Genesis 2 is admittedly a difficult passage to understand. The author uses ambiguous words, wordplays, idioms, grammar rules foreign to English speakers, and did not record events in a chronological order. In some places, the author(s) appear to leave incomplete sentences!
After interpreting Genesis 2:4-10, I found that I did not arrive at the same conclusions as the mainstream, but that’s fine, because I didn’t discover any common trends in its translation. At any rate, I feel that we are missing the point because we are so preoccupied by what the author said that we don’t consider what the author intended.
This first post is a study in the awkwardness of translation versus interpretation using Gen. 2:4-10 as an example, which concludes with my own interpretation of the text. Hopefully, it will also conclude with YOUR interpretation as well! The second post will be my apologetic explanation of why I think in Genesis 2, God puts man in his place, in more ways than we realize!
Translation Vs. Interpretation
Translation is difficult enough, but interpretation is an attempt to convey foreign thought into modern grammar and culture – which is far more challenging. As an example, the word-for-word, literal translation of Gen 2:4b-Gen 2:5d reads:
in day made yahweh elohim earth and sky and every shrub of the field before it was in earth and every shrub of the field before it was in earth and every herb of the field before it sprouted when did not send rain yahweh elohim over the earth and man no to work the ground
You see, this is translated, but how do we interpret this!? Which words must we add (for it) to make sense in English? Should we insert ‘a’ or ‘the’ modifiers for the sake of ‘flow’? Do we translate words like shamayim by its practical term “sky” or by its more bias meaning of “Heaven?” What words should I capitalize? What about punctuation? How do I distinguish commas from periods; do I need brackets and/or parentheses?
However, the most important question of all is, ‘how do I determine the original author point-of-view and intentions!!?’
If I reading the above translation word-for-word, it may seem that Yahweh make heaven and earth, along with every shrub and plant before they even appeared on the earth… which is exactly how some interpret it! A certain religion headquartered in Utah interprets Genesis 2:5 to justify a “prior spirit creation“. In a similar vein, the 19th Century Methodist theologian Adam Clarke explained that this statement “describes how God made everything in maturity before placing it on the earth.” [N.B.: For the sake of brevity, I did not include other sources that support a similar interpretation, though there are several more.]
However, what if the statement “every shrub of the field before it was in the earth” is just an awkward way (for us) to say “before every shrub was in the earth”? Translated, this grammar confuses us Westerners, but it is just fine in Hebrew. You see, this second interpretation is vastly different than what some religions and theologians were inclined to believe because it accounts for the ancients’ style of writing. Now it’s true faulty interpretations could be nefarious, like say to satisfy a doctrinal agenda, but most of the time misreadings of the text miss something, like the context and culture of the ancient manuscript.
Returning to the translation of Gen. 2:4b-5, did shrubs and plants not sprout because there was no rain? Did God withhold rain because there were no men to work the ground, which suggests that all men were created to be farmers?
Furthermore, the translation “as is” suggests God delayed the creation of vegetation until He made man to cultivate the ground… sooooooo was mankind created before plant life? Isn’t that a contradiction of Genesis 1, where plants sprouted three days before mankind (cf. Gen. 1:11-13, 27-31)!? As exemplified at the 3:54 mark of this video, some theologians have just given up trying to harmonize Genesis 1 and 2, all because Genesis 2:4-7 is interpreted as if humans preceded vegetation.
I raise these thematic questions because all of them are subjects of commentaries and articles internal and external to the Kingdom of God. However, all such arguments have one thing in common: they are interpretations. While interested parties should investigate Genesis 2’s many interpretations for themselves, I also challenge readers to compare parallel translations of Genesis 2:4-10 and observe the differences in punctuation, sentence division, and to consider what these readings imply from the text.
Let’s Run Down the Run-On
With so many different interpretations of Genesis 2, why not try it ourselves?
The first difficulty is getting past its form, which is similar to an English run-on sentence. The “run-on” has a clear break in verse 10, but in actuality continues to verse 25. My focus will be on Genesis 2:4b-10.
Thoughts of the author(s) are separated by clauses, which are introduced by vav (-v; often transliterated -w) conjunctions. –v/w is usually translated “and” but can also mean “and therefore, also, then, or yet.”
Though -v is often used in a continuative sense, it can also be adversarial (and vs. but, respectively). It may also introduce circumstantial clauses, causal clauses, comparative clauses, purpose clauses, etc.1
The lone exception is the Hebrew kiy. Like –v, it also introduces clauses, such as “object clauses, clauses introducing direct narrative, causal clauses, conditional clauses, confirmatory clauses, adversative and exceptive clauses, temporal clauses, or result clauses.”2 It has about two dozen translations in biblical texts.
