Genesis 2: “Flesh of My Flesh”

Genesis 2 – Unity of husband and wife

Genesis 2–3 is about the man-woman relationship. It is most concretely about the man-woman relationship in marriage, the husband-wife relationship. However, because the narrative concerns the beginnings of the human race, Genesis 2–3 is about more than the husband-wife relationship. It is about the man-woman relationship throughout the whole people. As we shall see over and over again, the scriptural teaching on men-women relationships primarily focuses on marriage because the marriage relationship is foundational to men-women relationships in the whole people. The pattern in the broader community is an extension and reflection of the pattern in marriage. Moreover, the unity of husband and wife is meant to be a model for the greater unity of the whole people.

Genesis 2 contains a presentation of the creation of man that covers the same ground as Genesis 1:26-31, but in a significantly different way. Genesis 2 relates the story of Adam and Eve in narrative form. In so doing, it reveals a great deal about the origin, and purpose of the human race. Some view Genesis 2 as a second and parallel account of human creation. Some view it as primarily an account of the origin of the sexes, while Genesis 1 is an account of the origin of the species.13 Both views are basically correct and can be seen as complementary insights if not stated in too exclusive a way. For the purposes of this discussion, the most important observation is that Genesis 2 includes a much more developed treatment of the two sexes and their relationship. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the central concern of at least verses 18–25 in Genesis 2 is the relationship of men and women.* That concern continues in Genesis 3.

Chapter 2 of Genesis focuses on the creation of man in a way that chap­ter 1 does not. Genesis 2 begins with heaven and earth already created. From the literary point of view, the creation of man in chapter 2 begins the account, and man is the center of concern throughout. God gives man an occupation in Genesis 2. God entrusts him with the care of the garden, and with that responsibility he commands man not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This commandment expresses God’s fatherly care: If man eats of the tree he will die. Eating of the tree, in other words, is dangerous. Nonetheless, God delivers a command and not just good advice. Man’s occupation and the commandment will become important in considering the Fall and the curses. Here we only need to see them as background to the creation of woman.

To understand Genesis 2 accurately, the term “man” must be studied more fully than was necessary for Genesis 1. In chapter 2 “the man” (“the human,” “The Man,” “The Human,” “Adam”) is the focal point, and some of the understanding of the chapter turns on discovering how the particular individual who was first created is presented. First, the Hebrew word ha-adam is normally translated as “the man” or “the human.” In those few cases where it is without a definite article, it can usually be translated as a proper name, “Adam.”* “The man” can be understood as an individual or as an archetype of the whole human race. To get a feel for the difference in connotation, it is helpful to read through the account and substitute the words “the human,” “Mankind,” and “Adam” for the words “the man” (the most common translation of ha-adam).

Genesis 2 is talking about a man who was the first human being and from whom the whole human race descended. At this point he was the human race. Later on, his proper name was “Human” or “Man” (Genesis 5:1, 3). The writers of scripture understood him as embodying in his person the human race, much as the man Israel embodied in his person the people Israel (cf. Hebrews 7:9). It would be possible to say that Human (Adam) was the archetype of the human race, but this could be misleading, because the Jewish mind saw the relationship much more realistically. The original father of the race was the race while he lived, and later on the race Israel could be seen as the continuation of the man Israel. The account of Human (Adam) is not an account of one human being among many. It is an account of the man who passed his nature and call on to his descendants, who affected their history by what he did, and who lives on in them as a people.14

Luke 3:38 provides a further insight into Adam and his significance. Luke 3:38 falls at the end of a genealogy of Jesus that begins, “Jesus was the son of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat . . .” and the genealogy continues back through David and Abraham to “Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” God appears in the genealogy along with all the other fathers. There is a great deal of theological significance in this verse, but now it is enough to note that the author of the verse saw something in Genesis that is sometimes missed because of cultural differences. In Genesis 2, God is treating Adam as his son. He creates him and gives him a place in life, especially by providing an occupation for him and getting him a wife. Genesis 2 concretely portrays what Genesis 1 states – that God created man in his image and likeness to have dominion over the earth. God places the man (Adam or Human) over his creation, just as a Jewish father would place his only son over his house. The man (Adam, Human) is descended from God, his creator, and represents him, acting on his behalf and according to his instructions.15

In verse 18, the account turns to the creation of a helper fit for the man. The passage is as follows:

Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper fit for him. 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; and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“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.”
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. 

Genesis 2:18–25

In the course of Genesis 2, Adam names the animals and then his wife. Although there is some discussion, the consensus of scripture scholarship is that naming is a ruling function.16 Man’s right and ability to name follows from his position as ruler. His naming of the animals appears to be the narrative counterpart to the commission in Genesis 1 to rule the living creatures. God expresses Adam’s position over the animals by bringing them to Adam to receive names.

