Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Some Thoughts about Eve
Adam is formed from the dust of the ground, all alone in the world. God sees that it is not good for Adam to be alone, and so he decides to “make a helper as his partner” (Genesis 2:18).
Immediately after this announcement, God forms the animals out of the ground (v. 19). Adam names all of the animals, but among these creatures “there was not found a helper as his partner” (v. 20). Now it seems as if Plan B is put into place. In vv. 21-25 the woman is fashioned out of Adam’s side rather than from the ground in order to ensure that this helper will fill the proper role. And as Adam named the animals, he will also name the woman “Eve”—but not until Genesis 3:20.
There are many issues that early interpreters discussed relative to Eve. Here, I want to focus on just a couple of things concerning the sequence of events as we read them in Genesis.
Who Came First?
The idea that God first made animals to provide a helper for Adam and then, when no such helper could be found, created a woman was hard for early interpreters to swallow. Not only did it seem like God was tinkering to see what would work best, but it also made the woman an afterthought. But the sequence is clear in Genesis, so what could be done to address this?
Once again, early interpreters took up the challenge and tried to find a way forward. Some interpreters simply took a bold move and subtly tweaked the order. Rather than God saying he will create a helper for Adam and then creating animals first and Eve second, another sequence was devised: Adam sees the animals with mates, and then God resolves to make a helper for him too.
In other words, the chronological order of Genesis is maintained but the causal link is changed entirely. An animal was never intended to be Adam’s helper. Animals were merely the motivation needed for God to create Eve. The first century Jewish historian Josephus puts it succinctly:
Then, seeing Adam to be without female partner and consort (for indeed there was none), and looking with astonishment on the other creatures who had their mates, He extracted one of his ribs while he slept (Jewish Antiquities 1:35).
We see the same explanation in the book of Jubilees (3:3-4). What motivates the formation of Eve is not the failed attempt at finding a suitable helper among the animals, but seeing the animals each having a partner:
Adam observed all of these [animals], male and female according to every kind which was on earth, but he was alone and there was none whom he found for himself who was like himself who would help him. And the Lord said to us [the angels], “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
The ever-present Philo picked up on another point: in what sense would an animal have been a “helper” to Adam in the first place? Certainly God did not really intend for an animal to be the same type of helper Eve would be (which would include a sexual relationship). Nor did Philo think these animals were to be “helpers” to Adam in the sense of providing food for him. Philo approaches the matter differently:
Why, after saying “Let us make a helper for man…” does he create wild animals and cattle? Intemperate and gluttonous people might say that wild animals and fowl, being necessary for food, are indeed a help for man….But I believe that …to the first man, who was altogether adorned with virtue, they [animals] were rather like military forces and allies (Questions and Answers in Genesis 1:18)
Some early interpreters reasoned that Eve was not Adam’s first wife but his second. This would partially solve the issue of Adam’s mate being an afterthought: the first wife was created earlier rather than after the animals.
Why in the world would anyone make up such a wild scenario? Maybe it was because of a curious element in the biblical story that needed some explanation. Genesis 2:23 literally reads, “This time, bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh….”
Some English translations have “This at last,” which makes good sense in the context. The point of v. 23 seems to be that the previous attempt to provide Adam with a helper had come up empty. But now at last a suitable helper is found because she had been taken from his side. The only suitable helper for the first man is a creature formed from his own flesh and blood.
The problem, though, is that the Hebrew phrase zo’t hap-pa`am would normally be translated “this time.” Early interpreters picked up on this and suggested that maybe Eve was the second of two attempts to make a suitable human mate for Adam.
An early medieval Jewish commentary on Genesis, Genesis Rabba 18:4, says that Adam saw the first woman created “full of blood and fluids” and recoiled at the sight. Then God put Adam to sleep and created the second woman from his side.
What triggered both of these thoughts about Eve was the problematic sequence given in Genesis 2:18-25. However one might address this issue, its meaning is not obvious. It requires careful attention to details, and yes, even for us, some creative interpretation.
Pete Enns is a former Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.