Occam's Razor and Overthinking the Creation Narratives

I tend to overthink things. It’s the engineer in me, I guess. My Mom tells me that it’s my Dad in me. My Dad was a classic overthinker. Sometimes that can help you. Sometimes it gets you into trouble. Is it possible that we are overthinking the creation narratives?

husband and wife

Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor is a principle from philosophy that proposes that if there are two explanations for an occurrence, the one that requires the smallest number of assumptions is usually correct. Another way of saying it is that the more assumptions you have to make, the more unlikely an explanation.


The hierarchists final claim for proof of male over female authority seems to be a case of overthinking and making far too many assumptions. There is a simpler answer. One that requires zero assumptions.


The Man Was First

The hierarchist’s final claim for proof of male over female authority is based on a patriarchal order.


#6 – After the fall God first approached the man, even though the woman sinned first, thus signifying the primacy of the man’s responsibility before God.


Schreiner argues that because Adam was rebuked before Eve, he had greater responsibility. This is a sign of his leadership role. Schreiner writes, “Greater responsibility, however, is assigned to Adam as the leader of the first human couple.” [92]


Even if one ignores the chiasmus rhetorical form as a valid argument (see my argument in WIM, Vol. 8), the narrator clearly was not assigning a hierarchy of authority in the way he ordered the characters.


If so, then the serpent should be considered the most responsible because he was addressed first in the punishment phase of the narrative. And the woman should be viewed in a place of higher authority than the man because God pronounced her punishment before his.


In addition, the woman ate the fruit before the man. Does that make her superior to the man? Does that make her more astute because she has known the difference between good and evil longer than the man?


The serpent was the first character to speak in the Fall narrative. Should he be viewed as preeminent? He was introduced even before God. Should we start worshipping the serpent because he is in authority over God?


This, of course, is nonsense. The order in which the narrator introduces each character in the Fall narrative – serpent-woman-man in the temptation, man-woman in the interrogation, and serpent-woman-man in the punishment – serves the ebb and flow of the narration.


Attempting to read more into it opens the door to grossly arbitrary conclusions based on the interpreter’s assumptions. This one is bleeding from Occam’s Razor.


In addition, even if we were to agree that God approaching the man first was a sign of his authority over the woman, we must note that this occurred after the man and woman sinned. The effects of the fall were immediate (Gen. 3:7).


The narrator anthropomorphized God in order to convey the high drama of the moment, and therefore, portrayed God “asking” Adam what happened.


However, few scholars believe that the sovereign God was actually in the dark about the sin event. As such, in approaching the man first, God was acting in the post-fall world in which the consequences of sin were already in full force.


As we have already noted, in the post-fall world, patriarchy was the new normal. God would have known that.


Therefore, the hierarchist’s arguments for an inherent, pre-fall male authority are unconvincing.


The Clearer Message

In the creation narratives there is no explicit claim for male authority, nor is there any indication of a pre-fall command from God for the man to rule over the woman.


If God created the man to have authority over the woman, why didn’t he make that explicit? The narrator showed that he was willing (although reluctant) to interrupt the narrative for comment (Gen. 2:24).


There are several places in the narrative that would have been ideal for the narrator to do so.


For instance, the moment God brings the newly created woman to the man would have been an ideal time for the narrator to intrude. It is a picture of the marriage ceremony in a patriarchal world where the father “brings” the woman to the man.


The narrator could very easily have said:


Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. This is why a woman will leave her father’s authority and be brought under the authority of her husband.”


Amazingly, the narrator refused to say that. Even though that’s exactly the way it worked in his post-fall, patriarchal culture!


Why is there no clear mandate for the man’s authority? The simplest explanation is that there was never any intention to portray such an idea.


It is also telling that the one time the narrator does interrupt the narrative, he does so to solidify the equality and mutuality of the male-female relationship (Gen. 2:24).


In fact, the clearer message of the creation narratives, requiring fewer assumptions, is that in the pre-fall world, the man and woman had a relationship of equality, mutuality, and interdependence.


I have dealt with the six major arguments that hierarchists use to defend the idea of the pre-fall hierarchy of man over woman. I will now give some attention to the other side of the debate.


Is there evidence in the creation narratives to uphold the egalitarians’ concept of the complete equality of the man and the woman?


