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Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Some Thoughts about Eve

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December 7, 2010 Tags: Human Origins
Genesis, Creation, and Ancient Interpreters: Some Thoughts about Eve

Today's entry was written by Pete Enns. You can read more about what we believe here.

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)

Adam’s Ex-Wife?

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.

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Cal - #42799

December 7th 2010

Could this not fit into the theme of Humans freely interacting with God, and that possibility remains open (such as proposed by men like Dr. Polkinghorne and Greg Boyd (though in different capacities)). That God let Adam discover that animals would not be a suitable helper, that he yearned for a mate of his own kind. God already knowing this let Adam, His crowning jewel of creation,  interact, reason and see it for himself. Sort of like how a father marvels and smiles as his son figures out what toys he wants to play with or what kind of food he wants to eat today.

Pete Enns - #42801

December 7th 2010


Thanks for your great comment. What you propose is very possible. Remember, though, that these posts are not trying to “solve” anything. I am only interested in pointing out how ancient and modern interpreters inevitably “fill in the gaps” of Genesis. What you propose can be judged on its own merits. I only want to point out that the interpretation you offer here (following Polkinghorne, Boyd, etc) introduces something into Genesis that Genesis does not say in order to help make sense of Genesis. Your comment beautifully demonstrates the general point I am making in these posts.

normbv - #42813

December 7th 2010

It helps to recognize that the rest of the OT helps bring forth answers concerning the animal motif used here in Gen 2.  Genesis 2 & 3 is written in Hebrew allegory and once one understands this then the illustrations are much simpler to deal with. Of course the animals were not good helpers because throughout the OT they represented the Gentiles allegorically. See Eze 47 as just one of many many examples.

Eve represents the wife of the covenant head just as Paul explains in Eph 5:31-31. The reason for the description of the piercing of Christ side and the flow of blood and water from Him while he was in [asleep] was to illustrate the typology from Adam’s story. There is nothing literal going on here except an underlying Hebrew description of Eve representing a corporate image of the old covenant faithful.  The wife is an allegorical picture of Israel corporately used many times throughout the OT and it started with the story of Adam and Eve.

normbv - #42814

December 7th 2010

continued from above

Flesh of my flesh should be recognized as of the same mindset in which the woman was in tune with Adam which would be a picture of Israel following in agreement the Law. The animals represented Gentile flesh just like it did in the NT where the motif is still adhered to and understood and differentiates those outside Israel.

This story simply should not be read in a literal manner and examined from that perspective. It needs to be understood in the vein of Hebrew allegory first and foremost and it becomes much easier to handle.

normbv - #42825

December 7th 2010

Just as a reminder that Pete in one of his previous post pursued somewhat of a metaphorical application of Adam as Israel. Maybe it would be good to follow through on that idea.

My question to Pete is whether he thinks the writer of Genesis understood this story of Adam as parallelism to Israel. If so then does that infer the author considered Adam as literally created out of the dust or is it possible he understood its use as typology? If so does it change how we read the story and in what ways?

Israel’s history parallels Adam’s drama in Genesis:

“There are two ways of looking at this parallel. You could say that the Adam story came first and then the Israelites just followed that pattern. But there is another way. Maybe Israel’s history happened first, and the Adam story was written to reflect that history. In other words, the Adam story is really an Israel story placed in primeval time. It is not a story of human origins but of Israel’s origins”

“This “Israel-centered” reading of Adam is not a stretch. It is widely recognized, not only in modern scholarship, but by pre-modern interpreters.”


Chris Massey - #42832

December 7th 2010

Hi Pete,

Are the interpretive approaches that suggested that Adam may have had an earlier ex-wife the source of the whole Lilith tradition?

Also, if this isn’t too far afield, do you have any opinion on the suggested connection between the Sumerian account of Ninti, the Lady of the Rib, and the biblical Eve story? I find it hard to get a sense of whether this is a really strong connection (like Gilgamesh and Noah) or a more speculative one.


