Reading the Bible 5: Adam and Eve

Today’s reading is Gen 2:4b-25.

As was noted in my previous commentary, today’s passage is contained in what is arguably Adam’s own family record of his origins. So this section is not really a “second creation account” – as is sometimes suggested. Rather, Gen 1:1-2:4a is the account of the creation of everything and is thus the creation account proper, while the present story is instead the beginning of Adam’s history, focusing on the creation of the first man and woman – Adam and Eve.

The opening verses are sometimes accused of contradicting the account of creation in Gen 1:

“In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens, no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Yahweh God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground, but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

The contention is that here we have God creating man before plants while in Gen 1, plants are created before people. However, no such thing is actually suggested. These verses do not say that no plants had been created, rather they indicate that there were not yet any herbs “of the field” or plants “of the field”. The word translated as “field” here is sadeh which refers to a limited area of land suitable for agriculture. In other words, this passage is suggesting that agriculture has yet to be developed and indeed, the account goes on to show God setting a special place aside called Eden (meaning ‘pleasure’) where He plants a garden and then creates a man to tend it. So this section is not only about the creation of Adam and Eve, but also about the beginning of agriculture.

In verse 2:9, God forms a man from the dust of the ground. The Hebrew expression for “the ground” is ha’adamah and the related expression ha’adam means “the man”. Thus, we see that the name of the first man Adam comes from the Hebrew word for man or mankind which in turn comes from the Hebrew word for ground.

After the creation of Adam, we come to a second alleged contradiction in verses Gen 2:18-20:

“Yahweh God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground Yahweh God formed every animal of the field, and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. Whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field; but for man there was not found a helper suitable for him.”

In Gen 1, we have the animals being created before humans. However, it is suggested that here the passage says that man came first, that he needed a suitable “helper” (more on that in a bit), and that God then created animals for the first time as potential candidates. Some translators consider it possible that a pluperfect should be rendered here giving “Out of the ground Yahweh God had formed every animal of the field“. Indeed, this is how the NIV renders this passage. In addition, even if it is not the case that the pluperfect can be used here, all that the passage seems to suggest is that God creates sample specimens from the animals of the field and the birds of the sky and then brings them before Adam along with all livestock (for which no sample creatures were formed and thus it is implied that there were already livestock representatives present in Eden – which makes sense given that Eden is a special place set aside for the beginning of agriculture). In short, what we have here is a special creation and summoning of representative animals and not an account of the creation of the animals in general.  To read a more in depth treatment of comparisons between Gen 1 and Gen 2, see: Are there two creation accounts?

After the summoning and naming of the representative animals, God creates a woman by taking a rib from the man and so fashioning a suitable “helper”. The Hebrew word ‘ezer does not suggest a subordinate role as the English “helper” does. In context, the woman is supplying something that the man is lacking and seems to express the idea of an indispensable companion. The account of the woman’s creation is followed by an editorial aside that notes how this bond between the man and the woman explains the origin of men and women coming together as one in the custom of marriage. Finally, it is also noted that both the man and the woman were naked and unashamed indicating that nakedness itself is something pure and good and yet also hinting that the expectation of a reader contemporary with the author would be to see nakedness as something shameful and that this narrative is in part a corrective to that expectation.

Reading the Bible 4: The Book of Adam and the Tetragrammaton

Today we move on to the second tablet from which Genesis was compiled: Genesis 2:4b-5:1a. Our tablet begins thus:

“In the day that Yahweh God made the earth and the heavens, no plant of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for Yahweh God had not caused it to rain on the earth. There was not a man to till the ground, but a mist went up from the earth, and watered the whole surface of the ground.”

Notice that I’ve changed the period at the end of 2:4b to a comma as there is no punctuation in the original Hebrew and given the toledoths-as-colophons Wiseman hypothesis, 2:4b is not the rest of the sentence that begins in 2:4a, but rather the start of the sentence in 2:5.

Looking towards the other end of tablet, we find the closing passage reads: “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” Under the Wiseman hypothesis, this suggests that Genesis 2:4b-5:1a originally come from a “book” in tablet form written by Adam (the first man created by God) describing his origins (translated as ‘generations’). The Wiseman hypothesis fits quite well as the account indeed records the origins of Adam, giving details that would have only been readily available to Adam, and stops well before Adam’s death. It also explains the strangeness of having what appear to be two creation stories and the odd repetition when verse 2:4 is seen as a single sentence instead of the end of one document and the beginning of another. Rather than two creation stories, we have one creation story in a document from God’s point of view followed by a separate document that records Adam’s origins from his own view. As we move through Genesis and examine its component documents, we shall see how the Wiseman hypothesis neatly accounts for peculiarities like these that remain as mysteries in competing theories about the history of text of Genesis. Such explanative power is the sign of a superior hypothesis.

Returning to the opening passage of our current document, we find that it introduces what is known as the tetragrammaton (Greek for “four letter word”) – the four Hebrew letters יְהוָ֥ה that spell the divine name. Unlike Elohim, which is akin to a role or title, the tetragrammaton denotes the actual personal name of God. Fittingly enough, it seems related to the Hebrew root for “to be” and is understood to roughly mean “the self-existent one” or “He who brings into being”. In the past, this name has been rendered in English as Jehovah. However, due to pronunciation shifts in the English language as well as advances in our understanding of written ancient Hebrew, the modern consensus is that the divine name is more properly transliterated as YHWH and rendered as Yahweh. The fact that the WEB renders this word as Yahweh is another reason why I chose to use this translation for this study.

