Blogging the Bible with an Eye Toward Life
Genesis Chapter 2
Leon Kass, in The Beginning of Wisdom, pointed out something about Genesis Chapter 1. It demystifies existence.1 We are prone to worship the creation, whether pantheists or animists. The created order fascinates us. And why not? Nature’s beauty and majesty overwhelm the senses while simultaneously representing deep danger. I know people who have died hiking in the mountains, a woman who nearly died in the ocean within twenty four hours of her engine failing on her boat, and even one family who had a flash flood burst through their basement door very nearly carrying their teenage son away. The number of people who die from animal encounters in the wild is presumably much lower than it once was, but it still isn’t zero. Nature gives and nature takes, so it is easy to understand how people throughout history and in mythology raised components of nature to something more. The stars are our fallen heroes, animals the spirits of angels or guardians or demons, and the divine surrounds us in everything.
Except according to Genesis 1, it doesn’t. Stars are stars, animals are animals, the earth is the earth. There is nothing magical about it all, and its beauty testifies to the existence and glory of God. God made things, magnificent things and lowly things. He spoke creation into existence and filled it with life. There is no secret beyond that, no spirits of gods in the water, no heroes in the skies. The created order is what it is. The initial creation account ends in Chapter 2:
- And so the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their heavenly lights. (2) By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work He had done. (3) Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
Things get weird fast. God rested?
We should quickly dispense with a physical sense of God’s rest. God was not exhausted from creation. When I go to the gym, my muscles are intentionally pushed to the point of fatigue. Recovery is a vital part of training, recovery between sets, recovery between workouts, recovery between seasons. Elite athletes in training need scheduled recovery time in order to advance in capabilities. If we don’t rest, our bodies could never build strength and power out of the fatigue we created through exercise. All the training will only lead to injury and setback. We can’t advance without rest. God, however, never experiences fatigue, so why on earth would he rest?
Kass supports the position the rest finishes drawing a clear distinction between the Creator and his creation. God stopped creating, allowing his new created order to exist and advance.2 Action characterized early existence, a time of becoming punctuated with distinct acts of will by the Creator in his universe. Then, God rested seeing all that he made as collectively very good. His will sustains the universe, his power extends to every corner of his universe, but God is NOT the universe, and its function isn’t the result of an unrelenting series of discreet acts of creation. God doesn’t freeze the water in my freezer creating ice and he doesn’t blow the wind like a child blowing out his birthday candles. He created a world with physical laws that operate without his constant and endless intercession in every event. He created, then God rested.
This is consistent with another declaration of completeness. Just before he gave up his life, Jesus cried out on the cross, “It is finished!” He declares with no ambiguity the task of carrying the burden of our sins is complete. No debt remains. A line has been drawn and highlighted for all of humanity, we need to know this phase of the project is done. Any attempt to return to it goes beyond being merely unnecessary, it besmirches the work that has been done as insufficient. In this light, a similar declaration that God completed his creation efforts and it is time to rest appears consistent. The command to join him in his rest is more than a prohibition against effort. We are called to remember we live in his world, his creation. He reigns even in our inactivity.
The Creation of Man
Here is where I express my absolute joy at being focused on the question of life and experience the true value in this kind of disciplined reading. My daughter and I recently discussed how tedious I think constant efforts to harmonize Chapters 1 and 2 are. It isn’t that I think those efforts have no value. I just feel they often rob the reader of deep reflection on other elements in this story. Making sense of the different narrative approaches from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2 strikes me as the least interesting focus imaginable, but I concede that is a purely subjective claim.
Setting aside discussion on the earth lacking types of vegetation and the absence of rain as the world awaited the efforts of a not yet created humanity, in this creation story we are told that God created man from the dust of the earth:
(7) Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living person.
That translation comes from the NASB. Others use the term “man became a living being” or “a living soul.” A few people over the years have made the case to me that this scripture indicates human life begins the moment we breathe air, and prior to that we lack a soul or some semblance of personhood. I remain unconvinced.
Genesis Chapter 2 describes a unique act of creation, not intended to be seen as normative for defining the beginning of all meaningful life. First, it requires a weirdly literal understanding of how our lives begin. If God breathing the breath of life into Adam, the first man, is the standard of personhood are these people suggesting God breathes into the nostrils of every baby born in the world? Second, it fails to consider God’s resting at the end of the creation narrative from Chapter 1. God created life, then rested and let life thrive. Finally, it ignores that a few short lines later in the text God creates woman without breathing life into her in the same manner. These passages offer a great deal to reflect on, but it seems claiming ensoulment or personhood begin when we breathe isn’t one of them.
One important point is that we are more than merely physical beings. In Chapter 1 God makes man in the image of God. We are given no more information than that. Chapter 2 tells us our bodies, our physical beings, are composed of common things. God made us from the dust of the ground. Then God adds his breath, a unique act within the creation narrative, making us more than our material parts. We are a union of body and spirit, material and immaterial. The image of God isn’t our body, our forward set eyes, upright posture, and bipedal movement. It resides in the immaterial nature of mankind. As I once told a skeptical student at NC State, there are elements of the human condition that cannot be melted, separated in a centrifuge, or burned. They elude physical investigation because they aren’t physical. In one way, we are like all things made from the dust of the earth, or as many people like to excitedly proclaim online, stardust. But given all physical things are made of the same components, being made of the dust of the universe is the least exciting thing about us. My garbage is stardust as well. God’s last act in our creation, breathing life into us, is where things get interesting.
