Why is it that Biblical translators choose to translate the Hebrew word צֵלָע (tsela) as "rib" when referring to the formation of Eve from Adam in Genesis 2:22? Never is this word translated as rib in any other scriptures except here. Some scholars believe that Adam was created both male and female as denoted in Genesis 1:27 and that God literally removed the female part of Adam from his abdominal chamber (צֵלָע, tsela) so why don't translators translate this word as "chamber"?
Hebrew ṣelāʽ (thus the correct transliteration) is a clear cognate of Akkadian ṣēlu and Arabic ḍilʽ and ḍilaʽ, all of which primarily mean “rib”, but are also metaphorically used to mean “side”. They are very widely attested in Akkadian and Arabic and leave no doubt as to their meaning. It is a basic Semitic noun for a body part. From a linguistic point of view, the most straightforward translation is the most literal one, in this case “rib”.
By the way, Semitic studies have advanced a lot since the time of Gesenius 1833. Arabic shows that ḍilaʽ “rib” is not the same root as ẓalaʽa “to limp”. It just so happens that in Hebrew Semitic ẓ and ḍ coalesce as ṣ.
I would point out that the Hebrew text lends itself to the translation "rib." The text in Genesis 2:21 literally reads, "And he [the Lord God] took one ['aḥat] from his side [miṭṭela'] and he closed the flesh after them [taḥtennah]." The "one" would suggest a part of the side, and the "after them" (with a feminine plural suffix) would suggest that the one was originally among many others. The rib cage lends itself to this kind of language, and so the translation "rib" seems quite defensible.
For those who are trying to say that ṭela' means rib, I would point out that in no other place in the First Testament can you find it translated in that way. In every other context the word refers to the whole side of a bilaterally symmetrical object. If the word was ṭela' by itself, the most appropriate translation would be "side."
This doesn't, however, rule out a different translation. If the "one" here is in fact referring to a whole side, then God would be taking one side and leaving the other behind. The only difficulty with this translation would be to reconcile the feminine plural suffix at the end of the prepositional phrase (which suggests that more than one of this "thing" was left behind).
The reason for translating this word as "rib" in this passage most likely has to do with Genesis 2:23 in which Adam states "This one at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (NET).
While you are correct that this word is often translated as chamber, according to the NAS Exhaustive Concordance, the NASB most often translates צֵלָע (tsela) as side or in some cases, side chamber.
Since there is only one type of bone in the side of the human body, it is only natural for translators to conclude that Eve, being bone of bone was made from Adam's only bone in his side - the rib.
Furthermore, this bone motif has a very important tie-in to Eve being described as Adam's עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (Ezer Kenegdo). You see, the צֵלָע (tsela; rib) is cognate with צָלַע (tsala`) which means to limp. Both originate from the primitave root "to curve" (like a rib)
Likewise, עֵזֶר כְּנֶגְדּוֹ (Ezer Kenegdo; where עֵזֶר [ezer] means helper and כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ [Kenegdo] means "one who stands against or in opposition to") evokes the imagery of Adam leaning on Eve in his time of weakness in much the same way that one leans on a crutch which stands in opposition to the one it supports.
This is further bolstered by the fact that עֶצֶם (etsem) originates from עָצַם (`atsam) which means mighty or strong (like a bone).
Therefore, translating this as "rib" does not gloss over womankind being a major part of Adam, but instead acklowledges the strength of womankind. The sheer fact that Eve is made from Adam's side and not his heel indicates that Eve is Adam's equal, so there is very little bias displayed in translating צֵלָע (tsela) as rib.
Insight into the meaning of the Hebrew word צֵלָע (tzela) can be found in the LXX, Vulgate, as well as the Aramaic targumim. They show us how those translators interpreted (and thus, translated) the Hebrew word.
The LXX has τὴν πλευράν, a declension of πλευρά, which can mean “rib” or “side.”1
The Vulgate has costis, a declension of costa, which also can mean “rib” or “side.”2
The targum of Onkelos has a declension of עִלְעָא (ilʿa), the Aramaic cognate of צֵלָע, which can mean “rib” or “side.”3
Whatever God took out of Adam was bone, hence the phrase “bone of my bones” in Gen. 2:22. Since צֵלָע can mean “side,” and whatever God took from Adam was bone, then it is reasonable to understand צֵלָע in this context as “rib.”
Carl Friedrich Keil commented on this passage,4
Die Richtigkeit jener von allen alten Verss. ausgedrükten Bedeutung ergibt sich aus den Worten: „Gott nahm eine von seinen צלעות“, wonach der Mensch mehrere oder viele צלעות hat.
