In our English Bibles, the word “rib” appears only in Genesis 2:21-22, a text which says that when Yahweh created the first woman, he took a şēlā‛ “rib” from Adam and used it to build (bānâ) a woman (Genesis 2:21-22).
The meaning of the word “rib” in this context is disputed. Scholars have used mythology, comparative religion, anthropology, and sociology to explain its meaning.
This text has also been used by feminist theologians to describe the lesser, equal, or higher value of women in relation to men.
There are several possible meanings for the word “rib” in this context. What follows is taken from H.-J. Fabry’s article on şēlā‛ in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 12:400-403:
1. The etiological interpretation. This view suggests that the words of Genesis 2:21-22 explain the origin of the navel in the first human being, the absence of ribs in the stomach area, or the sexual urge that exists between men and women.
2. The mythological interpretation. This view says that the words of Genesis 2:21-22 explain how the crescent moon became a symbol of fertility. Another view is that these words contain echoes of the Sumerian Dilmum myth according to which the healing goddess Ninti, “mistress of the rib/of life” (cf. Genesis 3:20), was formed from the rib of Enki.
3. The anthropological interpretation. This view says that the rib is a reference to the ape tail of early human beings.
4. The associative interpretation. This view emphasizes that the “rib” stands for the slender female figure, the crescent moon, the procreative organ, a “side” for the female breast, or, because the rib is close to the heart, that the word “rib” means “human inwardness.”
5. The linguistic association interpretation. This view asserts that the Hebrew word şēlā‛ is similar to the Sumerian word TI, a word which means “life,” “rib.” Another view asserts that the word comes from the Akkadian selu, “life.” Thus, the word “rib” explains the meaning of the name Eve, “mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). H.-J. Fabry says that the Hebrew does not support this word association. In addition, the use of şēlā‛ in Genesis 2:21-22 has no relationship with the Dilmun myth.
6. The metaphorical interpretation. This view suggests “that because the rib is not an essential body part, creating the woman from a rib did not disfigure the human person or change human nature.” However, H.-J. Fabry says that describing the rib as a nonessential part of the body reveals the antifemale component of this interpretation.
7. The sociological interpretation. This view suggests that since man was alone, the woman was created to stand at a man’s side and fill a void in his life.
8. The psychological interpretation. This view, which has been accepted by many feminist theologians, says that Genesis 2:21-22 reflects the splitting of the androgynous primal human being and its sexual differentiation.
All these different methods of interpretation presuppose that the word şēlā‛ literally means “rib.” However, of all the instances of the use of this word in the Old Testament, this is the only place where the word means a human rib.
This unique meaning of the word has led many scholars to look for a different solution to the meaning of “rib” in Genesis 2:21-22.
The most common solution is to relate the word şēlā‛ (rib) to the verb bānâ. Since the Hebrew word bānâ does not refer to the creation of human beings but carries the idea of building and the word şēlā‛ is associated with the sides of the temple in Jerusalem that are essential to the stability of the building, most scholars believe that the words şēlā‛ and bānâ in Genesis 2:21-22 are related to sacred architecture, primarily the construction of the sanctuary. Thus, the author of Genesis 2 may be suggesting that man and woman were created as God’s temple.
In light of this interpretation, H.-J. Fabry says:
Some interpreters understand şēlā‛ here too as a term from sacral architecture. The relationship formula in v. 23a, also to be ascribed to J, suggests on the one hand that şēlā‛ refers to a (bony) human part, while on the other hand J himself sensed that this particular semantic component was not necessarily comprehensible to all readers, which is why in v. 23 he speaks about ‘esem, “bones,” suggesting that even during the early monarchy, şēlā‛ was understood primarily as a term from sacred architecture (p. 402).
In light of the possible meaning of şēlā‛ as a bony human part, two scholars have proposed a unique interpretation for the meaning of şēlā‛ in Genesis 2:21-22.
Scott F. Gilbert, Professor of Biology at the Martin Biological Laboratories, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and Ziony Zevit, Professor of Biblical Literature at the University of Judaism, Los Angeles, California, wrote an article, “Congenital human baculum deficiency: The generative bone of Genesis 2:21-23,” published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A, Volume 101, Issue 3 , Pages 284 – 285, in which they propose that this bony human part, the şēlā‛ , was the male baculum.
Gilbert and Zevit argue that every human male lacks a baculum, an os penis or penile bone, which is common to most mammals and most primates. After explaining the presence of bacula in mammals and its absence in human males, the authors relate the male baculum to the formation of Eve:
One of the creation stories in Genesis may be an explanatory myth wherein the Bible attempts to find a cause for why human males lack this particular bone. Our opinion is that Adam did not lose a rib in the creation of Eve. Any ancient Israelite (or for that matter, any American child) would be expected to know that there is an equal (and even) number of ribs in both men and women. Moreover, ribs lack any intrinsic generative capacity. We think it is far more probable that it was Adam’s baculum that was removed in order to make Eve. That would explain why human males, of all the primates and most other mammals, did not have one. The Hebrew noun translated as “rib”, tzela (tzade, lamed, ayin), can indeed mean a costal rib. It can also mean the rib of a hill (2 Samuel 16:13), the side chambers (enclosing the temple like ribs, as in 1 Kings 6:5,6), or the supporting columns of trees, like cedars or firs, or the planks in buildings and doors (l Kings 6:15,16). So the word could be used to indicate a structural support beam. Interestingly, Biblical Hebrew, unlike later rabbinic Hebrew, had no technical term for the penis and referred to it through many circumlocutions. When rendered into Greek, sometime in the second century BCE, the translators used the word pleura, which means side, and would connote a body rib (as the medical term pleura still does). This translation, enshrined in the Septuagint, the Greek Bible of the early church, fixed the meaning for most of western civilization, even though the Hebrew was not so specific.
In addition, Genesis 2:21 contains another etiological detail: “The Lord God closed up the flesh”. This detail would explain the peculiar visible sign on the penis and scrotum of human males-the raphé. In the human penis and scrotum, the edges of the urogenital folds come together over the urogenital sinus (urethral groove) to form a seam, the raphé. If this seam does not form, hypospadias of the glans, penis, and scrotum can result. The origin of this seam on the external genitalia was “explained” by the story of the closing of Adam’s flesh. Again, the wound associated with the generation of Eve is connected to Adam’s penis and not this rib (p. 284).
If Gilbert’s and Zevit’s interpretation of tzela is correct, then the words Adam spoke when he saw Eve for the first time make a lot of sense:
“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23).
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary