Genesis 2:4-7


King James4 These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground. 6 But there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. 7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. New American Standard4 This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven. 5 Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground. 6 But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.7 Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Jewish Publication Society4 Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.When the LORD God made earth and heaven— 5 when no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to till the soil, 6 but a flow would well up from the ground and water the whole surface of the earth— 7 the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

I don’t have an overall interpretation to offer for these four verses, but I do have some observations. (Many of these observations come from the notes I make available here.) Perhaps my observations will provide fodder for thinking about what follows.

My general interpretive strategy is to try to make the most sense of the text, as is. I assume that the text we have is the product of redaction, but I also assume that the redactors were not blind to what they were doing. So for me the question is not the historical question “How did the redactors combine texts to produce the text we have?” but “How do we find a meaning in the existing, though redacted, text.”

I am not yet sure what to make of the marginal status of this text (a status to which Ben has already pointed). In The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton argues that the first composers and readers of our text “believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered process” (location 26). I’m predisposed to like that claim.

On the basis of that claim, one possible explanation of the absence of mention in the Old Testament is that everything else occurs within the already-given structure of the world that we see created here. Since it is assumed background (as the framework or ordered process within which everything else occurs), it doesn’t need to be mentioned again. That would also explain why, when the New Testament mentions Adam or Eve, they are used only archetypically.

Walton also argues that chapter 1 is a temple text that ends with God at rest in his temple. But his rest does not mean the end of his engagement with the world. So chapter 2 takes up that engagement: chapter 1, God creating the world / cosmos; chapter 2, God engaged in the world / cosmos [and, I would add, the explanation of the distance between human beings and God].

Scholars are divided over whether verse 4a should be attached to verse three or whether it introduces what follows, with perhaps most contemporary scholars taking the second option. But I think that Umberto Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part I) has made a good case for not dividing the verse. He says that the verse has a chiastic structure: “when they were created corresponds to in the day that the Lord God made; similarly, the phrase the heavens and the earth is parallel to the earth and the heavens in the second half of the verse—again an example of chiasmus” (98-99).

Chapter 1 and Chapter 2:1-3 (with perhaps 4a) has shown us the creation of the world as a habitat for human beings. But with Genesis 2:4 we begin a story of alienation rather than creation, even if the story begins with the creation of human being.

I’m treading on other people’s ground, but Mormons aren’t the only ones who don’t see chapters 2-3 as describing a fall. The Jewish tradition doesn’t, and many scholars are in agreement (e.g., Walter Brueggemann). Nor is it an explanation for how evil came into the world.

The KJV uses the literal translation “generations” in verse 4, but the Hebrew word applies here to the narrative that follows rather than to a list of descendants. So many translators take the word to mean “stories.”

Though in chapter 1, God creates through speech, in this pericope he does so through an act.

Speaking of the creation of Man, Brueggemann says “Woman is the crowning event in the narrative and the fulfillment of humanity. Moreover, there is mutuality in the second scene (2:18-25). It is only in the fourth scene (3:8-24) . . . where there is trouble and inequity between the two earthlings” (51).

Oddly, the divine name Yhwh Elohim occurs in chapters 2 and 3, but outside of them it appears in only Exodus 9:30. That fact is the subject of much discussion, but Cassuto’s way of dealing with it is interesting, though it runs against the grain of contemporary academic biblical scholarship (which generally takes the compound name as evidence of textual redaction):

       “[T]he name YHWH is a proper noun that denotes specifically the God of Israel, whereas ’Elōhim was originally a generic term and became a proper noun among the Israelites through the realisation that there is only One God and that YHWH alone is ’Elōhim [‘God’]. Following are some of the rules governing the use of the two Names in the book of Genesis that emerged from my investigations:

“(a) The Tetragrammaton occurs when Scripture reflects the concept of God, especially in His ethical aspect, that belongs specifically to the people of Israel; ’Elōhim appears when the Bible refers to the abstract conception of God that was current in the international circles of the Sages, the idea of God conceived in a general sense as the Creator of the material world, as the Ruler of nature, and as the Source of life.

