[Note to readers: Please keep reading. I promise there is a payoff at the end of this entry!]
Now that I've finished up the Iliad, we're moving on to a three-week study of the Bible. Although I actually began college as a theology student (and I am a preacher's kid), I've never actually taught the Bible in any of my courses. So, I was at a bit of a loss as to how this should be done.
Thankfully, one of my colleagues alerted me to an absolutely fantastic way to begin questioning the various etiologies presented in the Book of Genesis. I'm having my students read a short essay by Scott Gilbert (Dept. of Biology, Swarthmore College) and Ziony Zevit (Dept. of Biblical Literature, American Jewish University), entitled "Congenital Human Baculum Deficiency: The Generative Bone of Genesis 2:21-23." Unfortunately, you can't read the article online, so I will summarize.
Gilbert and Zevit note that there are certain genetic diseases that affect 100% of the human population; for example, gulonolactone oxidase deficiency, a disease that distinguishes us from our otherwise closely-related primates. Another genetic condition, extending to 100% percent of human males, is the congenital lack of a baculum. That's a penis bone, for those who don't know. Humans and spider monkeys are the only male mammals that don't have a penis bone. So, what does this have to do with Genesis, you might ask? Oh, just wait...
As you may remember from VBS, Genesis tells the story of God's creation of Eve. In that account, Eve is created from the "rib" of Adam. Of course, every grade-schooler knows that both women and men have an equal (and even) number of ribs, so the etiological myth is a bit strange, not to mention at odds with basic biological facts of human anatomy that even ancient Israelites would have known. Gilbert and Zevit point out that the Hebrew noun translated as "rib" (tzade, lamed, ayin) is an ambiguous term, that could mean "rib", but also could mean the "the side chambers enclosing the temple," "the supporting columns of trees," or "the planks in buildings or doors." Thus, the authors conclude that it is not only possible, but likely, that the Biblical passage refers to some bone other than a rib that was taken from Adam to make Eve. What bone do the descendants of Adam actually lack? You guessed it, the baculum.
Biblical Hebrew, unlike later rabbinic Hebrew, had no technical term for the penis, and often referred to it through many circumlocutions. (It wasn't until around the 2nd C. BCE, when the Bible was translated into Greek, that the Genesis bone came to be unambiguously enshrined as a "rib.") But there is even more textual evidence for the interpretation of this "bone" as the baculum. The Genesis account contains another, often-overlooked, etiological detail: "The Lord God closed up the flesh." (Genesis 2:21) If, in fact, God took Adam's baculum to make Eve, this second verse would explain one peculiarly visible sign on the human male's penis and scrotum-- the raphé. The origin of this "seam" on the human penis would be "explained" by the story of the closing of Adam's flesh. Again, there is no such congenital "wound" consistent with the reading the "rib" version of Genesis, but only with some connection to Adam's penis.
That's the biology of the argument... but here's the real hermeneutic force. Gilbert and Zevit's last paragraph reads:
A rib has no particular potency nor is it associated mythologically or symbolically with any human generative act. Needless to say, the penis has always been associated with generation, in practice, in mythology, and in the popular imagination. Therefore, the literal, metaphorical, and euphemistic use of the word tzela make the baculum a good candidate for the singular bone taken from Adam to generate Eve.
There are a lot of ways to read this hypothesis that I find interesting, not the least of which is that it combines the etiology of human beings with the etiology of lust or sexual desire. (Men want their bones back!) Unfortunately, my students won't have read Plato's Symposium yet, but at least some congruency with Aristophanes' account therein is undeniable, or so it seems to me. Anyway, I'm really glad to have been clued in to the Gilbert and Zevit article. Any thoughts?