The Naming of Animals
We are more than mere animals. This isn’t to deny that we are animals. We are. We are at least animals. But we are also more than animals. The story advances as God places newly formed man in a newly formed garden, Eden, and surrounded man with newly grown trees and fruit bearing plants including both the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eden became a source for great rivers flowing out into the world. God gave the garden to man to cultivate and gave him all the plants and trees of the garden from which to eat. He made only one single prohibition, “from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day that you eat from it you will certainly die.” I wanted to make a note of that understanding now for future consideration. God gave man the garden, the whole garden, from which to eat. He made one single prohibition. That story gets twisted a little in the next chapter.
Then we come to the naming of the animals:
(18) Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” (19) And out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.”
Both Chapter 1 and 2 demonstrate an emphasis on the dividing of things into their kinds. Light and darkness, earth and the heavens, land and sea, plants and animals, all things divided and by these divisions, identifying as distinct. Light is not darkness. Earth is not the heavens. Dry land is not the sea. Creatures of the waters are not the creatures of the air which are not the creatures of the land. Animals are not human beings, the image bearers of God. God is not his creation. The naming of the animals continues this pattern.
Jordan Peterson conjectured in one of his biblical lectures that reality begins with the presence of self-aware beings. Without beings to experience the universe, he wonders in what meaningful way things can be said to exist. Whether animals precede man or man precedes animals is an unimportant distinction in that consideration. At this moment God brings rational man’s attention to the animals, calls for man to see them, evaluate them, understand their differences, and give names to them. Animals are not a monolithic whole; the animal kingdom is composed of different kinds. The practice of assigning names is the practice of identifying kinds, what differentiates them, and categorizing them accordingly. The names themselves aren’t shared in the narrative because they don’t matter. The process of differentiation is what matters. Every new animal kind is seen and understood as distinct from the last, and with each we are told another realization begins to set root. Adam is not like them, and they are not like him.
(20) “The man gave names to all the livestock, and to the birds of the sky, and to every animal of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.”
Adam is alone.
All this talk of kinds at the outset of biblical faith is important. It challenges the nominalist tendencies of our age. It is popular to believe the names and categories we create are fictions that tell us nothing important about the objects we are naming. Animals and man and sexes all exist in a continuum without essential distinctions. This is why some people comprehend genuine difficulty in offering a definition for a term like woman. Essential categories are not real, they are made up to navigate our cultural perceptions. We could mean any number of things by the words life, animals, dogs, mankind, persons, and women. Terms have their uses, we are told, but they are limited in understanding the true complexity of reality.
The bible’s first two chapters operate from a different foundation. There are kinds of things, and the differences are real and important. Naming these things has value both to our understanding and our survival. Jared Diamond wrote in Guns, Germs, and Steel that indigenous tribes are not stupid.3 They display comparable intelligence to other cultures in matters important to them. They understand their own ecosystem to a degree far surpassing those of us in the industrial world. Every plant, every animal, every aspect of their environment has been evaluated for utility as a building resource, sustenance for survival, or threat to their health. They know what kinds of plants feed them and which kill them, and which can do both at varying stages of maturation. I have grown up surrounded by poison ivy, have family members and friends with severe poison ivy allergies, and I’m still not confident I could identify it. I just don’t consider the plant because it doesn’t bother me. In order to name things, there must be distinct things to name along with purposeful direct observation of those distinctions.
Genesis Chapters 1 and 2 communicate another core belief, man is endowed with special reasoning capacities that separate us from animals as uniquely able to observe, categorize, understand, and steward creation.
Help is on the way
(21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. (22) And the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man and brought her to the man. (23) The man said,
“At last this is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; She shall be called ‘woman,’ Because she was taken out of man.”
(24) For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (25) And the man and his wife were both naked, but they were not ashamed.
As I copied that scripture, I thought about that exclamation beginning that last passage, At last. By my readings, this is the first words of man shared in scripture. At last. Man knew he wasn’t like anything else. It is unclear what man experienced in this story prior to God creating another human being, but we know exactly what man experiences in no longer being alone. At last.
Chapter 1 tells us God made them man and woman. Chapter 2 tells us God made them man and wife. The distinction is not trivial, as the woman and man are made for each other, the narrative immediately joins them in an intimate relationship of such importance it is the reason the men and women reading this account ought to give themselves into marriage. It almost crushes the soul to reflect on how our culture trivializes marriage in light of this. Man and woman made to become one before God, made as bone of bone, flesh of flesh, to sate a desire for intimacy we may not even be consciously aware of until we meet one another. Genesis Chapter 2 closes with man and woman, husband and wife. Each uniquely created, each sex purposed to help one another.
Most importantly for our purposes, mankind has been created. In God’s image God created us. Man and woman, God created us. To be in community with our kind, the human race, God created us. To observe and steward God’s creation, God created us. Adam and Eve are something new in creation, more than animal, more than material. The bible immediately communicates our elevated status conferred upon us by the grace of a loving personal God. Too bad we are told almost as quickly of our ability to ruin a good thing.