Genesis 2:4-10 Part II: Putting Man in His Place, in More Ways than One!
In my first post, I developed my own interpretation of Genesis 2:4-10 after showing (in my own way) the differences between translation and interpretation. Now, I defend my interpretation and suggest why we may be missing the real intent of Genesis 2 – to put man in his place, in more ways than one!
This is my interpretation of Genesis 2:4b-10:
In the day Yahweh Elohim made land and sky-
before any shrub of the field was on Earth,
before any plant of the field had sprouted,
when Yahweh Elohim did not bring rain over the Earth,
without a man to work the soil.
Yet fog ascended from the Earth
and watered the entire face of the soil.
And Yahweh Elohim formed “the man of clay” from the soil
and breathed into his face a breath of life.
Then man became a living being.
Now Yahweh Elohim had planted a garden in Eden long ago,
and there emplaced the man whom He formed.
Now Yahweh Elohim sprouted from the soil every tree pleasing to sight,
and good for food-
including a tree of the Life in the midst of the garden,
and a tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Now a river flowed from Eden and irrigated the garden;
but from there it was scattered
and became four heads.
Establishing Author Intent
A common sentiment of commentaries on Genesis 2:4-10 (especially vv. 4-7) is the complete lack of confidence in current versions! Statements such as “what did God mean by this” or “perhaps” or “mystery” are common descriptors. As I demonstrated in my last post, such lack of confidence has led some theologians to accept “contradictions” between Genesis 1 and 2. Lack of confidence is also evidenced by the various translations existing amongst contemporary English Bibles. I think the reason there is no confidence in these interpretations is because there is too much focus on translation of the words, but not enough energy devoted to interpreting author’s intent. However, the key to establishing confidence in any interpretation is to portray the original intent of the author(s). This includes establishing his point-of-view.
I’ll use the very first word of the passage in Genesis 2:4b – b’yom – as a prime example of establishing intent. b’yom is the -b preposition (equivalent to “in/on/among”) followed by yom, the Hebrew word for “day”. Critics argue b’yom could be translated “in a day” thus “in a day Yahweh Elohim made earth and heaven” contradicts the six-day creation account of Genesis 1. In a separate example, an old earth creationist interprets yom to justify his agenda. However, it is doubtful ultra-meticulous scribes (or a culture based on a strict oral history) would have gloriously missed “contradictions”. Secondly, several other scriptures establish the correct context and translation of b’yom as “in the day” – a Hebrew idiom meaning “when”. Here, the correct interpretation is made by comparing the phrase’s use in other scriptures, and understanding the rendering of b’yom as an idiom fits the context of Gen 2:4. As noted, it also does not contradict earlier parts of Scripture, thus truer to the intent of the originating author(s) and culture.
My interpretation of b’yom as an idiomatic “when” underlines the rest of the chapter. Also, we gain insight to intent: the author(s) is romanticizing history, like the way “once upon a time” is an idiomatic, romantic beginning for an epic. Therefore, the next few clauses are also introductory, complimenting the author’s retrospect from the future:
“When God made earth and sky (IT WASN’T ALWAYS AS IT IS TODAY):
-There wasn’t always shrubs or plants in cultivation just anywhere in the Earth (v. 5a-b).
-It didn’t always rain over the Earth like it does today (v. 5c).
-We didn’t always have to work the soil (v. 5d).
-Back then, a fog used to water the soil, not the rain (v. 6).
These introductory clauses “set the scene” for an author writing in ancient Israel. It is well known that ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, a continuous cycle of plowing and reaping cultivated fields (filled with shrubs like pomegranates and herbs like emmer wheat). Perhaps most important to Israel’s agrarian culture was predictable rainfall “in due season”, which was necessary to her survival. Israel is not like Egypt which relies on irrigation from the Nile; Israel’s hilly terrain requires rain from heaven. For this reason, the Hebrews invested many prayers to implore God for rain – a common theme in the Prophets and Psalms.
Therefore, this author contrasted the distant past with his present agrarian culture. That is why he his introduction begins and ends as “when Yahweh Elohim made land and sky… without a man “to work the soil”’. The phrase “to work the soil (laavod et-haadamah)” portrays hard labor of ‘turning the soil’, like when a man ‘puts his hand to the plow’ (cf. Luke 9:62). Contrary to how modern translations read, this is a knock on mankind. It doesn’t romanticize God making man to gently “till” a flower garden- it’s says ‘oh, there was a time we didn’t have to blister our hands, break our bones, and have sweat roll in our eyes!’
Throughout the next chapters of Genesis, the author(s) shows how each of his introductory clauses come to pass as facts of life. First we read “before any herb of the field had sprouted”… but later – after given a fully developed garden he didn’t have to plow (which would have been viewed as a great gift by the agrarian Hebrews) – Adam was banished to plow, seed, weed, and reap his own “herbs of the field” (Gen. 3:18). Instead of living off the land, he had to “work the soil” for himself “in the sweat of his face” (Gen. 3:19, 23). So much for “no man to work the soil”!
Several contrasts are made between the present culture of the author (s) and the pre-Flood world. First, he describes the soil of that time as being watered by ed arising from the earth. [N.B.: There is much speculation about how ed should be defined; I have interpreted it as “fog” though some translate it “streams” or “flows”. In Job 36:27, ed’s only other occurrence, the context seems to portray a fog, or vapor]. In Adam’s terrarium world water came from the ground, not the sky, denoting phenomena totally different from the author(s)’s climate. Additionally, he writes about the “Garden of Eden long ago” stressing an ancient past. Then, he describes the river of Eden as being “scattered” – which I presume happened through a worldwide flood, and redrawn in a new world as four separate rivers. Eventually, he climaxes what he originally said about the world without rain in Genesis 2:5 with the first rain of the Great Flood (cf. Gen. 7:4,7).
[Note: it would be too lengthy to discuss the “curse” of that world here; I’ll write it up in a later post.]
Other nuances through this text tell the “heavy heart” of the author(s). They lament this life of labor, not celebrating it! They describe “the man of clay”. There are many awkward readings of Genesis 2:7 (as shown through this parallel), but the phrase “He formed man from the dust of the ground” is non-existent. It actually says ‘He formed “the man of clay” from the soil’ which biblically makes more sense. It portrays God as a potter and man as clay, a theme in many later biblical parables (e.g. Job 10:9, Isa. 64:8, Jer. 18:1-6). This builds up to the fall of man, a curse on the soil, hardships, the murder, until the fall ends with the Great Flood.
In fact, it appears the author(s) puts “man in his place” before God puts man in any place!
While Genesis 1 describes God’s creative approach to our heaven and earth, Genesis 2 is an indictment of man from the perspective of author(s) in an agrarian future looking back in retrospect. It does NOT begin a second creation account. If anything, it describes what mankind made- a complete mess! The events described are certainly not in chronological order, but they are not contradictory – which is why theologians should not accept “contradictions” in Genesis, it’s simply a matter of knowing the perspective and intent of the author(s).
But from this perspective, the creation of man isn’t as romantic as we interpret it today. They lamented working the soil as the no-name Adam “the man of clay” was forced to do. They lamented growing their own shrubs and fields. For them, it would have been a much more pleasant life picking apples off of trees than a life of plowing and weeding. And of course, they’re right! Who wouldn’t want that?
As the rest of Genesis proceeds, nothing good happens until the end of the flood, with the promise of its new start. In the meantime, we have to view Genesis from the perspective of a perfect, workless garden, that despite how much man could toil in the soil, he could never duplicate the Garden of Eden. I think that’s the point-of-view we miss, from the perspective of farmers who lost the farm!♦