The creation of woman from the rib of man is the central action of Genesis 2. This is sometimes referred to in a mocking way, when men say that women are nothing but a rib. However the meaning of the rib in the account is not disrespectful. Among some Arabs today, a man will speak of a close friend as his “rib,” meaning that his friend is very close to him, almost part of him, using “rib” in a way similar to the Genesis account. The word in Hebrew could even mean “side” or “flank.”17 The image certainly indicates closeness of relationship, and calls to mind the saying that woman stands at man’s side.

Even more clearly, the “rib” indicates that woman is made from man. The context of Genesis 2 shows that the overriding significance of the mode of the creation of woman is that woman is the same kind of being as man, not a different and inferior species. After God creates Adam and places him in the garden, he brings the animals to him. Adam names them, and as they go through all the animals they do not find one fit to be a helper for man. Therefore God creates woman out of man’s side to be a helper fit for him. The clearest point to be drawn from the building of woman from man’s rib is not any inferiority on woman’s part but quite the contrary. The “rib” indicates the sameness of nature between man and woman.*

God takes the new creature to the man, and when the man sees her, he recognizes her as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. He then calls her “woman” because she was taken out of “man.”* In the context it is clear that the man is very enthusiastic for God’s new work. After a long search for an appropriate partner, at last a creature appears who will do. The man seems to recognize immediately that woman was made from him and that this is the reason for her fitness: She is from his own flesh and bone.

There then follows a statement which is not a continuation of the words of Adam but a theological conclusion from what has happened and a summary of its significance, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his woman (wife), and they become one flesh.”18 This statement is important in scripture. It recurs in the marriage teaching of Jesus and Paul as a foundational statement that explains the nature of marriage. To “cling to his wife” (or “to cleave to his wife”) and to “become one flesh” describe the marriage relationship. The word “clings” or “cleaves” indicates a committed personal relationship. It does not mean weak dependence, as the English word “clings” suggests.19 Elsewhere in the Old Testament the word is used to describe the way human beings relate in loving faithfulness to God. Some have suggested that the idea of man cleaving to woman is the remnant of a matriarchal social system in early Israel. Such a suggestion is linguistically possible, but by no means linguistically necessary nor proven, and the trend of scholarship increasingly discounts the view that there was an earlier matriarchal social order in Israel.

Both “cleave to his wife” and “become one flesh” are phrases which describe the establishment of a new committed relationship.* The New English Bible translates the verse in a helpful way, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife and the two become one flesh.” The transition indicated by this verse can be seen most clearly by considering the social situation that it is referring to. A son is his parents’ flesh and blood, and he lives as part of his parents’ household. He is one with his parents, because he has come from them and lives with them. When he marries he takes on a new relationship. He becomes more related to and more one with his wife than with his parents. He leaves the “one flesh” which is his parents and joins with a woman to create a new “one flesh.” He may leave his parents behind by literally moving away and moving into a new house with his wife. If he were to move to another city, he may leave his parents behind, but he would be unlikely to leave his wife behind. In the Genesis account, this social fact is explained by the original creation of woman out of man. Something was taken out of man when woman was formed, and hence it is natural for a man to find a woman that he can join to himself, becoming one flesh as a foundation for creating a family.

The core of the passage provides a necessary perspective for understanding Genesis 2:18, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.’” Just as in Genesis 1 the creation of man and of everything else is good at its completion, here the creation of man is not yet completed and hence the Lord God is not satisfied. Something more is needed.

Some modern interpreters view man’s aloneness as meaning “loneliness.”20 Man needs a companion, a woman to talk to and share his life with, someone to give him ego support. In this view, the real companion for a man is one woman with whom he can be especially intimate and share his “real self.” Such interpretations proceed from a modern view of companionship marriage that was undoubtedly foreign to the author of Genesis 2, as well as to the writers of the New Testament. The view that the ideal fulfillment of the need described in Genesis 2 is the modern approach to companionship in marriage may possibly be held on other than simply exegetical grounds, but it is a historical anachronism to read such a view back into the account and hold that Genesis propounds such a view. Man’s aloneness was not good, but Genesis does not see the solution in one intimate partner for personal sharing. Rather, man needs a human society to live in, a household and a people. To use the description in Genesis 1, the man needed more people to fill the earth and rule over it, and he needed to be able to increase and multiply.*

The establishment of the first family was the solution to the man’s need for social life and for a race to fulfill his commission. Hence, the man needed a wife with whom he could beget children and with whom he could establish a family. In creating woman and coupling her with the man, God created one flesh that could be the source of a family. The New Testament interprets “one flesh” in terms of sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 6:12–20). While it would be a mistake to regard one flesh solely in terms of sexual intercourse it would be an even greater mistake to miss the reference to family and reproduction and concentrate instead on the modern idea of companionship. One reason that animals will not do as a partner for man is their inadequacy for reproductive purposes. The man needs someone with whom he can live and establish a household. Implicit in this, especially for the first man, is the need for sexual relations and reproduction.

