Genesis 2:18-20 — Man and the Animals from the Ground, Woman from Man

In radically contradictory fashion to the creation of man (and woman) in the first creation account, when all is said and done in the second creation account, the substance from which man is made and that which he essentially becomes are shockingly no different than what is said about every other animal in this creation narrative.

And god Yahweh molded (yatsar) the man (ha ’adam), clay from the ground (ha ’adamah), and blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being (nephesh hayah). (Gen 2:7)

And god Yahweh molded (yatsar) from the ground (ha ’adamah) every animal of the field and every fowl of the skies and brought them to the man (ha ’adam) to see what he would call them. And whatsoever the man called every living being (nephesh hayah), that was its name. (Gen 2:19)

In Genesis 2:4b-25, and only in this creation account, the essential nature of man, in both language and substance, is defined no differently than that of the animals. Both are molded (yatsar) by Yahweh from the ground (ha ’adamah), and both are defined as living beings (nephesh hayah). Even after Yahweh blows into man’s nostrils the breath of life, he still merely becomes no more than that which the animals are also defined as: a nephesh hayah!

Of course, our author purposefully created this connection and has a specific reason for doing so, as we shall momentarily see. But presently it needs to be stressed just how radically different and contradictory this image of man’s creation is from the Priestly writer’s image of man and woman’s creation together in the image and likeness of God.

As previously noted (Gen 1:24-27), the author of the first creation account purposefully crafts the creation of man and woman in opposing terms and image to that of the animals of the earth. Only the animals of the earth (hayato-eres), each created by their kind, are referred to as nephesh hayah in this creation account. This author’s aim was to suggest that man and woman, unlike the beasts of the earth, were made in the image of the god(s) and are consequentially more than mere nephesh hayah, living beings made after their own kind! Mankind—both male and female—on an elemental level is more than a nephesh hayah.

By stark contrast, in the second account this label, “a living being” (nephesh hayah), is seen as man’s crowning definition! And furthermore it does not distinguish him from the animals who are also labeled nephesh hayah! This is a shocking negation of the views and perspective of the Priestly creation account, whose aims were to emphatically distinguish mankind’s essential substance and mode of creation from that of the animals of the earth—not so for the Yahwist’s creation account.

In fact, none of these themes—indeed arguments—are present in the second creation narrative, and on the contrary a set of opposite themes and arguments are made with reference to the creation of man, the animals, and lastly woman. It would do us well to listen to this author’s specific arguments and point of view, rather than subordinating them to the claims of the first creation account and thereby neglecting them all together.

Thus, whereas the first creation myth presents the creation of man and woman in different terms and image to the creation of the animals of the earth, the second creation account, by contrast, purposefully designates man, and only man, and the animals no differently— nephesh hayah formed of the ’adamah. Furthermore, man and the animals are depicted on the same plane: the animals are each presented as potentially suitable companions for the man. They are seen as man’s assistant helper (‘ezer) or counterpart (neged) in this and only this creation account.

Why then did the author of this creation myth present man and the animals in similar terms and essences, that is made of the same stuff? What was his message? And why didn’t he include woman at this point in his narrative?

It should readily be perceivable now that the Yahwist was quite the talented storyteller, and for the most part his stories, or those he himself inherited, were crafted to convey specific messages. We have already explored the rationale behind his presentation of man as substantively molded from the ground (Gen 2:6-7). This not only provided the Yahwist storyteller with a nice pun on words, ’adam from ’adamah, but it also explained from his cultural perspective why man is intrinsically attached to working the ground in order to procure his livelihood. Thus the Yahwist’s stories have an etiological purpose, that is they explain the origins of current customs, worldviews, and beliefs.

The story about how god Yahweh fashioned animals from the ground, the same essence from which man was made, is also an etiological tale, whose conclusion is to be found in the story of the creation of woman and the material from which she was made. It is a fanciful story explaining how man finally ended up with a woman as his life companion and not an animal!

