The Bible as Ethnography ~ 02 ~ In The Beginning…

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Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 (5 – 25) are distinctly different and contradictory origin stories. The biblical origin story represented in this text has long been known to resemble a set of Sumerian stories that mainly deal with a multitude of gods interacting (some of these gods are converted to humans in the biblical version). What is consistent about all of these stories is the relationship between status and labor, in the context of a labor-intensive agricultural system.

Genesis 1 is very systematic, resembling a post-hoc construction of events, and its main practical purpose may be to justify the sabbath. Genesis 2 gives some meaty ethnographic details, including specific geographical reference points (though reconstruction based on this is probably beyond the realm of possibility), reference to irrigation as a practice, and reference to sex. Both of these texts make reference to “seeds” and “fruit” as key features of plants, to an ocean and to whales, and to a variety of other animals. The second text makes specific reference to cattle.


In the absence of absolutely any contextual information (such as language or the histories of the documents themselves) these texts are origin stories related to a people who have agriculture, likely some connection to irrigation agriculture, and cattle.

Everyone knows that god makes woman (Eve) from Adam’s rib. There are controversies in translation and meaning of this “event.” Indeed, when Vesalius produced a human anatomy indicating that males and females had the same number of ribs (normally), in the early 16th century, some people became fairly upset. The original Hebrew word used in the bible is like a Sumerian term, and together these may refer to either a rib (as in a particular rib from one side of the body) or a side (like a side of beef?).

The concept that men should have one fewer rib than women because god removed Adam’s rib is of course deeply flawed for two reasons that are usually not discussed .. aside, that is, from the fact that this never actually happened and it is just a story. And in fact, I should say that I’m trying to refrain from discussion of these kinds of specifics (like, how the order of creation of different things in Genesis 1 is actually physically impossible … that’s fun stuff to throw at literal young-earth creationists but that is not the point of this series of posts!). But I do want to discuss the ribs because there is ultimately a tenuous ethnographic connection that is far fetched but fun.

But first, the inconsistencies. If god did what it is said to have done, then men and women would have the same number of ribs. First, god removes the rib from Adam, so now Adam has a reduced number of ribs. Then god uses this rib to create Eve more or less like Adam but with some obvious differences (viva la difference, and all that). So Eve is like a transgender clone. Thus, since she is a clone of the the partially de-boned Adam, she then would also would be short-ribbed. The second inconsistency is that, as you must have figured out by now, the idea that men would have fewer ribs than women is Lamarkian. Adam would still contain the genetic code for that rib. So the only short-ribbed man is Adam himself, which is how we will recognize his skeleton once it is located by archaeologists.. (These inconsistencies are of course inconsistent with each other, keeping with a long-practiced tradition of biblical scholarship, I suppose.)

But the rib is still interesting, and here I fully admit I’m going way out on a limb… In hunter-gatherer societies, most animals that are obtained through hunting go through a process called “distribution and redistribution.” This involves butchery of the animal into certain parts, these parts posessed by selected individuals who had a certain role in the hunt, then those parts are passed on one more time, usually to the resident women, who cut the meat up and redistribute it on the basis of need. This is a very common pattern found as far as I know in all groups. Also found in all hunter-gatherer groups is a specific pattern of butchery, whereby there is a certain piece of the animal, including mainly lumbar vertebrae and the meat along side it, that has a special role in this system. This is the piece that goes to the individual who had the most critical role in the hunt. Often this piece includes Adam’s rib, the last, or lowermost rib.

A “side” (actually, middle, or piece) of meat with Adam’s rib thus plays a special role in forager lifeways. The bible is about non-foragers, but this is the origin story. Perhaps Eve is not made from Adam’s rib, but rather, Adam’s rib (the “side of beef” including this rib) is used to induce an interest by “Eve” in Adam, or (shall we get Freudian???) the slayer of Adam. The cloning of Eve is actually the wooing of Eve. Which, eventually, will lead to sex.

Next installment: Snakes and sex.

The Bible as Ethnography Posts

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0 thoughts on “The Bible as Ethnography ~ 02 ~ In The Beginning…

  1. One explanation that I have heard is that in a Sumerian creation myth, the god Enki is cured by a goddess whose name is Ninti, which translates as both “lady who makes life” and “lady of the rib” (apparently the “ti” part had a double meaning, like so many of our words). This might have passed through the years as a “lady who came from a rib”. Maybe. With myths it is really hard to tell, but we can speculate.

  2. As long as we’re going out on limbs, I seem to recall hearing at some point that the “rib” might actually refer to the os penis, which humans lack. I forget the source and their justification, though.

  3. The two stories come from two different traditions (I can’t remember which of the letters goes with which). The Hebrew word “adam” also means person. There is an ancient midrash that the first person was both male and female, back to back, and that was realized to be a dead end and so they were split apart and have been trying to get back together ever since.

  4. Actually, the number of ribs is not the only idea that strikes me as Lamarkian. The idea that susceptibility to sin could be passed down to Adam and Eve’s offspring also suggests that obtained traits can be passed down to descendants. One more reason that evolution by natural selection must be false, I guess.

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