The study of the Bible is often fraught with preconceptions, not
only in our own minds but
also in the minds of scholars, teachers and theologions who teach us and write the
reference material that we rely on. Concepts can be so entrenched and cherished that no
one even thinks to question them. Many such notions have been around for centuries or
millenia and they seem to be a part of the very foundation on which we base our beliefs.
Sometimes they do not stand up to close scrutiny. Unfortunately, such ideas can conceal
the most sublime insights into the scriptures.
One such notion is the matter of Adam's rib in the second chapter of
knows the familiar Bible story about how God took a rib from Adam and made Eve. The
smallest children are taught this story in Sunday schools across the land. Though many
scholars find reasons not to take it literally, it is accepted as truth by millions of Christians.
There is more here than meets the eye. I will show how it has been widely misunderstood
and how that has caused us to miss some very dynamic teaching. Examine the account:
... for Adam there was not found a help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep
sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh
instead thereof; And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman,
and brought her to the man. And Adam 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. Therefore shall
a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be
one flesh. Gen. 2:20-24
This is really a strange picture if you think about it. Why didn't
God just make woman from
the ground as He had made Adam. He apparently made male and female of all the animals
from the ground. And why a rib, instead of a finger or a toe, or an ear. The story seems
to smack of early Mesopotamian and Greek literature. Ea, the god of wisdom was said to
be the ear of Ninurta. Athena, goddess of wisdom, sprang from the forehead of Zeus, and
Aphrodite, goddess of love was said to have come from the sea foam that collected around
the severed male organ of the god Uranus (JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis p. 22).
In actuality, something far more meaningful is being expressed in
this biblical account than
making a new person out of a small piece of the body of another. If we look closely at the
Hebrew word for rib we will learn of something quite surprising. The word translated rib
in Genesis 2 is tsela. This word is used in a number of other places in the Bible and
its meaning is shown to be quite different than what we have imagined. The only other
place in the Bible where the english word rib occurs is in Daniel 7:5, translated from an
altogether different Hebrew word. One Bible translation dares to break with the use of the
traditional word rib. The Stone edition of the Chumash renders the verse this way:
" ...and He took one of his sides and He filled in the flesh in its place."
Right away you can see that what God took from Adam was a lot more
than a small bone.
But can this reading be justified? Let us examine other places in the Bible where this
Hebrew word is used. We find that it is rendered side in a number of places.
Look at Exodus 25:12. In referring to the rings of gold on the Ark
of the Covenant it says
" Two rings shall be on one side ( tselo - a variant of tsela) and two rings on the
other side" Later in verse 14 it refers to the two "sides" ( tselot- the plural form).
Exodus 37:3-5 shows this same description of the Ark.
In Exodus 27:7 it refers to "the two sides ( tselot)
of the altar" upon which staves and rings
were attached "to bear it". Notice that it refers to only two of the altars four sides - the two
major sides as opposed to the front and rear. Similar usage occurs in Ex. 38:7.
Then in Exodus 26:20, the Hebrew word ul-tsela is used, meaning "and for the
side" of the tabernacle. This is the same Hebrew word with two initial letters that have the
meaning "and for". In verse 26 we read of one side ( tsela) of the tabernacle and the second
side ( tsela) of the tabernacle. In verse 35 we see mentioned a table on the south side
( tsela) of the tabernacle, referring this time not just to the outer skin of the tabernacle but
to its south half. Identical usage occurs in Ex. 36:25,31.
Notice that in each of these accounts there is nothing resembling a
rib or pillar like
structural member. It refers to an entire side, essentially half, of a structure. This is very
different from the notion of Adam's rib, but let us continue.
In I kings 6:34 we see a description of folding doors consisting of
two sides or panels
( tsalim - the masculine plural form). These two panels were identical, each
comprising half of the assembly. These were part of Solomons temple. At that time this
Hebrew word for side began to be used in connection with associated components of the
sides of the temple. Chambers or side compartments ( tselot) were built along the sides of
the temple (I kings 6:5-6). Also the planks which formed the sides of the most holy place
were given the name , batselot, meaning in the sides. Here again we see no hint of the
notion of a rib or similar superstructure of any kind.
In Job 18:12 Job refers to "calamities at his side" (
la-tselot) and Jeremiah 20:10
speaks of "fear on every side". It would be ludicrous to speak of fear at every rib.
The only mention which might remotely be construed as anything like a rib is this:
"As David and his men went along the road, Shimei went along the hillside ( ba-tsela) and
cursed as he went...". II Sam 16:13.