The answer is, “yes.” I have touched on a few of them in arguing against the hierarchists’ claims. However, there are a few more that deserve attention.


The Egalitarian Case

Hierarchists rarely make reference to the first creation account primarily because it tells us very little about the male-female relationship. However, as already mentioned, it does reveal a few important things:


1. The male and female were created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).

2. The male and female were given equal authority over the rest of creation (Gen. 1:28).

3. The male and female were equally blessed by God (Gen. 1:28).

4. The male and female were equally commanded to procreate (Gen. 1:28).

5. The male and female were equally given vegetation and fruit as food (Gen. 1:29-30).

6. The male and female were equally judged as “good” by God (Gen. 1:31).


In light of the first creation narrative, the biblical principles that should be applied when interpreting the second creation narrative are the absolute ontological equality of the male and female; their equality of relationship to God; and their equality of authority and rule over creation.


Most of the pro-egalitarian arguments have been made. I will offer only a brief summary of each and add a few more.


1. The term “helper corresponding to” (ezer kenegdo) implies help coming from one who is “equal to,” or “the same as” (Gen. 2:18, 20).


2. The woman being fashioned from the rib of the man indicates that she is a part of him, the same as him, and equal to him. [93]


3. The woman being “built” by God, in much the same fashion as the man indicates that she is made to be his equal. [94]


4. The poem that the man offers in recognition of the woman reflects his acknowledgment of their mutuality and interdependence. She was taken from him. She is a part of him – “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Even their names, ish’ and issha’, depend on each other.


5. The narrator’s only intrusion (Gen. 2:24) in the narrative is a striking counter-cultural statement of the equality, mutuality, and interdependence of the man and woman.


6. The description of the husband-wife relationship as “one flesh” is an acknowledgment of their mutuality and interdependence.


7. The final portrait of the husband and wife as being “naked” and without “shame” is a metaphor for the intimacy of a relationship that came with complete equality, mutuality, and interdependence.


8. The mutuality of the male-female decision-making process is revealed just before the Fall.


The assumption that the fall occurred because the woman took leadership is a circular argument that has no basis in the narrative (see my argument in WIM, Vol. 8).


Some Hiearchists contend that this is proof that bad things happen when the woman takes leadership.


These hierarchist may be strong biblical scholars but are poor historians. If history has proven anything it is that bad things happen when men take leadership.


The narrative actually portrays a beautiful decision process (in this case, with bad results) in which the man and the woman decided together with mutual respect, regardless of who initiated the process.


The fact that it was a joint decision is made manifest in God’s reaction. He held the male and female equally responsible for the decision.


The greater point is that there is no indication in the narrative that this decision-making process was anything out of the ordinary for the man or the woman. Neither the man nor the narrator offered any objections to the way in which the decision was made.


It is only from a patriarchal, male-dominated interpretive perspective that one would conclude that the fall occurred because the woman was not created to take the lead. To all the characters involved, there is nothing out of the ordinary.


9. There is no indication in the pre-fall narrative of role assignments. The hierarchists claim that although the male and female were created equal, they were meant to have certain unique and binding roles.


Yet, the first explicit reference to male-female roles comes after the Fall, when God first calls Adam “husband,” and Eve, “wife.”


One of the most striking characteristics of the biblical creation narratives, when compared to other creation narratives of antiquity, is the complete absence of any reference to male-female roles before the Fall.


In conclusion, the ideas of roles or hierarchy, or rule are foreign to the creation narratives. These concepts are always placed on the text by later interpreters.


Coming Next

Little of the equality, mutuality, and interdependence at the core of the original male-female relationship survived the Fall.


Perhaps the strongest case for the egalitarian is the stark contrast between the male-female relationship before and after the Fall.


In my next blog article, I will highlight those differences, along with the nature of the post-fall male-female relationship and the devastating consequences of sin for the history of humankind in general, and the male-female relationship in particular.






92. Schreiner, Thomas R. “Women in Ministry: Another Complementarian Perspective.” Two Views on Women in Ministry. Ed. James R. Beck. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2005), p. 286.

93. The following brief overview of the historical usages of Adam’s rib is taken in part from an article by William E. Phipps entitled, “Adam’s Rib: A Bone of Contention” (Theology Today, Princeton Seminary, Vol. 33, Issue 3, October 1, 1976, pp. 263-273).

