Today I want to continue my running commentary on Genesis, moving on to the second creation account, beginning at Gen. 2:4. It is usual at this point to comment on where the second narrative begins.
Gen. 2.4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up…
In keeping with the tone already set with this series, I will not delve too deeply into the text critical issues here. Suffice it to say that there is debate as to whether Gen. 2:4a is the end of the first narrative of the beginning of the second. In practice it makes little difference. (I would look at it from the other direction. The second story more likely begins with Gen. 2.4b בְּיוֹם עֲשׂוֹת יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם. Also, while the use of “toledot” תוֹלְדוֹת is clearly important for understanding the structure of Genesis a lengthy discussion here is not necessary for comprehension of the passage.)
Gen. 2-3 clearly represents a different perspective on how this world began. It is so clearly evident that it did not require post-Enlightenment scholars antagonistic to religion to notice the fact, rather ancient and medieval commentators regularly noted and drew meaning from these contrasting accounts.
As usual the question is how do we read the text and that, in turn, is driven by why we are reading the texts. If we are reading the text for the purpose of lower criticism then we will focus upon the differences in language and style. If we are reading the text to glean meaning from it, either for understanding what its meaning might have been for the ancient audience or for ourselves today, then the differences in the text are important but in a very different way. I will focus upon the latter type of reading.
When critical essays are written on this matter what is often overlooked is that the ancient redactor(s) were not stupid people. They would have recognized the differences between these two accounts. If they had been concerned with harmonizing them they would have done so. Instead we have two accounts, side by side, that present the same event (more or less) but with different views. Attempting to harmonize them, however, also desaturates the narratives and removes the value of each in the same way as attempting to read Gen. 1 as a scientific account. By contrasting and comparing the two we find not evidence of sloppiness rather certain core messages that are shared. That, however, will be for another post. Today, and for the next several posts, I want to focus upon Genesis 2-3 as it stands on its own.
The LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. Gen. 2:7
Of course as soon as we turn to the text it is awfully difficult not to compare the description of God that we have here with that in Gen. 1. Here we find that it is יהוה אלהים who is the creator. The creation of the environment is dealt with in a single introductory phrase “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” How God made “the earth and the heavens” is not considered and the focus of the narrative moves almost immediately to the creation of the Man. There is, however, no doubt that the author understands God as the sole agent. It is the LORD God who makes and who causes it to rain.
So the image is of a fully formed domain but with no vegetation, it is a muddy place watered by irrigation. Into that morass God stoops and “forms” the man. Many rightly note that the term יצר means “to form or fashion” and is used to describe the act of a potter. The image is clear, God has literally gotten his hands dirty as he creates the Man. It is out of the “dust of the earth” עפר מן האדמה that he creates the Man and even the term “Man” האדם reflects his origins. (Many have suggested the translation “Earthling” to capture this within the English language. I can’t help but think of poor B SciFi movies when I hear the term so I shall forgo its use. But it conveys the idea.) The foundations of humanity of basic and organic. Created first but out of nothing more elegant than mud.
But then God breathed into his nostrils….
5 thoughts on “Genesis 2 – God gets dirty”
I like reading your analyses, and I generally find them well reasoned. I particularly enjoyed this one. I think we’ll have disagreements once you delve into the theological implications of the narrative, but I enjoy your broad apprecation and preparation of it. You also write with subtle elegance and sophistication, even while making sideways observations of things like the connotation of the word “Earthling”, which I appreciate.
Thank you Seth! I have to say that such comments are what make blogging worthwhile. I am not seeking complete agreement, rather thoughtful discourse (I look forward to our potential disagreements!) and your kind words regarding my writing are a real encouragement. (Especially as I try to pound out my SBL paper and an article!)
Chris – I remember being surprised at the distinction between 2:4a and b and as I look at the structure, 2:4a closes the inclusio begun in 2:1, 2:4b closes the one begun in 1:1 as shown in this diagram. I realize I am being somewhat visual – and I haven’t yet read Genesis sufficiently closely to see the significance of the ‘this is the generations’ refrain (which I not also ends the book of Ruth). Any thoughts on the heavens and the earth – the earth and heaven as opening and closing brackets rather than as an introduction to a new pericope.
Bob that is a very interesting diagram that will take me some time to digest. The use of “generations” as a framework within Genesis is fairly clearly marked and has been noted many times before. Unfortunately, as good as the JPS translation is their decision to vary their translation of תוֹלְדוֹת masks its significance.