While The New Brown Driver Briggs Gesenius Hebrew English Lexicon
that this is the ridge or the rib of the hill. This seems to be interpretive because this
episode could have taken place on one of the sides of the hill as easily as on the
ridge of the hill. From the context you simply cannot tell which it was. Because of
the preponderance of usage of the word side as the translation, it seems likely that
should be the meaning here as well.
We conclude from this analysis that there is no real justification
to render the word in Gen.
2:21 as Adam's rib. Rather, it should be Adam's side. As a result, a new and bold imagery
begins to emerge from Gen. 2:21. What is really meant by the use of the word side? Was
it the side of his torso, like a side of beef? Did it include an arm or a leg? Once we are
freed from the notion of a rib, what really makes sense here? I suggest that what is meant
here is virtually an entire side or half of Adams body. There are several Hebrew words that
express the notion of half, chiefly variants of the verb chatsah, which means to divide.
This word is most often used to signify halving a weight or volume or quantity of some
substance, whereas the examples we previously mentioned seem to refer to a side, that is
a half of an object or structure. That is especially clear in Ex. 20:35, where a table is
located in one side or one half of the tabernacle.
Now consider the implications of this. God literally divided Adam in
half to create a
woman for him. This is a much more powerful symbol than merely taking a small bone out
of his side. Eve was every bit the man Adam was (pardon the pun), in fact in Gen 1:27 it
says "In the image of God He created him, male and female He created them" suggesting
complete equality. Eve began, literally, as half of Adam. Even today people sometimes
refer to their spouse as their other half or their better half and that seems somehow
appropriate. Of course God closed the flesh to restore Adam to wholeness. Though not
specifically stated, it is clear God did the same for Eve in the process of fashioning her into
a woman. How appropriate the language used in Genesis. The words "bone of my bone"
and "flesh of my flesh" take on new significance. Even the expressions are grammatically
The traditional mythical interpretation of Adams rib is of very long
standing. We do not
know when it first began, but it is clear that the ancient Hebrews did not understand this
episode in the way moderns do. When Genesis and Exodus were written, the concept was
one of Adams side, not his rib. Remarkably, we have the testimony of a Jewish authority
of about 2000 years ago on this issue. Philo Judeaus addressed the subject thus: "The
letter of this statement is plain enough; for it is expressed according to the symbol of the
part, a half of the whole, each party, the man and the woman, being as sections of nature
co-equal for the production of that genus which is called man." (The Works Of Philo, p. 796,
Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts,) emphasis mine. How clear.
Notice also the Hebrew words usually rendered help meet.
This rendering is such an
anemic translation for what is being expressed. The expression in Hebrew is azer k'negdo.
In every case in the Hebrew Bible the Hebrew word azer means not just assistance,
but a significant and substantial kind of help. Look at some examples:
Ezekiel 12:14 Zedekiah had "all those about him to help (
azer) him, all his bands." This
is clearly referring to Zedekiah's armed men.
Daniel 11:34 The expression "helped with a little help" in
this context seems also to refer
to military intervention.
Isaiah 30:5 This verse refers to seeking help in the form of
military protection from the
king of Egypt.
All these examples refer to substantial and powerful help or
protection, the kind you
could get from armed men, not just a little help or hand holding. Continue:
Ex 18:4 "for He (God) was my help."
Deut. 33:29 "... The Lord, the shield of thy help"
Deut 33:7 "... Be thou (the Lord) a help to him from his enemies."
In these examples, we see an even more powerful type of help from
God himself. It is clear
that this was not just help, but real substancial deliverance, there was nothing puny about it.
The point is to show that Eve was created as a capable, intelligent, force to be rekoned
with. She was every bit as qualified and adept as Adam. This was not simply a "Let me
hold the flashlight for you, Honey" kind of help.
And the Hebrew word K'negdo is charged with meaning as
well. It means more than just
suitable. It carries the meaning of opposite. She was an opposite to him. This is literally
what you would expect since she was formed from his other half or side. Perhaps it would
be better to say she was his complement. The two were made to work and fit together.
She was opposite in gender, but opposite in many other ways as well. No man can be
married for any length of time without realizing that his wife thinks and behaves in a very
different way than he does. She views things very differently, her concerns are quite unlike
his. Eve was made to be everything Adam was not. She was his complement.
Now Adam was faced with the realization that he was not unique and
he was not alone.
To find completeness and wholeness he would want to take a wife. This longing for
wholeness is a popular theme in our modern love songs. Ultimately she is the key to the
meaning of his life and vice versa. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother
and cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh." Gen. 2:24. Neither can be complete
without the other.
So this old story that was once a rather bizarre metaphor, a woman
created from a rib, can
now be understood to be a powerful, meaningful and beautiful symbol for the most
profound relationship in human existence. It is very clear that, in the beginning, God gave
woman absolutely equal status with man.
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