“(b) The name YHWH is used when Scripture wishes to express that direct and intuitive notion of God that is characteristic of the unsophisticated faith of the multitude; but ’Elōhim is employed when it is intended to convey the concept of the philosophically minded who study the abstruse problems connected with the existence of the world and humanity.

“(c) YHWH appears when the Bible presents the Deity to us in His personal character, and in direct relationship to human beings or to nature; whereas ’Elōhim occurs when Holy Writ speaks of God as a Transcendental Being, who stands entirely outside nature, and above it.

“According to these rules, the name ’Elōhim had necessarily to be used in the story of creation, for there God appears as the Creator of the material universe, and as the Master of the world who has dominion over everything and forms everything by His word alone, without there being any direct relationship between Himself and nature; and generally the description of creation given in that account is related to the tradition of the ‘wise men’ as stated above (regarding the name ’Elōhim in the last paragraph of the section, see my annotations above, on ii 2, p. 64).

“In the narrative of the garden of Eden, on the other hand, God appears as the ruler of the moral world, for He enjoins a given precept on man, and demands an account of his actions; that apart, stress is laid here on His personal aspect, manifested in His direct relationship with man and the other creatures. For these reasons the name YHWH was required in this section, and this is the name that we actually find. Its association, however, with the appellation ’Elōhim, which is restricted to this one section of the entire book, is easily explained by Scripture’s desire to teach us that YHWH, which occurs here for the first time, is to be wholly identified with ’Elōhim mentioned in the preceding section; in other words, that the God of the moral world is none other than the God of the material world, that the God of Israel is in fact the God of the entire universe, and that the names YHWH and ’Elōhim merely indicate two different facets of His activity or two different ways in which He reveals Himself to mankind. Once this truth has been inculcated here, there is no need to repeat it later; hence in the subsequent sections the Torah employs either the Tetragrammaton or ’Elohim only, according to the context” (87-88).

As our story begins, the earth is perhaps without any plants at all, but is at least without cultivated plants. If the latter, one reason to create man is to create those plants.

In reference to Man being created from “dust,” Victor P. Hamilton (The Book of Genesis) says: “Especially interesting for possible connections with Gen. 2:7 are those passages which speak of an exaltation from dust, with the dust representing pre-royal status (1 K. 16:2), poverty (1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 113:7), and death (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). To ‘be raised from the dust’ means to be elevated to royal office, to rise above poverty, to find life. Here man is formed from dust to be in control of a garden. Thus, the emphasis on the dust in Gen. 2:7, far from disagreeing with ch. 1, affirms ch. 1’s view of man’s regality. He is raised from the dust to reign” (158).

The word translated “man” and “ground” in verse 7 are the same as the word translated “ground” in verse 5: ʾādām (from a word meaning “red”).

The word translated “till” in the KJV is ʿābad. This word appears at important junctures of the story. For example at 2:15 (KJV: “dress”) and at 2:23 (KJV: “till” again). It’s basic meaning is “work, serve” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew & English Lexicon). 


About Jim F.

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6 Responses to Genesis 2:4-7

  1. Julie Smith says:

    Thank you for this.

    (1) One topic that interests me is what we might call the dual nature of Adam: on the one hand, he is created from the dust (and his very name reinforces that connection) but on the other hand he has the breath of God in him, animating him. He is not alive until he is a combination of dust and divine breath.

    (2) I need to share one of my all-time favorite Brigham Young quotes here, relevant to our passage and my question regarding how literally/symbolically we should be reading:

    “When the Lord had organized the world, and filled the earth with animal and vegetable life, then he created man. . . . Moses made the Bible to say his wife was taken out of his side—was made of one of his ribs. As far as I know my ribs are equal on each side. The Lord knows if I had lost a rib for each wife I have, I should have had none left long ago. . . . As for the Lord taking a rib out of Adam’s side to make a woman of, it would be just as true to say he took one out of my side. ‘But, Brother Brigham, would you make it appear that Moses did not tell the truth?’ No, not a particle more than I would that your mother did not tell the truth when she told you that little Billy came from a hollow toadstool. I would not accuse your mother of lying any more than I would Moses. The people in the days of Moses wanted to know things that [were] not for them, the same as your children do when they want to know where their little brother came from, and he answered them according to the level of their understandings, the same as mothers do their children.”
    –President Brigham Young quoted in Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, page 92. Ellipses and brackets in original.

