It is probably safe to say that the combination of Darwin’s model of evolution in Origin of Species and the rise of uniformitarian science in the 1800s has influenced the understanding of Genesis 1–11 more than anything else.1 Jewish scholar Louis Jacobs acknowledges this with regards to the interpretation of Adam:
There is no doubt that until the nineteenth century Adam and Eve were held to be historical figures, but with the discovery of the great age of the earth . . . many modern Jews [and Gentiles] have tended . . . to read the story as a myth.2
The post-enlightenment emphasis on rationalism (i.e., man’s reason as authority as opposed to God’s reason as authority), together with the rise of biblical criticism and evolutionary ideas, has laid the foundation for the debate on the subject of the historicity of Adam and whether he was the sole progenitor of the human race. Consequently, critical scholars have long denied the historicity of Adam, as have neo-orthodox theologians. Karl Barth, for example, believed Genesis 1–3 was neither myth nor history but a saga3 and denied that Adam was a historical figure. Instead, he preferred to see Adam as being a symbol for everyone.4
Genesis 2:4–25 clearly identifies Adam as the first man who was supernaturally created with no direct animal forbearers.
Viewing Adam as anything other than the first human, who was supernaturally created, is now becoming a standard interpretation for many within the evangelical community. This shift has come about largely by evangelicals who are committed to embracing evolution (which comes from the religion of humanism) as the way God created the world and formed the first human being.5 A number of proposals for interpreting Adam have been suggested by theologians who embrace evolution—that he is stereotypical,6 a neolithic farmer,7 the head of a tribe,8 an archetype of humanity,9 or that he did not even exist.10 In order to understand Genesis 2:4–25 this way, these scholars have had to reinterpret the text in order to fit in with a particular evolutionary view of earth’s history.
Context of Genesis 2:4–25
Before looking at the text of Genesis 2, it is first of all necessary to establish the context of the narrative. Theistic evolutionists often view Genesis 2 as either a secondary and contradictory account of creation to chapter 111 or as a sequel chapter to it.12 There are however a number of reasons for understanding chapter 2 as a historical account13 of the sixth day of creation.14 As in chapter one, an essential characteristic of narrative, the waw consecutive, occurs 21 times in 22 verses in 2:4–25, indicating that it is a historical narrative.15 Also, the toledot headings in the earlier chapters of Genesis (Genesis 2:4 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27) identify these verses as part of the same literary category as Genesis 12–50 (see Genesis 25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 36:9; 37:2).16
The key to understanding 2:4 is in the opening Hebrew phrase toledot17 (meaning “This is the history of”) as it formulates the structure of the book of Genesis.18 A number of scholars recognize that here toledot serves as a heading that introduces a new section of the narrative.19 Interestingly, this is the only time the phrase toledot20 occurs without a personal name, the reason being that “Adam had no human predecessors.”21
The toledot serves two main purposes in 2:4. First, it “links 2:4–25 with 1:1–2:3. The language of 2:4 looks back to the creation account.”22 Second, “its main purpose is to shift attention to the creation of man and his placement in the garden.”23 This shift can be seen from the chiastic structure in verse 4 which comes after the toledot:
A of the heavens
B and the earth
C when they were created
C in the day that the Lord God made
B the earth
A and the heavens
I suggest that this chiasm shows that verse 4 should not be divided because its “structure evidences a single unit.”24 The unity of verse 4 is evidence that it is not made up of material from two different sources25 since it points to a sole author of the text rather than multiple.26 Those who wish to split up verse 4 into 2:4a and 4b do so “merely to prop up a purely theoretical literary analysis.”27
The shift in attention is also reflected in the use of the divine names. In Genesis 1:1–2:3 the divine name used is 'elohiym which appears 35 times and focuses on the majesty and power of God. Whereas in Genesis 2:4–3:24, God’s covenant keeping Yahweh is combined with 'elohiym, which appears 20 times.28 Therefore, rather than being a separate and contradictory account of creation, 2:4–25 focuses on event leading up to and including man in the garden of Eden.29 Most importantly, Jesus read the two passages together in Matthew 19:4–5 when he took both Genesis 1 and 2 together to make a theological point on marriage. By combining Genesis 1:27b and 2:24 in this way, he in no way regarded them as separate, contradictory accounts of creation. If Genesis 2 is not historical, then it calls into question the meaning and theology of Jesus’ point on marriage because it is based on the history of Genesis being accurate. Genesis 2 is the beginning of the history of the human race.
