Genesis 1:24-28 — Mankind, More than just an Animal

Man is unlike any other animal of the earth. This truth was acknowledged and reflected upon by nearly every ancient culture. The Greek philosopher Plato proposed that man was divided between a lower animal part and an upper divine part, the immortal soul. He reasoned that man’s intellect and divine soul set him apart from the rest of the animals. Ancient Egyptians also accorded man with an immortal soul, which originated from the gods and returned to them upon death of the physical body. And creation myths from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia alike speak of the creation of man as part clay of the earth on the one hand, and part divine intelligence, divine blood, or divine breath on the other hand. Additionally, many of these same texts describe man as “the image of his creator god,” and kings and Pharaohs throughout the Levant, including those from Israel, were imaged to be the sons of their respective cultural deity. It is therefore not surprising that this fundamental “truth” about the nature of man, that he was somehow different from the animals and that a part of him at some essential level originated from the divine, was also to be expressed in Genesis 1.

This is in fact the message behind our author’s portrait of God’s creation of mankind “in his image.” But before we take a closer look at this, the creation of mankind must be seen in the framework our author intended his readers to see it—vis-à-vis the creation of the animals.

20And God said, “Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living-breathing life (nephesh hayah), and let fowl fly above the earth in front of the firmament of the skies.” 21And God created (bara’) the great sea-serpents and all living-breathing life (nephesh hayah) that swims, by its kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged fowl by its kind.

24And God said: “Let the earth bring forth living-breathing life (nephesh hayah) by its kind—beasts and reptiles—animals (hayat) of earth, by their kind.” And it was so. 25And God made (‘asah) the animals (hayat) of the earth by their kind—the beasts by their kind and every reptile of the ground by its kind.

What the reader immediately notices is that what is normally rendered as “living creatures” or “living beings,” I have translated as “living-breathing life.” The Hebrew is nephesh hayah.

Nephesh connotes the life force that animates living beings or life in abstract terms—anything that has the breath of life in it, a living-breathing being: animals, humans, creatures. Since the adjective hayah, from the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist,’ basically means the same thing—living, alive—I have decided that “living-breathing life” best captures the intended sense here in Genesis 1.

This translation also makes nice sense of the Hebrew in 1:30—“and all that moves upon the earth in which there is living-breathing life.” Finally, the phrase nephesh hayah appears again in the Yahwist’s creation account where, I will argue later, its use is significantly different from how it’s used by the author of Genesis 1; and furthermore, when used to refer to both man (Gen 2:7) and the animals (Gen 2:19) violently contradicts the message of Genesis 1:24-27.

We must also strongly avoid and discourage the translation of nephesh by “soul.” The word “soul” especially conceived of as “immortal soul” is a concept of Greek philosophy and is unknown to the Hebrew Bible and its authors. The concept doesn’t emerge in Judaism until after Alexander the Great conquers the world at the end of the 4th century BCE, bringing with him Greek philosophical ideas into Judaism, and eventually early Christianity. One clearly sees from its use in Genesis 1:20, 21, 24, and 30 that nephesh means life force, or that which has the breath of life, since “soul” is usually not a concept applied to fish, eels, worms, cattle, turkeys, bats, etc.

The point I wish to stress, no matter how one translates the expression nephesh hayah, is that it is never used in the creation of mankind, male and female, in Genesis 1:26-27. I am not saying that our author did not see mankind as “living-breathing life”; of course he did. But I would argue that he consciously avoids using the expression, and more so the term hayat, in Genesis 1:26-27 because he is attempting to stress mankind’s utter difference from the nephesh hayah or the hayat—“the life-breathing animals”—of the earth.

26And God said, “Let us make (‘asah) mankind in our image and after our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the skies and over the beasts and over all the earth and over the reptiles that move upon the earth.” 27And God created (bara’) the man in his image; in the image of God he created it; male and female he created (bara’) them.

There are two important points of difference our author emphasizes in his presentation of God’s creation of the animals and of mankind, that is male and female.

First, the text stresses the inherit connection between animals and earth. This is emphasized by drawing our attention to God’s imperative that the earth should bring forth living-breathing life (nephesh hayah), and that its animals (hayat), literally beings, are somehow essentially connected to the earth. Then we are informed that the creator deity makes (‘asah) the animals of the earth (hayat ha’aretz)—beasts and reptiles—by their kind. Mankind, in contrast, is not of the earth. The focal point in the narrative changes at this point.

From the perspective of the author of Genesis 1, and contradictory to the views of Genesis 2 (see below), man is not to be envisioned as equal with or on a par with the animals of the earth. The earth does not “bring forth” mankind. Furthermore, and again contradictory to Genesis 2:18, the animals are not seen as man’s assistant helper (‘ezer) or counterpart (neged), but rather man is to rule over them. He is of a different essence than they—not so according to Genesis 2, as we shall momentarily see. In fact, I might be tempted to argue that according to the author of Genesis 1, man is not to be conceived of as an animal! This brings us to our second observation.

Second, the repeated refrain “by its kind” as a descriptive for the manner in which the fowl of the skies, the fish of the seas, and the animals of the earth are created is not just a rhetorical device. It serves a thematic purpose whose function is to highlight man’s utter difference to the animals only this time with respect to the manner of how he/she was created. It is difficult to say exactly what our author intended by the expression “by its kind.” It would seem, however, that the idea conveyed is that each life form was distinct, that a cow for example, or what a cow is, is distinctly defined “by its own kind.” At any event, the expression is used to convey how radically different this creation “by its kind” is to the creation of mankind. For unlike the living beings of the earth (hayat ha’aretz) mankind is not created according to its own kind, but rather in the image of the divine beings: “in our image and after our likeness.”

The ideas expressed here are again not some objective divinely ordained description of the origins of mankind. Rather they are the expression of the views and beliefs of our Priestly writer and of his culture. It is our author who perceives man as radically different than the animals that populate the earth. And this difference causes him to create a creation narrative wherein these difference are expressed. Thus, unlike the living beings of the earth, each made according to their own kind, man, on the contrary, is created in the image and likeness of the divine beings! That seems to be our authors message.

By way of concluding this section, I might encourage us to think about how this later 6th century BCE creation myth functioned in relationship to the earlier Yahwist account now preserved in Genesis 2:4b-3:24 (see posts below). Following the work of my peers and colleagues, it has been repeatedly hypothesized that the Priestly writer was writing a creation narrative to replace or subvert the earlier Yahwist account, but due to an unforeseen later editorial endeavor both accounts were preserved.

At any event, the point to presently mull over, to which we will return later, is that we can see the Priestly writer’s concerns here. For in the Yahwist text, man, the creation of Adam, is in no way distinguished from the animals of the earth! Even after he receives Yahweh’s breath, Adam is still made of the same essential material that the animals are made of, the ‘adamah (the ground), and only still merely becomes what the animals themselves are referred to as—a nephesh hayah (Gen 2:7, 19). I would propose that this is just one of the specific concerns and disagreements that the Priestly writer had with the tradition he himself inherited. So what did he do? He rewrote it in accord with his own views and beliefs on the matter—rewriting man above and distinct from the animals of the earth, not equivalent to them!

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