    (3) Generations. As I mentioned last week, some have read this as the first of ten “generations” passages in Genesis. This is the only one without a name attached (“the generations of X”). Why might this be? How does it relate to the other “generations” stories?

    (4) If I read woodenly, there is an earth with water but no plant life when Adam is created. (Perhaps there was plant life, just not the kind that required human cultivation?) If this is the case, what is the symbolism here?

    (5) I’m thinking about the fact that the creation on Adam in these verses is interwoven with the presence/absence of water, although the water is not a part of the creation of Adam. (You might be able to read this as the water being a prerequisite for the creation of Adam.) What is Adam’s relationship to water, and how might this be understood symbolically?

  2. Ben S says:

    I think 2:4a makes more sense referring back to ch. 1 as opposed to an intro to 2:4ff, but if so, it’s the only back-looking toledot, which argues against that position. Many commenters build on the contrast between the word order HEAVENS-and-earth in the cosmos-centered creation account vs the EARTH-and-heavens in the human centered account. It’s a good transitional way to link the two.

    My assertion about the lack of any plants comes from D. Tsumura (as quoted in Walton’s NIV Commentary), on the two statements in 5-6 about the lack of either wild or human-cultivated plants.

    The first is concerned with wild uncultivated plants, i.e., “shrub” and “plant,” on the earth (ʾereṣ); the second with the man who tills the land (ʾadamah) and the ʾed-water which watered the land (ʾadamah). In other words, Gen 2:5–6 presents a twofold description of the earth: the first section [v. 5a–5c] speaks broadly about the unproductive and bare “earth” (ʾereṣ) in which even the wild plants were not yet growing because of the lack of rain; and the second [vv. 5d–6b], more specifically about the “land” (ʾadamah) which has “no man to till it” and is watered throughout by the ʾed-waters.

    Though it goes unmentioned (another example of the minimalism of the text), presumably after these events, God DOES cause it to rain, allowing wild plants to grow. (Rain isn’t mentioned again until Gen. 7:4, in the threat of rain causing the deluge.) If the text is meant to be etiological, it is highly selective in the origins it chooses to provide.

  3. Candice says:

    Cassuto’s observations about how the names and roles Elohim and Yahweh are both encompassed in the narrative perhaps explain a little bit about why, while the narrative is so simple and there are many holes in it, it is nevertheless satisfying and rich to our imaginations and our spirits. We see God walking and talking in a garden with man and performing miraculous creative acts. There is nothing like this elsewhere in scripture, perhaps nowhere else does God seem to feel so at home on earth.

    Thank you for your comments about dust and royal ascension and tilling. This will help me when I talk about 2:17/tilling in a couple weeks. The significance of dust as both lowly and royal here reminds me of the ubiquitous plot motif in folklore of a prince working literally in the ashes/dust of another King’s household, and miraculously rising to become King of this other people. Only through descension can he gain strength and experience to ascend. Only by leaving his father’s kingdom does he learn to appreciate the role of Kingship and truly desire to rise to it.

    Julie, I’m also intrigued by water in the narrative and how it can enrich the meanings surrounding Adam and is first experiences– how do dust and water work together as symbols? It seems almost as if the narrative could or should have included something about how water is a part of Adam’s body. Water in the narrative serves as a divine source of life and growth. Only it can enliven the dust to produce plants and fruits.

    It’s good to know “till” basically means “work/serve.” I think there is a lot of spiritual significance in Adam’s first task of tilling and growing special plants that cannot naturally and spontaneously grow. One example is that Adam’s life is to be full of spiritual service and striving to produce spiritual “fruits” among his posterity.

