Genesis 1:24-27 — The Creation of Mankind, More Than An Animal

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Man is unlike any other animal of the earth. This truth was acknowledged and reflected upon by nearly every ancient culture. The Greek philosopher Plato proposed that man was divided between a lower animal part and an upper divine part, the immortal soul. He reasoned that man’s intellect and divine soul set him apart from the rest of the animals. Ancient Egyptians also accorded man with an immortal soul, which originated from the gods and returned to them upon death of the physical body. And creation myths from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia alike speak of the creation of man as part clay of the earth on the one hand, and part divine intelligence, divine blood, or divine breath on the other hand. Additionally, many of these same texts describe man as “the image of his creator god,” and kings and Pharaohs throughout the Levant, including those from Israel, were imagined to be the sons of their respective cultural god. It is therefore not surprising that this fundamental “truth” about the nature of man, that he was somehow different from the animals and that a part of him at some essential level originated from the divine, was also to be expressed in Genesis 1.

This is in fact the message behind our author’s portrait of God’s creation of mankind “in his image.” But before we take a closer look at this, the creation of mankind must be seen in the framework our author intended his readers to see it—vis-à-vis the creation of the animals.

20And God said, “Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living-breathing life (nephesh hayah), and let fowl fly above the earth in front of the firmament of the skies.” 21And God created (bara’) the great sea-serpents and all living-breathing life (nephesh hayah) that swims, by its kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged fowl by its kind.

24And God said: “Let the earth bring forth living-breathing life (nephesh hayah) by its kind—beasts and reptiles—animals (hayat) of earth, by their kind.” And it was so. 25And God made (‘asah) the animals (hayat) of the earth by their kind—the beasts by their kind and every reptile of the ground by its kind.

I have spent some time with the Hebrew and have finally settled on the above translation. I am certainly open to comments. What the reader immediately notices is that what is normally rendered as “living creatures” or “living beings,” I have translated as “living-breathing life.” The Hebrew is nephesh hayah.

Nephesh connotes the life force that animates living beings or life in abstract terms—anything that has the breath of life in it, a living-breathing being: animals, humans, creatures. Since the adjective hayah, from the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist,’ basically means the same thing—living, alive—I have decided that “living-breathing life” best captures the intended sense here in Genesis 1.

This translation also makes excellent use of the Hebrew in 1:30—“and all that moves upon the earth in which there is living-breathing life.” Finally, the phrase nephesh hayah appears again in the Yahwist‘s creation account where, I will argue later, its use is significantly different from how it’s used by the author of Genesis 1; and furthermore, when used to refer to both man (Gen 2:7) and the animals (Gen 2:19) violently contradicts the message of Genesis 1:24-27.

We must also strongly avoid and discourage the translation of nephesh by “soul.” The word “soul” especially conceived of as “immortal soul” is a concept of Greek philosophy and is unknown to the Hebrew Bible and its authors. The concept doesn’t emerge in Judaism until after Alexander the Great conquers the world at the end of the 4th century BCE, bringing with him Greek philosophical ideas into Judaism, and then early Christianity. One clearly sees from its use in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, and 30 that nephesh means life force, or that which has the breath of life, since “soul” is usually not a concept applied to fish, eels, worms, cattle, turkeys, bats, etc.

The point I wish to stress, no matter how one translates the expression nephesh hayah, is that it is never used in the creation of mankind, male and female, in Genesis 1:26-27. I am not saying that our author did not see mankind as “living-breathing life,” as a living-breathing being; of course he did. But I would argue that he consciously avoids using the expression, and more so the term hayat, in Genesis 1:26-27 because he is attempting to stress mankind’s utter difference from the nephesh hayah or the hayat—“the life-breathing animals”—of the earth.

26And God said, “Let us make (‘asah) mankind in our image and after our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the skies and over the beasts and over all the earth and over the reptiles that move upon the earth.” 27And God created (bara’) the man in his image; in the image of God he created it; male and female he created (bara’) them.

There are three important points of difference our author emphasizes in his presentation of God’s creation of the animals and of mankind, male and female.

First, the text stresses the inherent connection between animals and earth. This is emphasized by drawing our attention to God’s imperative that the earth should bring forth living-breathing life (nephesh hayah), and that its animals (hayat), literally beings, are somehow essentially connected to the earth. And then we are informed that the creator deity makes (‘asah) the animals of the earth (hayat ha’aretz)—beasts and reptiles—by their kind. Mankind, in contrast, is not of the earth. The focal point in the narrative changes at this point.

