GENESIS 1-2: THE CONTEXT
Most scholars today agree that Genesis 1:1—2:4a constitutes one creation account written or compiled by the Priestly redactor (editor) during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile—and Genesis 2:4b-25 constitutes a second creation account written or compiled by the Yahwist redactor in the 10th or 9th centuries B.C. Chapter 2, then, is an earlier account than chapter 1.
The two accounts differ considerably:
• The earlier account (chapter 2) refers to God as Yahweh Elohim, while the later account (chapter 1) refers to God as Elohim (English translations usually translate both simply as “God”).
• The earlier account (chapter 2) does not have God brooding over a formless void (1:1)
• The earlier account (chapter 2) does not have a seven-day creation sequence (1:1—2:3).
• The earlier account (chapter 2) has God creating the man prior to vegetation or rain (2:4b-7). After the man was created, God planted a garden in Eden and ” made every tree to grow that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food ” (2:8-9). Only after God decided to create a helper for the man did he create animal life (2:18-19). The later account (chapter 1) has a different and more detailed creation sequence, to include light (1:3), night and day (1:4-5), a dome called Sky (1:6-8), Earth and Seas (1:9-10), vegetation (1:11), lights in the dome of the sky (1:14-15), fish and birds (1:20-22), domestic and wild animals (1:24-25), and humans (1:26-27).
• The earlier account (chapter 2) focuses more on the human situation, while the later account (chapter 1) focuses more on God’s creative enterprise.
• The earlier account (chapter 2) names the garden in Eden where God put the man (2:8), but there is no mention of the garden in the later account (chapter 1).
• The earlier account (chapter 2) has the man created first (2:7) and the woman created later from one of the man’s ribs (2:18-23), but the later account has God creating male and female at the same time (1:27).
• In the earlier account (chapter 2), the woman is identified as the man’s helper (2:18, 20), but not in the later account.
• In the earlier account (chapter 2), God never says, “it is good,” but on one occasion says, “It is not good” (2:18). In the later account (chapter 1), he pronounces his creation “good” six times and “very good” once (1:31). There is no mention of “not good.”
• The earlier account (chapter 2) tasks the man with the responsibility of tilling the garden and keeping it (2:15), while the later account describes this tasking in grander terms: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (1:28).
• The earlier account (chapter 2) has a lovely description of the river that flows out of Eden to water the garden and divides into four branches (2:10-14)—a detail that the later account skips altogether.
• The earlier account (chapter 2) sets the stage for the Fall in chapter 3 by saying, ” but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.”” (2:17)—and ” They were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” (2:25). The later account gives no hint of the problems that will emerge in chapter 3.
• The later account (1:1—2:4a) has God resting on the seventh day (2:2-3), but the earlier account (chapter 2) does not mention that.
The text that we are considering at the moment, Genesis 2:18-24, is the account of the creation of the woman, and comes at the end of the earlier account.
GENESIS 2:18-19. IT IS NOT GOOD THAT THE MAN SHOULD BE ALONE
18Yahweh God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.”19Out of the ground Yahweh God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.
“Yahweh God said, ‘It is not good that the man (Hebrew: ha adam) should be alone'” (v. 18). The later account (chapter 1) is where we start reading this book. In that chapter, God pronounces his creation “good” six times and then concludes by pronouncing it “very good” (1:31). After repeatedly reading the “it was good” litany of chapter 1, we are surprised to hear “it is not good” (2:18). However, nowhere in the earlier account (chapter 2) does God say “it was good.”
The evaluation, “not good,” like the “good” of chapter 1, comes from God rather than the man. There is no indication that the man complained or felt a need for a companion.
The Hebrew word adam can mean a man, any human being, or humans in general. The NRSV begins translating it “Adam” (a proper name like James or John) at Genesis 4:25, because until then it appears with the article—ha adam (the man)—but it appears at 4:25 simply as adam. However, the NIV begins using the proper name at 2:20—the RSV at 3:17—and the NEB at 3:21 (Fretheim, 353).
“I will make him a helper suitable for him” (v. 18). The Old Testament often speaks of God as a help to people (Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalm 33:20; 115:9-11; 121:1; 124:8; 146:5; Isaiah 41:10), so it cannot be that a helper must be inferior to the one being helped. In this instance, God decides that the man must have “a helper as a partner.” A “helper” could be someone superior to, equal to, or inferior to the person being helped, but “partner” suggests a co-equal relationship.
“Out of the ground Yahweh God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky” (v. 19). Earlier, “Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground” (v. 7). Now God forms the animals and birds “out of the ground” (v. 19). The creation of the animals therefore echoes the creation of man—God formed both out of the ground.
God “brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (v. 19). Verse 20 suggests that there was also another purpose in this phase of creation—to see if the man might find a helper and a partner.
