I was simply going to title this “Common Misunderstandings of Genesis 2,” but then I thought the title could be spiced up a little bit, particularly because there’s a tendency to see sexual activity lying behind so much of what happens, particularly in the latter part of the chapter. Anyway, here are some of the common misunderstandings of Genesis 2:
- Eden was in the east.
I’ve discussed this elsewhere, so you’ll need to follow this link for a full discussion. Suffice it to say here that the Hebrew word translated “east” in Genesis 2 can also mean “in ancient times” and may well be used that way in this passage. This is somewhat substantiated by the content of Gen 2–12 where humanity migrates east from the garden before Abraham is sent back to the west.
- Naming the animals is an expression of the man’s authority over them.
This one’s very common, but completely misses the point of the naming episode. The first mistake is the presupposition that naming in the ancient world always served as an expression of authority. This is not true (just see Gen 16:13 for a good counter-example). More fundamental to naming was the aspect of character recognition. Names reflected something of the character or nature of that which was being named. This is seen in numerous names and name changes, think of Noah, Abram/Abraham, Isaac, and so on.1
Next, take a look at what’s actually going on in Genesis 2 before the naming: God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone. What follows (the naming of the animals) is the first step in resolving this problem: God has the man examine the various animals he brings to him in order to determine whether any will fulfil the shortfall in creation. Naming the animals is an act designed to depict to the reader this close examination of each animal. It’s not simply something God gives the man to take his mind off his problems, it is an activity designed to scrutinise the animals to determine whether any would be a suitable companion for the man (note that it does not include naming of all animals, only those with which the man could feasibly form some form of attachment). In the end, no animal is found that is suitable and so God moves to plan B, build a companion from the side of the man.
Claiming that this is primarily about authority makes the whole naming of the animals an irrelevant aside in the story. Correctly understood it serves as a search for the missing element in creation, and highlights the unique place in creation the woman occupies, for no animal is a suitable companion for the man.2
- “Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
I’ve heard some odd explanations for this. For example, the notion that flesh is the softest part of a person and bone the hardest, and so this is an example of a merism and essentially means “all of me” so that the man is saying that the woman means everything to him.
Although it sounds nice, it misses the point. Many elements of Gen 1–11 are aetiological — they offer an explanation for the way the world is now. This applies to this passage as well. If you’ve read enough of your Old Testament you’ll come across somewhat similar expressions elsewhere, for this reference to bone and flesh is a common kinship formula in the Hebrew Bible.2 It essentially declares someone to be an intimate member of the declarer’s family (much as “flesh and blood” in modern English). Nor is it sexual in nature, for brothers also say this to one-another. The Genesis story provides an aetiology for the kinship formula. The intimate family relationships are founded in the ultimate unity of the first family whose very origins express that intimacy.
Some examples of its use elsewhere include Gen 29:14; Judg 9:2; 2Sam 5:1; 19:13–14; etc.
So in Genesis 2, the man poetically identifies the woman as his family, a point brought out further in the following verses.
- “The two become one flesh” is a reference to sexual union.
This statement reflects the previous point. If it does include any reference to sexual union, it is not to the fore given that this sort of language is used by members of families. The primary point is that together the man and woman have formed a new family.
- “Cleave” has sexual overtones.
It seems that sex is on the minds of many readers of Genesis 2. And while it is there in Genesis 2, it’s nowhere near as prominent as modern western readers of the text tend to think it is. The word “cleave” is another example. Nowhere else does the Hebrew word דבק have a sexual component — rather it refers to clinging to another through affection and loyalty (e.g. Gen 34:3; Ruth 1:14; 2 Sam 20:2; 1 Kgs 11:2). It is also often used of Yahweh clinging to Israel (e.g. Deut 10:20; 11:22; 13:5; 30:20; Josh 22:5; 23:8). In these instances we find this term frequently has covenantal overtones.
In Gen 2, the term is contrasted with the term “forsake” (עזב) another covenantal term (sometimes used with the meaning “divorce”). In the context of marriage and family, what we have is the breaking (forsaking) of the man’s primary family relationship to his parents (“This is why a man leaves his father and mother” [HCSB]) to establish a new family relationship with his wife, a relationship that supplants that which was previously the most important human relationship with his parents. The man was previously “cleaved” to his parents, now he is cleaved to his wife.
In the ancient world this speaks strongly to a society that was patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal. In marriage, the man’s highest human commitment moves from his parents to his wife. A new family is formed (notably without the necessity for children). This is a message which continues to be relevant in the modern world.
There are other things that get misunderstood, but these are perhaps the most significant ones I’ve commonly come across.
- In particular, see G. W. Ramsay, “Is Name-Giving an Act of Dominion in Genesis 2–3 and Elsewhere?” CBQ 50.1, Jan. 1988, 24–35.
- A number of scholars seeking to demonstrate that women are subordinate to men mistakenly see this as further evidence in support of their case. Notably the New Testament never appeals to name giving in support of subordination.
