stated that the text in Genesis “defines the woman in terms of the man, rather than as a human being in her own right. It says women were MADE to be "helps meet" for men (and nothing else).” And went on to state

I guess the inferior position of women came first, and the story was concocted to justify it. They'd hardly write a creation myth in which man was created out of woman's rib and then say "Hey, we ought to be treating women better! "When I said "the INTENTION is to denigrate women" I meant the intention is to keep them in their place.

Young is of course not unique in reading Genesis in this way. I have heard feminist critics of Christianity express essentially the same interpretation of the passage on several occasions so I hope my response is helpful to the current discussions on the matter.
First, the Hebrew word is not necessarily a reference to a rib; the meaning is broader and is probably more accurately translated as something like ‘side’. Also, the text needs to be read in the context in which it appears. The immediate context is Gen 2:19-24,

Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him."19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.20 And the man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh at that place.22 And the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.23 And the man said, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man."24 For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

Note three things here. The emphasis is on the fact that it is not good for man to be alone and he needs a helper suitable to him. This phrase in Hebrew is ezer neged this is the idea of someone who helps or aids and who is similar; a counterpart to or an equal to oneself. David Freedman argues it has the sense of a help equal to him,[1] a view defended by Walter Kaiser.[2] The phrase appears to teach that the helper is like the male, on par with, a counter-part to him, an equal.

Second, this fact is emphasised further by the context. Note that none of the animals is a help equal to man; while no Hebrew in an agrarian society would deny that animals can be aids or helps to mankind they are not helpers that are equal to or of the same nature as humans and that is the whole point.

Finally, note Adam’s response, when he learns that Eve has been created from his side, This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.

Two things are noteworthy here. First the reference to bone of my bones, etc is a Hebrew idiom for kinship. Second, the last sentence emphasises a Semitic literary technique known as paronomasia or word-play. This technique is common in this section of Genesis; for example, Noah sounds similar to the Hebrew word for comfort and Noah designates the man in the narrative who brings comfort (Gen 5:29). Abraham means ‘father of many’ and the whole story of Abraham is a story about how he is promised that he will have many children. Jacob means ‘pulls his leg’ and the story is of a trickster. In each case the name is deliberately used to emphasis a characteristic or feature of the person named. In Gen 4 it is noted that Adam and Eve acquired a child by the LORD, the child is named Cain which sounds like the Hebrew word acquired.

Similarly, use of word-plays occurs here in Genesis. Adam is similar to the Hebrew word for dust ‘Adamah.’ The emphasis of Genesis 2-3 is that man has kinship with the dust; he is made from it 2.7; will return to it 3.19; will toil it 3:17; his sin curses it once again. The clearest use is in 3:19 where it says “dust you are,” the name Adam is used to point to a feature or character of man.

Similar things can be said about Eve. The word eve sounds like the Hebrew word for mother; the text notes that she was called Eve because she was the mother of the living. Again, the name is deliberately chosen to reinforce a point or teaching.

In this passage the play is on the Hebrew word for women ishshah and man iysh. The idea is that she is called ishshah because she comes from man iysh, the point is that the two are fundamentally of the same nature. Understood in its genre, then, the passage asserts that women and men are very close kinsman, they are fundamentally of the same nature, they are one.

The passage then states that it was not good for man to be without a helper equal to or like him. The animals, though helpful, are not like him, they are different and hence, won’t do. That is the point of the passage. Far from teaching the inferiority of men to women or teaching women are subhuman, the passage teaches the precise opposite.

[1] R. David Freedman “Woman, A Power Equal to Man” Biblical Archaeology Review January-February 1983 56-58.
[2] Walter Kaiser Towards an Old Testament Ethics.


  1. Stephanie @ Faithful Follower of ChristMonday, 4 May 2009 at 2:03:00 AM NZST

    Excellent explanation. Before I was saved I also used to think the Bible was sexist. Although I did believe in God, I did not really believe the Bible was His inerrant Word mostly because of one thing that troubled me--the story that was taught about the fall of man. The way that it was taught was that it was all Eve's fault, that she just brought the fruit to poor, unsuspecting Adam and that he didn't know what he was doing. This did not sit with me well, because generally speaking men by nature are much more likely to be "law-breakers" than women are, as evidenced by the significantly larger male prison population. Not only that, but if Adam was truly faultless, then why should he be punished for Eve's sin? This kind of erroneous teaching bothers me somewhat, because I feel that it has kept a lot of women from receiving the truth and from receiving Jesus as Savior.

    I was pleasantly surprised to learn the truth about what the scripture says--that Adam was standing right there with Eve. Not only that, but Scripture says that Eve was deceived into eating the fruit but never says or suggests that Adam was.

    Recent blog post: My Day--The Bad, The Good, The Tough Parental Issues, and The Possibilities

  2. Hi Stephanie, Yes I was taught a lot of things about what scripture allegedly teaches when at the secular public schools I attended. It came somewhat as I shock when I began studying and discovered that the image I had been given and the reality were quite different

    Recent blog post: Lunchtime Forum: Bringing Faith and Logic out of the Closet


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