What is the Genesis story of The Man and Woman in the Garden trying to say to us? That's the essential question Dr Ian Elmer seeks to tackle in today's commentary. Most mature Christians no longer read it literally but what is the meaning of this message? How is it relevant to life today?
The story of the creation of the woman in the Garden of Eden...
Adam was walking around the Garden of Eden feeling very lonely, so God asked Adam, "What is wrong with you?"
Adam said, "Lord, I don't have anyone with whom I can talk and share my life".
God said, "Then I will give you a companion, and she will be called a 'woman'. This person will cook for you and wash your clothes, she will always agree with every decision you make. She will bear your children and never ask you to get up in the middle of the night to take care of them. She will be at your beck and call, fulfilling your every wish..."
Adam interrupted God, and asked, "Sounds too good to be true! What will this 'woman' cost?"
God said, "An arm and a leg..."
Adam said, "What can I get for just a rib?"
It is an old, and somewhat sexist, Joke. But it does hint at an important, and often misunderstood, aspect of the story of the creation of woman as it is told in Genesis 2:4b-25: that the "ideal" relationship between men and women was thought to be that of an equal partnership. Patriarchy and the male dominated society are viewed as the result of a sinful and broken relationship that originated with the later story of the Fall (Gen 3:1-24).
However, in today's commentary I want to examine more closely the story of the creation of the woman in the Garden of Eden, with particular reference to the tale of Adam's "rib" — an aspect of the story that has given rise to myriad of popular "myths", such as the belief that women have one more rib than men or, as was once believed in the Middle Ages, that women are merely "deformed" or incomplete males.
The Man and Woman in the Garden...
A curious medieval image of Eve emerging from Adam's rib under the watchful eye of a seemingly pregnant God. The image was found on the Prometheus Unbound blog.
To begin with, I would encourage people to go back and read the story of the "Man and Woman in the Garden" (Genesis 2:4-3:24). It is a remarkably rich story that draws its inspiration from an ancient yet insightful anthropology, which views the basic makeup of the human person as one torn between the earthy matter of day-to-day existence and the intangible spiritual quest for meaning.
We call this tale "the Story of Man and Woman in Garden", and not "the Story of Adam and Eve", because the proper names, Adam and Eve, do not occur until later in the proceeding after the Fall (Gen 3:20). Prior to that stage in the journey, the so-called "man" enters the narrative, not as a male, but as the primal, genderless "earth creature" (ha adam) who is born of the earth (ha adama) and the breath or wind (ruarch) of God. It is the "Everyman" or "Human", rather than a specific person or, even less so, a specific "male" person.
The human person in the Hebrew Scriptures is perceived as a "living nephesh" (Gen 2:7; cf. 3:19; 18:27; Tob 8:6; Job 34:15; Pss 103:14; 104:29; Sir 33:10) — a word that is often translated as "soul". However, nephesh originally meant "throat", which not only signified human desire, thirst and hunger, but also that which distinguished humans from animals, the ability to speak and communicate.
A "human" in Jewish thinking was literally a "living voice". Hence in our creation stories, humans were made in the imago dei, the image of the divine being whose "word" had brought forth all creation (cf. Gen 1:27). After all, the breath of humans that plays on the vocal strings is borrowed from the ruarch of God.
From these insights flow the fundamentals of our concern with issues of social justice, redemption and salvation. To stifle the voice of any person or group of persons is to dehumanise them. To dismiss the voice of the marginalised, silence the dissenter, ignore the cries of the poor or muzzle the refugee is to deny them their birthright as images of God.
Returning to the story of the Man and Woman in the Garden, we are told that YHWH created the Human to "cultivate and care" for the Garden (Gen 2:15). YHWH realised that such a task required a helpmate, and the divine being set about creating all the creatures of the earth and sea; but a "suitable partner" could not be found (Gen 2:20).
So YHWH caused the Human to fall into a deep sleep; and, while the "human" slept, YHWH took one of the Human's sela — a Hebrew word that is often translated as "rib" — and created from it the "Woman" (ishshah). The context of the passage, however, suggests that a better translation of sela is "side", since out of the "one flesh" comes two new gendered beings, male (ish) and female (ishshah) (Gen 2:22-23).