In sum, and contradictory to the views of Genesis 2, man is not to be envisioned as equal with or on a par with the animals of the earth (hayat ha’aretz) from the perspective of the author of Genesis 1. The earth does not bring forth mankind. Indeed, and again contradictory to Genesis 2, the animals are not seen as man’s assistant helper (‘ezer) or counterpart (neged), but rather man is to rule over them. He is of a different quality than they—not so according to Genesis 2, as we shall momentarily see. In fact, I might be tempted to argue that according to the author of Genesis 1, man is not to be conceived of as an animal! Animals are by definition of the earth. This brings us to our second observation.

Second, the repeated refrain “by its kind” as a descriptive for the manner in which the fowl of the skies, the fish of the seas, and the animals of the earth are created is not just a rhetorical device. It serves a thematic purpose whose function is to highlight man’s utter difference to the animals only this time with respect to the manner of how he/she was created. It is difficult to say exactly what our author intended by the expression “by its kind.” It would seem, however, that the idea conveyed is that each life form is distinct, that a cow for example, or what a cow is, is distinctly defined by its own kind. At any event, the expression is used to convey how radically different this creation “by its kind” is to the creation of mankind. For unlike the living beings of the earth mankind is not created according to its own kind, but rather in the image of the divine beings: “in our image and after our likeness.”

The ideas expressed here are again not some objective divinely ordained description of the origins of mankind. Rather they are the expression of the views and beliefs of our Priestly writer and of his culture. It is our author who perceives man as radically different than the animals that populate the earth. And this difference causes him to create a creation narrative wherein these difference are expressed. Thus, unlike the animals, each made according to their own kind, man, on the contrary, is created in the image and likeness of the gods!

Third, I’m not at all convinced this is a good or even valid observation, so I’ll phrase it as a question. How much of a difference is there between God making (‘asah) the animals of the earth, and God creating (bara’) male and female in his image? The verbs seem to be used interchangeably and synonymously throughout Genesis 1, and yet I can’t quite image our author writing ‘God made (‘asah) male and female in his image.’ And conversely, the great sea-serpents and the fish, we are told, were not made, but also created (bara’).

Finally, by way of concluding this section, I might encourage my readers to again think about how this later 6th century BCE creation myth functions in relationship to the earlier Yahwist account now preserved in Genesis 2:4b-3:24, which we will shortly look at. Following the work of my peers and colleagues, it has been repeatedly voiced that the Priestly writer was writing a creation narrative to replace or subvert the earlier Yahwist account, but due to an unforeseen later editorial endeavor both accounts were preserved.

At any event, the point to presently mull over, to which we will return later, is that we can see the Priestly writer’s concerns here. Can we not? For in the Yahwist text, man, the creation of Adam, is in no way distinguished from the animals of the earth! Even after he receives Yahweh’s breath, Adam is still made of the same essential material that the animals are made of, the ‘adamah (the ground), and only still merely becomes what the animals themselves are referred to as—a nephesh hayah (Gen 2:7, 19). I would propose that this is just one of the specific concerns and disagreements that the Priestly writer had with the tradition he himself inherited. So what did he do? He rewrote it in accord with his own views and beliefs on the matter—rewriting man above and distinct from the animals of the earth, not equivalent to them!

For a general perspective of what the Priestly writer sought to accomplish in his rewriting see The Priestly writer’s reworking of the Yahwist material of Genesis 1-11.

3 thoughts on “Genesis 1:24-27 — The Creation of Mankind, More Than An Animal

  1. Yes, when you brought up the word choice between bara and asah, I decided to read aloud Genesis 1 in the original Hebrew (not that I understand the words I was reading) and it sounded very poetic. I just found a site here that talks about the poetic qualities: https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/Genesis_texts.html. So maybe if two words are more or less synonymous, they went with the one that made for better spoken (or sung) verse.

    I agree that probably neither P nor J conceived of man as initially deathless. I just thought there was more tension in P’s account between man being created in God’s image, not like the other animals, and yet still suffering the same fate as they do. Perhaps there was a nice, neat account from P that covered/replaced the question of why we die, and we simply don’t have it today. Though I haven’t gotten the impression that the Jewish scribes would be likely to misplace such an important writing, there are references throughout the early Bible books to outside sources that were apparently not preserved down to this day (Book of Jashur, Wars of Yahweh, etc.).

