Patriarchy and the (not) naming of the woman by Adam

Read time: 5 minutes

Christians who think that it is right and good to maintain a form a patriarchy, at least in church and home, will often argue that by naming the woman Adam exercises or asserts an innate, creational authority over her that is not abrogated by salvation.

In search of a suitable helper for the ʾadam, God brings every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens to see what he would call them, and the ʾadam gives them names: giraffe, buffalo, magpie, and so on.

Typically in scripture, the person who calls the name of someone or something does so by virtue of a certain natural authority or right:

And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben, for she said, “Because the LORD has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” (Gen. 29:32)

She names him on two grounds: she is his mother, and he is the answer to her affliction. The naming is not an assertion of authority over him, but it presupposes the natural right of the parent to define the child’s significance.

No suitable helper, however, is found for the ʾadam among the animals, even though they were made from the ground as he was. So God makes an ʾishah and brings her to the ʾadam, who declares:

This, this time, is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. This shall be called ʾishah because this was taken from ʾish. (Gen. 2:23*)

Since the presentation of the animals to the ʾadam is followed by the naming of them, we naturally assume that the presentation of the ʾishah is likewise followed by the naming of her. Gordon Wenham writes in his commentary:

Though they are equal in nature, that man names woman… indicates that she is expected to be subordinate to him, an important presupposition of the ensuing narrative…. (Genesis 1-15, 1987, 70)

Phyllis Trible pointed out 50 years ago, however, that the idiom in verse 23 is a little different: the ʾadam does not “call her name”; he says rather that she “will be called ʾishah“ (“Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation”, JAAR 41.1, 1973, 38). She also observes that “woman” is not a name, it is a common noun; the terms ʾishah and ʾish merely determine sexual difference.

In a previous piece, I took it that Adam names the woman but argued that naming does not subordinate the named person; it identifies an intrinsic characteristic which the namer is best positioned to perceive—Leah’s naming of Reuben is a good example. The second part of the argument is still correct, I think, but Trible has a point about the woman not being named.

We may add three other pieces of evidence.

First, the woman is already “woman” or ʾishah when she is brought to the ʾadam: “And the the LORD God built the rib which he took from the ʾadam into an ʾishah and brought her to the ʾadam” (Gen 2:22). The ʾadam does not give her a new name; he acknowledges what is known already and gives the reason.

Secondly, no one actively calls her “woman”; rather it is said that “she shall be called woman”: in future, the one who is sexually differentiated from the man but also a “helper” compatible with him—not least, sexually compatible with him—will be designated “woman.” The man does not name her, he recognises her as his nature partner.

Thirdly, a quick search has thrown up a number of other Old Testament texts in which we have “shall be called” (yiqqareʾ), not with a name but with a descriptive expression, for example:

Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. (Is. 1:26)

And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness. (Is. 35:8)

…my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is. 56:7)

…you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God. (Is. 61:6)

At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD. (Jer. 3:17)

Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain. (Zech. 8:3)

The meaning is that someone or something will be spoken about or referenced in a way that highlights a defining characteristic.

When we get to Genesis 3:20*, it is said that Adam “called the name of his ʾishah Eve because she was the mother of all living.” Trible thinks that this is a consequence of the disobedience, and effect of the fall: Adam now asserts his rule over the woman. “The naming itself faults the man for corrupting a relationship of mutuality and equality” (41).

I would agree that the fall is the beginning of patriarchy—and that deliverance from the consequences should mean the end of patriarchy. But I’m still not convinced, as I say, that naming entails subordination.

The ʾadam names his wife because so far she is only “woman” whereas he is already Adam, taken from the ʾadamah, the ground. He has the responsibility to name her by virtue of his temporal priority. What the naming achieves is not subordination—though indeed it is part of the curse pronounced on the woman that “he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). Rather, naming identifies her core significance: she is mother of all living.

Frankly Frank | Tue, 07/25/2023 - 12:17 | Permalink

Sounds like the same old Gilbert Belzekian argument which foundationally hinges on the premise that the fall created patriarchy even though Adam was obviously created first. God could have created both man and woman at the same time and originally solved this conundrum. I’m no hardline patriarchal advocate but this hermeneutic is truly a stretch.

@Frankly Frank:

You have a point. It has long seemed to me that the fundamental anthropological premise for male-female relations in scripture is neither hierarchy nor equality but temporal and therefore social preeminence: “Adam was formed first” (1 Tim. 2:13).

I don’t think the order of events in Genesis 2 results in the subordination of the woman, but it is also not an argument for equality in the modern sense. Trible revised her view that the ʾadam was originally androgynous.

I also argued in an article and a book a long time ago that headship in the New Testament is a metaphor for priority and prominence, not for authority, not for “source.” So Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-15 is not about authority but about shame and honour—values that go with public visibility.