Genesis 2:18 describes the man’s problem as being his aloneness, but it describes the solution as being “a helper fit for him.” This phrase is important for understanding the relationship of woman to man, especially in marriage. The phrase sums up much of what has been said in the last two paragraphs. Genesis does not describe woman as a companion to man but as a helper to him. As von Rad points out, the phrase is not a romantic evaluation of woman.21 Rather, it presents woman as “useful” to man. The use of the word “useful” here does not suggest that Genesis teaches that man should approach woman as “a thing” or “use her,” nor that he should not love her and care for her. But in an age when many writers tend to idealize deep interpersonal sharing relationships and read them back into Genesis, it is important to point out that the writers of scripture approach personal relationships with a certain practicality and common sense. A man’s wife is supposed to “do something” for him, just as he is supposed to “do something” for her. If she does not do what she is supposed to do for him (and if he does not do what he is supposed to do for her), deep interpersonal sharing will not make the marriage a good marriage. Genesis describes her part in the marriage as being a helper to the man in the work of establishing a household and family.*

The idea of being a “helper fit for man” also includes another important feature—woman’s correspondence to man. The Hebrew word for “fit” in this context implies a similarity between man and woman. She is a helper who corresponds to him, who is of the same nature as he is, unlike the animals. A horse is a helper to man because it carries burdens and draws a plow. But a horse cannot be a helper who corresponds to him. The woman was created to be the man’s partner, another human being who would live with him and help him. The phrase “fit for man” clearly stresses woman’s sameness and community of nature with her husband.22

In some ways, the term “complementarity” best sums up the relationship between the man and the woman in Genesis. “Complementarity” implies an equality, a correspondence between man and woman. It also implies a difference. Woman complements man in a way that makes her a helper to him. Her role is not identical to his. Their complementarity allows them to be a partnership in which each needs the other, because each provides something different from what the other provides. The partnership of man and woman is based upon a community of nature and an interdependence due to a complementarity of role. That partnership and sameness of nature, both of which together make possible the creation of a race or people, are the central concerns of Genesis 2.

Genesis 2 – Subordination

The partnership between man and woman as people with the same nature is the central focus of Genesis 2. However, a further question arises: Is there any subordination in that partnership? The term “subordination” has been chosen for this discussion because, despite some of its English connotations that cause confusion, it is one of the best translations of a Greek word (hypostassō) commonly used in the New Testament to express this aspect of the husband-wife relationship and of other similar relationships. The meaning of this word as it is presented in the New Testament will be one of the major concerns in later chapters. The English word “subordination” means literally “ordered under,” and its Greek counterpart means almost the same. The word does not carry with it a notion of inferior value. A subordinate could be more valuable in many ways than the person over him or her. Nor does the word carry with it a notion of oppression or the use of force for domination. The word can be used to describe an oppressive relationship, but its normal use is for relationships in which the subordination involved is either neutral or good.

“Subordination” simply refers to the order of a relationship in which one person, the subordinate, depends upon another person for direction. The purpose of this order is to allow those in the relationship to function together in unity. Subordination is a broader concept than obedience and command. As will be seen, subordination usually implies a form of obedience. A person can give some commands to a subordinate and expect obedience, but to place the emphasis on obedience is to narrow the meaning of “subordination.” A person could be subordinate without ever having to obey a command. People can subordinate their lives or actions to another in many ways: by serving another, by observing and cooperating with the other’s purposes and desires, by dedicating their lives to the cause the other is upholding, or by following the other’s teaching. The more that love and personal commitment are part of subordination, the more these other elements will be present along with whatever obedience is asked.

Although the account in Genesis 2 concentrates on the sameness of nature between the man and the woman, the account also portrays a subordination in their relationship. To be sure, there is no explicit statement that the woman has to obey the man. Nor is there a point at which the man gives the woman a command. But there is an overall sense of her being subordinate to him in God’s creation of the human race. There is a clear sense of partnership in Genesis 2, but within that partnership exists a real subordination.