Furthermore, in verse 4 the clause “in the day” (bəyōm) is referring to a general period of time (see below Genesis 2:17). This does not suggest that the days in Genesis 1 are non-literal days. Key to understanding the length of the days in Genesis 1 is that they are in fact numbered and are used with qualifiers such as “morning” and “evening.” Those contextual clues help us comprehend their meaning. Similarly, the contextual clues in Genesis 2:4 surrounding bəyōm (i.e., “in the day that the Lord made heaven and earth”) serve to indicate that a general time period is in view (i.e., Day Six of the Creation Week).
Verses 5–7 of the narrative “are a distinctive syntactical unit”30 in which verses 5–6 “present a series of circumstantial clauses, describing the condition of the land when God formed the first man.”31 Verses 5–6 provide the setting for verse 7. However, it has been noted that verses 5–6 present a problem for understanding Genesis 2 as a more specific account of the events of day six: For example, John Walton states:
If Genesis 2 is read as a recapitulation, Genesis 2:5–6 is confusing. It says that there were no plants when God created humans, yet plants come on day three and humans on day six in Genesis 1. Another problem is that God created the animals first and then humans on day six. In Genesis 2, Adam is formed before the animals. The second problem exists for those who consider the days to be twenty-four-hour days. That the events of Genesis 2 could all take place in a twenty-four-hour day (among them, naming all the animals, which apparently is completed because no helper was found) stretches credulity.32
Unfortunately, this overlooks the specific details of these verses and the account of creation in Genesis 1.
Genesis 2:5–7 is best related to the judgment oracles of Genesis 3:8–24 indicating what the world was like before and after sin.33 The Hebrew word erets occurs twice in verse 5. Because the context of Genesis 2 is man in a garden in Eden, it is best to view erets here as referring to land “since it is the habit of the first man that is in view.”34
Additionally, the word ground (adamah) in verse 5 has to do with the soil, which is cultivated by human enterprise (Genesis 2:9; 3:17, 23; 4:2; 5:29; 8:21); and it is the same substance from which man is made (Genesis 2:7, 19). There is a play on words in verse 5: “ground” and “man,” indicating that the adamah (ground) needs adam (man) to produce a harvest from it.
When viewed this way, we find that the “shrub” and “plant” of Genesis 2:5 are not the same as the vegetation of Genesis 1:11–12. For example, “plants (eseb) of the field” describe the diet of man which he eats only after the sweat of his labor after sin (Genesis 3:18–19), whereas seed-bearing plants found in the creation narrative were produced by God for human and animal consumption (Genesis 1:11–12, 29–30; 9:3). These plants produce themselves by seed alone, whereas “plant” in Genesis 2:5 requires human cultivation to produce the grain necessary for edible food. This cultivation is how fallen man will eat his food (Genesis 3:19). In Genesis 3:18–19, plants (eseb) and bread (le’chem) are the product of man’s cultivating the ground. These did not exist before the Fall—weeds, thorns, and thistles came into existence after Adam sinned (Genesis 3:23). This means that man did not have to cultivate the ground before the Fall for food.35
The process of Adam’s creation is the most crucial part of this debate.
Yet, because there was no man around to cultivate God’s creation, this is the reason that in 2:7 the text informs us that “God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The process of Adam’s creation is the most crucial part of this debate.