Historically, the interpretation of the woman being taken from the man’s rib has been dominated by a paternalistic and sometimes misogynistic influence.

An example can be found in a sermon from medieval Judaism where we learn that God deliberated from which part of man to create woman. “I will not create her from the head for she may carry herself haughtily; nor from the eye for she may be too inquisitive; nor from the ear, for she may be an eavesdropper, nor from the mouth for she may be too talkative; nor from the heart for she may be too jealous; nor from the hand for she may be too acquisitive; nor from the foot for she may be a gadabout. I will create her from a hidden part of the body that she may be modest.” But the sermon goes on to say that God’s careful planning miscarried, for woman is conceited, curious, a gossip, a chatterbox, envious, grasping, and a gadabout. (Genesis Rabbah, 18,2)

It gets worse.

An example of a dangerous, misogynistic reading comes from Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, who were commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII to stamp out witches. They wrote: “There was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives.” (Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum; New York, 1971, p. 44.)

The book from which this misogynistic view is taken, Malleus Maleficarum, “was the ultimate, irrefutable, unarguable authority” wherever witchcraft trials were held. The book was a prime basis for the torture and execution of many thousands of European women. (Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum; New York, 1971, p. viii.)

The androcentric interpretation of Adam’s rib continued unabated for centuries. Elizabeth Stanton, the leading suffragette of the late nineteenth century, believed that the story of Adam’s rib was intended to teach “that woman was made after man, of man, and for man, an inferior being, subject to man.” (Elizabeth Stanton, ed., The Woman’s Bible, New York, 1895, p. 7.)

However, Humbert de Romans, a thirteenth-century master general of the Dominican friars, asserted: “God gave women many prerogatives, not only over other living things but even over man himself . . . In the world of nature she excelled man by her origin, for . . . man He formed of the slime, but women of man’s rib.” (Quoted in Bede Jarrett, Social Theories of the Middle Ages, New York, 1966, p. 72)

Finally, in 1836, Angelina Grimké, the Quaker abolitionist, evaluated the status of woman in Genesis 2 in this way: “A companion and equal, not one hair’s breadth beneath him in the majesty and glory of her moral being; not placed under his authority as a subject, but by his side, on the same platform of human rights, under the government of God only.” (Angelina Grimké, Letters to Catherine Beecher, Boston, 1836, Letter 12.)

Since Angelina grew up on a Charleston, South Carolina plantation, it is tempting to speculate that she may have heard a black preacher in her youth proclaiming on some such topic as “Behold de Rib!” James H. Cone has given us the background and some of the sermon:

“So God put Adam into a deep sleep.

And took out a bone, ah ha!

And it is said that it was a rib.

Behold de rib!

A bone out of man’s side.

He put de man to sleep and made wo-man,

And men and women been sleeping together ever since.

Behold de rib!

Brothers, if God

Had taken dat bone out of man’s head

He would have meant for women to rule, hah!

If he had taken a bone out of his foot,

He would have meant for us to dominize and rule.

He could have made her out of back-bone

And then she would have been behind us.

But, no, God Almighty, he took de bone out of his side

So dat places de woman beside us.

Hah! God knowed his own mind.

Behold de rib!”

As Cone interprets the sermon, the rib symbolized equal status simply because it is not a “foot-bone” or a “back-bone”— both of which represent inferiority. “It is a ‘side-bone,’ thereby making woman equal to man.” (The citation from the sermon on “Behold de Rib!,” is taken from Langston Hughes and Ama Bontemps, Book of Negro Folklore, 1969, p. 234. The interpretation by James H. Cone is from his article, “The Story Context of Black Theology,” Theology Today, July, 1975, pp. 144-150.)

94. Sarna points out that “the usage of the word ‘built’ for the creation of the woman is the only such usage of the word in the creation narratives,” and that “it well fits Hebrew tsla’, ‘rib,’ which frequently appears as an architectonic term in building texts.” Sarna goes on to note that, “in a word play, Genesis Rabbah 18:1 connects the present use of b-n-h, ‘to build,’ with b-y-n,’ to discern,’ indicating that woman was endowed with intelligence surpassing that of man.” (Nahum Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary, p.23.)