Murray Hogg - #42833

December 7th 2010

In my estimation a large part of the difficulty arises from the habit of treating the story as primarily historical rather than primarily conceptual.

I simply take it that the point is that in all of the created order there is nothing except woman which complements and completes man. Nor is there anything in the created order to which woman ought to be regarded a secondary.

I think this might have been a very important message in the context of a patriarchal and pastoral society?

Robert Hagedorn - #42875

December 7th 2010

Do a search:  The First Scandal Adam and Eve.

John T. - #42958

December 8th 2010

Murray -
It would be well to read I Corinthians 11:7-10 and I Timothy 2:11-15.  The order of creation is indeed important.  There is a teaching today that seeks to deal with God’s chain of command as a curse that is released at salvation.  However, the very design and order of creation is critical to understanding God’s order for mankind. 

Bear in mind that Jesus Christ is totally equal with the Father.  Yet, he submitted totally to him and did not do anything the Father did not direct.  Humanistic influences have soured us on the idea of submission.  It is not only women who chafe at times, but men chafe at being submitted to he authority of scripture and of Christ.  We must always bear in mind that Christ is the Word, and the Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible, and per 2 Timothy 3:16, ALL scripture is given by inspiration of God.  Can a Christian honestly believe that the detailed revelations of the Holy Ghost are merely “conceptual” and of lesser authority than the ever-changing fallible ideas of men at war with God and who mock not only Genesis, but just about every teaching of Jesus Christ?

Dunemeister - #43090

December 9th 2010

John T,

Why “merely”? And why would “conceptual” imply “lesser authority”?

Alice C. Linsley - #43648

December 13th 2010

The key to understanding the story of Eve is that she is taken from man and is bone of his bone and flesh or his flesh. She is the crown of creation, being last created.

This speaks of the hierarchy the ancient Afro-Asiatics saw in creation (see http://biblicalanthropology.blogspot.com/2010/12/hierarchy-in-creation-biblical-view.html).

The crown of creation (below God at the top of the pyramid) submits to the creature that slithers along the ground and eats dust.  She exchanged her glory for a lesser image.  This is how St. John Chrysostom understood Eve’s sin (see http://jandyongenesis.blogspot.com/2008/11/eves-sin.html).

Robert Byers - #43682

December 14th 2010

The bible doesn’t say god meant animals to be Adams helpmate. It only means he was to recognize they couldn’t be. So when he saw Eve he realized her coming from him gave him another with a identity like him. The only answer.
He didn’t anticapate a mate. Therefore since he would understand reproduction existed its reasonable to conclude he could self reproduce. tHerefore the rib taken out , possibly, was a term that referred to some self reproducting mechanism. Therefore the women was made around this detail.
Speculation but seems likely.
In a woman a man sees himself but so different that it makes him realize he’s incomplete without a wife. so two people become one.
The purpose of marriage was only to take away aloneness.  Not reproduction.

Alice C. Linsley - #43713

December 14th 2010

“The purpose of marriage was only to take away aloneness.  Not reproduction.”

Not so!  God said it isn’t good for the man to be alone.  Yet he was surrounded by living things. So this is a picture of how “kind” goes with its own kind. The idea of reproducing according to one’s own kind is inherent.  Further, God told the original couple to be fruitful and mutliple.

Alice C. Linsley - #44029

December 16th 2010

You might be interested in this on “The BIblical Meaning of Eve”:

sy - #44055

December 17th 2010

From all the great comments here, it certainly appears that the story of Eve in Genesis is subject to a great deal of interpretation. Which if I am not mistaken is exactly the point of Pete’s article.

In my view, this is what makes Scripture holy. Why would we expect the word of God to read like an instruction manual? Mystery, apparent contradictions, alternative translations, ambiguity, all of this is what makes the book holy and special. I would imagine that God wants us to think, otherwise why give us brains.

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