It has often been argued that God created men to be the leaders in the male-female relationship. One of the reasons given is the way the man names the woman “woman” (ishah) in Gen. 2:23. So, although God formed both men and women to rule and subdue the earth, from the get-go he also designed men to rule over women. By claiming that naming is an exercise of dominion, Gen. 2:23 is taken as important evidence of the man’s God-given authority over the woman.
Not everyone agrees. Many counter that the man’s naming of the woman has nothing to do with exercising dominion, but rather with identifying who she is in relation to himself. She is bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, like him and equal to him, the ishah (woman) to his ish (man). Rather than an indication of hierarchy, these people argue, the naming speaks to mutuality and sameness.
However, lately I’ve been wondering whether we are missing the point and whether this whole argument is much ado about nothing. What I mean is, do we know that it was the man who named the woman – who came up with the name ishah? Though we do hear ishah on his lips, the text never states that he named her. Frankly, compared to Gen. 3:20, which directly asserts that “the man called his wife’s name Eve,” Gen. 2:23 is rather vague.
But before we go any farther, let’s review the text:
But for the man [adam] no suitable helper [ezer kenegdo] was found. So the Lord God caused the man [adam] to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of his ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman [ishah] from the rib he had taken out of the man [adam], and he brought her to the man [adam].
The man [adam] said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ [ishah], for she was taken out of man [ish].
That is why a man [ish] leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife [ishah], and they become one flesh. The man [adam] and his wife [ishah] were both naked, and they felt no shame. (Gen. 2:20b-25)
The first thing to notice here is the progression of names for both the man and the woman. The man, initially and typically called the adam (human being), is eventually named ish (man) in relation to the woman. The woman, introduced as the ezer kenegdo (powerful ally or strong help), comes to be known as the ishah(woman) in connection to the man. The names ishah and ish, by their very sound, highlight the mutuality and similarity of the woman and man, stressing that they were made for one another.
And, as you may have astutely observed, what we have in vv. 22-23 is not one new name, but two: ishah and ish. Not only that, but ishah occurs first, in v. 22, whereas ish first appears at the end of v. 23.
So it would seem to me, if we’re going to make a life-altering assertion (that God designed men to be in authority over women) based on an assumption (that the man named the woman), we first need to acknowledge the wrench in the works. Only when we admit that both names are new, and that ishah appears before ish, can we determine whether our contention holds water. If we’re going to uncover the genesis of ishah, it’s necessary to factor in the wild card ish.
As I see it, there are four options.
If we start with the perspective of those who believe the man’s naming of the woman points to his authority over her, the first possibility would be that God revealed to the man his new name, ish, and from that the man invented the similar term ishah. If this is the case, the man really did name the woman. We can imagine the man musing, Hey, if I’m ish, what shall I call this vision of beauty so like myself? Let’s see…. I know! How about ishah? Yes, I like that!
In this case male over female dominion might be argued, but only if it could be convincingly demonstrated that naming has to do with authority rather than identification. However, in its efforts to provide a tidy solution this interpretation hits a brick wall. As I mentioned earlier, we do not see the word ish before it occurs on the man’s lips in v. 23. Yes, the man has been around for a while, but up to now he has been known as the adam.
On the other hand, we have already encountered the new name for the woman (ishah) in the previous verse. If the text intends to make a significant point about the man’s naming of the woman – that this means he has God-given authority over her – you might think it would reserve ishah for his lips. The simple fact that ishah occurs earlier makes me doubt this is the intent.
But, perhaps even more significantly, when the Lord God brings the ishah to the man in v. 22 the man is still called the adam, not the ish. If God had previously revealed the name ish to the man, which the man then used as a starting point for the name ishah, we would expect the text to state the opposite: that God brought the ezer to the ish.
Yet that is not what we see.
What does this mean? That this first alternative has counter-evidence in the text and is perhaps not such a slam dunk as so many people take it to be.
A second option, starting with the fact that the new name for the woman shows up in v. 22, would be that God revealed the term ishah to the man, and from there the man invented his own new name ish. Here the man’s ponderings would be the opposite: Let’s see, if she’s ishah, then I must be, I must be…. What must I be? I’ve got it! Ish! Yes, that’s it!
While this alternative may fit the text, it fails logically. If the man doesn’t know himself as the ish when God introduces the ishah, the point about the suitability of her name in relation to his is lost. So, it doesn’t really make sense that she would have her name before he got his. Sadly, perhaps we should jettison option two as well.
On to round three, that the man came up with both names. This is a possibility if we assume that in v. 22 the narrator, writing much later, introduces the name that he knows the man will soon give to the woman. And if we do, it is textually possible that the man gives himself a new name when he grants the woman hers.
However, this option has the same logical hurdle as the last, that the man speaks the woman’s name before he speaks his own. Her name is based upon his, yet in the text her name occurs before his. In this scenario we might imagine the man thinking things through like this: Wow! Let’s see… bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. Unlike the animals, this being is truly like me. I think I’ll call her…give me a moment… ishah! Because, well… because… let me think this through for a second… because, well, ha! I know! Because I’ll name myself ish! Get it? Ish-ishah! Clever, huh!
Honestly, this seems like a stretch-limo stretch. Though possible, I have a hard time convincing myself this is how it all went down.
This leaves us with our final alternative, that the new names originate with God. That would mean, of course, that God determined the names ish and ishah and then revealed them to the man. When and how might this have transpired? And why don’t we see these details in the text?
Interestingly, both Martin Luther and John Wesley suggested that God must have disclosed the process of the woman’s creation to the man, for how else would he have known that she was bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh, seeing as he slept through the whole event?
If this is the case, it could very well be that God unveiled the new names to the man at the same time. Then, as he gazed upon the woman, the man was overcome with a deep understanding of the import of those names. Ah! he thought, No wonder she is ishah, for she is bone of bones and flesh of flesh of ish! This is why she shall be called ishah! Now I understand!
This last option makes the most sense to me, I’ll admit. Mostly due to the text itself, but also because it seems to me that in Scripture the most important namings begin with God, even though human beings are involved in some way. Like the way God named Isaac and John the Baptist and Jesus long before they were born. And Isaiah’s and Hosea’s children. Without the story behind the story, we might think Abraham and Elizabeth and Joseph and Isaiah and Hosea did the naming.
But they didn’t. God did.
I suspect that this is what is going on in Genesis 2:23.
Yet the fact is we don’t know who came up with the names ish and ishah, because the text does not tell us. We simply cannot know for sure. And that makes me question the wisdom of basing something as important as male-female hierarchy, even in part, upon the naming game. It also makes me wonder if maybe – just maybe – the text is intentionally subverting the temptation to make much ado about nothing. Perhaps those vagaries, those seeming inconsistencies, are designed to help us keep things simple.
But there is no way to determine that either.
All I keep thinking right now is that it might be a really big mistake to make a really big assertion based upon a really big mystery.
How about we agree that the man exulted in the woman, and leave it at that?
Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash