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In the Minnesota Public Radio News story "Female faith leaders preach #SilenceIsNotSpiritual", guest speaker Lisa Sharon Harper went on a tangent while discussing attitudes towards women in church leadership and discussed the hermeneutics of Genesis 2 (emphasis mine, Hebrew words are transliterated based on how they sound to me):

So for example: Genesis 2. Right? Genesis 2 you have…this is the big text that everybody always uses. "Well Adam came first and then came Eve, and so Adam should be the one who dominates over Eve or the one who leads, right?"

Well actually, in the text, the word "Adam" is not Adam it's A-dahm, which means "human being"; it's a gender-neutral word. So when God created humanity and placed humanity in the garden, then God said "it is not good for humanity to be without companion and so I'm gonna make a help-meet.

Now that word "help-meet" is "azar", and "azar" is only used in two particular ways in the entirety of scripture. One is a military term. So "azar" is the point, you know, the point person at the tip of the V in a V-formation of soldiers who are walking through the forest, the one who protects everybody else; that's the azar; that's who we were created to be for each other.

So when you read, when you read the scripture deeply, understanding the context, understanding the actual language: what you find is that in the beginning the way that we were created to be was not supposed to be a dominated relationship, rather…the very first appearance of gendered language in Genesis 2 actually comes when that rib is taken out, but it's not taken out of the man, it's taken out of the human, and so God separates out for the first time male from female. And that's the point that we were, we are actually one and we were created to be one. We were created from one.

So my understanding is that Harper is claiming that Adam was a gender-neutral being (which she refers to several times as "humanity"), and that the separation of male and female came about only with God removing the rib from Adam.

Is this description of the language of Hebrew language accurate in terms of gendered words and such? And can is it reasonable to, as Harper says, interpret Adam as referring to "humanity", rather than a specific man as is traditionally done?

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    The man. Adam. married his wife, Eve, and had three sons - Cain, Abel and Seth He lived to be nine hundred and thirty years old and he died. He had a city named after him - Adam. What part of this do you not understand ? – Nigel J Jun 19 '18 at 3:20
  • @NigelJ That's my interpretation too. However, this prominent author had a different interpretation and I'm wondering if her analysis has any substance to it. – Thunderforge Jun 19 '18 at 12:53
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It's an interesting reading, and some might even say that it accounts for why Eve says "we were told not to eat" — both man and woman were in this joined protohuman. But I disagree with the overused claim that this represents a "deeper" reading simply because it takes the name for its symbolic meaning. Is it a deeper reading if we take Jonah to be talking about doves, Isaac to be talking about laughter, Deborah to be talking about bees, instead of stories about particular people?

But let's look into the start of Genesis. Some considerations:

  1. Yup, adam is believed to mean "human" in general.

  2. For most of the first few uses, it's hard to read "Adam" as a proper noun because it's always preceded by the definite article: the adam, the human. This might support the above reading. Gradually it seems to become a proper noun, but inconsistently (3:17 Adam; 4:1 the adam; 4:25 Adam). Clearly by New Testament times it was considered "one man" (Romans 5:12).

  3. It's true that the gendered ish "man" and isha "woman" aren't used till Eve's creation. But ish is used just that once and then it returns to "the adam" for the rest of the narrative, which is paired with "the isha". So I hesitate to read it as the category adam. Or should we understand "the human and its wife" (Genesis 2:25)? I doubt this helps the intended reading above.

  4. Adam says that "from ish was isha taken". That seems to imply the traditional reading; he doesn't say "from adam both were taken", as the above reading interprets.

As for 'ezer, I don't follow the logic. "There are two uses. One is a military term. Therefore this use bears the military sense." Well, what about the other use, one who helps? Why would military terms be present in this passage?

Anyhow, I think there are more than those senses across this word's many uses in the Bible. Personally, I think "help" is a weaker word in English than 'ezer is in Hebrew; people are always calling God their 'ezer or "help", which sounds more like it must mean rescuer or protector, if you want to read this into Eve's role. ;)

In short, I would read the adam as "the man" to make the most sense of the text, and see in the story the culturally bound understanding of man as the "default" and woman the one who rescues him from being alone.

However, I'd agree with the speaker that this shouldn't motivate a modern exegesis of hierarchy. There are many passages in the Bible that give women a lesser status than men that are far clearer than this one. And gender-based domination is a result of sin, God says unambiguously in Genesis 3:16. I don't think the ancient perception of women was meant to be ours. But that of course is a bigger question for Christianity or Judaism Stack Exchange.

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    Nice answer! Just want to add that Adam is an ISH with the name ADAM that (also) means "humanity" as Eve is ISHA that her name means (also) "snake" (-: – A. Meshu Jun 18 '18 at 15:38
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The term אָדָם ('adam) has four different uses with reference to people in the OT:

1) a man as in a human person, whether male or female (e.g. Lev 13:2); 2) a man as opposed to woman (e.g. Eccl 7:28); 3) collectively mankind as a reference to all of humanity (e.g. Deut 8:3); and 4) Adam, the male individual who was the first human created and from which all mankind originates (e.g. 1 Chr 1:1).1

So one must consider those possibilities when looking at the term in the early chapters of Genesis. A number of grammatical factors can come into play with respect to helping identify usage, and then context should be considered as well. To keep it simple here, there are two things to note about the use of the term 'adam prior to chapter 2. NOTE: All English quotations are from the NKJV.

