creation eve adam ish ishah ishshah Genesis 2 human man woman

This relief of the creation of Eve depicts a traditional understanding of Genesis 2:21-22.

This article is also available in Spanish here.

Was the first human being male?

In Genesis 2 we read the creation account of the first human that God made and placed in the Garden of Eden.[1] In many English translations of Genesis 2, the first human is simply called “man.” This “man” is understood by many people as referring to a male human rather than to a generic human. However, in the Hebrew text, the first “man” is not specifically referred to as a male human (ish) until the operation mentioned in Genesis 2:21-22 when a part, or side, is taken out of him.[2]

After the operation, the now undoubtedly male human sees the female human and says, “This one is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh! She will be called ‘woman/wife’ (ishshah) because she was taken out of ‘man/husband’ (ish)” (Gen. 2:23). The author of Genesis 2 may want his readers to understand that first husband and wife may have each been a part of, or one side of, the first human being (ha’adam).[3]

Adam can mean “human” and “humanity”

The Hebrew word adam can mean “human being,” and not necessarily a male human being.[4] For instance, in the Hebrew of Genesis 5:2, God refers to humanity—both men and women—as “adam.” And in Genesis 1:27 it says that “God created humanity, or the human, (ha’adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” In Genesis 2, the first human is consistently referred to as ha’adam (הָאָדָם), especially before the operation.[5]

In the screenshots below, I have highlighted every incidence of ha’adam (the human) in yellow. (N.BIn verse 5 there is no article but the context indicates that adam is not a proper noun.)[6] I have also highlighted every incidence of ish (man/husband) with blue, and ishshah (woman/wife) with pink. Looking at the screenshots below, we clearly see an ish, a male person, when the side that is made into ishshah is taken out of ha’adam, but not before.

Have a look.

Genesis 2.4

Genesis 2.15

Genesis 2.22_25

Genesis 2.22

The Hebrew and English texts in the screenshots are taken from and are used with permission. I have added the coloured highlights and I have omitted verses 9-14.

Equality, not Hierarchy

I believe the Genesis 2 creation account was designed to show the mutuality, compatibility and unity of the first man and woman. It may be we are even meant to understand that they both had the same source, ha’adam, and shared the same flesh made from the same ground that had been personally enlivened by God’s own breath (Gen. 2:7).[7] Genesis 2 thus gives further insight regarding the equality of men and women already stated in Genesis 1.

Genesis 1:26-28 tells us that men and women had the same status, the same authority, and the same purpose at creation. And in both Genesis 1 and 2, no one, man or woman, was given authority over another person. There is no hint of any gender hierarchy, or a difference in status, among humankind before sin entered the world.

Evidence of a so-called “creation order” in the Genesis 2 creation account, often used to support the notion of male-only authority, is not clear cut. Though we can say that Adam was created first, he was a considerably different person after the “operation” than before. A chunk of him was now missing. It had been taken out by God and had become an integral part of the first woman. Since a significant part of the first woman was a part, or a side, of the first human, the concept of “the created order” is not clear cut or decisive. And we miss the purpose of the Genesis 2 story when we read a gender hierarchy into it.


[1] The story of Adam and Eve may not be the story about the very first, or only, humans God created, but the story of the couple who were the first people created in an ancestral line that would include Israel.
To some, the idea may be new that God created human beings other than Adam and Eve, but the biblical text shows us that Adam and Eve’s oldest son Cain was aware of humans other than those of his family. He was worried they would attack him when God drove him away from his farmland (Gen. 4:13-15). Furthermore, Cain went to live in a land called Nod, a land with a name and, therefore, presumably an inhabited land (Gen. 4:15). And he may have found his wife there (Gen. 4:16). Cain later built a city called Enoch. Who were the inhabitants of this city? Were they only Cain’s descendants?

[2] Some argue that because ha’adam says in Genesis 2:23 that ishshah (woman) was taken out of ish, that is, taken out of a man, this indicates that ha’adam was indeed a male person. However, the use of ishshah and ish in Genesis 2 may be a play on words, a pun designed to highlight the connection between woman and man, wife and husband; the intention may not have been to convey the idea that ha’adam was originally male. There are a few puns in the Genesis 2-3 story that highlight connections and contrasts:

Adamah אֲדָמָה (dirt, ground, earth) H127—adam אָדָם (human) H120, in Genesis 2:7
Arom עָרוֹם (naked, “naive”?) H6174 Genesis 2:25—arum עָרוּם (wise, shrewd) H6175, in Genesis 2:25-3:1
Ish אִישׁ (man/husband) H376—ishshah (woman/wife) אִשָּׁה H802, in Genesis 2:23-24.