“and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (v. 19). In the later account (chapter 1), God will assume naming rights over the creation (1:5, 8, 10). In this earlier account (chapter 2), God delegates the naming rights to the man and lets the man’s names stand without alteration.
GENESIS 2:20-22. YAHWEH GOD MADE THE RIB INTO A WOMAN
20The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field; but for man there was not found a helper suitable for him. 21Yahweh God caused a deep sleep to fall on the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. 22He made the rib, which Yahweh God had taken from the man, into a woman, and brought her to the man.
“The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field” (v. 20). No fish are mentioned here. Fish would obviously not be a suitable partner for the man.
“but for the man there was not found a helper suitable for him” (v. 20). This verse suggests that one of the purposes behind the creation of animals and birds was to find a helper and partner for the man—or perhaps God is allowing the man to be disappointed in his search here so that he will be properly grateful when he discovers the woman. There is a note of disappointment in this verse. These words convey a sense of loneliness—incompleteness.
“Yahweh God caused a deep sleep to fall on the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs (Hebrew: sela) and closed up the flesh in its place.” (v. 21). Hamilton suggests that we translate sela as “side” rather than “ribs.” He gives a number of examples from the Old Testament where sela means the side of an ark or a building or a room, and says that this is the only verse in which some translations use the word “rib” (Hamilton, 178).
Earlier, God “formed man from the dust of the ground” (v. 7) and formed the animals “out of the ground” (v. 19). However, when God creates the woman, he does so using a portion of the man—his rib—a living substance. This does not make woman superior to the man, but does make her equal to him—made of the same material—”This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is how the man will describe her (v. 23).
Matthew Henry has a lovely and oft-quoted comment about God’s using the man’s rib to create the woman. He says, “Not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and hear his heart to be beloved” (quoted in Wenham, 69).
“He made the rib, which Yahweh God had taken from the man, into a woman,” (v. 22). God makes/builds the woman from the rib and then brings the woman to the man—just as he earlier brought the animals to the man (v. 19). On the earlier occasion, God brought the animals to the man “to see what he could call them” (v. 19)—and, presumably, to see if the man would find among the animals a suitable helper and partner (v. 20).
“and brought her to the man” (v. 22). God brings the woman to the man like the father of a bride. There is no purpose statement in v. 22 to explain why God brings the woman to the man, but it seems that God is presenting the woman to the man as a gift—as the suitable helper and partner that the man earlier failed to find.
GENESIS 2:23. SHE WILL BE CALLED WOMAN
23The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh. She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken out of Man.”
The man, excited to have a suitable helper and partner, breaks into speech for the first time—joyful speech—poetic speech. He sees that, unlike the animals, the woman is like him, and so he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). The “not good” situation noted in v. 18 has now been corrected—has been made good.
“This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). We would say that they are related by blood, but it was more characteristic of the Hebrews to identify the relationship as one of bone and flesh (Wenham, 70).
“She will be called ‘woman (Hebrew: isah), ’because she was taken out of Man” (Hebrew: is) (v. 23). Until this point, this account uses the Hebrew adam as the word for man—but now it uses is (man). Adam can mean a man, any human being, or humans in general, while is is a male noun meaning man or husband. The author chose is for this verse for two reasons. First, it unambiguously refers to a male individual. Second, it pairs nicely with isah (woman) to establish another wordplay.
GENESIS 2:24. AND THEY WILL BE ONE FLESH
24Therefore a man will leave (Hebrew: azab) his father and his mother, and will join with his wife, and they will be one flesh.
This is the narrator’s voice rather than the man’s voice, and it comes from a later time. At the time of the woman’s creation, the man could hardly talk of leaving father and mother, because there were not yet fathers and mothers.
“Therefore a man will leave (azab) his father and his mother and will join his wife” (v. 24). Both Wenham (p. 70) and Hamilton advocate translating azab as “forsakes” rather than “leaves.” “Leaves” has a more neutral quality, while “forsakes” suggests an abandonment or a turning away from.
“Forsakes” would seem a better fit for the patriarchal society in which this creation account was written. In that kind of setting, the woman would typically leave her family to join her new husband in or near his parents’ home rather than the other way around.
Before marriage, the man’s primary obligation was to his parents. After marriage, his attention shifts to his wife.
“and they will be one flesh” (v. 24). They were one flesh in the sense that the woman was created from the man’s rib. Now they become one flesh in their sexual bonding. This verse constitutes God’s ringing endorsement of sex between man and woman. Thus far neither marriage nor monogamy has been mentioned. This creation account leaves those issues for later writers.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary: Volume 1a – Genesis 1-11:26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
Plaut, W. Gunther, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition) (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan