Original Unity of Man and Woman

Author: Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II


At the General Audience in St Peter's Square on 7 November, John Paul II continued his cycle of catechesis on marriage.

1. The words of Genesis, "It is not good that the man should be alone" (2:18) are a prelude to the narrative of the creation of woman. Together with this narrative, the sense of original solitude becomes part of the meaning of original unity, the key point of which seems to be precisely the words of Genesis 2:24. Christ referred to them in his talk with the Pharisees: "A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Mt 19:5). If Christ quoted these words referring to the "beginning," it is opportune for us to clarify the meaning of that original unity, which has its roots in the fact of the creation of man as male and female.

The narrative of the first chapter of Genesis does not know the problem of man's original solitude. Man is "male and female" right from the beginning. On the contrary, the Yahwist text of the second chapter authorizes us, in a way, to think first only of the man since, by means of the body, he belongs to the visible world but goes beyond it. Then, it makes us think of the same man, but through the dualism of sex.

Corporality and sexuality are not completely identified. Although the human body in its normal constitution, bears within it the signs of sex and is by its nature male or female, the fact, however, that man is a "body" belongs to the structure of the personal subject more deeply than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female. Therefore, the meaning of "original solitude," which can be referred simply to "man," is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity. The latter is based on masculinity and femininity, as if on two different "incarnations," that is, on two ways of "being a body" of the same human being created "in the image of God" (Gn 1:27).

Dialogue between man and God-Creator

2. Following the Yahwist text, in which the creation of woman was described separately (Gn 2:21-22), we must have before our eyes, at the same time, that "image of God" of the first narrative of creation. In language and in style, the second narrative keeps all the characteristics of the Yahwist text. The way of narrating agrees with the way of thinking and expressing oneself of the period to which the text belongs.

Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term "myth" does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvelous as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it.

Let us add that up to a certain point, the second narrative of the creation of man keeps the form of a dialogue between man and God-Creator. That is manifested above all in that stage in which man ('adam) is definitively created as male and female ('is-'issah).(1) The creation takes place almost simultaneously in two dimensions: the action of God-Yahweh who creates occurs in correlation with the process of human consciousness.

So, therefore, God-Yahweh says: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him" (Gn 2:18). At the same time the man confirms his own solitude (cf. Gn 2:20). Next we read: "So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman" (Gn 2:21-22). Considering the specific language, first it must be recognized that in the Genesis account, that sleep in which the man is immersed—thanks to God-Yahweh—in preparation for the new creative act, gives us food for thought.

Against the background of contemporary mentality, accustomed—through analysis of the subconscious—to connecting sexual contents with the world of dreams, that sleep may bring forth a particular association.(2) However, the Bible narrative seems to go beyond the dimension of man's subconscious. If we admit, moreover, a significant difference of vocabulary, we can conclude that the man ('adam) falls into that "sleep" in order to wake up " male" and "female." In Genesis 2:23, we come across the distinction 'is-'issah for the first time. Perhaps, therefore, the analogy of sleep indicates here not so much a passing from consciousness to subconsciousness, as a specific return to non-being (sleep contains an element of annihilation of man's conscious existence), that is, to the moment preceding the creation, in order that, through God's creative initiative, solitary "man" may emerge from it again in his double unity as male and female.(3)

In any case, in the light of the context of Genesis 2:18-20, there is no doubt that man falls into that "sleep" with the desire of finding a being like himself. If, by analogy with sleep, we can speak here also of a dream, we must say that the biblical archetype allows us to admit as the content of that dream a "second self." It is also personal and equally referred to the situation of original solitude, that is, to the whole process of the stabilization of human identity in relation to living beings (animalia) as a whole, since it is the process of man's "differentiation" from this environment. In this way, the circle of the solitude of the man-person is broken, because the first "man" awakens from his sleep as "male and female."

The same humanity

4. The woman is made "with the rib" that God-Yahweh had taken from the man. Considering the archaic, metaphorical and figurative way of expressing the thought, we can establish that it is a question here of homogeneity of the whole being of both. This homogeneity concerns above all the body, the somatic structure. It is also confirmed by the man's first words to the woman who has been created: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gn 2:23).(15) Yet the words quoted refer also to the humanity of the male. They must be read in the context of the affirmations made before the creation of the woman, in which, although the "incarnation" of the man does not yet exist, she is defined as "a helper fit for him" (cf. Gn 2:18 and 2:20).(16) In this way, therefore, the woman is created, in a sense, on the basis of the same humanity.

Somatic homogeneity, in spite of the difference in constitution bound up with the sexual difference, is so evident that the man, on waking up from the genetic sleep, expresses it at once, when he says: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh—she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man" (Gn 2:23). In this way the man manifests for the first time joy and even exaltation, for which he had no reason before, owing to the lack of a being like himself. Joy in the other human being, in the second "self," dominates the words spoken by the man on seeing the woman. All this helps to establish the full meaning of original unity. The words here are few, but each one is of great weight. We must take into account—and we will do so also later—the fact that the first woman, "made with the rib...taken from the man," is at once accepted as a fit helper for him.

