“Eve was made from Adam’s rib.” Everyone knows that. Even people who have never read the Bible can tell you that it says God took one of Adam’s ribs and made a woman out of it. But does the Bible actually say this?
From Genesis 2:21 in Hebrew:
וַיִּקַּח אַחַת מִצַּלְעֹתָיו וַיִּסְגֹּר בָּשָׂר תַּחְתֶּֽנָּה׃
God took one of [the human]’s tselas and sealed the flesh underneath it.
If we look at the Hebrew word tsela, translated as 'rib', we may be surprised what we find there.
What is a tsela?
In modern Hebrew, tsela is the word for rib. But the origins of the modern understanding of the word date back to the interpretations of this Genesis story. So what did the word mean to those who first told this story and wrote it down? Can we be certain that it meant “rib” to them?
One way to investigate this question is to look at the other places in Scripture where tsela appears. And what do you know…. Every other place where the word appears in the Hebrew Bible tsela does not mean rib. It is an architectural term, used mostly in intricate descriptions of sanctuary and temple construction.
[For the other biblical uses of tsela see Exodus 25:12,14; 26:20,26,27,35; 27:7; 30:4; 36:25,31,32; 37:3,5,27; 38:7. 2Samuel 16:13 1Kings 6:5,8,15,16,34; 7:3 Job 18:12 Jeremiah 20:10 Ezekiel 41: 5,6,7,8,9,11,26]
It makes sense that the Genesis story uses an architectural term here, rather than a bodily term, because the story paints a picture of God building creatures from the clay of the earth [see Genesis 2:7, 19]. God chose one of the human’s tselas to start a second structure.
What was the architectural form, tsela, that God used?
Chapter 41 in the book of Ezekiel gives the most detailed description of a tsela. Here the word is translated as either “side room” or “side chamber”. The temple consists of the main sanctuary, and then surrounding the sanctuary there are three levels of smaller chambers – thirty of these separate alcoves on each floor. Although the notion of “side” is conveyed in the phrase “side room” or “side chamber” it is worth noting that Ezekiel’s architectural description states that these small rooms completely surround the sanctuary space [see Ezekiel 41:5, 10]. They are not just on two sides, but all around. Here is an excerpt from Ezekiel 41, in which I am showing translations of tsela in bold:
The side rooms around the Temple were seven feet wide. There were three floors of these chambers, thirty rooms on each of the three floors. There were supporting beams around the Temple wall to hold up the small rooms, but they were freestanding, not attached to the wall itself. These enclosed spaces around the Temple became wider from first floor to second floor to third floor. A staircase went from the bottom floor, through the middle, and then to the top floor. (Ezek. 41: 3-5.)
Understanding tsela as one in a series of similar chambers, what might it mean that God took one of the human’s chambers, and then closed the flesh underneath it?
One clue is the word used to describe where God seals up the flesh: tachtenah. This means “underneath it.” This sense of “underneath” is glossed over in most English translations. Most choose the vaguer “at that place” – a strangely inaccurate linguistic choice.
The image conjured up by the Hebrew phrase is this: the human is a structure with a series of chambers – discrete cells or spaces. God pinches off the human’s bottom-most chamber in order to create a second human out of this chamber, and then seals up the underparts of the first human where the chamber was removed.
This notion of a human created as a series of chambers resonates with another ancient perspective on the human form: In India’s ayurvedic tradition, humans are comprised of seven “wheels” of energy arranged vertically. The Sanskrit word for wheel is chakra. The topmost and bottom-most chakras are located just above and below the physical body. The five chakras within the body can be found, from top to bottom, in the head, the throat, the chest, the abdomen, and the reproductive organs of the pelvis. If we think of tselas as these five distinct cavities, the reproductive organs make up the bottommost one.
What happens when we read this story as God taking the reproductive cavity of the human--in order to create a second human--and then pinching closed the flesh underneath the place where the cavity was removed? A humorous image comes to mind. This is an Aesops-esque fable about the origin of gender, and of how our “private parts” came to be!