The correctness of that meaning, expessed by all the ancient versions, appears from the words, “God took one of his צלעות,” according to which, the man had several or many צלעות.
In response to the following comment in the original post:
Outside of Genesis, this Hebrew word was never translated as "rib".
The contexts in which it occurs outside of Genesis are different than the one in which it occurs in Genesis.
Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. Vol. 2. London: Luzac; New York: Putnam, 1903.
Keil, Carl Friedrich. Biblischer Commentar über das alte Testament. Erster Teil: die Bucher Mose’s. Erster Band: Genesis und Exodus. 3rd ed. Leipzig: Dörffling and Franke, 1878.
Lewis, Charlton T.; Short, Charles. Harper’s Latin Dictionary: A New Latin Dictionary Founded on the Translation of Freund’s Latin-German Lexicon. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884.
Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
The Hebrew word צְלָעֹת (tsela) occurs about 41 times in the OT. Brown-Driver-Briggs offers the following set of definitions:
1 rib of man Genesis 2:21,22 (J).
2 rib of hill, i.e. ridge, or terrace 2 Samuel 16:13.
3 side-chambers or cells (enclosing temple like ribs) 1 Kings 6:5,6 (read ׳הַצּ for היצוע, see [ יָצִיעַ]), 1 Kings 7:3, so of Ezekiel's temple Ezekiel 41:5 10t. 41 (on text see Co Toy Krae).
4 ribs of cedar and fir, i.e. planks, boards (plural), of temple wall 1 Kings 6:15,16 floor 1 Kings 6:15.
5 leaves of door 1 Kings 6:34.
6 (in P) side, of ark (אֶרוֺן) Exodus 25:12 (twice in verse); Exodus 25:14 = Exodus 37:3 (twice in verse); Exodus 37:5; of tabernacle (מִשְׁכָּן) Exodus 26:20 ("" מֵּאָה Exodus 26:18), Exodus 26:26; Exodus 26:27; Exodus 26:27 = Exodus 36:25 ("" ׳פ Exodus 36:23), Exodus 36:31; Exodus 36:32, Exodus 26:35 (twice in verse); of altar Exodus 27:7 = Exodus 38:7, Exodus 30:4 = Exodus 37:27. — Jeremiah 20:10; Job 18:12 see צֶלַע below II. צלע.
Thus, if one wished to be absolutely pedantic about the translation, one might say, "plank from the side of", or similar. In the human anatomy (this was realised well before the advent of modern anatomy and physiology) it is obvious that the ribs of a human (indeed most mammals) forms a cage - that is why the bones constructing this cage are called ribs. Similarly, the skeleton of a ship is composed of ribs covered in planks.
Therefore, the translation of צְלָעֹת (tsela) in Gen 2:21, & 22 as "rib" is entirely expected and understandable.
It is my opinion that the original authors thought of Adam as an Androgyne (male-female) complete character, and it was Yahweh who split him in half to form his consort. These rabbis tried to understand Genesis 1:27 "male and female he made them" as implying that the Adam was created both male and female in one.
This was argued for in the Genesis Rabbah 8.1. (300-500AD), but that is quite modern compared to the age of the text and its original meaning.
I think one of the major arguments for this interpretation comes from the paired verb, "tsala." This verb means "to limp" as in "you favor one side." This is best remembered from Genesis 32:31 after Jacob wrestled all night and was touched in his "yarek" (which definitely doesn't mean "hip."). Being touched in the "yarek" by a divine power doesn't make your rib hurt, whatever that would mean.
The LXX word is "πλευρών" which clearly means "side" in its feminine form (which is used in genesis 2). This is like "a side of beef." It's a mathematical term meaning the side of a triangle or square.
In the descriptions of the construction of the Ark of the covenant, we see that the term tsela is used to describe the entire side of the ark (Exodus 25:12).
The concept of "the whole side" is also supported by Adam's declaration in Genesis 2:23a:
"This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;"
The woman is made of Adam's bone and Adam's flesh (not just bone). It may also be worth reminding that in Hebrew, masculine gender applies to any mixed group containing males and females, so referring to Adam with masculine conjugated verbs can also fit the hypothesis that Adam contained both male and female halves within him.
One of the more powerful reads that I see is in the parallel poetry between genesis 1 and 2. God creates the separation between the masculine waters above and below on day 2, but the day does not end with the declaration that "it was good." Something was unfinished. The waters above had received their name "Shamayim" but the waters below were incomplete. Something was not yet "good" about the day. It wasn't until day three that the masculine waters were pulled back to reveal the dry land (feminine noun) and to bound the seas (masculine noun), that we get a declaration of goodness.