  1. The first use of 'adam in Gen 1:26 is an anarthrous (lacks the "the" article) singular2 that is immediately referred to by a 3rd masculine plural verb (יִרְדּוּ֩, "let them have dominion"), and so is clearly intended there as a collective term equal to mankind by use of the plural to refer to the singular term.
  2. The second use of 'adam in Gen 1:27 is articular (has the "the" article), so literally "the 'adam" or better, "the man." That reference is immediately referred to by a singular masculine pronoun ("in the image of God He created him"), and then a sexual distinction of "male and female He created them" (referring back to the prior reference to mankind). The lack of using the plural for the initial statement is significant in understanding the articular usage later.

So in the context of Genesis, the sexual distinction occurs earlier than chapter 2, since 1:27 refers to it as well, and that in the context of making an explicit singular statement to a masculine individual.

Moving to chapter 2, 'adam is found as follows:

  • v.5 anarthrous, referring generally to "man" having yet been created (i.e. no individual human was yet created).
  • v.7 articular, referring to the creation of "the man," with again a singular masculine pronoun reference following that "into his nostrils" God breathed life, and "the man" (a 2nd articular reference) "became a living being."
  • v.8 articular, "the man" was put in the garden.
  • v.15 articular, "the man" is declared to have been put in the garden for a purpose.
  • v.16 articular, "the man" is commanded about what he can and cannot eat in the garden.
  • v.18 articular, "the man" God determines was not good to be "alone," and it is "him" who the LORD plans to make a helper for.
  • v.19 articular, "the man" (twice; the NKJV has Adam, the proper name, but see below) has animals brought to him to name.
  • v.20 articular, "the man" has finished naming, but "for [the] man" (this second use in the verse is an anarthrous 'adam, but that is common when tied to a preposition, and thus becomes definite by context of referring back to the articular form before).
  • v.21 articular, "the man" is put to sleep (again, "his rib" is a singular masculine reference back to "the man").
  • v.22 articular, "the man" (twice), referring to the rib fashioned into the woman who is presented to him. NOTE: She is called the אִשָּׁה ('issah; woman) here still in contrast to the 'adam as an individual, male being (not as some "gender-neutral being" as the OP summarized Harper's position).
  • v.23 articular, "the man" spoke about his helper.
  • v.24 does not have 'adam, but an anarthrous אִ֔ישׁ ('ish) for "a man" in contrast to the 'issah as a general statement about how marriage will work once children are being born.
  • v.25 articular, "the man" and "his" (again, masculine singular pronoun referent) woman ('issah, generally translated as "wife," so NKJV).

These contrasts to the articular "the man" ('adam) to "the woman" ('issah) continue in chapter 3, with two anarthrous exceptions, both occurring when used as objects of a preposition (3:17, 21); yet those in context undoubtedly refer to "the man" (or maybe his name, Adam). It is not until Genesis 4:25 that another, non-prepositioned anarthrous use of 'adam occurs, and that use is in reference to it being now considered his actual name, most likely for the first time in the text.3

Why use 'adam as a name as late as 4:25 for the first time? The simple answer is that now there were many other "men" on the earth (at least Cain and Abel), where previously in chapters 1-3, there had only been "the [one and only] man" that needed to be referenced. That is, the articular use of 'adam stands in Genesis chapters 1-4, prior to 4:25, as a stand in phrase to refer to this one and only man, who does not need a name until more males are on the earth, at which time the designation for mankind (that he is the first of) also becomes his name.4

Conclusion

So while lexical grounds allow for "humanity" as a meaning, there is essentially no contextual grounds to consider any of the articular references of 'adam to be anything other than the "male" prototype human that God initially created. All the pronouns reference the individual, the continued use as a comparison to the later created woman demonstrates the masculinity is inherent in the individual, and the conversion of the term to a proper name after other males come on the scene implies an original masculine reference all along.


NOTES

1 Scott Smith, "Mankind: An Exploration of the Meaning of Image and Likeness," (Unpublished paper, Piedmont International University, Winston-Salem, NC, Sept 2011), 3. For lexical definitions verifying this, see HALOT's entries (I and III) or BDB's entry for אָדָם.

2 The term never occurs in a plural form; see Wilhelm Gesenius and Samuel Prideaux Tregelles, Gesenius’ Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2003), s.v. אָדָם.

3 The context clearly marks the term as referring to the individual, Adam, since he "knew his wife again" to bring forth their son Seth. The significance of the anarthrous is that as a rule, in Hebrew "the article cannot be prefixed to a proper name," (Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, E. Kautzsch and Sir Arthur Ernest Cowley, eds. 2nd English ed. [Electronic ed. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2003], §125.a, Logos Bible Software. This means that the prior articular uses were not, technically speaking, references to the proper name of Adam. Only the possible prepositionally prefixed uses in chapter 3:17, 21 may have been his name also, but see my commentary following this note above.

4 There most likely is a play on meaning between the masculine word 'adam (אָדָם) to the feminine word 'adamah (אֲדָמָה) that means earth, ground, or land (HALOT, BDB). The words are distinctly noted in Genesis 2:7 during the detailed description of mankind's creation. The union of the "dust of the ground" and the breath of God there indicates there is some truth to calling the planet "mother earth," and that from the 'adamah the 'adam is formed. So the term 'adam appears to symbolically remind of mankind's formation from the 'adamah, and in turn, that original man carries this "earthy" name as his own proper name, apparently being so named for the race of mankind ('adam) he began when he was first formed from the earth ('adamah).

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