Regrettably, within evangelicalism that compromised with evolutionary ideas today there is uncertainty as to how the body of Adam was formed. C. J. Collins, for example, believes that we should not apply “too firm a literalism in relating the words of Genesis 2:7 to a physical and biological account of human origins.”36 Collins believes it does not matter where God obtained the raw material for Adam “because either way we are saying that humans are the result of “special creation.”37 Collins has previously stated that he preferred the view that “dust” in Genesis 2:7 refers to loose soil; however, he does believe that it could refer to “the body of some ape or hominid.”38
More recently he has argued that there is an intermediate process in Genesis 2:7 stating that “each of us is, ultimately, ‘formed of dust,’ even if the dust has gone through a few intermediate (genetic) steps!”39 Nevertheless, if Adam was not the first man and there were other hominids prior to him, then is what God did with Adam really that special? Collins fails to answer in what way Adam is a “special creation” if there were pre-hominids prior to him. It also raises the question, in what sense was he the first man (1 Corinthians 15:45)?40
Old Testament scholar John Walton raises a different objection to the supernatural creation of Adam. He objects to a material understanding of the terms yatsar (יָצַר) and aphar עָפָר. Walton believes the Hebrew term yatsar (formed) is unrelated to a material act but corresponds well to functional creation.41 While he wants to reduce the term aphar to immortality and rejects the idea that the text is referring to God crafting the dust as “one shapes clay, not dust. The latter is impervious to being shaped by its very nature.”42 For Walton, the better alternative to the meaning of “dust” is found in Genesis 3:19 where “we discover that dust refers to mortality.”43
He therefore believes that “dust” in Genesis 2:7 “has the significance of indicating that people were created mortal.”44 This has theological implication that would mean man death is not the punishment for sin, but was already in place and would be a good thing (Genesis 1:31). It negates the gospel because there would be no reason for Christ to rescue us from death.
The exegesis of 2:7, however, speaks against the idea of there being an intermediate process in the formation of the first man. It is necessary to understand the meaning of the terms “forming” (yatsar) and “dust” (aphar) in this verse because they describe God’s forming man from the dust of the ground.
First, yatsar is a perfectly acceptable term to refer to a material act of creation, because it is often used to describe the creative activity of a potter (Jeremiah 18:2; Isaiah 45:9). In Isaiah 44:9–20, a satire against idols, the craftsman (verse 12) who makes idols, shapes (yatsar) his material with a hammer. While yatsar is also used elsewhere to describe Yahweh as the “former” of the world (Jeremiah 33:2),45 the reason that yatsar is used instead of bara is that the man is being made of an already existing material.46
Second, the meaning of dust has to be established exegetically from the context. Although clay is generally shaped, the term “dust” “may refer to a clay-like mixture such as that used to plaster the walls of a house as in Leviticus 14:41, 45, where the same term (עָפָר) is also used.”47 The forming of the man from the dust of the ground shows that God formed the body immediately without intermediate processes. This would rule out the idea that man developed from a lower form of a pre-existing hominid.
The first man, Adam, was created from the dust of the ground, and dust can only mean this in the context of Genesis 2–3 because it is to dust that Adam will return because of his disobedience (Genesis 3:19).48 Dust in Genesis 3:19 cannot be referring to Adam’s mortality, as Walton argues, because mortality is in the context of a curse upon Adam and his wife because of their disobedience. So to claim that Adam was created mortal and therefore death was a natural part of the creation, Vos argues that the words of Genesis 3:19 “would have to be wrenched from its context. . . . If they expressed a mere declaration of the natural working out of man’s destiny, as created mortal, there would be nothing of a curse in them.”49 According to the Bible, death is not a biological necessity but a wage for sin (Romans 6:23).
