Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The End of Innocence

Posted by foryourfaith on September 17, 2010


The biblical story of the creation of man, of paradise and paradise lost, holds depths and mysteries that have fascinated readers and challenged scholars throughout the centuries. Its vivid images of basic relationships – between man and God, between man and nature, and between man and woman – have profoundly affected the way people understand their lives to this day.

The story of Creation in Genesis 1 is majestic and austere, while the account that begins in Genesis 2:4 is more human and less cosmic. The latter is introduced “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”

Two important elements mark the Genesis 2 account. The first is the rendering of the name of God. Throughout Genesis 1, the creator was designated by the word “God” (Hebrew, elohim). But in Genesis 2 the mysterious personal name “Yahweh” was introduced, and used along with the word “God.” Most English translations of the Bible follow the convention for the reverent use of the name of God and render Yahweh-elohim as Lord God.

Genesis 2 is also distinguished by the fact that it places the creation of man before that of plants and animals. It states that man was created “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” (Genesis 2:5). The narrator made no effort to correlate this description with the story of creation in Genesis 1.

When the Lord God “formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The Hebrew word for “formed” was regularly used for a potter working clay. Thus, these words suggest an image of God gathering the dust of the earth and shaping it into a human form. When God blew his own breath into the nostrils of the man he had formed, the figure became a “living being.”

The Hebrew word for man was adam, the same word used as the name for the first human. Occurring more than 500 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, this word was also used to distinguish man from other living things. Its etymology is uncertain, but Genesis used a wordplay to reveal a special aspect of its meaning. The adam was formed from adamah, “the ground.” Thus, the human was an earthling, one whose existence was tied to the soil from which he came.

The body of man, shaped from the ground, was animated by the Lord god’s breath. Genesis does not differentiate between body and soul, as was so often done in later centuries, but between the body and the vitality in the breath. The human became a nephesh hayyah (living being), a Hebrew phrase used for both beasts and humans. But man was distinguished by the way the gift of life was bestowed. The breath never ceased to belong to God, for he sustained life. Later generations speculated that if god should “gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together.”

Once man was formed, God created his environment. Yahweh “planted a garden in Eden, in the east” (Genesis 2:8). The ancient Greek translation of the Scriptures used the word paradeisos to mean “garden” – hence the description of Eden a “paradise.”

The garden was filled with trees, some of which provided food. At the center of the garden were the mysterious tree of life and the fateful tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yahweh forbade man to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2:17). Genesis does not explain why the knowledge of good and evil should be forbidden to man. Perhaps the fateful tree simply expressed God’s mastery over his creation, and man’s duty to obey him.

From the beginning, man was a worker whose task was to till and maintain the garden. But Adam was alone. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Genesis 2:18). Yahweh formed the beasts and birds and brought them to man so that he could name them. Adam gave names to all the creatures, but no fit helper was found for him.

Finally, Yahweh caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep. While he slept, the Lord God took one of Adam’s ribs and formed woman. Yahweh led the woman to the man, who said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (ishshah) because she was taken out of Man (ish)” (Genesis 2:23).

Genesis implied that the attraction between man and woman was a result of the original unity between male and female. Genesis stated, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become on flesh.” It is remarkable that although the actual practice in most ancient patriarchal cultures, including Israel, was for the woman to leave her family and join the clan of her husband, the reverse was decreed here.

Man and woman were naked and unashamed, thus symbolizing the innocence of Eden and their pure relation to God. Within a short time, however, man and woman encountered the serpent.

Although in later centuries the serpent was seen as demonic and was identified with Satan, the Genesis narrative referred to it simply as a “wild creature” (Genesis 3:1). What distinguished the serpent from other animals was that it was “subtle.” The narrator does not explain how this creature had the gift of speech or came to be more knowledgeable and clever than the human pair.

The serpent began a conversation with the woman, asking, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree of the garden’?” She replied, “God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” The two had not questioned the limit God had set on their freedom.

The serpent challenged God’s authority. “You will not die,” the serpent said, “for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5). Was God jealously guarding his prerogatives from human beings? The woman reflected and decided to eat the fruit, giving some to the man. Just as man had unquestioningly obeyed God, now without a hint of reflection he disobeyed.

Man and woman ate from the tree, but did not die. Was the serpent right after all? According to the Book of Genesis, God had never promised immortality to humankind. However, it has often been suggested that it was through this act of disobedience that man became mortal.

Thus, the temptation was subtle and had a hint of truth. God did not follow through on his threat of death, revealing his divine grace and forbearance. However, by disobeying God the two had separated themselves from him, and were no longer entitled to the perfect enjoyment of life that the garden offered. “The eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” The shame at their nakedness signified their broken relationship with God.

“And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees in the garden.” When confronted by Yahweh, the man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed the serpent – they knew cowardice.

Yahweh’s judgments came swiftly. The serpent was condemned to be a belly-crawling animal hated by humans. As for the man and woman, their eyes were opened, and Yahweh said that they had “become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). According to Genesis, woman would now feel the pain of childbirth; she also would become subservient to her husband. For some, this divine judgment provided an explanation for woman’s subordinate place in ancient society. The man would continue as a tiller of the soil, but suddenly the soil would be poor and thorn-infested. “In the seat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground” (Genesis 3:19).

Adam and Eve were cast out of the garden, never to return. Without ever using the words “sin,” “fall,” “disobedience,” “freedom,” or “punishment,” this fascinating narrative sketched the boundaries of human existence. The story of mankind’s struggle in the world now began.


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