“You are just a rib.” I still hate that some three decades ago those words dripped off my lips. I said them jokingly, but it was a joke also designed to demean. It belittled a fellow member of my high school youth group, and all women.
For those of you not familiar, the line finds roots in the second cosmological myth at the start of Genesis. While the first myth, which shows up in what we label Genesis 1:1-2:4 (or at least the first half of 2:4), centers on the divine act of God making everything good. The second story, Genesis 2:4b-25, invites us to think about ourselves, our relationship to one another, and our role in the world. It is not so much about what God does, but how we mirror the divine to the rest of creation.
In that story there is a line about something that is not good, the initial human being, the adam, alone. So God decides to make a “helper” from the adam’s “rib.” Thus my demeaning words to a female peer.
Truth be told, while there is no appropriate context for words like those, they are not even based on an accurate understanding of the Hebrew Bible. This means my attempted joke was both sexist and ignorant. But thirty years laters, many still use these words to justify an assault both on women and femininity. So what exactly does the Bible say about the creation of Eve in the second cosmological myth at the start of Genesis?
What Is Meant By Helper?
We will start with ezer, the Hebrew word commonly translated as a helper. To help make sense of what the word means dynamically, I offer other uses of the word throughout the Hebrew Bible:
His second son was named Eliezer, for Moses had said, “The God of my ancestors was my helper; he rescued me from the sword of Pharaoh.”)Exodus 18:4
How blessed you are, O Israel! Who else is like you, a people saved by the Lord? He is your protecting shield and your triumphant sword!Deuteronomy 33:29
I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!Psalm 121:1-2
Do you see a theme? Of the fourteen other verses in the Hebrew Bible where ezer appears, none of them offer a picture of a subservient assistant who exists to take care of the house, home, and children so the man can focus on the important work. Instead, they all portray an image of someone who is lost and without hope being saved by a “helper,” and that helper is almost always God.
I cannot help but wonder if Scripture’s male authors cry out to God for help and a fresh perspective and God, with a hint of exasperation, gestures towards women.
What is Meant By Rib?
We can do the same thing with the Hebrew word sela, we typically translate rib. The dominant uses involve the construction of both the Ark of the Covenant (think Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the Temple. There you have uses like:
Cast four gold rings and attach them to its four feet, two rings on each side.Exodus 25:12
The entrance to the bottom floor was on the south side of the Temple. There were winding stairs going up to the second floor, and another flight of stairs between the second and third floors.1 Kings 6:8
He partitioned off an inner sanctuary—the Most Holy Place—at the far end of the Temple. It was 30 feet deep and was paneled with cedar from floor to ceiling.1 Kings 6:16
In each of these instances, a sela is not a small and unnecessary piece. It is an entire side of the ark, a whole floor of the temple, or a plank formed from the entire length of a tree.
The one use that is not construction-related comes from 2 Samual 16:13. The image is not totally clear, but there is a road and a hillside with the hillside referred to as a sela.
Again, the hillside is not something extra, it is a substantial element of the local geography.
So while a rib seems rather extra and almost unnecessary, the Hebrew language paints the picture of an essential half of human identity. The masculine is incomplete without the feminine, just as the feminine is incomplete without the masculine … but again, both masculine and feminine dwell in each of us, whatever body parts we might or might not have.
The Adam Before He Became Adam
All of this gives us a very different image of the adam before the creation of Eve. In the Hebrew Midrash (an ancient commentary on the Bible), one opinion goes so far as to assume that the original human had both male and female reproductive organs (as external archetypes of the two genders) on opposite sides of the torso. Others cast an image of an androgynous or even gynandromorphic adam, split into two unique yet equal beings who took the names Adam and Eve.
And in this way, humanity begins to mirror the threefold nature of the divine where the Father loves, the Son receives and returns that love, and the Spirit is the loving energy between the two.
In Genesis 2 this same thing happens when Adam first sees Eve and declares: “At last!” the man exclaimed. “This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh!”
He likes what he sees because she is like him, and he realizes it is through the uniqueness of the other that they can learn to see themselves more clearly. She is not there to just facilitate his life. Nor are they two halves to a whole. Rather, when they engage in a reciprocal relationship of love, they will both become more of who they are (masculine and feminine) and the love between them will radiate throughout the garden declaring that everything belongs.
Book: We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love by Robert Johnson
This book is personal to me. For much of my life, rather than nurturing the feminine aspects of my personality, I sought the feminine through women. Essentially, I looked to them in hopes that they would complete me. The end result was universally disastrous. Robert Johnson was one of the first voices to offer a different way for me to think about my relationship with the feminine.
Book: The Divine Feminine in Biblical Wisdom Literature by Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Two years ago I had an opportunity to attend a retreat in Spain the explored the mystical poetry of 16th Century Carmelites. While reading the beautiful and often sensuous poetry, I realized just how much I was limiting my understanding of the divine. On the flight home, I read this book. Ever sense, Sophia (the Greek word for wisdom) has been an essential part of my personified understanding of God.
That retreat I attended in Spain, it was led by former Carmelite Nun Kimberly Braun. While she just celebrated 20 years since leaving the monastery, her life is still shaped by the 11 years she spent there. Her mission, to bring the passionate love affair with the divine that she experienced inside the monastery to those living in the real world.
There are some brilliant and powerful women who read this newsletter. It feels strange for me to suggest resources on the divine feminine. So if you have some recommendations, please share them and I will pass them on to others next week.
Reflect on those two words explored in this addition, ezer and sela. How were you taught to understand, “helper” and “rib.” What impact has that had on you? What might change if you embrace a more accurate translation of the Hebrew?
So if Genesis 2 invites us to think of men and women as coequals engaged in reciprocal love, what do we do with all the order of creation talk?