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The creation of Adam as hermaphrodite - and its implications for feminist theology.

WHEN WESTERN FEMINISTS TRIED TO SHAPE their theological credo into a unified logical corpus and mould it on the Bible, they felt alienated. The main reason for their difficulty is the way in which women are depicted in the Bible. However, when one deals with the Biblical text, one must make a distinction between Biblical records dealing with historical affairs, and Divine Theology. As long as the text deals with the events of a particular period in history, one can associate oneself with or distance oneself from the story without any feeling of alienation from the Religious Spirit; i.e., if one does not approve of certain actions of King David, one does not necessarily have to feel alienated from God or Judaism.

The portrayal of women in the various books of the Bible differs as greatly as humans can differ. In most cases they are portrayed in a more positive way than are their male counterparts. Very few feminine characters are evil (e.g., Jezebel and Athalya), as opposed to an abundance of male evil-doers. Even if an account of a particular female protagonist in the Bible may not appeal to women readers, it can be read as an individual account of a particular episode in a specific era.

Feminist theologians, therefore, should have no qualms about the behaviour of Biblical heroines, including prophetesses, as they represent individuals in history. However, this method of understanding the Biblical text cannot be applied to the creation account, as this is the record of a direct intervention made by the Divine Power ex nihilo, setting the eternal order of the Universe. God initiates an act out of His Divine Will, not as a reaction to, or in the context of, world events; He acts personally; and He puts his direct mark on the events, as in the primeval history in Genesis 1-2. As long as Eve was the passive creation of God, she would embody the physical attributes and expectations which the Divine would have had of all women, as she would have been in God's total control. Only after she had assumed her own existence, would she no longer represent God's plans for her but her own individuality, as an expression of her free will.

Therefore, any principle of theology which strives to understand the Divine expectation of the world, and the understanding of the place of the human being in a meaningful religious universe, should be drawn from the direct actions of the Divine as recorded in the Creation Epic in Genesis 1-2.

Creation Epic -- Genesis 1-2

It is apparent that there are two main accounts of the creation. The first one is to be found in Genesis 1:1-2:3, and will be called Narrative A. The second one is to be found in Genesis 2:4-2:25 -- Narrative B. In addition to the variety of styles, overlapping themes and numerous factual differences, even the reader who has not heard of the Documentary Hypothesis will have noticed the different uses of the names of God (YHWH, Elokim) and the two apparently different theologies. However, ancient Semitic writings did not necessarily have to refrain from duplicating themses -- sometimes they engaged in detailed elaboration, often with variation. Repetition was consonant with the stylistic principles of ancient poetics. They might have been conceived with a unity which eludes us,(1) and, however foreign it is to our concept of literary texts, it is we who must come to terms with the existing complex unity.(2) It is easier for Jewish readers to accept the Bible as a unitary document, as this is the central element of the heritage of mainstream Judaism (though it evolves from a religious sentiment rather than from a literary one), and this attitude is instilled in them from their earlier experiences of reading the text.

Feminist theologians, who deal with the parallel accounts of the creation in Genesis, will have to deal with two aspects concerning this Epic as it appears in Genesis 1-2:

1)How does each of the two existing creation narratives portray

the woman?

2) What concept or idea did the Bible try to convey and how did

it derive this idea?

The First Aspect: The Portrayal of the Woman

Reading the Biblical creation story, as two narratives existing side by side, feminists should not feel alienated:

1) Narrative A clearly states the equality of the two sexes: "A male

and a female created He them" (Gen 1:27).

2) Narrative B states that the solitude of the first created human

was unsatisfactory and he needed an ezer kenegdo -- a compatible partner

(assistant and/or protector at his own level), and therefore God put him

to sleep and removed one side of his body to establish each sex as an

independent entity, who in turn provided company for the other. This

attitude of total equality is reinforced in the record of Adam's line. Gen

5:1-2 states:

"...when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

male and female He created them, and called them humans."

The Second Aspect: The Idea Which the Bible Tries to Convey.

While some scholars trace the origins of the two narratives in Genesis 1-2 to poetic traditions in antiquity which were forged into a supporting unified basic tradition(3) (even some Jewish orthodox scholars accept this),(4) asserting and tracing the original sources of Biblical passages is not the purpose of this paper. The final form -- the unitary document -- is used as it appears in Genesis 1-2. The Torah contains the two creation narratives side by side because each of them represents a different perspective of the creation, and both versions are of value to the People of The Book.(5)

Understanding the motivation behind the writing of both creation stories presents no difficulty for feminist theologians, as both narratives do not reveal any inequality between the sexes whatsoever. Yet, feminist readers feel enraged on reading the creation epic because, when they read the Bible in translation, the choice of the words describing the creation of the first woman perpetuates a denigration of the female image:

a. The feminine part taken from Adam is not translated as a "side,"

but rather as a (small) "rib."

b. The Woman is no longer described as a "compatible partner,"

but rather as a "helpmate."

