Genesis 2:18-20—Man/Animals from the Ground, Woman from Man

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In radically contradictory fashion to the creation of man (and woman) in the first creation account (Gen 1:24-27), when all is said and done in the second creation account, the substance from which man is made and that which he essentially becomes are shockingly no different than what is said about every other animal in this creation narrative.

And god Yahweh molded (yatsar) the man (ha ’adam), clay from the ground (ha ’adamah), and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being (nephesh hayah). (Gen 2:7)

And god Yahweh molded (yatsar) from the ground (ha ’adamah) every animal of the field and every fowl of the skies and brought them to the man (ha ’adam) to see what he would call them. And whatsoever the man called every living being (nephesh hayah), that was its name. (Gen 2:19)

In Genesis 2:4b-25, and only in this creation account, the essential nature of man, in both language and substance, is defined no differently than that of the animals. Both are molded (yatsar) by Yahweh from the ground (ha ’adamah), and both are defined as living beings (nephesh hayah). Even after Yahweh blows into man’s nostrils the breath of life, he still merely becomes no more than that which the animals are also defined as: a nephesh hayah!

Of course, our author purposefully created this connection and has a specific reason for doing so, as we shall momentarily see. But presently it needs to be stressed just how radically different and contradictory this image of man’s creation is from the Priestly writer’s image of man and woman’s creation together in the image and likeness of God.

As previously noted (Gen 1:24-27), the author of the first creation account purposefully crafts the creation of man and woman in opposing terms and image to that of the animals of the earth. Only the animals of the earth (hayato-eres), each created by their kind, are referred to as nephesh hayah in this creation account. This author’s aim was to suggest that man and woman, unlike the beasts of the earth, were made in the image of the god(s) and are consequentially more than mere nephesh hayah, living beings made after their own kind! Mankind—both male and female—on an elemental level is more than a nephesh hayah. By stark contrast, in the second account this label, “a living being” (nephesh hayah), is seen as man’s crowning definition! And furthermore it does not distinguish him from the animals who are also nephesh hayah! This is a shocking negation of the views and perspective of the Priestly creation account, whose aims were to emphatically distinguish mankind’s essential substance and mode of creation from that of the animals of the earth—not so for the Yahwist’s creation account.

In fact, none of these themes—indeed arguments—are present in the second creation narrative, and on the contrary a set of opposite themes and arguments are made with reference to the creation of man, the animals, and lastly woman. It would do us well to listen to this author’s specific arguments and point of view, rather than subordinating them to the claims of the first creation account and thereby neglecting them all together. Thus, whereas the first creation myth presents the creation of man and woman in different terms and image to the creation of the animals of the earth, the second creation account, by contrast, purposefully designates man, and only man, and the animals no differently—a nephesh hayah formed of the ’adamah. Furthermore, man and the animals are depicted on the same plane: the animals are each presented as potentially suitable companions to the man. They are seen as man’s assistant helper (‘ezer) or counterpart (neged) in the second creation account, and, once again only in this account.

Why then did the author of this creation myth present man and the animals in similar terms and essences, that is made of the same stuff? What was his message? And why didn’t he include woman at this point in his narrative?

It should readily be perceivable now that the Yahwist was quite the talented storyteller, and for the most part his stories, or those he himself inherited, were crafted to convey specific messages. We have already explored the rationale behind his presentation of man as substantively molded from the ground (Gen 2:6-7). This not only provided the Yahwist storyteller with a nice pun on words, ’adam from ’adamah, but also explained from his cultural perspective why man is intrinsically attached to working the ground in order to procure his livelihood. Thus the Yahwist’s stories have an etiological purpose, that is they explain the origins of current customs, worldviews, and beliefs.

The story about how god Yahweh fashioned animals from the ground, the same essence from which man was made, is also an etiological tale, whose conclusion is to be found in the story of the creation of woman and the material from which she was made. It is a fanciful story explaining how man finally ended up with a woman as his life’s companion and not an animal!

Genesis 2:18 specifically claims that god Yahweh molded the animals from the ground so that the man would not be alone, and so that he would have a counterpart (neged), a helper (‘ezer), that corresponded to his own being. Since man in both essence and name is of the ground, ’adam from ’adamah, it was only natural that a suitable counterpart for man be sought from the same essence. Thus Yahweh fashions the animals too from the ’adamah with the sole purpose of bringing them to the man so that he might recognize his own essence as it were among these potential suitors. We might again pause and note that this etiological story outright contradicts not only the order of the creation of the animals in the first creation account, but more significantly the manner and the reason for their creation as well! This narrative detail our author consciously created in order to construct a narrative explaining why man’s life-partner is not found among the animals of the same essence as himself, but rather in another being, not yet created—woman. This story ends by claiming that Yahweh could not fashion from the ground a fit companion for man. He must now fashion man’s companion not from the ’adamah, the substance from which man was created, but from man himself!

