The story of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 begins with God forming the first human who is designated האדם (hāʾādām, ‘the human’). The word is used as a generic term referring to human beings in many places in biblical Hebrew. Furthermore, there are a number of other words which mean ‘man’ as specifically distinct from ‘woman’. This has prompted quite a few people to argue that when first created this human was sexually undifferentiated or androgynous or a hermaphrodite. This creature was then divided into the first man and the first woman in Gen 2:21.
If this is a valid understanding of Genesis 2 it clearly undermines any claim that the man’s creation prior to the woman indicates that he has authority over her, because he is not created as a man until she is created as a woman.
It’s an interesting idea apparently rooted in a careful analysis of the hebrew text of Genesis 2, but it is ultimately untenable. Read on to find out why.
Before looking at the problems, it’s worth reiterating just why this idea seems plausible.
The Hebrew term אדם is the most inclusive term for human beings, frequently being used in reference to men and women together.
The Hebrew word צלע (ṣēlāʿ) usually translated ‘rib’ quite probably means more than just a single bone from the rib cage of the man.1 The term is only used in this passage to refer to a part of human anatomy, and it can be argued that the term refers to a sizeable chunk of the man. If half of the first human is taken to make the woman, the idea that the human was a hermaphrodite seems more plausible.
However, there are a number of factors which make reading Genesis 2 this way untenable:
When האדם is presented with the woman in 2:23 and names her, the explanation provided for her name is derived from the fact that she was taken out of איש (ʾîš, ‘man’), a term which cannot be construed as incorporating female and male.
The second problem is the continuation of the use of אדם after the formation of the woman to designate the man exclusive of the woman. What is more, the narrative depicts האדם performing the same action, naming, both before the creation of the woman and after it, and so there is little to support the contention that the use of האדם in the narrative begins a new phase with the creation of the woman. The noun איש (ʾîš, ‘man, husband’) is only used four times in Genesis 2–3 (2:23, 24; 3:6, 16) and in each case it appears likely that the husband-wife relationship is specifically on view.
Third, Susan Lanser notes the role of inference in reading אדם as male (rather than as a hermaphrodite) in this text, as she explains:
But a fairly standard process of inference is at work, I would argue, in the conventional reading of hāʾādām’s maleness in Genesis 2. Let me postulate that when a being assumed to be human is introduced into a narrative, that being is also assumed to have sexual as well as grammatical gender. The masculine form of hāʾādām and its associated pronouns will, by inference, define hāʾādām as male… Gendered humans are the unmarked case; it is not hāʾādām’s maleness that would have to be marked but the absence of maleness.2
The point here is that it is insufficient for the text to be ambiguous concerning the sexual gender of אדם. For the argument that we are to understand אדם to be androgynous to carry any force the text would need to make explicit that אדם was androgynous—and at this point the text is not explicit, it is merely ambiguous, expecting its readers to infer what is not unambiguously present according to the hermeneutical rules of the interpretive community to which it was originally addressed.
Trevor Dennis, drawing on the work of Carol Meyers, further argues that the narrative implicitly defines אדם as male by defining the absence of crops noted in Genesis 2:5 in terms of the absence of אדם, for in ancient Israel it was most likely the task of men—and not women—to perform the bulk of the work of preparing land for agriculture.3 If this is the case, the ancient audience of this narrative will already have made the inference that אדם is male by Genesis 2:5.
Thus there is no suggestion in the text that האדם was originally androgynous, rather there are explicit indications that this is not the meaning of the text. In Genesis 2 the man is clearly created prior to the woman. This is not to say that the author thus assigns the man a position of greater import than the woman, that would have to be determined on other grounds (some argue, for example, that since the woman is created last, she is the pinnacle of creation, but that, too, would need to be argued).
- The LXX translates the term with the phrase “μίαν τῶν πλευρῶν αὐτοῦ” (“one of his sides/ribs”). The term πλευρά is used only a few times in the NT in reference to Jesus’ side where the spear was thrust when he was on the cross. Hence the Greek πλευρά is also ambiguous in Genesis 2.
- S. S. Lanser, “(Feminist) Criticism in the Garden: Inferring Genesis 2–3,” Semeia 41, 1988, 72.
- Trevor Dennis, Sarah Laughed: Women’s voices in the Old Testament, London, SPCK, 1994, 11.