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(Genesis 2:21) And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept, and he took one of his ribs and closed up flesh in its place.

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I always used to visualize the verse like this:

  1. God puts Adam to sleep

  2. While Adam is sleeping, God opens a hole in his side

  3. God takes out a rib

  4. God closes up the hole in his side (i.e. closes up flesh in its place)

But now, studying the verse in Hebrew, I'm not so sure if my old interpretation was correct. Following this discussion, it seems that the "it" ("in it's place") refers to the rib (grammatically feminine), not to the flesh (grammatically masculine).

Does this mean we should understand "closed up flesh in its place" to be God giving Adam a replacement rib for the one he took? (i.e. either a real rib made out of bone or at least a quasi-rib made out of flesh to fulfill the same function?)

Or, alternatively, maybe "closed up flesh in its place" still refers to closing up the hole in Adam's side (as in my old interpretation) since his side and his ribs are so close together spatially that they can be said to occupy the same place?

Does the Hebrew text force us to pick one interpretation over the other? If it doesn't, does it at least make one interpretation more likely than the other?

Also, I would be interested to know if the Church Fathers had an opinion on the issue. I was reading St. John Chrysostom's Homilies on Genesis† and I think he agrees that the purpose of closing up the flesh was to replace the rib, but I wonder if any other Fathers though differently. (In particular, if there was a hole in Adam's side before it was closed up as in my old interpretation, doesn't it seem like an even closer parallel to Christ's side being pierced with the lance?)


Footnotes:

† (From Homily 15) It wasn't simply drowsiness that came upon him nor normal sleep; instead, the wise and skillful creator of our nature was about to remove one of Adam's ribs. Lest the experience cause him pain and afterwards he be badly disposed towards the creature formed him from His rib, and through memory of the pain bear a grudge against this being at its formation, God induced in him this kind of sleep: He caused a drowsiness to come upon him and bid him be weighed down as though by some heavy weight. His purpose was that, far from allowing man to suffer any sense of what was happening, he should, like some excellent craftsman, do away with mere appearances, supply for any deficiencies and in his own loving kindness create what had thus been taken from man. The text says, remember, "God caused drowsiness to come upon Adam, and he slept. God took one of Adam's ribs and closed up the flesh in its place" so that after the release of sleep he could not feel the loss he was suffering. You see, even if (121a) he was unaware at the time of the removal, nevertheless afterwards he would be likely to realize what had happened. So lest he cause him pain in removing it, or the loss of it cause him any distress later, he thus provided for both eventualities by making the removal painless and supplying for the loss without letting him feel anything of what had happened.

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  • It's best to quote some relevant text when linking to a source. Could you please use a block quote to add one or two sentences or such from your link to Homilies on Genesis? Mar 20 at 4:25
  • I like this Question, even though my Answer might imply that we shouldn't ask. But, it's still good and important to address in learning Hermeneutics. Mar 20 at 4:35

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I have thought deeply about this question for a while now, and after during further research on the issue now I feel it is time to present my humble analysis.

My answer will have a two-fold structure. In the first part, I will expound the verse according to the literal sense to determine what exactly did go on in that Garden. In the second part, I will discuss the allegorical sense, i.e. how what happened with Adam and Eve in the Garden is paralled in the New Adam and His Church.

The Literal Sense

In the context of Genesis 2:21, we see the Divine Surgeon doing his surgery. First he puts a deep sleep upon the man, just as a surgeon gives anesthesia before beginning his operation. Perhaps next he opens a hole in Adam's side; the text does not explicitly mention this, but it seems most probable seeing what follows. He then removes one of the man's ribs. And then he closes the flesh in its place. With the closing of the flesh, the surgery is complete.

I find it most probable that the "closing of the flesh" refers to closing up the hole in Adam's side, not to giving him a new rib. (If God gave him a new rib too while he was at it, great. But whether he did or not, the text is silent.)

Notice the text doesn't say God "filled up," but that he "closed." The Hebrew verb סגר means "to close," just as one closes a door, or shuts up any kind of opening. The missing rib isn't an opening, but the gaping hole in Adam's side definitely is.

When I first asked this question, I wondered, why does it say that God closed up flesh "in its [in the rib's] place" if it wasn't really in the rib's place? The Hebrew תחתנה is the word in question here. The נה- suffix means "her" (referring to the rib, which is grammatically feminine.) The תחת part is a preposition, properly meaning "under" but by extension can also mean "in the place of." So תחתנה means "under it" or "in its place." The word is flexible; we need not assume that the closing up took place in the exact precise location that the rib was to the nearest millimeter; it suffices that the closing up happened nearby, not too far away. Since the ribs are so close to the edge of the body, it counts.