As I have tried to explore in my other question about day 3 and the creation of Adam, there is a resounding "not good" right after the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:18. And this is resolved after God pulls back and ties off the flesh of Adam and reveals the woman (who is not Eve yet). One can see this as a poetic parallel linking humanity to the creation of the world.
Also, we may note that the gender specific pronouns (ish and ishshah) do not show up in the narrative at all until AFTER the "tsela" is taken. Adam is always referred to as "Adam" and never as Ish until Genesis 2:23 after the surgery. From then on, Ish is interchangeable with Adam.
Another interesting point is that genesis 2 ends on the etiology of marriage. The man leaves his family and CLINGS to his wife. It is, in a sense, an act of reunion with our other half. It's not clear why a mere rib would causes such an attraction. In either case, this is the template for marriage, first prescribed in the bible. Marriage is not to procreate, but to make one flesh out of two halves.
I've often thought that Matthew's gospel got it wrong in Matthew 19:6 with the famous wedding line "Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." ... Didn't you know that it was God that separated this in the first place?!
This ontological union concept is paralleled in Plato's creation myth where the division of the Androgyne into halves is not at all ambiguous.
From Plato's Symposium, c. 385–370 BC Aristophenes' Creation story
In this story, Aristophenes describes androgyne, male, and female pair beings. They look like they have too much power and scare Zeus, and he has Apollo cut them in half and then sew them up at their belly buttons. They immediately cling to one another and then must be separated and spread out on the earth so that they spend their whole life seeking one another. There was a fascinating Will Smith movie on this called Hancock.
The neat part of Aristophenes' take is that it contains all gender pairs in the relationships. There are male/male splits, female/female splits, and the androgyne male/female splits (which are all that are described in the Genesis story).
I have taught religious education courses in a ministerial capacity on gender concepts in the text, and have gone through all the instances of tsela in great detail. There are no instances of the word in the torah/pentateuch that make sense as anything other than SIDE. I suggest you explore those yourself. All other instances are structural, not biological.
The only instances I have found that could represent a rib are 1 Kings 6:15 (rafters), but then in 1 Kings 6:34, the term is clearly speaking about one of two leaves of a double door. One side of the doorway.
A final note: It's interesting to discover that most people believe that men have one fewer rib than women (kind of like how we have an Adam's Apple and women don't). But this is simply not true. Women and Men both have the same number of ribs.
This is a fascinating topic, but I think close analysis reveals the notion that Adam was split right in half to make the woman just as the waters where pulled back to reveal the land.
Additional recent references that argue for a "side" interpretation:
- The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate (2015)
John H. Walton (Ph.D., Hebrew Union College) is professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College
See pages 78-79 for bits of his discussion on this. Those pages are available at that link in the google books preview. Walton does a great job discussing the history of the interpretation. I'd call this the apex of the academic argument as much as one may be had. Most approaches to a raw interpretation of the text (Sola Scriptura) are faced with the same kind of tradition laden reads which are mired in cultural context of the post roman empire culture.
Though the evidence warrants "side," there is a whole meta-discussion about how even intimating this can make you a Pariah at modern institutions of christian "academics."
Yes, it is justified (aside from translation) by SCIENCE!
It definitely means "rib". I did some digging around and - surprise - the rib is the only bone in the body that can regenerate fully without a bone graft.
Although all bones can repair themselves, ribs can regenerate themselves.2 Ribs are commonly removed during surgeries that require bone grafts in other parts of the body. The rib is removed from the periosteum (a tissue surrounding the bone) much like a banana would be removed from its peel while keeping most of the peel intact. The periosteum must remain, as it contains osteoblasts which build the new rib bone.
Also, ribs contain bone marrow, platelets, red and white blood, and stem cells, and can also create new tissues and organs.
The rib, in particular, represents an anatomic type of long bone with a wide, spongious component rich in hematopoietic bone marrow, containing multipotent, pluripotent, and unipotent stem cells 3. Totipotent so far have not been identified in bone marrow. As with the making of new life from Adam’s rib, new tissues and organs are now being made in both experimental and clinical work by using hematopoietic bone marrow from cell cultures.
Given this creation of new tissues and organs via hematopoietic bone marrow, the question arises about the implication of these observations for science. Carefully reading Genesis 2 , one is impressed by the fact that man and woman originated via two different modalities: Man ‘‘from the dust of the ground, [God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul’’ (Genesis 2:7); Woman ‘‘from the rib taken from [from] man [Adam]’’ while he was sleeping (Genesis 2:21–22).
As you read the sources I hope you are all mind-blown as I am.
Adam didn't lose a rib forever. It grew back!
I used this article as a starting point for the answers I gave and researched.