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.