Steven P. Wickstrom
all Scriptures quoted from the ESV
Before we look at “Adam’s rib,” we need to understand why God created Eve. Genesis chapter two verses provide the account of Adam’s creation and life in the Garden of Eden. After God created Adam, he brought the animals to see what names Adam would give them. In the naming process, Adam discovered that every creature had a mate except himself. Genesis 2:20 notes that there was no suitable helper for Adam. Through the process of naming the animals, Adam realized that he was alone.
1. What is a helper?
“I will make him a helper (רזע / ezer) fit (דגנ / neged) for him.” (Genesis 2:18b)
The Hebrew term ““ezer” is generally defined as “help or support,” but in Genesis 2:18, it denotes mutual assistance. The Old Testament tends to use this word in military terms. For example, in Isaiah 30:5, Ezekiel 12:14, and Daniel 11:34, ezer is used to show military support by other nations to “help” or defend Israel from other countries. In Exodus 18:4, Deut 33:7, Psalm 20:2 (and 13 other verses), the term ezer demonstrates God as Israel’s helper. The “helper” is in a position of strength coming to “help” or aid the one in need. Nothing in the term ezer suggests that there is a subservient status of the helper. Our English word “helper” does not adequately render the richness of ezer. I think the word “sustainer” – one who strengthens and supports physically or mentally – would be a better choice than “helper.”
The Hebrew term “neged” is defined as “in the presence of.” The term neged has attached to it the prefix ke (בּ) (this preposition connotates “having the same nature as,” or “consisting of”2) and the suffix o (ו) (a third person singular pronoun typically is translated as “of him”). Putting them together gives you the word kenegdo (ודגנו). Kenegdo means “similar to him,” or “corresponding to him,” or equal to him.”3 I think that a combination of the terms presents an accurate description of Eve. The English word “equivalent” (equal in value, measure, force, effect, significance, etc.:) sums up the term kenegdo nicely. The wording places the woman in a relationship with the man of equality and mutuality.
The two words together, ezer kenegdo, could be translated as “a helper/sustainer equivalent to him.” Verse 2:18b could therefore read as “I will make him a helper/sustainer who is equivalent (or equal) to him.” From Adam’s side, God built the female counterpart of/to Adam. She was not inferior or lesser to him in any way. As a helper/sustainer, Eve was not just similar to, correspond to, or equal to Adam; she was the perfect counterpart to Adam.
It is important to remember that even though Eve was equal to Adam, she was still very different. God made Eve to be Adam’s counterpart, to complete him. The differences between men and women, males and females, have been well documented by many scientific studies. You can quickly look up studies on the physiological differences, and I don’t want to get into all of the differences and nuances between men and women in this article. However, it is interesting to note the differences, and similarities God designed into men and women.
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. (Genesis 2:21)
The story of God creating Eve (Eve’s name is Chava (pronounced Ha-vaa) in Hebrew) from one of Adam’s ribs is well-known. You’ll hear it in Sunday School classes and church sermons. However, there’s a significant problem with this story. The problem is that God did not create Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. It is difficult to pin down where the “tradition” of Adam’s rib originated. The Hebrew word that is translated as rib (צלע / tsela) does not mean “rib” and therefore should not be construed as a human rib. The tradition of mistranslating the Hebrew word tsela goes back to the Catholic Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible. All the English versions of the Bible written during the Protestant Reformation took their cues from the Catholic Vulgate and translated the Latin word rather than the Hebrew word. Even the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament (written between 200-300 years before Christ) translated the term tsela correctly, which means that Bible translators did not reference that document.
2. Definitions and background of rib (צלע / tsela)
So what exactly does tsela mean, and what does that mean in the creation of Eve? First, we need to investigate the Hebrew term צלע/tsela including its basic definitions and background. Secondly, we need to investigate its general use in the Old Testament, and its particular meaning in Genesis 2:21. These two steps will assist us in both defining tsela and understanding its importance.
The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis notes that tsela occurs primarily relating to architectural descriptions as in the Ark of the Covenant, tabernacle, altar, and side chambers of the temple.4 The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) uses the term sēlāʽ rather than tsela. It defines it with three possible definitions: 1) is used once for a man's side, 2) and once for the side of a hill, 3) elsewhere it is an architectural term.5 Concerning the first possible definition, TWOT explains that sēlāʽ can mean that God took a good portion of Adam’s side since the man considers the woman to be “bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh.”6 Concerning the second possible definition, TWOT explains that sēlāʽ can mean “a side of a hill or perhaps a ridge or terrace.”7 Concerning the third possible definition, TWOT explains that sēlāʽ as an architectural term can “refer to the sides of an object, e.g., the sides of the Ark of the Covenant.”8
Gesenius' Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament (first published in 1857) defines tsela with three possible definitions: 1) a rib, 2) a side, and 3) a side chamber of the temple.9 Gesenius did not explain why “rib” was a possible definition and did not provide any lexiconic evidence to back it up. Concerning the Old Testament background, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament gives all three interpretations that the term can refer to a side or rib from a side of a human body, the side of an object, or the side of a hill.10 The context of the text determines the interpretation. For example, from a Jewish perspective, Rabbi Rosenfeld wrote that tsela should never be interpreted as a human rib in the Old Testament since its primary use refers to the side of a building, structure, or object.11
3. Old Testament Usage
Concerning the use of tsela in the Old Testament, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: Old Testament notes that it occurs 28 times, of which only twice (Genesis 2:21,22) is it (questionably) translated as a human rib.12 Once (Job 18:12), tsela refers to a particular side of Job’s body (not a rib or ribs). Three times to refer to the side of the Ark of the Covenant. Eleven times it relates to a side of the tabernacle, and eleven times to refer to a side chamber of the temple.13 The three times tsela is used in conjunction with the Ark of the Covenant indicates an entire side. For example, Exodus 25:12 NASB) states, “You shall cast four gold rings for it and fasten them on its four feet, and two rings shall be on one side (tsela) of it and two rings on the other side (tsela) of it.”
