Gender Equality at Creation
It is well known that the Torah contains two creation accounts: Genesis 1:1–2:3, and Genesis 2:4–3:24, each of which tells of the creation of male and female humans.
First Creation Account: Gender Equality
In the first account, the Torah makes a point of spelling out that men and women are equivalent and that they share equally in the image of God, which is their defining characteristic (Gen 1:27):
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑ו זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם.
So God created humanity in his image, in the image of God He created it; male and female he created them.
This clarification is repeated in the resumption of this first account after the Cain and Abel story (Gen 5:1b-2):
בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹהִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹהִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בְּרָאָ֑ם וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָ֗ם וַיִּקְרָ֤א אֶת־שְׁמָם֙ אָדָ֔ם בְּי֖וֹם הִבָּֽרְאָֽם.
When God created Human, he made it in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them. And he blessed them and called them ‘Human’ when they were created.
In both verses, we see the kind of balanced language reflective of western public discourse nowadays.
Second Creation Account: Subordinate?
The second account has been thought to express a non-egalitarian view of the relationship between the sexes: here, the Woman is supposedly created only as a subordinate “helper” for him, designed to have a nature that is “suitable” for him, and fashioned from his “rib,” a small part of his body.
Yet, I would argue that this understanding of the second creation account is false, and that a methodically rigorous reading of the text reveals a view of the sexes that is, in the account’s own nuanced and psychologically sensitive way, fundamentally egalitarian. I will begin by approaching each term philologically.
In this account, God’s initiative to create the Woman is prompted by the aloneness of the single human:
וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂהּ־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ.
Then the God Yhwh said, ‘it is not good for the Man to be alone; I will make him an עזר כנגדו.’ (Genesis 2:18).
After an עזר כנגדו cannot be found among all the animals and birds (vv. 19–20), God carries out the initiative by fashioning the Woman (vv. 21–22).
Helper = Subordinate?
It is the first word in the italicized phrase, עֵזֶר (ezer), that has given rise to the notion that the Woman is ancillary to the Man, meant only to “help” him in whatever tasks he does. The King James Version translates this word as “an help.” Most modern translations, including the New JPS Tanakh, render it as “a helper.”
In English semantics, these terms bring to mind one who is of lesser status than the one helped. People who work in a household as employees rather than partners are often called “the help.” In Modern Hebrew, too, a person in this position is called an עוזר, or, far more commonly, an עוזרת (the feminine form of the word), from the same root as עֵזֶר.
Helper as Savior
In fact, however, the word עֵזֶר, which occurs nineteen additional times in the Bible, never refers to a person of this sort. While its interpretation as “help” or “helper” is essentially correct, עֵזֶר always refers to an entity that is more powerful than the person being helped; thus, it means “helper” in the sense of “savior,” “deliverer,” or “rescuer.” It almost always refers to God (an association expressed also in the personal names אֱלִיעֶֽזֶר, יוֹעֶ֛זֶר, and – among non-Israelites – הֲדַדְעֶ֥זֶר), and almost always when God is saving the person from serious, even life-threatening, danger.
Turning from the beginning to the end of the Torah for our first example, we read in Moshe’s blessing to the Tribe of Judah (Deut 33:7):
שְׁמַ֤ע יְהוָה֙ ק֣וֹל יְהוּדָ֔ה
יָדָיו֙ רָ֣ב ל֔וֹ
וְעֵ֥זֶר מִצָּרָ֖יו תִּהְיֶֽה.
Hear, Yhwh, the voice of Yehudah
And may you restore him to his people
May his own hands be enough(?)
And may you be an עזר against his foes.
Two other, relatively well-known, occurrences are found at the beginning of the second “Song of Ascents (שִׁ֗יר לַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת)” in Psalms (121:1aβ–2):
אֶשָּׂ֣א עֵינַ֭י אֶל־הֶהָרִ֑ים
מֵאַ֝֗יִן יָבֹ֥א עֶזְרִֽי.
עֶזְרִי מֵעִ֣ם יְהוָ֑ה
עֹשֵׂ֝֗ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ.
I turn my eyes to the mountains:
from where will my עזר come?
My עזר is from Yhwh,
maker of heaven and earth.
As an עזר, Yhwh guards his supplicant from a variety of dangers (vv. 3–8) and preserves his very life (v. 7).
From what peril does the Woman in our story rescue the previously helpless Man? From loneliness, which is the first thing in creation – and in the Bible – that is said to be “not good” (Gen 2:18), and which is a serious enough problem to prompt the creation of the entire animal kingdom (vv. 19–20).
Considering the use of this term in other contexts, the Woman is essentially the more powerful member of the human pair. This status seems to be echoed in the continuation of the story, in which the Woman is active – and the Man passive – throughout the process of eating from the Tree of Knowledge (3:1–7), and in which she is also the only one to do anything “with” God, sharing no less than his capacity to create a new human (4:1).
Here we come to the second word of the phrase, כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (kenegdo).
Fitting for Him
The King James Version translates it with the now-archaic sounding “meet for him,” which means “suitable for him”; the latter phrase is actually used, for example, in the New International Version. The New JPS Tanakh uses the similar term “fitting.” It is easy to see how such renditions of the word can encourage a view of the Woman as being subordinate, her very nature tailored according to what would be most pleasing to the Man.
Equivalent to Him
The precise form כְּנֶגֶד (kenegdo is this form with a third-person masculine singular suffix referring to the Man) occurs nowhere else in the Bible. However, each of its two components is widespread and easy to understand: נֶגֶד is a preposition carrying the sense of “opposite to,” “in front of,” “in sight of”; while the particle כְּ denotes comparison and resemblance, meaning “like” or “as.”