In its original Hebrew, the text suggests that the Earth Creature or Human split into two sides (sela), which are then "covered over" to make the man (ish) and the woman (ishshah). The two are made for each other and, according to the ancient storyteller, find fulfilment and contentment in being re-joined via a conjugal relationship of "one flesh" (Gen 2:24). In so saying, the author wants to stress the divine origins of marriage, but the story also holds that this union is ideally an equal partnership.
The Origins and Meaning of the Story...
The story of the Man and Woman in the Garden is a very old tale that has its roots in the common mythological heritage of the ancient Near East. Scholars have long noted parallels between this story and that of the Egyptian tale of the potter god Ptah moulding the body of the human on his potter's wheel and breathing life into the clay figure. A similar story comes from Babylonia of the warrior god Marduk who creates the human race from the comingling earth and the blood of slain gods.
The Epic of Gilgamesh — more information @ Wikipedia.
However, the closest parallel is found in another Sumarian epic of Gilgamesh that tells of the creation by the gods of a genderless earth creature, Enkidu. Originally destined to be the nemesis of the semi-divine King Gilgamesh of Uruk, Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh's companion on a great adventure, travelling the length and breadth of the known world. In one particular encounter on that journey, Enkidu beds a woman and is transformed into a human male.
Behind this story lies an anthropology that seems to have been shared by the authors of the Genesis story — that one's humanity is determined by being in relationship with others. However, the Biblical insight may take us a bit further. In most of these comparable stories, there is an inherent fatalism. In the Babylonian creation story, humans are created to be the slaves of the gods. Even in the Gilgamesh epic, Enkidu is struck down by the gods and Gilgamesh is unable to save him.
In the Biblical narrative, humans are created to cooperate with YHWH in caring for creation. The cosmos is perceived as a web of relationships, between the divine, the human and the material world. So, when the man and woman are tempted to disobey God's commands and as a result all of their most important relationships are shattered.
The relationship of humanity with God is destroyed when the man and woman feel shame in his presence (Gen 3:10) and are forced to leave God's presence (Gen 3:23). Similarly, their relationship with each other is skewed when the man gains dominion over the woman (naming her Eve) and establishes the patriarchal society (Gen 3:16, 20). The relationship with the environment is changed as humans must now labour hard to make the earth bring forth its crops (Gen 3:17-19), and the wild creatures (snakes in particular) become a thing of fear (Gen 3:15).
In many ways we misread this story when we attempt to see it as a simple tale about the creation of men and women. The Genesis' stories of the creation and the fall of humanity are very ancient anecdotes, which are meant to "explain" human suffering and limitation. They are not meant to be read literally – that God made woman out of the "rib" of man or that God punished our first parents for their sin.
Rather, these stories describe the fundamental relationship that determine humanity's thriving (i.e. relationships between god and humans, men and women, humans and nature); and they try to explain that when these relationships break down things go awry. Humans try to be "like gods" (cf. Gen 3:5), men dominate women, humans misuse and destroy the earth. The enduring insight captured in these stories is that the ultimate result of relationship breakdown is the erection of societies that are beset by crime, immorality, and human-made disasters.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
Boadt, L. (1984). Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction. New York: Paulist Press.
Brueggemann, W. (2003). An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Charpentier, E. (2005). How to Read the Old Testament. Translated by J. Bowden. New York: Crossroad.
Jacobson, D. (1982). The Story of Stories: The Chosen People and Its God. New York: Harper and Row.
Shea, J. (1978), Stories of God: An Unauthorised Biography. Chicago: Thomas More.
Toorn, K. van der (1996). Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life. Leiden: Brill.
The image used in the header and footer illustration of God creating Eve from Adam's rib comes from the church of Sainte Anne at Cazeaux, France, and has been sourced from www.pyreneanway.com. Clicking on the other images will provide information about the original source.
Dr Ian Elmer is the Lecturer in Biblical Studies at St Paul's Theological College, ACU (Australian Catholic University). He is also on staff at the CECS (Centre for Early Christian Studies), and a member of various professional associations, including ACBA (Australian Catholic Biblical Association) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature). His research specialities are Paul and First-Century Christianity. He is the author of published articles in the Australian Ejournal of Theology (AJET), Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church IV and V, and the Australian Biblical Review (ABR). His most recent publication is the monograph Paul, Jerusalem and the Judaisers, WUNT II.258 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).
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©2010Dr Ian Elmer
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