The Ark of the Covenant had four sides (tsela’s), a bottom, and a top cover. Tsela was used to refer to a side of the tabernacle. For example, in the construction of the tabernacle, Exodus 36:25 (NASB) states, “For the second side (tsela) of the tabernacle, on the north side, he made twenty frames.” In all of these cases, tsela is referring to an entire side.
4. Interpreting the term in Genesis 2:21
Genesis 2:21 reads, “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.” Adam Clark, in his commentary, states, “And he took one of his ribs - It is immaterial whether we render צלע tsela a rib, or a part of his side, for it may mean either: some part of man was to be used on the occasion, whether bone or flesh it matters not; though it is likely, from verse 23 that a part of both was taken; for Adam, knowing how the woman was formed, said, This is flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone.”14 I disagree with Clark that it doesn’t matter if God used a rib or a whole side. In my opinion, it makes a big difference. Had Eve been created from the rib alone, Adam would only have been able to say that she was “bone of his bone.”15 Modern commentators such as Warren Wiersbe also agree that God made Eve from Adam’s side.16 Adam quickly observed that God had used one of his sides to create (or build) Eve. The Bible doesn’t explain how Adam recognized this fact, simply that he did. Adam’s flesh and bone were so evident in Eve that he quickly identified himself in her. In this sense, Eve is Adam’s other half. Therefore, God refers to the two of them in Genesis 2:24 as being “one flesh,” not “one bone,” or “one rib.”
Ellicott’s commentary also disagrees with interpreting tsela as a rib. He notes that “the word is never translated as rib except in this verse, but always as “side.” The woman was not formed out of one of man’s many ribs, of which he would not feel the loss, rather she is one side of man.”17 TWOT continues this “side” line of thought by stating that this describes the intimacy between man and woman as they stand equal before God.18 Since God built Eve’s body from Adam’s side, their similarity was enough that Adam immediately knew how God made Eve. There was so much Adam in Eve that it was visually apparent. Adam knew how God created her, as he stated in Genesis 2:23, “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.” The woman’s origin from the man’s side makes it possible for a man and a woman to establish a dynamic relationship in which they become one flesh.19 The term sēlāʽ provides an image of reworking 'one of his sides,' that is, of reshaping the whole into two complementary halves.20
5. The Construction of Eve
And the rib (צלע / tsela) that the LORD God had taken from the man he made (בנה / banah) into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:22)
The Hebrew term “בנה / banah” means: to build or fashion. The term banah is only used with Eve and not with Adam. Genesis 2:7 states, “Then the LORD God formed (יצר / ysr) the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” The Hebrew term ysr means to shape or form. It is particularly significant in the creation of Adam both in terms of his unique relation to God and God’s purpose for him.21 God is depicted as a master craftsman, shaping and forming (like a potter) dirt into a human being.
On the other hand, Eve was not shaped or formed from dirt but fashioned from Adam’s side. Construction materials are required to build a house, so also Adam’s side contained the construction materials that God used to build Eve. Every time Adam looked at Eve, he would see God’s provision for the one thing he lacked in his life, a suitable companion. Both Adam and Eve were “created” from existing material. God formed Adam from the dust of the earth and built Eve from Adam's side. Unlike the humanity spoken into existence in Genesis 1:26, Adam and Eve were hand-made by God, giving them a personal touch.
How God made Eve from Adam’s side is a mystery. How God gave Adam a new side to replace the one he used is a mystery. God seldom tells us how he does things. All we know is that the Bible says God made Eve from Adam’s side; therefore, that is what happened. I don’t think we would have the ability to understand it even if he did explain how he did it. Ultimately it comes down to trust and faith. Do we trust that God did what he said he did? Do we have the faith to believe what he tells us?
This word study has demonstrated that tsela (sēlāʽ), as used in Genesis 2:21, refers to the side rather than a rib. Its primary usage in the Old Testament is as an architectural reference. The Old Testament does not refer to the sides of the tabernacle or the Ark as “ribs.” The imagery of tsela is that God used a side of Adam to make Eve. God used more than enough of Adam for Adam to recognize himself in Eve. She was bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. The only way Adam could be whole was with Eve. Eve was “built from Adam” to solve the problem of Adam’s aloneness. Adam’s relationship with Eve was a type and shadow of the relationship God wants with us. The only way Adam could be whole was with Eve. The only way we can be whole is in a relationship with God.