- See, for example, Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 70; Clark, Man and Woman, 18.
9 thoughts on “finding too much sex in genesis 2”
Would another one be: the man was lonely?
When God says, “it is not good for the man to be alone” (2:18) is it primarily about how the man feels, or the fact that he needs a female to fulfil God’s purpose (Gen. 1:26-28)? Part of which, I don’t think the animals could help him multiply.
What are your thoughts?
I looked at this in my MTh(hons) dissertation (“Man and Woman in Genesis 1–3”) some years back.
David Clines, for example, identifies three things that the man could need the woman for: (1) tilling the garden, (2) naming the animals, and (3) fulfilling Gen 1:28 (i.e. procreation). He then concludes that she is of no help in (1) or (2) and so it all comes down to having babies!
However, I think (and have argued) that being alone is inherently bad in the Bible, that man is meant to be in relationship with others, not alone. While the arrival of children certainly serves to overcome this problem, in Genesis 2 we find that following the creation of his wife, there is no indication that “being alone” remains a problem for the man. His response to her creation is delight at no longer being alone, not at the prospect that he will soon be able to have children.
Hence I think that the emphasis of Gen 2 lies in the establishing of the relationship between the husband and wife, a relationship which itself begins a new family before the birth of children and without requiring them to create a family. I’d not reduce it to merely “how the man feels” but to the innate nature of human beings as social beings. The fact that no animal, nor another man, fulfil the need comes down (I think) to the significance of the expression כנגדו, “to complement him.”
Hey, thanks for your thoughts Martin. And they’re good thoughts!
His response to the woman does seem to fit with the idea that it wasn’t good for him to be alone in a relational sense as you suggest.
I have a couple of further questions if you have the time:
1. It does seem that only a woman would do (as you say) to solve the ‘aloneness’ problem, rather than another man. But does that mean that for a man not to have that kind of relationship with a woman, he is still “alone” in a “not good” sense?
2. While not wanting to put it as simplistically as Clines, could the ‘not good to be alone in relation to fulfilling God purpose in 1:26-28’ option, still have legs? Just thinking, if this was so, could the man’s reaction simply be sheer delight at the way God plans to overcome this, and the sort of suitable helper God has in mind!?
I’d appreciate your thoughts on this.
This is going to be a more speculative as we go along, I suspect, but here goes!
I enjoyed your post and quote from it here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/naming-the-animals/
I arrived here looking for the dissertation you spoke of at http://bible.shields-online.net/dlreq.php (on http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/teshuqah-desire/)
Is the link automagic, or do you have to make a pass of your hands before the link to the PDF comes up in my email?
Thank you for your remarks there.
“The two become one flesh” is a reference to sexual union.
Arguably, the N.T. writers thought it was. Paul specifically brought out that point in the last half of 1 Cor 6. It is also strongly implied in Eph 5. Other than differences in interpretation of those verses, I would regard the apostle’s understanding as from a better knowledge of what had been written as well as inspiration.
Thanks for your comment! You should have received an email with a download link, but I’ve just sent another to you (perhaps check your junk mail or spam folder). Otherwise it is also available from https://www.academia.edu/22472880/Man_and_Woman_in_Genesis_1_3.
“One flesh” is not primarily about sexual union in the OT where it is used to speak of family relationships including that between siblings. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s quite as clear as you assume in 1Cor 6:16. The clear reference to sexual union in 1Cor 6:16a refers to “one body” (ἓν σῶμά) while the quotation from Genesis refers to “one flesh” (εἰς σάρκα). Why does Paul use different words if he’s trying to equate the two? I think 1Cor 6:16a fits better with the preceding verse (which also speaks of the body and the prostitute) while 16b moves to a new assertion made in verse 17.
I’m not disputing that there are aspects of this relationship that have a bearing on sexual morality, just that the relationship so described is uniquely established through the sex act.
Thank you for the link. I downloaded your dissertation but haven’t looked at it yet.
> Why does Paul use different words if he’s trying to equate the two?
In my little experience, Paul will usually accurately quote from the LXX but has his own personal style when using the Greek language—assuming the secretary isn’t watching soaps on her smartphone while trying to type. In the same way, you might notice that modern brethren with a love for the KJV will quote it and then apply it in their own words. Paul quotes here exactly from Gen 2:24. You’ll note the δύο which isn’t in the Hebrew, if memory serves.
The context here is fornication. Obviously one cannot state categorically that a harlot (female fornicator) is what Paul is thinking about when he uses the word fornication twice a couple of verses later, but you should note that in verse 18 he returns to use body twice more. Arguably, from verse 12 to 20 is one context and also a lead-in to the practical applications in the next passage.
The one flesh principle is much more important than most realize. E.g., Matthew not using the name of Uriah’s wife; Tamar’s children by Judah being completely legitimate; and Daniel’s monsters marching out of the sea. The archetype is Christ’s flesh of which we eat and are part of, and that is also apparent in the last half of chapter 6.
But I’m boring on… Thank you again for your kindness.