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The Creation of Woman from 'And Sarah Laughed' The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, by John H.Otwell

The Creation of Woman

from And Sarah Laughed
The Status of Woman in the Old Testament, pp15-19.
by John H.Otwell

published by The Westminster Press, 1977

The Old Testament opens with a relatively late Priestly version of a creation story widely known throughout the ancient Near East. Its description of the creation of man and woman is reported in these words:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Gen. l:26f.)(12)

A description of the creation of the human race is not the primary purpose of Gen., ch. 1, since the climax of the narrative tells of the establishment of the Sabbath.

Nonetheless, three things are said about woman in Gen. 1:26f. There is no hint that woman had a subordinate status in the description of her creation. Humanity is created male and female. One sex is not elevated above the other, even though both together are placed over all other forms of life. Furthermore, sexuality is a fundamental part of the creation. There is no suggestion that it is evil, or that one of the two sexes is evil because of gender. Such motifs emerge in later Judaism, but they find no justification here.

Finally, Gen. l:26f. describes man and woman as having been created in the image and in the likeness of God. Because we believe that any physical representation of God is impossible, we assume that the image and the likeness of God is intangible, perhaps humanity's capacity to create and to make moral judgments. It is probable, however, that the Priestly writer had a more literal, physical likeness in mind. (13) The significance of the divine likeness may be found in the authority given humanity over the rest of the creation (v. 28). Female and male share this rule since both were created in the image of God.

Gen. 5:1f. is an echo of Gen. l:26f.

Gen. 2:4b to 3:24 is widely held to be a second creation narrative. It differs from Gen. 1:1 to 2:4a in vocabulary, the order in which events occur, the dramatic thrust of the narrative, the climax, and the lack of any significant parallel in non-Biblical narratives. Gen. 2:4b to 3:24 is usually assigned to the Yahwist source (called J), the oldest of the strands now woven together to make up the first five books of the Old Testament. It therefore is dated some centuries earlier than Gen., ch. 1.

The creation of woman is described in ch. 2:18-24:

Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman ('ishshah), because she was taken out of Man ('ish)." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

A curse is put on Eve later in the story after she and Adam had disobeyed a divine command:

I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Ch. 3:16)

These verses have provided the primary Old Testament basis for the depreciation of woman.

It has been claimed that Eve was inferior to Adam because she had been created as his helpmeet (ch. 2:18). It is difficult to see how the Hebrew word translated as helpmeet ('ezer) could have conveyed inferiority to an ancient Israelite. It is taken from a verb meaning "to help." As a noun, it refers to the one giving help twelve times in the Old Testament (two of them here, vs. 18, 20). The 'ezer is God, the helper of Israel, in Ex. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26; Ps. 33:20; 70:5; 115:9, 10, 11. Thus 'ezer clearly does not denote inferiority!

Eve also has been alleged to be subordinate to Adam because she is said to have been created from his rib. I know of no parallel to this and therefore can neither confirm nor deny that this feature of the story imputes inferiority to woman.

Adam is reported to have named the woman twice (chs. 2:23 and 3:20). This is widely understood to be an exercise of authority over Eve. Gerhard von Rad wrote, Let us remind ourselves once more that name-giving in the ancient Orient was primarily an exercise of sovereignty, of command."(14) Later, in another context, we will see that mothers name children more often than do fathers in the Old Testament narratives, yet scholars have not taken this as evidence that mothers exercised more authority within the family than did fathers. There are instances when name-giving expressed a relationship of authority (as in the naming of a captured city in II Sam. 12:27f.), but there is no justification for seeing an exercise of authority in every act of naming. The naming of Eve in Gen. 2:23 becomes the occasion for a statement of a union of husband and wife in which the husband leaves his own parents (v. 24). This is the meaning given the act by the author of the story.

The curse on Eve in Gen. 3:16 contains lines that need careful study:

yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.

In the structure of Hebrew poetry, the second half of a line (which appears as the second line in an English translation) is related closely in content to the first half. Thus "in pain you shall bring forth children" duplicates "your pain in childbearing." We may expect, therefore, that "and he shall rule over you" parallels "your desire shall be for your husband." Thus the husband's rule would seem to lie either in the wife's need for her husband because of her desire to have children, or in the strength of his sexual attraction for her.(15) This is not an abstract statement of the subordination of the woman to the man in all relationships, and it also says nothing about the power of the woman over the man.

Job 31:13-15 contains the only other reference in the Old Testament to the creation of woman:

If I have rejected the cause of my manservant or my maidservant, when they brought a complaint against me; what then shall I do when God rises up? When he makes inquiry, what shall I answer him? Did not he who made me in the womb make him? And did not one fashion us in the womb?

A masculine personal pronoun in Hebrew legal prose can refer to antecedents that are both female and male. So also here. The series of rhetorical questions with which this passage closes applies as much to the maidservant as to the manservant. The sexes are equal in this description of the creation of man and woman.

We have looked at Gen. l:26f. (ch. 5:lf.); 2:18-24; 3:16; and Job 31:13-15 for information on the status of woman as created by God. If we were to classify these passages according to a modern doctrine of creation, we might say that Gen. l:26f. (ch. 5:If.) describes creation ex nihilo and that Job 31:13-15 deals with continuing creation. In both of these forms of creation, man and woman are equal.

The narrative in Gen. 2:18-24 and ch. 3:16 fits neither of these contemporary doctrines of creation. The story limits its concern to the creation of life and the continuation of life in a world different from what it was created originally to be. The picture of the status of woman that we gain from the Genesis narrative is less clear. While there seems far less reason to cite the story in support of an inferior position for woman than is widely believed to be the case, there does seem to be present a declaration that woman is sexually dependent upon her husband.


12. The Priestly source (P) is the latest of the four major strands that have been woven together to form the Pentateuch as we now have it. The authors of P seem to have written at the end of the exile while living in Babylonia. They thus probably knew this creation story in its Babylonian version. The Babylonian version, The Enuma Elish, describes the creation of humanity in these words:

When Marduk hears the words of the gods, His heart prompts [him] to fashion artful works. Opening his mouth, he addresses Ea To impart the plan he has conceived in his heart: "Blood I will mass and cause bones to be. I will establish a savage, 'man' shall be his name. Verily, savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease!"

E. A. Speiser, "Akkadian Myths and Epics," in James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 2d ed. (Princeton University Press, 1955), p. 69c. Humanity is created to be the slaves of the gods in The Enuma Elish.

13. Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, A Commentary, tr. by John H. Marks, The Old Testament Library (The Westminster Press, 1961), pp. 56f. Cited hereafter as Genesis.

14. Ibid., p. 81.

15. The verb in the final clause of Gen. 3:16 (m sh l) has been taken to mean "to rule," at least since the time of the Septuagint, a Greek translation from about 200 B.C. The root m sh l, however, can also mean "to liken." The object of the verb in this verse is governed by a preposition difficult to relate to the meaning "to rule" but easy to relate to "to liken." The root m sh l elsewhere in the Hebrew Old Testament is not translated "to liken" in the mode used here. The translation given in RSV, NEB, etc., is traditional. An n would have to be prefixed to the root before it could be translated "to be like." Were this done, the line would read, "and he [your husband] shall be like you."

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