And god Yahweh caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man (ha ’adam) and he slept. And he took one of his ribs and closed up flesh in its place. And god Yahweh built the rib which was taken from the man into a woman (’ishah) and brought her to the man. And the man said: “This now is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. Accordingly she shall be called ‘woman’ (’ishah) because from man (’ish) she was taken.

The point behind the creation and naming of the animals in this second account, is to give an account of woman’s creation, who contrary to the animals, is the perfect fit/companion for man. There is additionally not only wordplay going on in this account, but also the presentation of a culturally formed perspective that accentuates the essences from which man, animals, and woman were all created, and how each one’s being therefore defines them and in relation to each other: man is essentially tied to and defined by the ground whence he was molded, ’adam from ’adamah, and woman is essentially tied to and defined in relation to man whence she was “built,” ’ishah from ’ish!

This was a consciously constructed narrative on this author’s part and is a radically different cultural perspective and worldview than that presented in Gen 1:27, where man and woman are both created together in the likeness and image of the divine. It may even be argued that the later 6th century BCE Priestly writer who wrote what is now the first creation account vehemently disagreed with this earlier portrait which essentially defined man as of the earth and woman as of man. Rather, the message of the first creation account and its author is that man and women are essentially defined by the fact that they are both images and likenesses of the divine! These are radically contradictory and competing creation accounts of man and woman. Anyone seeking to harmonize these two different messages dilutes each one and neglects each author’s unique perspectives and beliefs.

Finally, both accounts of the creation of man and woman serve as an etiological story explaining the origins of matrimony. This is more apparent in the second creation account. Why does man eventually marry woman? Our text responds by saying that it is because woman was substantially and essentially made from man’s flesh. “On account of this a man (’ish) shall leave his father and his mother and adhere to his woman/wife (’ishah), and they shall become one flesh”—that is, as they originally were and still are!

The first creation account gives a radically different answer. It is because God created humanity (’adam) as both male (zakar) and female (neqebah)!

13 thoughts on “Genesis 2:18-20—Man/Animals from the Ground, Woman from Man

  1. Wow. I need to check your books! I’m no Bible Scholar but I’ve thought along these lines, and maybe you’re the first I’ve encountered to see things this way. You’ve obviously put a huge amount of time and research into this. I really appreciate your scholarship. I am a jazz piano player by trade, and when I was in school I got to study piano with a Jewish Rabbi, (who was also an amazing piano player). He is the one who alerted me to the kinds of ways Christians (“Judaism’s wayward daughter”) were reading HIS texts. It’s interesting that many Jews I think would agree with your approach.

    Though I grew up in a Christian home, and background I left it behind without really looking back (I’m secular) . I’m very curious, if you’ve ever read Jack Miles ‘God: A Biography?’ His approach reminds me of yours except that instead of looking through the text–exposing it, laying it bare to contradictions, various writers he looks at the text and pretends to take it seriously. To Miles, God is a character in deep conflict with his past but never acknowledging the conflict. His tragic flaw is his broken promises which he manages to keep by changing the meanings of what he originally said–thus a “plain reading” is impossible for him. Everything is always hunky dory when God breaks a promise in the Hebrew Bible, because his character change is so oblique its as if he was always that way. Miles doesn’t acknowledge the harm it does to the previous text, but its implied in every word he writes.

    I only say this to point out that it took Jack Miles and a Jewish Rabbi for me to appreciate your thoughts and ideas on this subject. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I’d be interested in understanding your ideas on how to deal with that “growing problem.” Although I would venture that its been a problem since the beginning of Christianity and not a new problem. What you’re doing is demonstrating that the Hebrew Bible says what it says in plain language, and all we have to do is comprehend it. Early Christians beginning with Paul were clearly dissatisfied with a “plain” reading and thus they allegorized, stressed, and re-interpreted certain passages. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the rest are anxiously trying to change what it says. “You have heard it said…… but I say……” Or “Fulfilling the prophecy that was foretold….” Their result is to re-read it in such a way that it says something it would never say without them: Isaiah 53 indicates Jesus (for instance the suffering servant which was plainly not talking about Jesus but was Israel).

    The result is what could be called a mis-reading, where a text reads another text by restating it in a different context that is alien to its original intent. Harold Bloom has done a lot of work on this in poetry in his book Anxiety of Influence, and it seems one could apply his theories to the Bible. My point is, that the “growing problem” of Biblical illiteracy could be looked at as simply poor reading comprehension that goes back to Paul in Romans and Galatians where he is constantly reinterpreting, restating, mis-stating, and mis-quoting texts at will. Thus Christians are poor readers of their own Bible which maybe can help explain for me at least, the cognitive dissonance that seems to be happening here and their inability to see it.

