Genesis 2 for Today
by Herb Drake

Copyright (c) 1998, Herb Drake.

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The astute reader of Genesis will quickly realize that the whole character of the narrative makes an abrupt change midway through 2:4. The poetic structure disappears. God is no longer distant and transcendent, but walks on the earth "in the cool of the day" (v. 3:8) as if He were a man. Even the reference to God changes, the simple title "God" (the plural form of the Hebrew word el) is replaced with the covenant and personal name YHWH--unpronounceable because the vowel pointing in the Hebrew text has been replaced by that of the Hebrew word "lord" as a reminder to the cantor to read "the Lord" when YHWH is encountered as the text is recited. We maintain this tradition in most English translations--when one encounters "the LORD" in our Old Testament, it is a sign that the Hebrew text has YHWH (which most scholars pronounce "Yahweh"). The simple fact that God has a name tells us a great deal about God's personal and intimate nature.

While Genesis 1 was mainly concerned with the relationship between God and humanity, which we might call the "vertical" relationship, Genesis 2 deals with the horizontal relationships between humanity and animals, the earth, and other humans, climaxing in the definition of the marriage relationship. Since Genesis 3 presents the "fall," in which both the vertical and horizontal relationships become distorted, Genesis 2 is important because it presents those relationships the way God originally intended them in an unfallen world.

The first few appearances of God's name in the second creation account are "the LORD God," containing both forms as if to leave no doubt that the two creation accounts do, indeed, refer to the very same creator God. Humanity is created in this account in v. 7. Most translations use the word "man," but the Hebrew here (Adam) is not the gender-specific word, but a word that speaks more of humanity in general. Adam is created from the "dust" (Adamah--the pun was probably intended), but does not become a "living being" until God breathes life into Adam's nostrils (Note how this is reversed with the depiction of death found in Eccl. 12:7, the "dust" returning to the earth and the "breath" returning to the creator). Augustine thought that the account might well apply as a kind of parable for the corporate creation of humanity, and it seems that the lessons of Genesis 2 are clearest when the text is understood in this way.

We quickly learn (v. 8) the purpose for God's creation of Adam. Humanity was created to tend the earth as a gardener tends a garden. In order that he might do this properly, God devotes a substantial amount of time to training (vv. 15-19). This "naming of the animals" passage is not simply an exercise in putting labels on the animals, but must be understood in the fuller, Hebrew understanding of "name." God is acquainting Adam with the nature of each of the animals in order that humanity might best know how to carry out the earth-tending responsibility which it has been given, bringing each animal to Adam and making its features known. Adam then recaps what God taught by giving the animal a name that encapsulates that animal's nature. This passage may be used to interpret the "dominion" passage of 1:26; Our responsibility toward the earth is that of the tender of a garden; it is not a license to exploit or plunder the Creation of God.

A second purpose of the naming of the animals is apparent in v. 18--the first "not good" in the long list of "and it was good" passages that punctuate Genesis up to this point. The man (one must interpret Adam as masculine here) must have a partner of truly equal status (the Hebrew knegeb, "corresponding to"). The inventory of animals shows that many can be helpful, but that none of the animals is up to the standard that would qualify as truly knegeb (v. 20). So God creates woman--but He does it in a curious way, forming her from a part of the man. Why? The best explanation is rooted in God's objective for creating the woman in the first place--that the man might have a suitable partner. The fact that she is made from a part of the man is to say that she is made of the same stuff as the man, thus ending forever any dispute that one gender might be superior to the other! This is seen when the man awakens (he was probably put to sleep in order that the details of God's creative work be hidden from him) and utters a remarkable cry of recognition when he sees the woman for the first time, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh..." (v. 23). The definition of marriage immediately follows, the narrative shifting into an editorial voice and saying that "for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."

This "one flesh" definition is subsequently invoked over and over in the New Testament in the contexts of divorce (Mt. 19:5, Mk. 10:7), sex outside of marriage (1 Cor. 6:16), and the love of one's spouse (Eph. 5:31). Karl Barth probably summarizes these best, writing that marriage is "the full and exclusive union of a man and a woman for the whole of the time which still lies before them and is given them in common. To enter upon marriage is to renounce the possibility of leaving it."

The final verse in Gen. 2 provides a fascinating insight into the nature of the "one flesh" marriage--the husband and wife are both "naked and they felt no shame." The interpretation must come from 3:7, when that relationship is ruined in the "fall." Immediately, the man and woman realize their nakedness and encounter shame. This is no trivial lesson about the wearing of clothing--it is a reflection of the change in their relationship that takes place in the "fall." Before the fall, they were "naked," a metaphor that describes a completely transparent relationship in which neither partner hides anything from the other (exactly what "one flesh" implies--one organism).

Gen. 2:24 does more than define the nature of the marriage relationship, however. It also speaks of the need to break the parent-child bond upon the marriage of the child. The authority that parents have over their children is broken upon the child's marriage in order that the relationship between the married partners might have top priority for each of them.

So as Genesis 1 was the great "vertical" relationship chapter, Genesis 2 is the great "horizontal" relationship chapter.

These were lessons the people of the wilderness experience--the first readers of the Genesis narratives--needed to have. Our own need for these lessons is no less urgent, and it is for this reason that Genesis continues to have an important and relevant message for the people of faith today.