To demonstrate the run-on, I’ve transliterated Genesis 2:4b to Genesis 2:10 (where the run-on clearly breaks), separating each clause containing its own verb, while leaving every conjunction as is.
As you read, YOU will be responsible for identifying each kind of clause (conditional, causal, etc) which will determine how YOU translate each conjunction (and, because, but, then, yea, etc.). Additionally, YOU will be responsible for punctuation, and the insertion of any words conducive to “flow”. Therefore, modifiers such as a/an/the will be marked by (?). Additionally, hads/haves may be required – even if the verb form is active yet the context implies a passive event. YOU will simply have to judge if the context warrants it. Yes, there will be some words requiring an extra English word or verb to work; I did not translate these but hyperlinked them so YOU may pick the translation and verb combination to make it work. Don’t worry, you can italicize such inserts, but YOU will also have to omit any words you deem unnecessary. For ambiguous words having two or more possibilities, I simply used hyphens and translated all possibilities… all for YOU. You are encouraged to read further in the Bible to find contextual clues, or to compare usage of terms elsewhere. You may even use other Bible translations if you do not like my listed options, but your final translation must be easy-to-read, which means YOU must rearrange the word order as they originally appeared.
Fear not! All of the rules I’ve just levied on YOU, dear reader, are used by all translators of every holy book, everywhere! Now, YOU get to play by the same rules. Have at it!
2:4b b‘yôm ásôt y’hwäh élohiym eretz v’shämäyim [in (?) day yahweh elohim made (?) earth/land vav (?) sky(ies)/Heaven]
2:5a w’khol siyach haSädeh terem yih’yeh bääretz [vav every/any shrub of the field before it was/became in (?) earth/land]
2:5b w’khäl ësev haSädeh terem yitz’mäch [vav every/any plant/herb of the field before it sprouted]
2:5c kiy lo him’tiyr y’hwäh élohiym al-hääretz [kiy did not himitiyr yahweh elohim over/upon the earth]
2:5d w’ädäm ayin laávod et-häádämäh [vav man/Adam ayin to work/till the ground/soil]
2:6a w’ëd yaáleh min-hääretz [vav mist/fog/river ascended from the earth]
2:6b w’hish’qäh et-Käl-P’nëy-häádämäh [vav watered/irrigated (?) entire face of the ground]
2:7a waYiytzer y’hwäh élohiym et-häädäm äfär min-häádämäh [vav formed yahweh elohim the man of clay from the ground/soil]
2:7b waYiPach B’aPäyw nish’mat chaYiym [vav breathed in face/nose (?) breath of life(ves)]
2:7c way’hiy häädäm l’nefesh chaYäh [vav was/became the man to being of life]
2:8a waYita y’hwäh élohiym Gan-B’ëden mi-Qedem [vav yahweh elohim planted a garden in eden from East/long ago]
2:8b waYäsem shäm et-häädäm ásher yätzär [vav emplaced/gave there the man whom he formed]
2:9a waYatz’mach y’hwäh élohiym min-häádämäh Käl-ëtz nech’mäd l’mar’eh [vav yahweh elohim sprouted from the ground/soil every tree delightful to sight]
2:9b w’tôv l’maákhäl [vav good to eat]
2:9c w’ëtz hachaYiym B’tôkh’ haGän w’ëtz haDaat tôv wärä [vav (?) tree of the life(ves) in center of the garden vav (?) tree of the knowledge of good vav evil]
2:10a w’nähär yotzë më-ëden l’hash’qôt et-haGän [vav river sprang from Eden to water/irrigate the garden]
2:10b vmi-SHäm yiPärëd [vav from there it parted/divided/scattered/separated]
2:10c w‘häyäh l’ar’Bääh räshiym [vav was/became four heads.]
So, did you get something similar to me?
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 whole 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.
In my interpretation, the clauses are variable, the -vav conjunctions do not always begin continual clauses, and I’ve used “now” to denote clauses which are clearly not chronological. I used scare quotes to carry over an intricacy of the text. Additionally, I used hyphens and different translations for some of the words, including where I think verbs are better understood in a different tense!
If you’ve played along you may have arrived to a different conclusion. Hopefully, I’ve at least demonstrated how difficult translating versus interpreting can be, especially with awkward readings in Hebrew. Once again, I invite enquiring minds to read parallel versions of this passage, to see how many scholars can reach different conclusions.
In my next post, I will defend my own interpretation by establishing the author’s point-of-view and thus, proper context.♦
¹ Mickelson, A Berkeley. “Interpreting the Bible”. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1972; p. 141.