    1. Eric,

      Well put. There’s nothing here that I would disagree with. As a graduate student I became deeply interested in interpretive traditions and how they often did “violence” to their target text. A lot of what I have variously written about here, and in the Conclusion of my forthcoming book, as the central problem can be boiled down to what these ancient texts profess on their own terms and contexts (what I’ve been calling being honest to the texts) and what later interpretive frameworks, such as that which is implied in the label “the holy Bible,” imposes upon its target texts. This play between texts and interpretive tradition (as a graduate student I read Bloom, but it’s been a while) has always fascinated me. However, this is only part of “the growing problem of biblical illiteracy” as I see it. First, as you’ve noted, it’s biblical illiteracy in the sense that what these texts profess is often replaced by what the label of this text professes about the text, so real education and knowledge about these ancient texts themselves are deflected as it were. But in addition to this, I’ve become more wary of the increasing number of private Seminaries and Universities that have sprung up in the States that are religiously indoctrinated. Many of these “higher learning institutions” are rather places that increase biblical illiteracy by implementing a curriculum and form of “education” that “reads” these texts through the terms and contexts of the beliefs of such-and-such faith community. For example, a college that forces students and faculty to sign statements of faith that profess that the Bible is the word of God, do little to foster any type of education about these ancient texts, but merely fuel more biblical ignorance and illiteracy, the same type of illiteracy, I would argue, that gives expression to the horrific events recently in Paris and San Bernardino. Granted this is over simplified, but an uneducated view that any text from antiquity is the word of God wherein one feels obliged to follow its dictates to such horrific ends is yet another outcome of this growing problem of biblical/quranic illiteracy. Third would be the whole hypocritical side of this. Many groups in professing belief in texts that they actually know nothing about, are not only being hypocritical but have the adverse effect of generating even more biblical ignorance because now one claims to believe in something that the text never states. I address this in my forthcoming book vis-a-vis Creationists who claim to believe in the text of Genesis 1. They certainly do not. And that’s not a subjective opinion of mine, but I make a textual case for this conclusion.

      Your mention of Paul is interesting. My PhD was on Paul’s interpretive method, where I mainly argued (this is not a justification) that Paul follows Jewish eschatological practices in interpreting biblical texts where the underlying premise was the belief that the text spoke to the community of readers, that it spoke of the reader’s present now! The Qumran commentary on Habakkuk 2:2 expresses this idea. So the debate in Pauline scholarship has been to ask whether Paul’s interpretation of scripture does violence to the original context or not. I actually address this in a summarized article version of my dissertation in my “Biblical Narratives,” in As It Is Written: Studying Paul’s Use of Scripture (ed., Porter Stanley, SBL, 59-93). This book’s project—a collection of essays by top Pauline scholars on Paul’s interpretive method—sought to address the issue of context. The debate in Pauline scholarship has been to ask whether Paul’s interpretation of scripture does violence to the original context or not. And as you can imagine there is literature on both sides of this, but many on the side of violence. In my article I try to re-address the issue of context. What was appropriate context for Paul? So, for example, Paul’s reading of the Abraham story in Rom 4, inserts elements not found in the Hebrew text itself, such as Sarah’s “dead” womb, and Abraham’s “dead” body, and “the God who brings to life the dead” (4:17). These elements are actually derived not from the context of the biblical text, but from Paul’s current context and faith. Likewise, Paul’s reference to events from Exodus and Numbers in 1 Cor 10, inserts into the retelling of these OT stories Christian ideas of baptism, communion, and even Christ! So these texts are read and understood not on their own terms but on the terms and beliefs of its reading community. Qumran exegetes were doing exactly the same thing. So while in Paul’s interpretation, Isaiah’s “righteous ones” were to be understood as Paul’s faithful in Christ (Gal 4), Qumran exegetes interpreted Isaiah’s “righteous ones” as referring to themselves! (see also my “Paul’s Allegory of the Two Covenants (Gal. 4.21-31) in Light of First Century Hellenistic Rhetoric and Jewish Hermeneutics.” New Testament Studies 52/1 (2006), 102-122). The reader or the reader-imposed interpretive framework now supplies the reader with “the correct” context as it were to understand the target text. But as you note, this is no where close to understanding the target text on the text’s terms.

      As with all my scholarly endeavors, I see my goal as one of putting forward the beliefs and views of the author I’m examining, regardless of my own. So in this case, and ironically, I have had theologians contact me and thank me for this article on Paul because to them it legitimates modern interpretive strategies that also move the goalposts of these texts, their contexts, to the now! But my article was meant to be descriptive (what Paul is doing), not prescriptive (suggesting a course of action).