YHWH occurs 6,828 times in the standard Hebrew texts and is the most commonly used word to refer to God in the Bible. In addition to the commandment in Exodus 20:7 (“You shall not take the name of Yahweh your God in vain, for Yahweh will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”), the Bible tells us frequently that God considers His name and its reputation very important and that He desires people to know Him by His name. Unfortunately, an overzealousness in avoiding the accidental violation of the commandment against misusing the divine name eventually led to the practice of restricting the pronouncing of YHWH to the High Priest on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) in the days when the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the divine name has not been pronounced and certainty about its correct pronunciation has been lost to the past. During readings of the Hebrew Scriptures, the word Adonai (which is the majestic plural form of the word Adon, meaning “my lord”) was read aloud in place of YHWH. As a result, the practice of translating YHWH as “Lord” has taken root which seems a shame if not wrong considering the extreme importance that God placed upon His name and people knowing Him by it.

It’s nice that a modern English translation like the WEB has restored YHWH to the Bible. It makes a striking difference I think to see God’s name in use throughout the text instead of the classic rendering “LORD”. It especially makes the numerous verses that invoke the sacredness of God’s name resonate more effectively when one actually sees that name right there in the surrounding text.

Reading the Bible 3: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

We begin our reading of Genesis with the story of creation Gen 1:1-2:4a where the 2:4a portion of the last verse is “This is the history of the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created”.

One thing today’s passage demonstrates nicely is that the division of the Bible into chapters is fairly arbitrary and has more to do with creating roughly similar sized sections of text to serve as easy reference markers rather than logically contained units. Today’s passage is a logically complete story and yet it consists of the entire first chapter plus the first three and a half verses of chapter two.

Examining the toledoth colophon, we see that the tablet basis of this section would have been entitled “the [toledoth] of the heavens and of the earth” and that the tablet is dated to “when they were created”. Absent is the formula’s typical inclusion of an author or tablet owner. Thus, it would seem that the indicated author is the only possible observer of the events described: God Himself.

Returning to the first verse, straight off the bat, we find something of interest lurking in the original Hebrew. The word that is translated here as ‘God’ is elohim. The first thing to note is that elohim is the plural form of eloah which is the poetic or emphatic form of el roughly meaning “mighty one”. This plural word elohim is the word that we see translated as ‘God’ throughout this entire passage – indeed almost every reference to ‘God’ (as opposed to ‘god’ or ‘God of X’) in the Old Testament is to this word elohim which occurs over 2500 times.

I point out the plural nature of elohim because sometimes people will try to argue that this word really should be translated as ‘gods’ and that this is a suppressed sign of a supposed origin of Hebrew monotheism in polytheism. Such arguments are based upon either ignorance of Hebrew grammar or an overriding desire to find evidence for the a priori assumption that monotheism evolved from polytheism rather than the other way around. While elohim may be plural, it is almost always paired with singular verbs and singular adjectives indicating that the plural is not a plural of number but a plural of majesty or excellence. In the very few cases where elohim is translated as ‘God’ in association with adjectives and verbs that are plural, there are quite reasonable explanations that do not rely upon conjuring up a monotheist conspiracy. Here’s a series of three essays that dig into the details:  Elohim: Plural or Singular Part I, Part II, and Part III.

The second essay referenced above also touches upon another issue that surfaces in today’s passage. In verse 1:26a we have: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'”. Here, the verb paired with elohim is singular indicating the majestic plural rather than a numerical plural. Also, in verse 1:27, we have “God created man in his own image” and again the verb indicates singular. So to whom then is God referring or  speaking when He says ‘us’ and ‘our’? The consensus is that God is employing the “royal we”, speaking to His heavenly court surrounded by His angels, or doing both. Some writers suggest that this an early hint at the doctrine of the trinity, but I find the other explanation more likely.

I’ll briefly touch upon the matter of how I understand this story. There are various conflicting schools of thought among believers ranging from the more literal approach to the more figurative. I’ve seen good and bad arguments from all across the board – often from the same source. Honestly, I’m not exactly sure where my own understanding lies as I’ve changed positions over the years shifting in different directions based upon further exposure to various evidence and lines of reason and haven’t really found myself stabilizing. I currently lean towards the theory that this tablet was written by Moses from a series of seven prophetic visions of God’s creation of the universe and that God’s intent is a theological statement of His supremacy over the creation in contrast to competing contemporary creation accounts that involved complex battles between gods where heaven, the sea, the sun, and the moon were all divine participants rather than mere creations.

Regardless of the interpretation of the passage, it has many interesting literary aspects such as the pattern of each day beginning with God first decreeing what He will do, then doing it, and finally declaring the result good. The first three days describe the creation of forms through separation, and the next three days parallel the first three by filling their corresponding forms. There is definite emphasis on the final result of God’s creation being very good.