  2. Well phrased, and I appreciate your point that in this version, man is created “to rule” over the animals. Besides the fact that mankind is specially being created in God’s image, the rulership over the animals is an interesting change from the second, older account where man is mortal like the animals and will suffer the same eventuality as the animals if they do not eat from a certain tree.

    I wonder if the later writer of Genesis 1’s account believed in the tree of life that is part of the older story in Genesis 2-3, or if he subscribed to the modern Christian interpretation that man was made perfect and therefore was naturally deathless (and that tree of life is just a pesky detail to be ignored). After all, why would something made in God’s image ever suffer natural death? And for that matter, where is the Priestly version of the Garden of Eden story, or was the writer intending only to replace the creation narrative and then the Eden story would still be tacked onto the end of his new version and continue to give the same explanation for mankind’s troubles?

    How much of a difference is there between God making (‘asah) the animals of the earth, and God creating (bara’) male and female in his image? The verbs seem to be used interchangeably and synonymously…

    Is it possible that the word choice was made for poetic reasons?

    1. Poetic… hmm, that’s interesting.

      I’m not sure how any advanced ancient culture could think that man was deathless; they would have experienced and known death all too well already. Remember too that such ideas as resurrection, eternal reanimated life, an after-mortem existence in heaven (in the waters above? — best know how to swim!) didn’t yet exist. I see that you and John spent some time on the other post talking about the garden of Eden’s tree of life. I look at this story, and there is a parallel in Gilgamesh, as an etiological story explaining in fable-like terms why man is not immortal—an older remnant of when man did ask such questions: “Why do we die?” “Well son, there’s an old story that relates how…” Both the Gilgamesh account, where Gilgamesh looses the gift of immortality to the serpent who steals it while he sleeps (I’m working from memory), and the garden of Eden story were not meant to postulate any original immortal state of clay-made man, but rather explain why man is a mortal creature.

      As far as what the Priestly writer believed, that’s an interesting question. Since tales explaining why man is not immortal were older, maybe he saw this tale as obsolete. I would argue that he certainly disagreed with the Yahwist’s somewhat negative portrayal of mankind and his “natural” tendency toward violence as depicted in the Yahwist stories. As Carr has written:

      “Gen 1:1-2:3 depicts an omnipotent God creating a godlike humanity. In contrast, Gen 2:4b-3:24 depicts a God who can both fail (Gen 2:19-20) and succeed (Gen 2:21-23). Humanity is not godlike but is created out of earth and punished for acts leading to humanity’s being like God (Gen 3:1-24).” (Reading the Fractures of Genesis, 64)

      The original P text moves from Genesis 1:1-2:3 to Genesis 5:1—“in the day that God created man in his likeness…” and then we get the birth of Seth in the likeness of Adam. Furthermore, P stresses throughout Leviticus that the Israelites are to be holy precisely because Yahweh is holy. I think we’re to hear Gen 1:27 in the background here. But in general I think P’s creation of mankind in the image of the divine beings was an explicit way to combat or subvert the Yahwist’s depiction of man as a living being no different than the animals of the earth.

      Following predominantly the work of Carr (Reading the Fractures of Genesis), I would concur that the author of Genesis 1 saw himself as rewriting earlier Israelite history, and furthermore, as I have written in other posts, rewrites the Abraham story, the Exodus-Passover tradition, the Sinai event, the crossing of the Red Sea, the giving of the laws, the wilderness traditions, etc. Whether he saw his text as a counter-narrative to the Yahwist or as replacing it is up for grabs; but what actually did happen I don’t think he did foresee—the later editorial cut-and-paste job that gave us the PJ text as it now stands. It’s a new text that now invites new interpretive questions that would have been foreign to both the Priestly writer and the Yahwist.

      As a final comment, and a question I will address more when I get to the contradictions in Deuteronomy, if later scribes such as the Priestly writer, the Deuteronomist, and even the Chronicler, saw themselves as re-writing the traditions that they received, then how did they themselves view these traditions if they could be retold in various different and contradictory ways? I’m more comfortable with these sorts of questions. If it can be textually demonstrated that a later scribe consciously rewrote the “history” he inherited, and now we have both versions, then did these authors see these texts as historical records? As the word of god Yahweh, even though at the same time they’re writing texts that say: “And Yahweh said…”?

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