  4. Ben S says:

    A few philological notes-
    2:4-5 This is one place where the KJV’s hyper-literalness can mislead. The correct thing is to separate these two verses, as 5 begins a completely new clause. That coupled with their misunderstanding of terem “before” is what suggests that all of chap. 1 took place before anything had actually been created, i.e. (verse # and punctuation removed) “in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens and every plant of the field before it was in the earth and every herb of the field before it grew…”

    6- No one is quite certain as to the nature of the water, as it’s referred to only a handful of times (2x as I recall.) It’s been related to a few cognates, but we don’t know. It is clear from the verb form, in contrast to the KJV, that this water came up repeatedly, habitually, not just a one-time thing immediately prior to man’s creation.

    7- The wordplay here is between ‘dm and ‘dmh (the feminine form), the ‘adam is created from the ‘adamah My campfire version tried to capture this by borrowing from elsewhere, a human from the humus, an earthling from the earth. It’s our first usage of ‘adam, and it is slightly problematic as to whether it represents mankind, a particular man, or the proper name Adam (which never appears in my version.)

    As to ‘abad, it often has priestly/Tabernacle connotations. Avodah ( ‘abdh) is the term for priestly/sacrificial service, as I recall. Certainly there is a Jewish tradition of Adam as the first high priest, and the garden/temple themes, fairly extensively developed.

  5. rosalyndewelch says:

    After reading all of your comments, I’m really fixated on this notion of cultivated plants and tilling the earth, and whether one of God’s purposes in creating Adam was to allow him to cultivate plants. (Wouldn’t THAT upset an anthropocentric world!) The word “till” — to work, to serve, as Jim tells us above — seems to have positive connotation, and thematic resonance. The notion of a garden seems to have nearly universally positive connotations. I’ve often thought about a human’s nurturing, serving relationship to the plants in his garden as a good guide to what “dominion” — that is, priesthood authority — should be: service oriented, working toward order, beauty and fruitfulness, diligent and humble and not afraid of mucking around in the dirt. In that sense, Adam’s created relationship to the work of tilling and cultivating plants, and his first home in a garden the care of which was charged to him, could be read as an edifying lesson on how humans should govern one another and govern the earth.

    But over the last few years, especially as big agribusiness has become politically unpopular (and as I read “The Botany of Desire”), I’ve changed my thoughts a bit about cultivating plants. In a way it can be seen as really sinister, instrumental, and voracious: we alter plants to most efficiently and obscenely suit our own appetites and desires. When I look at huge, shiny, sugar-sweet apples in the grocery store, they remind me of grotesquely enlarged breasts pumped full of silicon in order to satisfy male desire. “Amber waves of grain” now look like a frantic mono-maniacal effort to satisfy the endless human taste for fructose. Even organic, eco-conscious, etc etc farming operations are still at root the desire to change the world in order to fulfill our appetites. This would put Adam’s role as farmer, cultivator and domesticator of plants in a much more problematic frame.

    I don’t necessarily see any of these problems raised in the text itself, except for questions of agent and instrumentality: is Adam for the plants, or are the plants for Adam? Maybe the ordering reversal in the two creation accounts (plants created before Adam; Adam created before the plants) implicitly raises this question. And the horizontal, flattened thematic GROUND in this story might also lend itself to disrupting traditional notions of hierarchy and agency.

  6. Adam Miller says:

    Okay, I’ve been working on this text and next week’s (i.e., tomorrow’s). Let me try to dump some thoughts before I’ve run out of time.

    1. Alter’s translation really foregrounds the pronounced stylistic shift away from the generally measured, stately, formal, and paratactic call/response of Genesis 1 by rendering all of Genesis 2:5-7 as a single sentence (he reads mosts of vs.4 as belonging to the first creation narrative). He claims that “the second account begins with elaborate syntactical subordination in a long complex sentence that uncoils all the way from the second part of verse 4 to the end of verse 7.” Here’s the translation:

    On the day the LORD God made earth and heavens, no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil, then the LORD God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature.

    There may be some stylistic resonance here with the less formal and more earthy account of creation that follows.

    2. “On the day the Lord God made earth and heavens . . .” We’ve noted the inversion here. Rather than creating the heavens and earth, we get the creation of earth and heavens. I’m struck by the way that, in this second formulation, the “and” feels more conjunctive and less disjunctive than it does in the first order. That is, the second formulation, by prioritizing the earth, seems to make them more of a natural pair. The heavens aren’t, here, the pre-existing homebase from which the earth is created, but part of what is involved in creating the world, earth AND heavens. Re-note as well that we get the [one] day of making/creating here, not the seven days.