      I also touch briefly on these interpretive issue in my forthcoming book. One of the things I try to impress upon the reader is that these interpretive frameworks’ were designed to step in for and replace the meaning and message of their target text(s) by innocuously presenting themselves as the “true” bearer of their target texts’ message and meaning. The claim “I believe in the Bible” pontificated by a good many Christians is hogwash. Not only because this “Book” is no book at all (with a central message and belief system), but rather a collection of competing messages, ideologies, and worldviews. But more to the point the claim “I believe in the Bible” is really a claim that asserts that the reader believes in those ideas and beliefs embedded in or implied through the label “the Holy Bible.” — Another layer in this growing systemic problem of biblical illiteracy. The speaker of such claims is actually ignorant about the beliefs and messages of the many and variant texts in this collection of ancient literature. Rather they believe in the idea of the Bible, what its title implies—and unfortunately imposes—upon these texts.

      I doubt I’m saying anything new to you, but I shall have to stop there. I’ve rambled on at length.

  3. I will check out your book, let me know when it comes out. My only other observation is that you can explain this to a believer all day but they won’t hear it. If we think of the Bible as music, I would suggest that the music of their theology and theology drowns out the music of the Bible. There are numerous contradictions in the Bible that are obvious to anyone outside conservative Christianity, but someone who believes in the inerrancy of the bible, simply can’t see them, refuses to see them, and will avoid them at every turn. The result is a kind of biblical illiteracy.

    1. Exactly Eric! To some extent this is why I’ve pitched this book’s subtitle, its interpretive guidelines as it were, as “Being honest to the texts, their authors, and their beliefs and messages”—not to that dictated (and imposed) by this collection of ancient texts’ title. I don’t know how successful that will be reaching these readers. I’ll shortly find out though. I conclude the book with a brief discussion of what I’ve called the growing problem of biblical illiteracy!

  4. I guess I have to read your book to find out why I am wrong. I might not ever find out because I am not sure you will actually deal specifically with what I said in your book. Other scholars have also told me to read their books to find out why I am wrong about different things. That is a very difficult thing to do. I doubt I can afford to do this each time I am wrong. Thank you for answering me anyway.

    Kenneth Greifer

  5. I think that Genesis 2 is not a different creation story with the animals created after the man, but a second creation of the animals to find a mate for the man. The animals could have been created for their own kind in Genesis 1, but now they were created a second time for the man to choose a mate from them, but he doesn’t like them, so G-d creates the woman from the man’s body.

    Kenneth Greifer

    1. Kenneth, such an interpretation seems forced and it certainly is not supported by the text. You are assuming and imposing too much about/upon the text—no doubt more representative of your beliefs about the text than the actual beliefs and messages of its authors. In my forthcoming book, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, I spend a considerable amount of time putting forward the textual data (differences in Hebrew stylistics and language as well as competing thematic and theological emphases) to convincingly demonstrate that Genesis 1 and 2 are indeed two competing creation stories written by different scribes or scribal guilds. Some of this discussion can be found in the Post on Genesis 2:4b. I think at this point, our goal should be attempting to understand the beliefs and messages of the Bible’s different texts and traditions, rather than interpreting them away, which in the end the interpretation you’ve suggested does.

  6. It is interesting that Yahweh finds one of his own actions “Not Good” in the second account. After man’s failure to find a suitable companion does he learn a new solution and re-think his actions? It is interesting to me that the J writer seems to portray a God who is definitely not omniscient, nor immutable.

    1. Exactly Eric. And most modern readers fail to acknowledge this. Additionally, the J author doesn’t display any indication that he’s uncomfortable with a non-omniscient nor mutable deity. Scholars have used this to further support an early date for J, claiming that this portrait of Yahweh is more in line with the portraits of other similar deities in the ancient Near East.

  7. I agree that it’s quite possible that P wrote his account in response to J’s. P was, of course, very concerned about holiness and separation, and this extends to various sexual acts. Bestiality is forbidden (Lev. 18:23, 20:15-16), and I’m sure that P/H was troubled at the possible implication that Adam had sex with the animals to determine compatibility. Indeed, the Talmud makes this very inference from the text:

    http://halakhah.com/yebamoth/yebamoth_63.html

    Tractate Yebamoth, Folio 63a
    R. Eleazar further stated: What is meant by the Scriptural text, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh? This teaches that Adam had intercourse with every beast and animal but found no satisfaction until he cohabited with Eve.

    1. Wow! Those rascally rabbis. I can’t believe that they would erroneously conclude such a thing! And this interpretation misses the whole point of the text, at least as I’ve detailed it above. I was merely trying to be coy when I referred to the animals as Adam’s “potential suitors.”

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