The first indication of the presence of subordination is that the man is the center of the narrative of the creation of woman. He is the first formed. Then God provides him with all that he needs for life: an occupation, land and wealth, and a wife. Woman is created to be a helper for the man.* She is created from him and brought to him. He is the one who names her. To say that man is the center of concern does not necessarily mean that woman exists only for the sake of man and is only desirable for her helpfulness to man. But it does mean that her life is oriented toward his in such a way that direction for her life comes through him. In the narrative, then, the woman’s role is understood in relationship to the man, which indicates some kind of subordination.23

Secondly, it is the man who is called “Man” or “Human” and not the woman. He bears the name which is the designation of the whole race, and, as was pointed out above (see footnote, p. 19), he keeps that name even after woman is formed and he is no longer the only human. What we meet at the end of Genesis 4 is Human and his wife. Feminists today strongly object to using “male” terms to refer to groups that include men and women or to an individual of indeterminate gender (for example, using “Man” or “Mankind” as the term for the human race). Here there is a similar linguistic situation: The term for the human race in Genesis is the proper name of the man who is half of the first human couple. Some object to such usage on the ground that it makes men seem more important than women, or at least makes men the part of the human race that is most important to take into account. In the modern world such an argument has something to recommend it. But the goal at this point is not to deal with the modern world, but to interpret an Israelite document that was written millennia ago. Part of this interpretation involves understanding the significance of the document’s language. Genesis clearly uses the word “Man” or “Human” – the term for the race – as a name for the male partner (Adam). He is the embodiment of the race. The woman (Eve) is the mother of all human beings, but she was not the embodiment of the race. Rather, she was woman (wife) to the man who was the embodiment of the race. That too indicates a kind of subordination.24

Thirdly, man is created first, before woman. He is the “first-born” and hence would have a natural precedence by birth. There are possible objections to this view. Precedence by birth is something that holds between children born of the same parents. Furthermore, there are instances of the younger son being chosen over the elder. Yet the choice of the younger is clearly an act of special election, normally an act of God’s sovereignty. Moreover, in scripture the principle of the precedence of age applies more broadly than just among children of the same parents, and the narrative structure of the account puts the fact of the man’s coming first as an important part of the narrative. In Genesis, woman is created out of the man and for him. The New Testament sees this precedence as being of decisive importance. According to Paul, woman’s subordination to man is grounded in man’s being created first (1 Timothy 2:12-13; 1 Corinthians 11:8-9).*

There are other indications that the woman is subordinate to the man. He is the one who names the animals. He also names the woman. God speaks to him and apparently leaves him to pass on his commands to her. This order continues into chapter 3. God holds the man accountable for the original transgression (3:9). He continues to hold him accountable after the “curse” (3:21), even summing up the Fall in terms of what happened to the man. The man gives his wife a new name (3:20). The most normal reading of the account would indicate that the woman is subordinate to the man throughout chapters 2 and 3.*

The nature of that subordination needs to be understood more clearly in order to grasp what is being taught. The subordination in Genesis 2 is difficult to understand because it is an expression of a social structure that is increasingly foreign to modern Western society. In Genesis 2-3 and in Israelite and early Christian society, the man functioned as “the head” or “the representative” of the woman. The family or household was seen as the basic unit of the people. The Israelite people as a whole was seen as a collection of tribes which in turn were seen as collections of clans which in turn were seen as collections of families. The basic unit of the people was not an individual human being, but a social grouping – the family or household. The woman’s role was primarily within this basic social unit, the household. The man’s role was to govern the household and represent it to others. He related the household to other households and to the people as a whole. In a real social structural sense, he summed up the household in his own person. When he took a wife to himself, she left her father’s house and became part of her husband. His children likewise were seen as a continuation of him or his house.25

Many contemporary writers discuss the social organization of Israelite society with hostility, because such a structure allegedly oppresses women. This view will be considered at various points in this book, especially Chapter Three. Here the social structure of Israelite society from which Genesis arose needs to be understood as a safeguard against the error of reading contemporary values and social structures into Genesis – a mistake made by more than one modern interpreter.

In Israelite society the woman did experience real subordination to her husband and a certain anonymity in her life. She was part of the man’s family. On the other hand, it is a mistake to look at her as being his property, as some do.* There was a genuine reciprocity in the relationship. His family was not simply something he ruled over for his own benefit or pleasure. It was an extension of his own person; he cared for the family and identified with it personally. He governed the family as the head of it, not as the conqueror of it. Moreover, it was not so much his family that it was not hers as well. His life was the center of attention and the woman’s life received direction from his life, but not because her life was unimportant but rather because as the head his life set the direction for the whole family. She was called by his name and considered part of him not because she was of no value in herself, but because the family was structured around him and he represented it in its relationships to the rest of the people. The key to understanding the relationship between man and woman is understanding that the relationship was formed around the family unit and the husband was the head of that unit.