The idea that God took a rib out of the first human and formed it into a woman is a reading error which, unfortunately, is repeated in all translations. A check in any Biblical Lexicon will reveal that the word zela means a component, or, more often, a side-wall, or simply a side, as in: a side-wall of the Temple in Ezekiel 41; Exodus 25, 26; I Kings 6:5; etc.; similarly, the mountain side in 2 Samuel 16:13; wood panel of certain trees in I Kings 6; etc., and, in our case, one side of the first human being.

The meaning of the Hebrew words, ezer kenegdo, in any Biblical Lexicon emphasizes the protective aspect, as in: "My ezer is from the Lord," Psalms 121:2, or "...for the God of my father ... was my ezer, Exodus 18:4, etc.; and kenegdo emphasizes twice the equality: firstly -- in the preposition ke -- which is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew word kemo, "the same as," and secondly -- in the word negdo -- which means corresponding, equal and adequate to him.

Examining what Jewish scholars and students of the Bible have had to say about this story is, of course, of importance: The earliest insight comes from the midrashic Targum Yonatan, which says that the zela from which the woman was created was the 13th rib on the right side.

Philo (who lived in Alexandra in the 1st century C.E., and was greatly influenced by Plato), sees Adam in the two creation narratives as an allegory of the ideal man, who initially possessed a pure soul, but was later augmented by earthly materials and senses represented by the woman. Rabbi Jeremiah son of Elazar Hatanai (i.e., the Mishnaic scholar) in Bereshit Rabbah (8:1) said that "Adam was created as androgynous." And Rabbi Samuel Son of Nahman added (there) that "when God created the first human, he gave him two faces, connected back to back," and the two sexes were separated in order to enable them to face one another and to relieve their loneliness.

Rashi, the great medieval exegete, accepts the androgynous (or hermaphrodite) view, while Nahmanides (13th century), accepts the "rib" view. Abraham ibn Ezra, the linguist and Biblical commentator (in the Golden Era in Spain), avoids the issue, saying only that: "becoming one flesh" is written in the past tense (vihayu), to emphasize about every union between man and woman: "Let them be as Adam and Eve once were." Similarly, Rabbi Jacob the son of Asher, author of the law code, the Tur (14th century), says that "they should be of one flesh as they were at the beginning of creation." Both scholars use the idiom, "one flesh," which may mean that the woman was taken out from a rib or side. Isaac Abravanel (the 15th century commentator, a refugee from the Spanish persecutions), reads it literally. He writes that, when man was created, he had an additional "side" that was not vital for the functioning of his own body, which God turned into the woman.(6)

The 19th century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, referring to Genesis 1:27, says that "Only the two sexes together form the complete [human] conception." Woman must join in man's efforts for her direction and sphere in life ... Man chooses his own profession; the woman receives it in joining her husband. Referring to Genesis 2:21, Rabbi Hirsch says that God formed (later) one side (not rib) of man into woman. Man was divided from one individual into two "and thereby the complete equality of women was forever attested."

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik sees the two stories as two views of man, each a part of his character and mission: one is man, the passive, religious personality; the other is man the active, creative personality.(7)

Umberto Cassuto, an observant Jew, who was an academic Biblical scholar, cites(8) the hermaphrodite theory, quoting B. Berakhot 61a; B. Eruvin 18a; and Genesis Rabbah 8:1, which is based on "Legends in the Ancient World." But he relies on "...He created them" (Gen 1:27), in the plural form, for the correct interpretation. His explanation for the existence of the two versions is that the first account, Narrative A, is to place man and woman in the broad context of the sequence of created beings without telling us whether they were created simultaneously or successively. In Narrative B, we learn that it was successive, with woman being formed from man's rib. However, Cassuto sees the rib story as an allegory, to emphasize the qualities of what he conceives as a good wife: to stand at man's side and be a "helper-counterpart."

