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Adam's rib

By David Fisher - posted Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The clay tablets of the extinct Sumer civilisation were written about 5,000 years ago. According to Harry Gersh's The Sacred Books of the Jews, the earliest part of the Jewish Bible, “The Song of the Well” was composed about 1200BCE. The Torah (or the five books of Moses) was not canonised until about 400BCE. That means the paradise described by Sumer was more distant in time from the canonisation of the Torah than the canonisation of the Torah is from us.

The Bible in large part merely puts its own spin on much older legends. To study any work of literature one should be aware of the cultural matrix in which that work was produced. To study the Bible as a work complete in itself while ignoring the cultural matrix in which it was written is not studying the Bible.

In Genesis there are two accounts of the creation of human beings (I'm citing the King James Version (KJV) of Genesis which is close to the Jewish Publication Society and Soncino versions.).


The first: Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” shows man and woman created as separate entities.

In the next chapter in a departure from the way other humans are formed woman is created from man:

Genesis 2:20, “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. 2:21 And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof. 2:22 And the rib, which the LORD God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. 2:23 And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

The most obvious explanation of the two accounts is that the biblical narrative patches together two separate stories of human creation. This is a logical thing to do when you have two conflicting accounts and no way to differentiate between them. In the different accounts God is called by two different names in the original Hebrew. The KJV reflects this difference by referring to God as “God” in Genesis 1:27 and the “Lord God” in Genesis 2:22.

In the Hebrew the God of Genesis 1:27 is Elohim (אֱלהִים). Recent scholarship is that it reflects the common Middle Eastern view of a supreme god, referred to in Genesis 1 by the generic noun "Elohim", god, which is itself in a plural form. Christians have traditionally interpreted the plural as evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity.

In the Hebrew the God of Genesis 2:22 is the Tetragrammaton (word of Greek origin meaning a word with four letters). יהוה is usually transliterated as YHWH (Yahweh) or JHVH (Jehovah) signifying the Hebrew name for God which the Jews regarded as too holy to pronounce. Since it is regarded as too holy to pronounce, adonoy which has no relation to the Hebrew spelling is voiced for the Tetragrammaton.


It is possible that the two different accounts come from two different types of cultures. Genesis1:27 could have come from a hunter-gatherer culture where there was approximate equality between men and women, and Genesis 2:20-3 could have come from a nomadic culture where there is much more differentiation in sexual roles. In the second account woman is not an equal but a help meet. Even her biological function of giving birth is taken from her, and she comes from man.

This sexism occurs in English where the word “man” can mean both the entire human race and a male human being whereas the word, woman, refers only to a female.

By looking at the ancient Sumerian accounts we can see the likely origin of the Adam's rib narrative. Samuel Noah Kramer translated many ancient Sumerian clay tablets. The following is from the chapter titled "The First Biblical Parallels" from Kramer's History Begins at Sumer:

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About the Author

David Fisher is an old man fascinated by the ecological implications of language, sex and mathematics.

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