The Allegorical Sense

For 2000 years, Christians have seen parallels between Adam and Christ. St. Paul writes: "For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. " (1 Corithians 15:21) They have also seen the Church, the Mystical Bride of Christ, prefigured in Eve, Adam's wife. Just to name a few parallels:

  • The Fall involves Adam's disobedience and a tree. To remedy the Fall, Christ became "obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross." (Philippians 2:8) The cross is also a tree, perhaps foreshadowed by the tree of life in the Garden of Eden.
  • Eve receives her name (which in Hebrew signifies life) because, according to carnal generation, she is the "mother of all the living" (Genesis 3:20). Likewise, the Church has always taught Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus; she is the mother of all the (spiritually) living.
  • In Genesis 2:22, God "builds" (בנה) the rib into a woman. It's an awkward word to use. Some translations try to sidestep the issue by saying that God "fashioned" the rib, but the more literal translation from the Hebrew is he "built" the rib. I believe that the Author of Genesis deliberately made this word choice in order to foreshadow the Church, which is also spoken of as being "built" in several NT passages, for example Matthew 16:18: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church."

If you believe that the God who wrote the Old Testament and the God who wrote the New Testament are the same God, and if you believe that this God is omniscient and knew the future with certainty when he wrote Genesis (and also even earlier, when he created Adam and Eve), then it is not "anacronistic" to try to use the New Testament to better understand Genesis. When you watch a certain movie for the first time, there might be some things in the beginning you don't understand at first. But watching a second time, when you already know the ending, the lightbulb clicks.

Many, many Church Fathers saw a parallel between Eve being formed out of Adam's side and the Church being formed (at least metaphorically) out of Christ's side when he was dead on the cross and the soldier pierced his side with a lance and blood and water (i.e. the sacraments of Christian initiation) flowed out. (See John 19:34)

Along this same line of thought, one could interpret Adam's being asleep in Genesis 2:21 as foreshadowing Christ being dead in John 19:34.

So, the question becomes, does the closing up of the flesh in Genesis 2:21 foreshadow something about Christ? I think it does, seeing that everything else in the surrounding context seems to. But what?

In my humble opinion, the opening of Adam's side corresponds to the opening of Christ's side with the lance. But the healing of Adam's body in closing the flesh corresponds to the healing of Christ's body in the Resurrection.

I am a little skeptical about my conclusion, however, because the parallel doesn't hold 100%. We know that, even after Jesus was risen, he still had wounds in his hands and the wound in his side. (John 20:27) But his body was healed. The wounds no longer caused him pain. They were more like badges of honor.

Maybe Adam's missing rib was a badge of honor too.

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    To expand on this, Eve was Adam's bride and came from Adam, and the Church is the bride of Christ (the 2nd Adam), and comes from/through Christ.
    – mbomb007
    Mar 24 at 14:06
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I find it similar of Adam's side being opened and God took a rip which preserved the start of a new creation and notice he closed up the wound but on the cross Christ's side was speared and not a bone of his body was broken, now this is just my interpretation, man's heart was continually on evil and christ at that moment was the seed of righteousness and the seed of sin at its face off as to who would rule but God's seed won and the heart of sinful man would be brought to and end.

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    Hi Robert, welcome to the site. This is an interesting insight; a little more detail in responding to the original question would make this a stronger answer. Please be sure to take the site tour, and thanks for contributing! Apr 15 at 4:06
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Answering from a hermeneutical philosophy here, not Hebrew grammar since that is outside my background. Albeit, I'd love any insight from Hebrew experts.

We might not know; we don't always need to know; grammar doesn't always answer

Some things are left intentionally vague by the Bible. Some people like to speculate. At Moody, Dr. Gregg Quiggle said about such things:

At worst it's superfluous; at best it's gravy. No one ever died without gravy.

I can't find a source for this (someone help?), but Thomas Aquinas was supposedly asked what God was doing before he made Earth and he replied, "He was making Hell for curious souls."

That's mildly comical, but it reflects the thinking of Thomas Aquinas toward what answers we can get from the Bible.

From John F. Boyle (University of St. Thomas)

"It must be said that Sacred Scripture is divinely ordered to this: that through it, the truth necessary for salvation may be made known to us."(1) ...For Thomas, the answer is, in part, revelation. God reveals Himself not in order to satisfy idle human curiosity, but to make possible the full ordering in grace of the human person to God.(2)

Even if we do get an answer, we need to know how or why it might affect the interpretation of other Bible verses or whether it is merely to satisfy our own curiosity. We need to curb that curiosity, but not eradicate it, so we can freely explore in a positive direction that proves useful.

Sources from quote:

  • (1) Quaestiones quodlibetales, 7.6.1.resp., ed. R. Spiazzi (Turin: Marietti, 1956), p. 146.
  • (2) Summa theologiae I.1.1.resp.

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