Modern linguists also dwelt on the problem, and came up with a similar concept of Adam as being bisexual,(9) though some have suggested that the text be corrected in order to suit their theory, which is unacceptable.(10)

Facts Underlying the Rationalization of These Ideas

The hermaphrodite theory: When one reads the Bible literally, and accepts the text as a unitary document, Narrative B -- which follows Narrative A -- seems to be a recapitulation of details of the earlier narrative. Therefore, the sexual duality, of which one is informed in Narrative B, seems to have existed from the beginning of the process. This indicates that the first human being was bi-sexual, i.e., a hermaphrodite.

The Rib theory: The word zela does not exist in the Biblical vocabulary with the meaning of "rib." This understanding, and therefore the idea that Eve was created out of Adam's rib, could have been suggested by a superficial reading of the following verse: "This one, at last, is bone of my bones" (Genesis 2:23a), because a rib is a bone.(11) However, this verse (Gen. 2:23b) continues: "and flesh of my flesh..." However, "bone of my bones" and "flesh of my flesh" is a poetic way to describe the woman as a very real physical part of the original whole, as in the other six occasions in the Bible, when this idiom is used, each of which describes blood ties and close kinship.(12) The word "bone" in verse 23 cannot be accepted as a physical bone and cannot support the idea of "a rib" because then, the idiom "flesh of my flesh" should also be read in a physical way, in which case there is a support for the idea of a component, a side of a body: flesh and bones together.

The Allegorical explanations: These come from philosophers whose religious commitment clashed with their philosophical concept of the world, i.e., accepting the Biblical text as a unitary document written by the Divine makes them uneasy about criticizing disturbing details like: why there should be two creation narratives or why there are factual inconsistencies.

The Implications for Feminist Theology

Feminist theologians must distinguish between the core and the periphery. Their theological credo must be shaped in terms of the Bible, which is the core, and not necessarily within the traditional outlook as represented by the different commentators, which form the periphery. The Biblical primeval history includes two narratives of the creation of the world in general and the creation of man in particular. When read separately, each of the accounts maintains the equality of the sexes. Narrative B actually propounds the importance of the woman to the well being of man, thereby accentuating the ties between the sexes as superseding any other relationship. When Narrative B is read as a recapitulation of Narrative A, it establishes that the female element is a full component of the original whole which was created by the Divine. As for the commentaries: Any commentary is a subjective expression of the person who conceives it, and of the way in which he (or she) personally reads the Bible. These commentaries are but reflections of the intellectual output of the individual writer, his cultural background together with contemporary social attitudes. Therefore, they should not influence any theological credo, but should rather be studied as evidence for the historical evolution of Biblical study, and as examples of the developmental process in the field of Biblical interpretation.

Unfortunately, the Biblical account of creation, which should promote equality between the sexes, has been misinterpreted by societies in which women were subservient to men. The wish to perpetuate women's inferiority, by ascribing it to the Divine, led to the erroneous translation of the word zela, which means a side, with its significance of equality, turning it into the less important "rib," indicating inferior status. Continuing to teach the creation of woman as being from a rib is an attempt to perpetuate the lesser importance of women.

There has been a shift in the present world away from prejudicial stereotypes towards ideas of non-racist, non-sexist equality. Words convey ideas and ideas influence attitudes. It is hoped that future translators of the Bible will be more careful in general, and that they will stop translating the story of the Divine creation of the first woman as being out of man's rib, in particular.


(1.)Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn, Before Abraham Was (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), pp. 17-36.

(2.)Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, John H. Marks, tr. (London: SCM Press, 1966), p. 72; Kikawada and Quinn, Op. cit., pp. 9-36.

(3.)Rad, Op. cit., p. 22.

(4.)Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 1, Israel Abrahams, tr. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961), pp. 72-3.

(5.)Ibid., pp. 72-73.

(6.)As cited in Genesis (Artscroll edition).

(7.)J.B. Soloveitchik, Man of Faith in the Modern World (Vol. II), adapted from lectures by Abraham R. Besdin (Hoboken: Ktav, 1989), pp. 38-48; see also his "The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition, Summer, 1965.

(8.)Cassuto, Op. cit., pp. 57-58, 89-90, 132.

(9.)Friedrich Schwally, "Die bilischen Schopfungsberichte" in Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft", Vol. IX (1906), pp. 159-175.

(10.)Schwally, for example, tried to change the text in order to fit his theory (Ibid., p. 170).

(11.)Cassuto, Op. cit., p. 134. See also the commentary of Abarbanel, ad loc.

(12.)Genesis 29:14; Judges 9:2; 2 Samuel 5:1 and 19:13,14; 1 Chronicles 11:1.
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Author:Reisenberger, Azila Talit
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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