Third, the place where God formed Adam was “the ground” which “indicates the source whence the dust was taken.”50
The argument that the language is only a figurative description of man’s creation “might apply to some elements of Genesis 2:7; it does not include all of them. In other words, if anthropomorphism is present, it is not present in each element of the verse. . . . The man was real, the dust was real, the ground was real as was the breath of life.”51
After the formation of man from the dust of the ground, he is given human life when God breathes into him the breath of life52 which is “a clear indication of life—and thereby the lifeless body became a living soul, a living being.”53 Adam consists then of the material (dust) and immaterial (breath of life). It was not until God breathed into Adam that the first human life came into existence. The context and language of Genesis 2:7 clearly rules out any evolutionary processes. This is evident from the fact that: (1) man is alone, (2) God breathes into his nostrils the “breath of life” and (3) he is formed from the dust of the ground.
The context and language of Genesis 2:7 clearly rules out any evolutionary processes.
It has also been suggested that the similarities between Genesis 2:7 and other ancient Near Eastern (ANE) accounts, such as the Atrahasis Epic, show that it was influenced by these myths.54 Yet, the significance of the differences between Genesis and the ANE accounts of the creation of man should lead us to the conclusion that Genesis is not dependent on them.
For example, the Atrahasis Epic has humans made up from both material and divine elements and there is no suggestion of the gods breathing into man the breath of life, as Genesis 2:7 describes. Whereas, it is the flesh of a slain god that is the source for the “spirit” of man in the Atrahasis Epic. Furthermore, in the Atrahasis Epic, “man is created to relieve the gods of heavy work.”55 This is not why God created man in the biblical account of creation because “God’s actions serve the needs of the man and woman by providing the idyllic Eden.”56
Although, some argue that the differences can be explained by the fact that the biblical writers used a process of demythologizing so that the author of Genesis “substituted God’s breath for either divine spit or blood.”57 However, “the differences are monumental and are so striking that they cannot be explained by a simple Hebrew cleansing of myth.”58 Therefore, the argument that the Bible is simply demythologizing these pagan myths will simply not work.59
In Genesis 2:8, after the creation of Adam, God places him in the garden that He had planted toward the East in Eden.60 Once the man, Adam, is placed in the garden, he is given a specific task to do (Genesis 2:15) and commanded what to do and what not to do (Genesis 2:16–17).
In Genesis 2:17 God gives Adam a command: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
There are two questions that need to be answered. First, what does “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” imply? Is it referring to an immediate death sentence? “To answer this question, it is important to understand the phrase בְּיוֹם.”61 In this context the Hebrew phrase beyom should be understood as a general indication of time (i.e., an ingressive sense).62 Moreover, when beyom is understood in light of the Hebrew phrase mot tamut “you shall surely die,” it should not be understood as an immediate death sentence, as some argue.63
The phrase mot tamut uses the “infinitive absolute with an imperfect,”64 which strengthens its meaning. The phrase “you will surely die” may be understood as “doomed to die,”65 meaning “that death will follow as a punishment but not necessarily immediately.”66 The grammatical construction of 2:17 is very similar to the way Mosaic Law threatened capital punishment: “He will surely die,” or “They will surely die” (Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 20:9–16).
The second question has to do with the phrase “you shall surely die” and whether it refers to spiritual or physical death. C. John Collins believes that is referring to spiritual death rather than physical death.67 However, this overlooks the meaning of beyom and the context of the Garden narrative. After disobeying God’s command, Adam and Eve are immediately separated from God (Genesis 3:7–9). Yet in Genesis 3:17–19 God placed a curse on the ground and told Adam he would return to it (i.e., a physical death). The Apostle Paul’s interpretation of this passage had physical death in view (Romans 5:12, 14; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22). Importantly, Vos says of the words in Genesis 2:17,
On the basis of these words the belief of all ages has been that death is the penalty for sin, that the race became first subject to death through the commission of the primordial sin. At present many writers take exception to this, largely on scientific grounds. . . . But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed to the assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science. Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis.68
Those who try to argue because of secular ideas that the words of Genesis 2:17 refer to anything other than physical death are forcing the text to say something it clearly does not mean.
Vos rightly recognizes that those who try to argue because of secular ideas that the words of Genesis 2:17 refer to anything other than physical death are forcing the text to say something it clearly does not mean.
