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


Ziony Zevit is the Distinguished Professor in Bible and Northwest Semitic Languages in the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. He has done widely respected work on the religion of ancient Israel. However, Zevit makes a claim that is difficult to accept or understand linguistically, exegetically, and medically. In so doing, he is engaging in “retrodiagnosis.” Typically, such approaches seek to diagnose a condition mentioned in the Bible in precise modern medical terms.

Zevit specifically asserts that the Hebrew word sela (צֵלָע) 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.


By Hector Avalos 
Professor of Religious Studies,
Iowa State University
November 2020


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Article Comments

Submitted by Martin Hughes on Tue, 11/10/2020 - 13:05


I’d have thought that the evident success of God in creating females of species in which the males have an os baculum would mean that there was no obvious association of ideas, drawn from knowledge of animal anatomy, between the existence of females and the lack of that male attribute. I’m not sure I’d call this retrodisgnosis, that is explanation. of an ancient observation of a condition, as a condition clearly known to modern medicine however different the ancient terminology. It would be retrodiagnosis to say that Thucydides’ plague was typhus, a some do. The human make lack of a penis bone does not call for explanation in the same way, being an obvious fact on which the ancients did not dwell. This is not retodisgnosis of a biological fact but retroascription to the ancients, particularly those ancients with whom we identify, of scientific interests and observational accuracy such as we hope we can ascribe to ourselves. We want to reclaim the from myth for science when it was myth - perhaps poetic insight into the human condition, perhaps guided by God - that they were good at. The most interesting thing I learned from this article was the reference to the idea of an original humanity with two faces. The author of this idea had surely been reading Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium. The ancient world was not that good at comparative anatomy but at absorbing and reflecting on the legends of other cultures they were maybe better than us.

Submitted by Ronald Stimphil on Fri, 01/15/2021 - 12:51


The word translated "rib" in English is the Hebrew word "tsela" (transliteration sounding like zell-a). It was used mostly in construction and designates part of or the entire enclosure. Indeed, only in Genesis 2:21 and 22 is it tranlated "rib." Everywhere else, it is either a wall, a pillar, a chamber or the very human body.

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