by Wayne Simpson
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 theologians 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 millennia 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 Genesis. Everybody 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:
... 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 Solomon's 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 suggests 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 symmetrical.
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 anaemic 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
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 substantial deliverance, there was nothing puny about it. The point is to show that Eve was created as a capable, intelligent, force to be reckoned 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.
ADAM'S RIB (...take 2)
A misconception among some Christians
is that men have fewer ribs than women. They wrongly believe this is what the
What are the facts?
The Bible's Book of Genesis (2:21, 22) says God created the first woman this way: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam [the first man], and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in stead thereof. And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman …”
Some people think that this passage implies that:
because the first man lost his rib, all men since have one fewer rib (they are wrong).
The best way to test this belief is to compare a male's skeleton with a female's. When you do this, you find that men and women have 12 pairs of ribs each.
The belief that a lost rib, or a cut-off thumb, or a chopped-off tail, could pass from parent to child was a theory, long-discredited, derived from the ideas of French biologist Lamarck.
Generations of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian males have circumcised their sons, but they never give birth to already circumcised sons.
For centuries some breeds of dogs have had their tails cropped, but they don't give birth to pups with their tails docked already.
If you have a finger or toe amputated, it would not mean you would produce children with a finger or toe missing. Likewise, if a human baby is born with a tail, it does not imply they evolved from monkeys.
So a rib taken from Adam does not mean that any of his sons and daughters would have a rib missing. Men and women have the same number of ribs.
Share This Article