Why do boy babies have this fleshy bit hanging underneath their bodies? That extra flesh is where God sealed up the place where the womb once was.
I am not one who believes that scientific explanations need the Bible to affirm them in order for them to be true. But I find it fascinating that when interpreted this way, the story of Adam and Eve brilliantly intuits something we know from modern biology: Male reproductive organs are in fact the sealed-up parts of what was originally a womb-in-the-making! Each human embryo begins as female, and develops uteran, ovarian and vaginal cell structures. Without the introduction of testosterone, this development of the uterus, ovaries and vagina naturally continues. If testosterone is introduced during a certain stage of development, these same spaces become testes and penis.
As we read further in this story, we realize that this fable also charmingly explains the origins of sex!
Because God created us by taking the womb from the first human, and then building a second human out of it, the first human has a natural urge to reconnect with its missing chamber. When his sealed-up nether regions fit back together with her open nether regions, he hopes to find his original wholeness.
That is why a man leaves his mother and father and then (re)attaches to his woman-ness, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
There are other aspects of the story that reinforce this interpretation. For instance, we might immediately dismiss the possibility that woman was made from Adam’s womb because it is so clear that Adam is a man. After all, our Bible calls him “man” from the beginning [see Genesis 2:5, 7, 8, 15, 18,19, 20, 21].
Why would Adam be described as a man if he had a womb? Well, in fact, Adam is not ever called a “man” until after the bottom tsela is removed.
The Hebrew word for “man” is iysh. This word is not used until Adam says it after looking at the woman who has been created by God. In verse 23: “This one shall be called ishah (woman) because from iysh (man) she was taken." Ironically, the first gender-word to appear in the story is actually ishah (woman) in verse 22, describing the human created out of the tsela. “Woman” appears in the story before “man"!
So what is the word that is used in all those previous verses, translated as “man”? It is the word adam, and it means human. Most often the English word used to translate adam is the gender-biased English word for human: “man” (as in mankind). But adam truly means "all of us." This is clearest in chapter 5 of Genesis.
Male and female God created them, and blessed them, and called their name adam. (Genesis 5:2)
In the story of Adam and Eve, the introduction of the word adam is part of a wordplay emphasizing our humanity originating from the earth. In 2:7 God shapes the human – adam -- out of the earth – adamah.
If we want to be true to the subtleties of word play, we need an English word for “human” or “Adam” that reflects our origins in the Earth. In her textbook, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, Phyllis Trible has suggested “earth creature." I sometimes use the term we all know from science fiction: "earthling". "Human" is also appropriate in that it is related to the scientific word for soil: humus. In Genesis, the earthling is referred to by this non-gender-specific term, adam, all the way through the description of making two earthlings out of one. The distinction between earthling and “man” is actually emphasized in the Hebrew text, as is evident when adam is translated as earthling or human:
And YHWH God made the tsela taken from the human into Woman and brought her to the human and the human said "This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh and this one will be called Woman, because this [womb] was taken away from Man." (Genesis 2:22-23)
Just as adam sounds like an abbreviation of the word adamah because the human earthling was formed by being separated from the earth, so iysh sounds like an abbreviation of ishah because man was formed by being separated from his woman-ness.
Once the adam’s womb is removed, that first adam becomes a man gazing upon his own woman-ness in the being of another, longing to reconnect with his original wholeness by connecting with her.
A moral of this new interpretation?
By letting go of Adam's Rib, we allow the Bible to tell us a much richer story: that adam -- a non-gendered human -- housed the original womb; that God's womb-transplant simultaneously created the binary genders, female and male; and that the origins of sex lie in God's constructive act of separation, which simultaneously created the desire for reunion.
Today, as we grow beyond binary dualities in our understanding of gender and sex, how can this new understanding of a very ancient tale help us understand our own disconnection and longing?
Adam Had A Womb photo by Jacob Aguilar-Friend (Unsplash, adapted)