The intuitive conclusion is that כְּנֶגְדּוֹ means “as if opposite to him,” namely, “corresponding to him” or “equivalent to him.” Indeed, this is what כְּנֶגֶד means in later Rabbinic Hebrew, as in ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם, “Torah study is equivalent to all of them” (m. Pe’ah 1:1). This conclusion is reinforced when we look at a similar form.
In the Bible, the preposition עַל, “over,” “about,” etc., when preceded by כְּ, means “as if over” (Ps 119:14) or “as if about” (2 Chr 32:19). This understanding was expressed already in three ancient translations of verse 20: the Septuagint’s “like him (ὅμοιος αὐτῷ),” the Peshitta’s “equal to him (ܐܟܘܬܗ),” and the Vulgate’s “similar to himself (similem sui).” It is also endorsed by many modern commentators on Genesis. Nevertheless, it is adopted in only a very few English translations of the Bible, among them the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 (“like unto him”), the New King James Version (“comparable to him”), and the New Revised Standard Version (“as his partner”).
The Torah’s use of this word, then, is meant to clarify that the Woman, despite being the Man’s עזר, is ultimately not of greater rank than him but of equal rank. A man’s thrilled delight in seeing a woman truly opposite him with all her power is expressed with the word נֶגֶד in a different garden scene (Song 6:5):
הָסֵ֤בִּי עֵינַ֙יִךְ֙ מִנֶּגְדִּ֔י
Turn your eyes from נגד me,
for they overwhelm me.
The last element of our account that supposedly diminishes women is the Woman’s creation from the Man’s צֵּלָע (tsela‘: Gen 2:21–22). Astonishingly, this word is uncritically understood by almost all modern commentators and translators as meaning “rib.” It is not entirely impossible that this word was really meant to denote a rib here, as it does in Modern Hebrew: in a few biblical occurrences located in a technical architectural context, it seems to mean something like “board” (1 Kgs 6:15, 16, 34[?]; 7:3), which can be called “rib” in such contexts in English as well.
But the preponderance of evidence suggests that the meaning of tsela‘ in our account is “side” or “flank.” Elsewhere in the Bible, it almost always refers to a side – of a hill (2 Sam 6:13), of a building (Exod 26:20, 26, 27[x2], 35[x2] ≈ 36:25, 31, 32), or of an object (Exod 25:12[x2] = 37:3[x2]; 27:7 = 38:7; 30:4 = 37:27). Nowhere in the Bible does it refer to an anatomical rib.
Thus the Amora R. Samuel b. Nahman or R. Simeon b. Lakish maintained that the original human was two-faced and that the tsela‘ taken from it was one of two equal sides (Genesis Rabbah on Gen 1:26; Leviticus Rabbah on Lev 12:2). After the operation, the Woman and the Man each seem to be made from half of the original body; the equality of rank is reflected in physical equivalence.
A Story about the Monogamous Coupling of Equals
A responsible reading of the Torah’s second creation account reveals that the Woman is portrayed as more powerful than the Man, as equivalent to him in rank (despite being more powerful), and as being fashioned from half of the Man’s body. This portrayal is encapsulated and reinforced by the conclusion of the relevant section (2:24):
עַל־כֵּן֙ יַֽעֲזָב־אִ֔ישׁ אֶת־אָבִ֖יו וְאֶת־אִמּ֑וֹ וְדָבַ֣ק בְּאִשְׁתּ֔וֹ וְהָי֖וּ לְבָשָׂ֥ר אֶחָֽד
Hence a man leaves his father and mother and attaches to his wife so that they become one flesh.
Note that this verse indicates that lifelong monogamy is the natural realization of human eros, and that it describes this bond with the even-handed term וְדָבַק בְּ, “and attaches to,” and not with a hegemonic term such as ולקח לו את “and takes for himself,” or ומשל ב “and rules over,” as in the continuation of the story (3:16). Note further the entirely neutral description of the ultimate outcome: וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד, “so that they become one flesh”; not, e.g., ושלמה את בשרו, “so that she completes his flesh.”
Loneliness: The Key Element in the Story
The Torah’s second creation account does not treat the two sexes entirely symmetrically as the first account does. One sex is created first; the other sex is created second, and as a response to the state of the first.
Since the theme that this section of the story treats, namely the basic human problem of loneliness, is intrinsically a problem faced by the individual, it must be depicted from the perspective of a single person. That person has to be either the Male or the Female, and the story unsurprisingly chooses the Male, since, as is usually the case in the Bible, it is the male perspective that is preferred.
But the conception of the sexes that is presented from this perspective is one that must have been radically affirmative of women in the ancient Near East and which, even thousands of years later, can only be reconciled with patriarchy by making use of inaccurate translations.
It is perhaps this second creation account, which brings us an egalitarian message after getting its hands dirty by engaging with the intense and thorny dynamics of human intersexual relations, that is the more valuable one for constructing the education of our daughters and sons, or מוּסַר אָבִיךָ וְתּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ.
In memory of Eitam and Naama Henkin
For an alternative approach by Prof. Tamara Eskenazi, see: Non-Gender Equality at Creation: The “Other” Benefits of Partners
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October 8, 2015
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Dr. Raanan Eichler is a Senior Lecturer of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and completed fellowships at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University. His publications include “Jeremiah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree,” Vetus Testamentum 67/3 (2017): 403–413, and The Ark and the Cherubim (Mohr Siebeck, 2021).
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