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Woman in the Creation Stories

Woman in the Creation Stories

There are two creation stories in Scripture, each impressive in its own right and each conveying vital supplementary teaching.

Genesis 1,1-2,4

The first creation account, Genesis 1,1 - 2,4, narrates the origin of the universe as a building project by God, the Architect. The world, as people knew it at the time, that is: in the 4th century BC, was seen as a huge house. The floor was made up of the flat earth. The sky was its ceiling. The sun, moon and stars were lights for day and night. The fish in the sea, the plants and animals on the land and the birds in the air were seen as furniture put in by God, and as sources of food.

The climax of God’s building work was the creation of human beings. They were special because the world was built to be their home. They were also special because, like God, they could think logically and act with responsibility. They carried God’s own image.

God said: ‘Let us make human beings in our own image,
in the likeness of ourselves,
and let them rule over the fish of the sea,
the birds of heaven, the cattle, all wild beasts
and the reptiles that crawl upon the earth’.
And God created the human in the image of himself.
In the image of God he created him.
Male and female he created them.

Genesis 1,27; literal translation from the Hebrew.

God then blessed human beings and gave them universal charge of the world. But God also expected them to remember that they were only creatures and that they should acknowledge the lordship of the Creator. That is why God built the world in six days and rested on the seventh to teach human beings that they should take time off for rest and worship on the Sabbath.

NOTE: There is absolutely no contradiction between this account and evolution. Genesis does not teach how the world was created; only the fact that it was created by God and given to human beings as their home. The ‘seven days’ are no more than a literary device.

From this account it is clear that all human beings are created in God’s image. Both man and woman are mentioned explicitly in this context. As far as this text is concerned, all human beings are created with equal dignity, and with equal rights and duties.

The implication of this regarding the equality of women in God's eyes was lost in later Judaism. Male Jews would thank God three times a day for not having created them a pagan, a slave or a woman. ‘Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, for not having made me a gentile, . . . for not having made me a slave, . . . for not having made me a woman.’ This prayer, part of the 18 Blessings, is still recited by orthodox Jews today. Siddur Tehillat Hashem, New York 1982, p.8.

Also many Fathers of the Church and later theologians failed to appreciate the importance of this passage.

Genesis 2,5 - 3,24

The second creation account teaches that God intended human beings to be happy, but that sin has brought unhappiness and suffering (Genesis 2,5 - 3,24). Just like the first, this account may not be taken as a literal description as to how the world came about and how sin began. The story is a parable in which the details are images, not dogmatic facts.

In this account, our world is compared to a beautiful garden which God planted. God placed human beings in this garden to take care of it. But the human beings wanted to be more than just tenants; they wanted to be equal to God and have the garden for themselves. So God had to ban them from this paradise to a place full of suffering and hardship, where they had to fend for themselves. But one day God was to restore friendship with them.1

Note: The author , who probably lived in the Kingdom of Judah during the 9th century BC, uses popular images of the time such as Eden, the tree of life, the snake as evil personified, nakedness as a symbol of childlike innocence, and so on.

Within this context, let us read how the text deals with the creation of human beings.

Then Yahweh God moulded the earth-creature
of soil from the earth

and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life.
So the earth creature became a living spirit.

Genesis 2,7

The author sees a close connection between the human being, adam, and ‘earth’ which is adamah in Hebrew. Human beings are a mixture of matter and spirit, of rootedness in the earth while having their origin in God’s creative breath. Since the earthy being had as yet no gender, in English it should be referred to as ‘it’. We translate it as ‘earth-creature’.1

In Hebrew, ‘he’ and ‘it’ are the same word; about `earth creature', see F.FERDER and J.HEAGLE, Partnership, Notre Dame 1989, pp. 31-46.

Sensitivity to Hebrew is also essential in translating the next passages.

Yahweh God said, ‘It is not good for the earth-creature to be alone. I will make it a companion like unto itself.’

So from the earth Yahweh God moulded all the animals and the birds of heaven. These he introduced to the earth-creature to see what it would call them; each one was to bear the name it gave them. The earth-creature gave names to all the cattle, the birds of heaven and the wild beasts. But not one of them was a companion like unto itself.

The ‘companion like unto itself’ is not a ‘helpmate’, an assistant, a second-rate attendant. The Hebrew ezer denotes a real partner. Scripture often calls God our ezer ( Hosea 13,9; Psalm 33,20; 70,6; 115,9; 146,5; Exodus 18,4). The equality also follows from the inability of the animal world to produce such a partner.

So Yahweh God made the earth-creature fall into a deep sleep.
While it was sleeping, he took one ‘side’ from it

and closed the gap with flesh.
Then Yahweh God built a ‘wo-man’
from the side he had taken from the earth-creature.
And he introduced her to the earth-creature.

The earth-creature exclaimed:
‘This at last is bones from my bones and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘wo-man’ because she was split off from a man.’
This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his ‘wo- man’. And so they become (again) one body.

Genesis 2,18-24

In this passage the author describes a marvellous transformation. God was often thought to act on human beings while they were in such a ‘deep sleep’. For instance, God concluded a covenant with Abram while he was in a deep sleep (Genesis 15,12-21). He made people see visions and dreams in such a state (Job 4,13; 33,15; Daniel 8,18; 10,9).

In this case, while the earth creature was in a deep sleep, God, as it were, split the earth creature into two equal parts. This interpretation of the text follows from the correct translation of tsêlao.Tsêlao does not mean ‘rib’ but ‘side’; such as:

  • the side of a mountain (2 Samuel 16,13);
  • the side of the tabernacle (Exodus 26,20-35);
  • the sides of the altar (Exodus 27,7);
  • the side wings of the Temple gates (1 Kings 6,34);
  • and even the ‘wings’ of the Temple building (Ezekiel 41,5-26).

In fact, in no other verse of Scripture is the word tsêlao translated as ‘rib’.

For a fuller discussion, read: L.ARNALDICH, ‘La Creacion de Eva’, Sacra Pagina 1 (1959) pp. 346-357; J.J.O’ROURKE, ‘Early and Modern Theologians and Eve’s Formation from Adam’, Sciences Ecclésiastiques 13 (1961) pp. 427-435; J.DE FRAINE, Genesis, Roermond 1963, pp. 50-51; Ph.TRIBLE, ‘Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3’, in Womanspirit Rising, New York 1979, pp. 74-83.

Then what does this Scripture verse mean?

The image the author has in mind becomes clear if we put his story next to other ancient creation stories. According to these the first human being was androgynous, that is: he/it was man and woman at the same time.

It/she/he carried two faces, looking in opposite directions, had four arms and walked on four legs. To make the two sexes, the Creator God cut the human being into two halves, giving each half one face, two arms and two legs.

A full record of this creation account can be found with PLATO (428-348 BC) in his Symposion ch.14-16. The story was also known to the Jews and often linked to the Genesis story by Rabbis; see R.GRAVES and R.PATAI, Hebrew Myths. The Book of Genesis, London 1965, pp. 65-69.

This seems to be the image which the scriptural author had in mind. God makes the earth-creature fall into a sleep of ecstasy. God then divides the creature into two equal halves: a man and a ‘wo-man’. In Hebrew the words are related: man is ish; woman ishshah Rightly can the man exclaim that woman is bones from his bones and flesh from his flesh. For they are truly equal and need each other to become once more a complete body.

Punishment for Sin (Genesis 3,1-24)

The second half of the story, which concerns the human slide into sin, does not overturn this image of equal dignity of man and woman. Both the man and the woman share in the rebellion against God. Both feel guilty and ashamed. On both, hardship is inflicted as punishment. Specifically, the text then mentions examples of typical human hardship: a man’s toil to farm on hostile land, a woman’s pain in childbirth and domination by the husband.

To the woman God says:

I will multiply your pains in childbirth.
You shall give birth to your children in pain.
You will long for your husband,
but he will lord it over you.’

Genesis 3,16

This is not to be understood as a license to husbands to keep their wives in submission. It is a statement of fact. It notes the consequences of sin. In a perfect world men would not need to struggle to grow crops amidst drought, disease and locusts. In the same perfect world, women would not have pain in childbirth or face bullying by their husbands. Moreover, the text promises a return to better things when the offspring of the woman was to win the victory over evil (Genesis 3,15).

The second creation account, therefore, confirms what we have seen in the first. Human beings are created in God’s image; they are God’s own breath caught in matter. Men and women are equal partners, entrusted with the task of looking after this world. If inequalities have crept into human society, these are not according to God’s design but are the consequences of human sin.

See also:

John Wijngaards



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