Genesis 2:18 says that the man was alone. He was the only human, which shows that it is not yet the end of the sixth day, for part of the reason that creation is declared to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31) is that by the end of that day God had made a helper for the man (Genesis 2:18–22). The problem for Alexander, Walton, and Collins is how can Adam be alone if he represents a neolithic farmer, an archetype of humanity, or the head of a tribe?
The purpose of the formation of the animals in Genesis 2:19 is so that Adam can review all the kinds of animals in order that he should give them names and find among them a helper corresponding to him so that he is not alone.
It has been argued that there is a contradiction here in verse 19, because the creation of animals comes after man whereas in Genesis 1 man is created after the animals (Genesis 1:24–25, 27). However, we must remember that the setting of chapter 2 is the Garden in Eden and not the whole world (Genesis 2:8, 15).
There are two solutions for the supposed chronological problem in Genesis 2:19. One is by taking the verb as a pluperfect (ESV and NIV).69 The pluperfect tense can be considered as the past of the past—that is, in a narration set in the past. This would suggest that the animals being brought to Adam had already been made and were not being brought to him immediately after their creation. Although 2:19 does not have to be translated as a pluperfect. It is also possible to understand it as God having formed the animals after Adam and still avoid a contradiction by understanding that the animals that are mentioned were a special group of animals.70
Also, Walton’s argument (see above) that the events in Genesis 2, specifically the naming of all the animals, could not all take place in a twenty-four-hour day is unwarranted given the fact that no time duration for the events is given in the text concerning what took place on Day Six. Walton has to assume that a large number of animals were named, but again the text does not say how many animals Adam had to name. Genesis 2:20 tells us that Adam only named the cattle, beasts of the field, and birds of the air. He did not have to name the sea creatures, the beasts of the earth, or creeping things. He also has to discount the fact that God miraculously put Adam to sleep to create Eve, which, for the Creator of the universe, could take no time at all.
Adam’s naming of these animals reveals that man was created as an intelligent being, a fact that does not fit with an evolutionary model of humanity. Yet, there is no suitable counterpart among the animals for Adam. This is because none of the animals bear the image of God and an adequate counterpart must bear the image of God just as Adam is in the image of God.
It is in verse 20 that the claim that the first unambiguous reference to Adam, as a personal name, does not occur until Genesis 5:171 is seriously contested.72 There is good evidence to suggest that it is used here as a personal name because it is within the context of naming the animals. The phrase le-'adam in the Masoretic text reads as a proper name since it appears without the definite article, which indicates a proper name in Hebrew.73 Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna comments,
The Hebrew vocalization le-'adam makes the word a proper name for the first time, probably because the narrative now speaks of the man as a personality rather than an archetypal human.74
The next appearance of the 'adam without the definite article is in Genesis 3:17, again indicating a proper name.
Because Adam cannot find a suitable helper among the animals, God puts him to sleep (Genesis 2:21) and builds a woman from his rib and flesh to be a helper for him (Genesis 2:18). In 2:22 Adam finally meets his correspondent as God builds a helper suitable for him from his side. The verb banah,75 which complements yatsar in 2:7, refers to the physical material building of Eve.76
In Genesis 2:23, after God makes the woman from man’s side, the man says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” The Hebrew 'adam here is surely a reference to the individual that was named in Genesis 2:20 since all humanity could not say, “Bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.”77 Adam then goes on to name his wife Eve because she is to become the mother of all the living (Genesis 3:20).78 The creation of Eve inspires Adam to poetry, which is a problem for theistic evolutionists, for how could someone be capable of producing sophisticated qualities of poetry if his speech were still evolving at this point?
The narrative in Genesis 2, which focuses primarily on the sixth day of creation, clearly presents us with the supernatural creation of the first man from the dust of the ground (2:7) who was alone (2:18) until God made a wife for him (2:21–23). Those that have already been convinced of evolutionary origins have managed to adapt and twist the text of Genesis to their interpretation of Adam, but they have not derived this from the text of Scripture.