Genesis 2:18 specifically claims that god Yahweh molded the animals from the ground so that the man would not be alone, and so that he would have a counterpart (neged), a helper (‘ezer), that corresponded to his own being. Since man in both essence and name is of the ground, ‘adam from ‘adamah, it was only natural that a suitable counterpart for man be sought from the same essence. Thus Yahweh fashions the animals too from the ’adamah with the sole purpose of bringing them to the man so that he might recognize his own essence as it were among these potential suitors.

We might again pause and note that this etiological story outright contradicts not only the order of the creation of the animals in the first creation account, but more significantly the manner and the reason for their creation as well! This narrative detail this author consciously created in order to construct a narrative explaining why man’s life-partner is not found among the animals formed of the same essence as himself, but rather in another being, not yet created—woman.

This story ends by claiming that Yahweh could not fashion from the ground a fit companion for man. He must now fashion man’s companion not from the ‘adamah, the substance from which man was created, but from man himself!

And god Yahweh caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man (ha ‘adam) and he slept. And he took one of his ribs and closed up flesh in its place. And god Yahweh built the rib which was taken from the man into a woman (’ishah) and brought her to the man. And the man said: “This now is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh. Accordingly she shall be called ‘woman’ (’ishah) because from man (’ish) she was taken.

The point behind the creation and naming of the animals in this second creation account was to give an account of woman’s creation, who contrary to the animals, is the perfect fit/companion for man. There is additionally not only wordplay going on in this account, but also the presentation of a culturally formed perspective that accentuates the essences from which man, animals, and woman were all created, and therefore how each one’s being defines them and their relationship to one another: man is essentially tied to and defined by the ground whence he was molded, ’adam from ’adamah, and woman is essentially tied to and defined in relation to man whence she was “built,” ’ishah from ’ish!

This was a consciously constructed narrative on this author’s part and is a radically different cultural perspective and worldview than that presented in Gen 1:27, where man and woman are both created together in the likeness and image of the divine. It may even be argued that the later 6th century BCE Priestly writer who wrote what is now the first creation account vehemently disagreed with this earlier portrait which essentially defined man as of the earth and woman of man. Rather, the message of the first creation account and its author is that man and women are essentially defined by the fact that they are both images and likenesses of the divine! These are radically contradictory and competing creation accounts of man and woman. Anyone seeking to harmonize these two different messages dilutes each one and neglects each author’s unique perspectives and beliefs, valuing their own modern beliefs above these.

Finally, both accounts of the creation of man and woman serve as an etiological story explaining the origin of matrimony. This is more apparent in the second creation account. Why does man eventually marry woman? Our text responds by saying that it is because woman was substantially and essentially made from man’s flesh. “On account of this a man (’ish) shall leave his father and his mother and adhere to his woman/wife (’ishah), and they shall become one flesh”—that is, as they originally were and still are!

The first creation account gives a radically different answer. It is because God created humanity (’adam) as both male (zakar) and female (neqebah).

In conclusion, any modern reader, particularly these so-called modern Creationists or more generally fundamentalists, attempting to harmonize or interpret away these different and competing creation accounts is merely being disingenuous and dishonest to these ancient texts, the cultures that produced them, their authors, and these authors’ beliefs! Such individuals—who are most likely ignorant of ancient literature and culture in general, the compositional history of the Bible in particular, and the individual authors who wrote these texts, their historical and literary worlds, audiences, worldviews, etc.—have rather deemed more important the pontification of their own beliefs and/or beliefs about these texts, rather than what the texts themselves say, what the authors themselves believed, and by extension why they believed what they believed.

Our goal as a mature responsible human species ought to be to understand these ancient texts on their own terms and from within their own historical and literary contexts, and culturally-shaped perspectives and worldviews. To be able to faithfully reproduce their beliefs and their message is not only the objective task of the biblical scholar, but it should likewise be all of ours. Being honest to the texts, their authors, and their beliefs—not ours—is our goal!

If we can accomplish this, then a real, genuine, and productive conversation can emerge in the public arena about these ancient texts we call the Bible, what they are and what they are not!

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