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A Critique of Phyllis Trible’s "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread"

In 1973 Dr. Phyllis Trible delivered a lecture at Andover Newton Theological School in which she challenged her colleagues to take a closer look at the second biblical creation narrative found in Genesis 2-3.  The Women’s Liberation Movement, with its characterization of the Bible as a tool written by men and used to oppress women, provided the social and historical backdrop for her commentary.  As a pioneer in postmodern feminist theology, Trible called for a reexamination of the text, attempting to free it of the historical accretion of male exegetical work and extract a core message that recognizes the original role of woman as the peer of man (74).

 

To begin her argument, Trible turns to the Hebrew text from which the English translation was made.  She points out that the word, ‘adham, introduced in the Yahwist’s creation account in Genesis 2:7 and commonly translated as “man,” is used to refer to the androgynous being that existed before the creation of woman.  In order to covey the concept of gender, the verse 2:23 introduces two new words, ‘ish (male) and ‘ishshah (female), which underline the interrelated and interdependent nature of the sexes.  Before the sexes are introduced, there is no point of reference for understanding the ‘adham as male.

 

Trible also makes an argument that the phrase ‘ezer kenegdo found in 2:18 refers to more than the traditional “helpmeet” translation, that has characterized Eve as servant to Adam through the ages, but rather to an equal counterpart created to assist.  She points out that ‘ezer, which connotes a variety of beneficial relationships, can be used to refer to God, animals or humans.

 

Aside from the linguistic evidence, Trible introduces an analysis of literary devices to bolster her argument.  She suggests that the story forms an inclusio, in which the creation of the man in 2:7 begins a passage that is then brought full circle by the creation of the woman in 2:22.  For this argument to work, the ‘adham and the ‘ishshah must be seen as two of a kind.  While an interesting argument, normative examples of inclusio in literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible deal with the repetition of certain key words or phrases at the beginning and end of a passage.  The expansion of the definition of inclusio to embrace constructions in which the opening and closing elements are words of the same cognitive category (as opposed to repetition of the same word or phrase) opens the author’s argument to debate.  This argument is further complicated by Trible’s own previous assertion that the ‘adham of 2:7 is an androgynous being which is neither clearly male nor female, drawing the similarity between ‘adham and ‘ishshah into question.

 

Trible then addresses the act of naming, by which traditional theological arguments hold that the ‘adham exerts dominion over all created animals.  Following this line, male exegetes have claimed that the woman also falls under the dominion of the man as a result the label he assigns her in 2:23.  However, Trible asserts that the normative construction for naming in Hebrew involves the word combination of “to call his/her/its name” followed by the name.  She provides examples from Genesis 4:17, 25 and 26.  In evaluating the validity of this argument, it would be necessary to make a further study of the usage of the verb ‘qara’ (to call), including common word combinations.  Trible reinforces her argument by pointing out that ‘ishshah is not a name.  Rather, ‘adham only calls the woman’s name “Eve” in 3:20, after The Fall, and in this way asserts dominion over the creation that had until this point been his equal.

 

For its time, Trible’s arguments were groundbreaking and effective in achieving her aim.  While there was room for question and debate surrounding her arguments, she opened the door for a fresh look at the scriptures and caused people to question assumptions that they brought with them to the text.  The fact that this essay is still being used in seminaries and universities today attests to both the innovative nature of Trible’s work and also to the time-tested efficacy of her arguments.

 

Once pioneers like Trible began to reframe our interpretations of ancient scripture, the way was opened for other scholars to pick up her mantle and further advance the paradigm.  Take, for example, the following linguistic points which can be added to support Trible’s case.

 

The fact that ancient Hebrew does not have a neutral gender plays a role in both the Hebrew understanding of the creation account and its subsequent transmission to an English-speaking audience.  In Hebrew it is possible to blur the distinction between the grammatical masculine and the biological/cognitive masculine.  For example, the name of the Hebrew God is rendered as the masculine YHWH (he causes to be), as opposed to the feminine form THWH (Friedman, xv).  Because ancient Hebrew contains no neuter gender, the masculine serves as the gender-neutral variant.  Before the introduction of gender-neutral or -inclusive language in response to the Women’s Liberation Movement the same was true of the English language.  Readers in our own generation are able to perceive a distinction because we have been sensitized to the inherent masculine bias in English constructs that assume male pronominal forms are neutral – a consciousness that was only beginning to develop in the early 1970’s.  Having successfully achieved this understanding, we are now able to see the distinction between the use of ‘adham as the proper name Adam, representing only the first human male, and its first usages as the human whose sexual characteristics were yet to be defined.

 

Further, critics of Trible’s analysis may suggest that the man’s poetic description of woman as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” indicates dominance by emphasizing that woman is made from man’s own substance.  However, with our newfound understanding of the coequal complementarity of the sexes, Biblical interpreters might h   now choose to translate the Hebrew tsalah from 2:21-22 not as “rib,” but more broadly as “side.”  By emphasizing that the entire side (which contains both flesh and bone) was removed from the human to create the woman, we are able to view the ‘ish and the ‘ishshah as two halves of the original androgyne.

 

The continued development of these original themes attests to the impact that Trible’s arguments have had on us and our postmodern approaches to biblical interpretation.  Indeed, that women and men continue to create new gender-neutral interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures today witnesses to the success of Trible’s original goal of reexamining and appropriating the scriptures in a way that affirms the role of women in our world.


Works Cited

Friedman, Richard Elliot. Commentary on the Torah. New York: Harper, 2001.

 

Trible, Phyllis. “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread.” Andover Newton Quarterly. 13 (1973): 74-81.

2 Responses to A Critique of Phyllis Trible’s "Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread"

  • Not sure if i’d call this work a critique so much as a review. As an amatuer theologian myself I’m curious to your view of her arguments. In writing this review did reiterate her points becuase you thought they were well supported or because they were so thought provoking and unheard of?

    • Hi, Sean.

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t write this essay out of choice. Back when I wrote it (2006) I was in my seminary’s equivalent of English 101. The assignment was to read the argument and write a short analysis. That included laying out Trible’s arguments and my own analysis, which is actually interspersed at the end of various paragraphs and in the conclusion.

      It seems to me that today there’s nothing earth-shattering about Trible’s argument, but that’s because folks like her made these arguments in the first place. In 1973 this was a pretty big deal and unheard of outside of an academic environment. Some folks like Richard Elliot Friedman have done some linguistic work that would extend Trible’s observations about the Hebrew ‘ezer kenegdo and I’m satisfied with his analysis.

      This wasn’t a full length critique, which wouldn’t have fit into the page limit. But I did suggest a couple of further questions that would help to test her argument, at least at the linguistic level. One was with an eye to the normal use of the word inclusio, while another was about verb forms used. I think she stretched the first, and to be honest, I’ve never done the legwork to check the second question. (Confession: I can use software for some exegetical work in the Old Testament, but I don’t know Hebrew or Aramaic. My Greek skills are getting better over time, but they were pretty shaky as well back when some of the early stuff on this site was written.)

      One other thing to consider is that this wasn’t a full-length treatment of Genesis 2-3 on Trible’s part either. She was a professor at the time at Andover-Newton and wrote this for her colleagues (if I recall correctly). Since that time there’s been so much done on gender and creation that it’s impossible to read it all… But I look at her argument as one approach among many that help us see Genesis in a different light from what I was taught growing up… And I have enjoyed the interactions with her Texts of Terror because before her no one said much about some of the violence against women that is often taken for granted in biblical passages.

      Peace,
      Bryce

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