    3. . . . no shrub of the field being yet on the earth and no plant of the field yet sprouted. . . “

    We’ve already noted the potential symmetry of the naked earth and the naked humans. Because the earth is “naked,” it will be the job of the humans to “dress” this garden. The humans are charged to care for the earth’s nakedness and make things grow. Does this feed positively or negatively into an evaluation of what is going on when they eventually attempt to “dress” themselves?

    4. ” . . . for the Lord God had not caused rain to fall on the earth and there was no human to till the soil, and wetness would well from the earth to water all the surface of the soil . . .”

    What are we thinking about water here? Is water in this second account still to be identified with the primordial “deep” of Genesis 1? It seems much more benign and ordinary on the face of it.

    Are we saying that what must eventually come from the heavens was initially given freely by the whole earth itself?

    What about the direction of the water’s insurgence? If the water comes from below is it still good for growing things? Must the water come from above to be good for growing? Is there an implicit judgment here about the source of the water and its efficacy (pure rain water vs. salty earth water/seas)? Or do these earthly waters simply have to wait until God/humans supply the tended plants before it can be of use?

    Does the orderly growth of these plants into a garden rely upon the welling infusion of water/chaos from below?

    Insofar as this welling water “waters all the face of the surface of the soil,” could we read this as a proto-deluvian moment, the whole earth daily flooded in its entirely by these waters, daily baptized?

    We get the earth here described by Alter as “soil” instead of “dust.” I think I prefer “dust.” If we’re dealing with dust, is this because there are no plants to anchor the earth and keep it from blowing around and being all dusty? Genesis 2: primordial dust-bowl! (Never mind the flooding.)

    5. “. . . then the Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living creature . . .” We’ve noted that where plants need water to grow, humans need “breath” instead. We’re both made from soil/dust, but the second component is different (breath for humans substitutes for water for plants).

    Breath involves a range of a interesting and focal religious phenomena.

    Note that, in breathing, we literally “water” the air that we respire. (If you want to tell if someone is alive or dead, you put a mirror beneath their nose and, if it fogs up, then they’re alive.) Is this another example of the earth watering things: we, dirt/earth-people, inhale the air, water it, and then exhale it? If water is chaos, then are we miniature chaos-machines, continually re-infusing dry spirit with moist-earth so that something can grow? How does capacity for “chaotic” action relate to the human capacity for agency? Is it crucial to it?

    The intimacy of this act of creation (as compared to the “command with words and watch it be done” of Genesis 1) is always worth noting again. Instead of the formal distance necessary for sound to travel from mouth to ear, we get the intimacy of a quickening kiss, a breath blown kiss-like from lip into lung. Breath to ear (Genesis 1) vs. breath to lung (Genesis 2). Notice, though, that in both instances of creation we’re still dealing with breath. In the first case, breath resonates audibly; in the second case breath fills tactilely. One kind of creation is articulate, one is not. The human is the product of breath either way. We are: the breathers.

    A final thought about breath. What does it mean that even before the “fall,” humans are already and decidedly hungry? Most obviously for food, but this also applies to breath. We are most immediately and persistently hungry for air, for the next breath. We can’t go for more than a couple of seconds without breathing without dying. God gives us this breath, but it doesn’t stay given. He puts it in but we (because we are alive!) immediately breathe it right back out! And, if we want to stay alive, we have to breath it back in again and again and again. We have to say “yes” to living again and again and again . . .

    That breath is the source of life seems to indicate that even from the beginning there is a complex dependence of body and environment, of adam and adamah, of adamah and n’shemah, a dependence that though sufficiently stable (for a time) is not static but dynamic and negotiated, given and taken. A human being is a meat-balloon, built for respiring air and that meat/earth is animated by a fundamental and insatiable appetite for breath.

    The gift of this breath is the gift of this appetite that consumes the world daily on the altar of its lungs. Or something like that.

    More tomorrow from me on 2:8-14.

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