Thursday, September 1, 2011

Spare Rib or Better Half? (Genesis 2:22)

From what did God create woman? Out of the rib of Adam (Genesis 2:22).

The creation of woman is one of the most well known Bible stories. After generating Adam in the Garden of Eden, God observed that “it is not good for the man to be alone” and vowed to produce a suitable partner (Genesis 2:18 NASB). After unsuccessfully finding a companion amongst the animal kingdom, God anaesthetized Adam and fashioned a woman from one of his ribs (Genesis 2:20-22). Adam was ecstatic with the results and erupted with the first recorded poetry (Genesis 2:23). The woman was later named Eve (which means “life”) as “she was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20 NASB).

A false myth derived from this story that men have one fewer rib than women. In fact, all humans have 24 ribs as anyone who has a body part surgically removed will not pass that trait onto their offspring.

Of all the body parts, why was a rib used in making the woman? Which part of Adam’s anatomy would you have preferred for this function?

The Bible does not say why God selected the rib but it has served for some humorous speculation. Why did God use the rib? Responses have included: Because it was the only thing that was “spare”. God offered Adam a better companion, but it was going to cost him an arm and a leg. At least she was not pulled out of his butt. This text has also been used in the battle of the sexes as women have bragged that they were not made from dirt and bitter men have said that the moral of the story is that women have been stealing from men since the dawn of time.

In more serious conjecturing, some have seen the rib as a pragmatic choice as it is something Adam could live without. Ribs are also the only bones in the body capable of regeneration if removed, so long as the periosteum (the membrane of connective tissue that surrounds the bone) is left intact. In one study, rib material was used in skull reconstruction and all twelve patients demonstrated complete regeneration of the removed rib. Human rib bone marrow mononuclear cells are also useful in genetic testing and (theoretically) genetic engineering.

Some have taken a sentimental view of the rib. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) wrote, “Woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Others have seen the rib as tied to Sumerian mythology which tells of a consortium of gods who were transforming the land of Dilmun into a paradise until Enki (the water god) snacked on a forbidden plant. This prompted Ninhursag (the earth goddess) to curse Enki causing eight of his vitals to fail. Eventually, Ninhursag relented but needed to create eight new deities to heal each of Enki’s ailments. On the surface, the myth bares little resemblance to the tale of Adam and Eve aside from paradise being lost from eating forbidden fruit. The connection is in the names. The Hebrew name “Eve” is related to the verb “make live” and in Sumerian, the word for “make live” is ti which is also the Sumerian word for “rib”. Thus, the name of the goddess created to cure Enki’s rib, “Nin-Ti”, is a Sumerian pun, meaning both “The Lady of the Rib” and “The Lady Who Makes Live”.

Some scholars are not convinced that Genesis speaks of a rib. As Biblical Hebrew has no term for penis, it has been speculated that the “rib” which created the woman references the baculum, a bone which stiffens the penis. It would explain why humans are one of only two primates who lack a baculum, relying instead on hydraulics. A baculum, unlike a rib, is associated with reproduction. In this interpretation, when God “closed up the flesh at that place”(Genesis 2:21 NASB) the text is alluding to the raphe, a seam on the penis and scrotum.

Virtually every modern translation states that the first woman was created from man’s “rib” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV). It can be argued, however, that “rib” is not the best translation of the Hebrew tsela’. This word is used 41 times in the Old Testament and it is only translated “rib” in relation to the creation story (Genesis 2:21-22). The only other time ribs appear in the Old Testament is in Daniel where the Aramiac ’ala’ is used (Daniel 7:5). Tsela’ is most commonly translated “side”. While the modern English word “rib” denotes a single bone in the upper torso, the Hebrew implies a far broader surgical focus that required greater sacrifice on Adam’s part. This view is seen in the Artscroll Torah, The Stone Edition which reads “...and He took one of his sides and He filled in the flesh in its place.”

Though the tradition of woman coming from man’s rib is longstanding it may not be original. Philo (20 BCE-50 CE) wrote “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 (Philo, The Works Of Philo, p. 796).”

If God took one “side” of Adam to make Eve, it could be said that God split Adam to make Eve, giving new meaning to the expression “my better half”. The words “bone of my bones” and “flesh of my flesh” would also take on new significance (Genesis 2:23). God dividing Adam in half to create a woman for him is a much more powerful symbol than merely taking a small bone out of his side. It creates far more equal imagery. In this scenario, the woman quite literally completes the man.

God did not make woman separate from man by forming her from dust. In creating woman from a part of the man, an immediate connection was also created. She was not another of God’s creatures that just happened to be paired with Adam. She was custom built to act as Adam’s partner. Rabbi Berlin (1816-1893) comments: “Only ‘this time’ is it so, since she is a ‘bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh’; [here, Adam’s love for Eve] is like a person who loves his own hand.”

How one reads this text is critical as it is foundational to the relationship between men and women (I Timothy 2:13-14) and affects one’s interpretation of marriage. Critics see the passage as serving to keep women in a subservient position. Others see the story as a beautiful picture of the marriage partnership (Ephesians 5:28-30).

Woman was created last. Does this make woman the crown of creation or subservient to man? What do you think the story of the creation of woman says about the relationship between men and women? What is the relationship between men and women?


  1. "Of all the body parts, why was a rib used in making the woman? Which part of Adam’s anatomy would you have preferred for this function?"

    The basic premise is faulty. Where any of this true, why use a part of an existing creature when you can easily just create another creature the way you made the original? Poof. There it is.