We shall return to this same subject, that is, the meaning of the original unity of man and of woman in humanity, in the next meditation.


1) The Hebrew term 'adam expresses the collective concept of the human species, that is, man who represents humanity. (The Bible defines the individual using the expression: "son of man," ben-'adam.) The contraposition: 'is-'issah underlines the sexual difference (as in Greek anergyne).
After the creation of the woman, the Bible text continues to call the first man 'adam (with the definite article) thus expressing his "corporate personality," since he has become "father of mankind," its progenitor and representative, just as Abraham was recognized as "father of believers" and Jacob was identified with Israel—the Chosen People.

2) Adam's sleep, (in Hebrew, tardemah) is a deep one (in Latin, sopor), into which man falls without consciousness or dreams. (The Bible has another term to define a dream: halom; cf. Gn 15:12; 1 Sm 26:12.)
Freud examines on the other hand, the content of dreams (Latin: somnium) which, being formed with physical elements "pushed back into the subconscious" makes it possible, in his opinion, to allow the unconscious contents to emerge. The latter, he claims, are in the last analysis, always sexual. This idea is, of course, quite alien to the biblical author.
In the theology of the Yahwist author, the sleep into which God caused the first man to fall emphasizes the exclusivity of God's action in the work of the creation of the woman; the man had no conscious participation in it. God uses his "rib" only to stress the common nature of man and of woman.

3) Tardemah (Italian torpore, English "sleep") is the term that appears in Sacred Scripture when, during sleep or immediately afterward, extraordinary events are to happen (cf. Gn 15:12; 1 Sm 26:12; Is 29:10; Job 4:13; 33:15). The Septuagint translates tardemah with ekstasis (ecstasy).
In the Pentateuch tardemah appears only once more in a mysterious context. On God's command, Abram has prepared a sacrifice of animals, driving away birds of prey from them. "As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and lo, a dread fell upon him" (Gn 15:12). Just then God begins to speak and concludes a covenant with him, which is the summit of the revelation made to Abram.
This scene is similar in a way to the one in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus "began to be greatly distressed and troubled" (Mk 14:33) and found the apostles "sleeping for sorrow" (Lk 22:45).
The biblical author admits in the first man a certain sense of privation and solitude, even if not of fear. ("It is not good that the man should be alone"; "For the man there was not found a helper fit for him.") Perhaps this state brings about "a sleep caused by sorrow," or perhaps, as in Abram, by "a dread" of non-being, as on the threshold of the work of creation: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep" (Gn 1:2).
In any case, according to both texts, in which the Pentateuch or rather Genesis speaks of the deep sleep tardemah, a special divine action takes place, that is, a "covenant" pregnant with consequences for the whole history of salvation: Adam begins mankind, Abram the Chosen People.

4) It is interesting to note that for the ancient Sumerians the cuneiform sign to indicate the noun "rib" coincided with the one used to indicate the word "life." As for the Yahwist narrative, according to a certain interpretation of Genesis 2:21, God rather covers the rib with flesh (instead of closing up its place with flesh) and in this way "makes" the woman, who comes from the "flesh and bones" of the first man (male).
In biblical language this is a definition of consanguinity or descent from the same lineage (cf. Gn 29:14). The woman belongs to the same species as the man, different from the other living beings created before.
In biblical anthropology, the term "bones" expresses a very important element of the body. Since for the Jews there was no precise distinction between "body" and "soul" (the body was considered an exterior manifestation of the personality), "bones" meant simply, by synecdoche, the human "being" (cf., for example, Ps 139:15: "My frame was not hidden from you"; in Italian, "Non ti erano nascoste le mie ossa" [bones]).
Bone of my bones can therefore be understood in the relational sense, as "being of my being." "Flesh of my flesh" means that, though she has different physical characteristics, the woman has the same personality as the man possesses.
In the first man's "nuptial song," the expression "bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh" is a form of superlative, stressed, moreover, by the repetition of "this," "she." (In Italian there are three feminine forms: questa, essa, la.)

5) It is difficult to translate exactly the Hebrew expression cezer kenegdô, which is translated in various ways in European languages, for example:
Latin: Adiutorium ei conveniens sicut oportebat iuxta eum;
German: eine Hilfe...die ihm entspricht;
French: égal vis-à-vis de lui;
Italian: un aiuto che gli sia simile;
Spanish: como él que le ayude;
English: a helper fit for him;
Polish: Odopowicdnia alla niego pomoc.
Since the term aiuto (help) seems to suggest the concept of "complementarity," or better, of' "exact correspondence," the term "simile" is connected rather with that of "similarity," but in a different sense from man's likeness to God.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
12 November 1979, page 19

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