[3] An integral part of the first woman was literally taken out of the first human. The Hebrew word traditionally translated as “rib” (tsela) typically means “side.” (See here.) In the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the Greek word for “side” (pleura) is used, a word that typically refers to a side of the body. An English translation from the Septuagint is that God “took one of his sides … and he built the side into a woman” (Gen. 2:21-22).

[4] In Numbers 31:11, 26, 28, 30, 35, 40, 46, 47, adam refers exclusively to female human beings who were prisoners of war. By referring to them as adam (human), they are distinct from the animals that were also plundered.

[5] The man continues to be mostly called ha’adam in Genesis 3, except for Genesis 3:6 & 16 where ish is used with the sense of “husband.” At some point, his name becomes “Adam” (without the definite article).

[6] In the early chapters of Genesis, adam is typically used with the definite article, ha’adam, meaning “the human being.” Occasionally, however, adam serves as the proper name “Adam,” typically written without the article. The first unambiguous instance in the Hebrew text of the first human being called “Adam” is not until Genesis 4:25, though the proper name may also occur in Genesis 3:17. (See here.)
In Genesis 2:20 the article is hidden by the inseparable preposition bet. I suspect English translations of “Adam” in verse 20 are incorrect and based on the Masoretic pointing that was not part of the original or “inspired” biblical text. I am happy to be corrected on this. Many English translations use the proper name “Adam” in Genesis 2:20. Here are a few translations that don’t.
Some versions of the Septuagint transliterate (rather than translate) the Hebrew ha’adam into the proper noun “Adam” a few times in Genesis 2.

[7] Several Jewish writers and rabbis, both ancient and modern, have the understanding that ha’adam was originally both male and female. For example, the Genesis Rabbah, a midrash of ancient rabbinic interpretations of Genesis compiled in the fifth century, states,

Rabbi Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, He created him an hermaphrodite [bi-sexual] {or, androgyne}, for it is said, “Male and female created He them and called their name Adam” (Gen. 5:2).
Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: “When the Lord created Adam He created him double-faced {or, with two faces}, then He split him and made him of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side.”
Genesis Rabbah 8.1 (Source p. 53) (My use of braces.)

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman thought Adam and Eve had been joined along the back, but when separated they then each had their own back.

The Megillah comments on an early translation of Genesis 5:2.

They also wrote: “Male and female He created him,” and they did not write as it is written in the Torah: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 5:2), to avoid the impression that there is a contradiction between this verse and the verse: “And God created man” (Genesis 1:27), which indicates that God created one person.
Megillah 9a.13 (Source)

The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (died circa 50 CE) interpreted Genesis allegorically. Concerning Genesis 2 he states,

“Therefore, the lawgiver relates that the woman was formed out of the rib of the man, indicating by that expression, that one half of the body of the man is woman.” (cf. Gen. 2:21-24)
Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis Book 1.25  (Source)

In another work Philo comments on Genesis 1 and writes the first human was asexual, neither male or female:

“But man, made according to the image of God, was an idea, or a genus, or a seal, perceptible only by the intellect, incorporeal, neither male nor female, imperishable by nature.” (cf. “Let us make man in our image” Gen. 1:26a)
Philo, On the Creation of the World, 134 (Source)

In Poimandres, an anonymous second-century CE Hermetic text, the primal human is described as an androgyne coming from an androgynous father: “Though male-female (Greek: arrenothēlous), as from a Father male-female.” Poimandres 15 (Source)

Clement of Alexandria, a Christian theologian who died in 215, relates a teaching of the heterodox teacher Valentinus:

“… in the case of Adam, the male remained in him but all the female seed was taken from him and became Eve, from whom the females are derived, as the males are from him.”
Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria (Extracts from the Works of Theodotus and the So-Called Oriental Teachings at the Time of Valentinus in Clement of Alexandria’s writings), 21. (Source)


“The Creation of Eve”: A marble relief on the left pier of the façade of the cathedral in Orvieto, Italy. © Georges Jansoone 2008 (Wikimedia Commons).

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