Concerning Gen 2:21, Retrodiagnosis, and Methodology in Scriptural Study: A Response to Hector Avalos

 If Hebrew ṣēlā‘ is interpreted as “rib,” a different explanation has to be provided for the etiological statement in Gen 2:21. None is provided or mentioned by Avalos. 

         See: A Penis Bone in Genesis 2:21? Retrodiagnosis as a Methodological Problem in Scriptural Studies

See Also: Ziony Zevit. What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? Yale University Press; Illustrated edition, 2013.

Click here for chapter 12.

Click here for notes. .

“Chapter 12 peproduced by permission of Yale University Press.”

By Ziony Zevit
American Jewish University
December 2020


On 10 November 2020, Hector Avalos,  Prof. of Religious Studies at Iowa State University, published an article titled “A Penis Bone in Genesis 2:21?  Retrodiagnosis as a Methodological Problem in Scriptural Studies” on The Bible and Interpretation website. In it, he wrote that “Zevit specifically asserts that the Hebrew word sela (צלע) in Genesis 2:21 refers to a penis bone (os baculum), not a rib, in speaking of the creation of Eve. This essay will show that none of the arguments adduced by Zevit, including those drawn from Alan Dundes’ research on the practice known as couvade, will yield the results he asserts for Genesis 2:21.”

          Avalos’ article draws its information of my position from many sources. First of all, Scott F. Gilbert, Prof. of  Biology Emeritus at Swarthmore College, specializing in evolutionary developmental biology, and I authored a letter, “Congenital Human Baculum Deficiency: The Generative Bone of Genesis 2:21-23,” published in the American Journal of Medical Genetics 101 (2001) 284-5 (subsequently reprinted in Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture  [January 2008] 76-77). Other sources include Z. Zevit, “The First Lady,” chapter 12 of What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? (2013); idem, a popular article on the topic, “Adam’s Rib?—Or his Baculum,” BAR 41 (2015) 33-35; Dan Ben-Amos, letter to the editor, BAR 41 (2015); idem, “From Lilith to Edna—Lilith in the Garden,” BAR 41 (2016) 54-58.

       A few days after Avalos’ article appeared, Candida Moss, Prof. of Theology at the University of Birmingham (UK), published a popular version of his arguments in a clever, accessible article written with a light touch and sense of humor: “Was Eve Made from Adam’s Missing Penis Bone?” online in The Daily Beast (Nov. 22, 2020, updated on Nov. 23) in the “World News” section.

Five of Avalos’ critiques:

  1. [Z]evit … is engaging in ‘retrodiagnosis,’ the practice of providing modern medical categories and descriptions for conditions unknown or of no interest to ancient writers ….”  

Perhaps Avalos refers to my writing that humans, males and females, have twelve ribs on each side of their chest, but that I did not refer to genetic anomalies giving rise to cases of people with more or fewer ribs. His extended discussion of the number of bones in the body is interesting but not relevant. Perhaps he may have been referring to my interpretation of a phrase in Gen 2:21: “… Lord God … closed the flesh in its place [from  where he had removed the rib or penis bone].” 

           Both Scott Gilbert and I recognized this verse as the biblical author’s etiological explanation for something. We hypothesized, originally independently and then jointly in our letter to a medical journal, that the biblical author had in mind a thin seam of tissue on the underside of the scrotum and penis, visible from birth through adulthood. I had approached the text as a philologian and Gilbert as a biologist who taught embryology and developmental genetics.

            Commenting on Avalos’ use of “retrodiagnosis” on the Bible and Interpretation website (11/10/2020), Martin Hughes questioned the appropriateness of this term to describe what Gilbert and I had done. We were not undertaking to diagnose an illness or the like by applying modern medical knowledge to symptoms reported in an ancient text.

  1. “Zevit’s hypothesis is not in accord with how ancient Jewish interpreters viewed the body of Eve.”   

The statement is correct. The point of my discussion of Jewish interpretations from Late Antiquity through the Middle Ages was to point out that the “rib” interpretation of the Hebrew word ṣēlā‘  was never considered by these scholars. These early scholars understood that the word meant “side” and tried to figure out its specific reference, an undertaking that usually terminated in fanciful, homiletic midrash.

  1. “For Zevit, it seems to be important that ribs lack a generative aspect, which generation is the premier function of the penis.” 

This statement is also correct. Were that not the case, it is doubtful that Gilbert and I would have come up with our hypothesis about the statement in Gen 2:21. If Hebrew ṣēlā‘  is interpreted as “rib,” a different explanation has to be provided for the etiological statement in Gen 2:21. None is provided or mentioned by Avalos.

            I also wish to point out that Avalos’ “re-expression” of my reasoning as a syllogism is both unfair and seriously misleading: “X has no generative powers; therefore God would not use X to generate Eve in Genesis 2:21.”  The syllogism is set up as if Gilbert and I were trying to prove a negative, a logical “no-no.” We hypothesized a connection between two extant, verifiable facts: a written statement in Gen 2:21 and an observable biological fact. That hypothesis led to a positive conclusion regarding the specific referent of the word ṣēlā‘ in this particular context. In other contexts, ṣēlā‘  has other referents such as the side of a box, a side-chamber, the spur of a mountain, a plank of wood.

  1. The word ṣēlā‘ in Gen 2: 21 occurs in a phrase regularly translated as “one of his ribs.” Avalos writes that this “[n]aturally implies that more than one ṣēlā‘ is involved. That certainly would not be consistent with a singular penis bone.”

This critique is correct as far as it goes. My discussion of the semantics of ṣēlā‘ concluded that it denotes items generally lateral to and/or diverting from a main axis of a structure. According to my hypothesis, assuming that the bodies of standing humans are conceived as built around a vertical axis, anything diverting from it horizontally might be considered a ṣēlā‘: arms, ears, ribs (from the spine), a nose, and yes, a penis with a bone. Accordingly, I translated verse 21 in chapter 24 of my book:  “And (so) YHWH made a heavy slumber fall on the human and he slept; and he took one of his lateral limbs and he closed the flesh beneath it.”

  1. “Dundes’ study of couvade is irrelevant because it does not follow that practicing this cultural behavior means that the author of Genesis 2:21 must have been thinking of an os baculum.”

This statement at the end of Avalos’ article is partially correct in that he used the word must. Alan Dundes’ research raises the possibility that cultural experiences might/could have suggested the thought to the author of Genesis 2:21. Dundes mentioned folklorist reports that some cultures considered it odd that the human penis is boneless (see BAR  41 [2015] 35). This particular datum is hardly irrelevant, even if it is inconvenient for the argument that Avalos is trying to make in his article.

            Dundes’ work came to my attention in a letter to the editor of BAR by Dan Ben-Amos, published after my book was out. It played no role at all in the development of my understanding of Eve’s origin, even though I was pleased to learn of Dundes’ conclusion. It is congruent with mine but derives from a psychoanalytic interpretation of anthropological data, a methodology in a discipline very different from my own.  

* * *

I thank Dr. Avalos for his heavily researched article. From it, I learned that in the event I should decide to publish a second edition of What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden? I will have to provide additional details in chapter 12 and clarify some of my arguments. In order for readers to evaluate (a) the validity of Avalos’ many critiques and arguments, not all of which I listed above, and (b) the adequacy of my responses, the relevant chapter from What Really Happened is appended above, courtesy of Yale University Press.




Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.