You might have guessed from last week’s post, “God and Dog”, I believe Christians have more thinking to do on the subject of the relationships between God, animals and people. It is a big topic with lots of dimensions. So let’s just take it a little bit at a time.
This week I want to talk about Genesis chapter 2. Sadly these days any discussion of Genesis can be quite difficult. Lots of folks feel they have to choose a position and defend it from folks with a different view. But let’s see if we can set some of our anxiety and defensiveness aside and have a conversation. I have some thoughts to share and I invite your comments and reflection.
As some of you may know, there are two creation accounts in the book of Genesis. Chapter 1 and the first three verses of chapter 2 contains the “In the Beginning” account of creation. You can read it here. But I want to look at the somewhat less familiar creation account found in Genesis 2:4-25 the “Garden of Eden” story.
Before we go too much farther, I should probably make a couple of things clear.
I don’t personally believe these Genesis accounts to be factually, historically true. I don’t think this is a story about a historical person named Adam. However if you do, that’s OK with me. I don’t want to argue about it. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t believe this story is true. I believe it is true, and I believe truth is much more than facts. The truth in this story cannot be adequately expressed by our 21st century understanding of facts.
I do think there is more than one way to interpret a Biblical text. There is more than one “message” or “teaching” or “principle” to be found. So let’s look at this text to see what it might tell us about our topic, the relationship between God and animals and people. We don’t need to deny there are other interpretations nor are we saying those other interpretations don’t matter. Those other interpretations are just not our particular concern here today. Now, back to the task at hand.
Because most of us read the Bible in translation, we can miss some interesting word plays, and there is a nice one here. In Biblical Hebrew, the word for ground or soil is “adamah”. The word for human being is “adam”. As The Torah: A Modern Commentary suggests, verse 7 could be translated as “God fashioned an earthling from the earth.” This word play adds an interesting nuance to the relationship between humans and the rest of creation that we lose in English. At some point in the text, “adam” becomes the proper name, “Adam”, although there is some ambiguity about when “adam” means man and when it is a proper name.*
God makes humans, the earth creature, out of the dust of the ground and in verse 19, God forms all the animals and all the birds out of the ground as well. It is a helpful counterbalance for when we are tempted to be overly proud of our distinctiveness, our specialness. We may have been created in the image of God in chapter one, but in chapter two we are formed from the dust. We are tied to both, the divine and the earthly, and we would do well to remember this.
In this second creation story, we humans are here to take care of things (verse 15). Depending on the translation you use, the human is put in the garden to “till it and keep it”, “work it and take care of it”, or “till it and tend it”, you get the idea. In my Hebrew dictionary the word “abad” found in this verse can be translated as “work” or “serve”. The phrase, to serve and take care of it, helps us interpret the language of dominion and rule found in chapter one.
When we read and talk about verses 18-25 usually we focus on the relationship between men and women. I would like us to set that dynamic aside for a bit and focus on the animal, human, God relationship described here.
God says man (adam/human) should not be alone. Surprisingly, humans are made for other relationships in addition to our relationship with God. There is something important and distinctive and necessary for us in these other relationships.
God makes the animals and birds and then God brings them to the human “to see what he (the man) would call/name them” (verse 19). It is helpful to know that in biblical times, naming something or someone was more than just giving a label. Naming in a deep and fundamental way, has to do with identity. To name something required some insight into the nature of the individual being named. It seems to me this kind of insight depends on and is found in relationship.
It is an interesting picture, don’t you think? God bringing the animals to the human; and the human being given the important responsibility of naming. And God respects the decision the human makes – “whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The relationship between God and human is, at least in some respects, a collaborative one.
Human -animal relationships are not equal, the humans need other humans. And yet as the human names the animals, a relationship is created, a connection is made.
This certainly isn’t the traditional interpretation of this text. This clearly isn’t the only interpretation of this text. But I think it is a legitimate interpretation and one that we ought to give a bit of time to.
I’d like to know, what do you think?
* For more on this topic, see “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” by Terence E. Fretheim in The New Interpreter’s BIble: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Vol 1, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1994),347-354. And The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Union of American Hebrew Congregations:New York, 1981),29 note on verse 7.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do Hebrew font in WordPress, that is one of the many things I still have to learn how to do.
Sorry, no pictures today, I can’t get them to upload and I have no idea why. Still more learning to do.