There is a subordination in Genesis 2, but it is a very specific kind of subordination—the kind that makes one person out of two. According to Genesis 2, woman was created to be a help to man, not to be a servant or a slave. She was created to be a complement to him, making a household and children possible. He in turn protected her, provided for her, and considered her part of himself, a partner in life. He was the head of the relationship, head of a relationship that was “one flesh.”

Genesis 2–3 is about the man-woman relationship. It is most concretely about the man-woman relationship in marriage, the husband-wife relationship. However, because the narrative concerns the beginnings of the human race, Genesis 2–3 is about more than the husband-wife relationship. It is about the man-woman relationship throughout the whole people. As we shall see over and over again, the scriptural teaching on men-women relationships primarily focuses on marriage because the marriage relationship is foundational to men-women relationships in the whole people. The pattern in the broader community is an extension and reflection of the pattern in marriage. Moreover, the unity of husband and wife is meant to be a model for the greater unity of the whole people.

This article is excerpted from Chapter One of Man and Woman in Christ:  An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture, © 1980, 2006, and 2021 by Stephen B. Clark. All rights reserved. 

Originally published 1980 by Servant Books. Published 2006 by Tabor House. A re-released edition published 2021 by Warhorn Media Bloomington, Indiana, USA, by permission of the author, with special thanks to John Yocum, Servants of the Word, and Jeff Smith for their assistance in obtaining the rights of publication.

The book can be purchased or read online at

RECENT PRAISE for Man and Woman in Christ …

After forty years, Stephen B. Clark’s Man and Woman in Christ remains the foremost book on Christianity and gender. His analysis uniquely covers scripture, Christian tradition and historical practice, and the social sciences. And he helps us to make sense of how to apply his findings in a modern technological society much different from the traditional societies of the past. Highly recommended.

Aaron Renn
The Masculinist

Here is a premier study of man and woman, biblically based, thoughtful, and rigorous.

Vern S. Poythress
Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, and Systematic Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary

Stephen Clark’s Man and Woman in Christ is a classic presentation of the Bible’s teaching about men and women. For many years I’ve referred to it, and I consider it still to be one of the very best sources on this subject, perhaps the best. I’m delighted to hear of its republication—so timely, given the current discussion. Some are suggesting that one’s gender is a personal decision, rather than a divine gift. Clark’s book corrects such thinking and therefore clears the track for progress in godly relationships between the sexes.

John Frame
Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Fla.

Middler year of seminary (1980), I heard Steve Clark had published Man and Woman in Christ. It hit the spot for me, a repenting feminist married to a repenting feminist. Many Reformed men have written great books about yesterday’s battles. It took a Roman Catholic to write the greatest book engaging today’s battle.

Tim Bayly
Senior Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church, Bloomington, Ind.

Christians ready for a serious dive into the meaning of manhood and womanhood should read this book. Forty years after its original publication, Clark’s accomplishment remains unsurpassed. It is biblical, empirical, and practical.

David Talcott
Associate Professor of Philosophy, The King’s College, New York


The stunningly comprehensive combination of scriptural research with sociological, anthropological, and psychological data is, I believe, unprecedented… well argued and well worth arguing with.

Richard John Neuhaus

This is a thorough and impressive piece of work, a major contribution. … I am especially pleased with the attention paid in this work to the social structures of the New Testament world.

F. F. Bruce

This book is a welcome antidote to the barrage of propaganda from the equalitarian left that blurs the distinction between the sexes and denies the biblical teaching of hierarchy in the order of creation.

Donald G. Bloesch
Late Professor of Theology, Dubuque Theological Seminary

This is an irenic, helpful book, and of all the multitude of books on this subject it is easily the best.

Christianity Today

A scholarly, yet very readable and practical, presentation on an extremely important topic.

James C. Dobson

There is hardly an area more emotion-laden today, even among Christians, than that of the respective roles of men and women. Here is a daring and serious study that attempts to do justice to the biblical witness and to address its meaning for today. It is a study of overwhelming breadth. It will anger some, but it cannot be ignored or dismissed by anyone seriously concerned with the issue academically, personally, or pastorally.

George T. Montague
Professor Emeritus of Theology, St. Mary’s University
Former President of the Catholic Biblical Association of America

Top photo credit: image of newly wed husband and wife holding hands, from, © by Akaberka, stock photo ID:   322900393. Used with permission.

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