In the Bible, Genesis 2 tells the story of how God created Adam from the dust on the ground, and then created Eve using one of Adam’s ribs. However Ziony Zevit, a renowned professor of Biblical Literature and Northwest Semitic Languages from the American University in California, is making the (shocking to say the least) claim that an early mistranslation of the Hebrew word for a penis bone (or baculum) for the word rib has resulted in an inaccurate creation story.
This theory was first presented in the book “What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden”, published in 2013. It’s resurfaced in a paper recently published in Biblical Archaeology Review, reigniting a heated debate amongst Christian readers outraged at the idea.
The point of contention is centered on the Hebrew word “tsela”, which is the word used in the Old Testament of the Bible to describe the bone taken from Adam and used in the creation of Eve. The word shows up in the Hebrew Bible almost 40 times and is used to describe the side of a building, an ark or an altar, a side chamber, and a branch of a mountain. It’s consistently used to describe something which is off-center or lateral to the primary structure.
The first instance of the word tsela being translated as the word rib occurs in the Septuagint, a Hebrew Bible translated to Greek which dates back to the middle of the third century BCE. After the first mistranslation, the word would have lost its original meaning and continued to be used to mean rib.
According to Zevit, the word ‘tsela’ refers to the limbs which are lateral to the vertical axis of a standing human body, i.e., the hands and feet, or, in some cases, penises. Unlike the other appendages, the penis is the only one lacking a bone.
Contrary to public opinion, and the old wives’ tale, men do not have an uneven number of bones compared to women – they have the same number of ribs on both sides of the sternum. What human males don’t have however is an “os baculum” or penis bone, unlike most of the other primates including chimpanzees and gorillas. So, it would seem this new claim could clear up a few lingering contradictions.
If this interpretation is to be believed, when God closes the flesh underneath the tsela, (Genesis 2:21) the Bible is actually stating he closed the flesh on the bottom side of the penis. Zevit’s phallic interpretation of the Christian creation story, not surprisingly, has some readers threatening to cancel their subscriptions to Biblical Archaeology Review. Also contributing to the debate is Haaretz; Israel’s daily paper. Haaretz is arguing that the theory is not, in fact, supported by ancient linguistics, going so far as to say that Zevit’s theory is more unlikely than the original biblical story.
According to a journalist with Haaretz, Elon Gilad, references to life generated from ribs can be found in stories which predate the Hebrew Bible, the Sumerian myth of Enki and Nihursag for example, and the word has cognates which mean rib in other Semitic languages as well. Additionally, the word tsela is still used in post-biblical Hebrew to mean rib, which indicates to some that the word meant rib thousands of years prior to when the proto-Semitic language divided into the dissimilar Semitic language.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: Peter van der Sluijs