Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 2:7–9

Genesis 2:7–9
7 The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.  8 The LORD God planted an orchard in the east, in Eden; and there he placed the man he had formed.  9 The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow from the soil, every tree that was pleasing to look at and good for food. (Now the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were in the middle of the orchard.)
(NET Bible)

Our very first day

Anyone who loves sports knows that a common theme is the ability of a competitor to win an almost-won game. How many times have you seen a sports team blow a safe lead?

Humankind began with the presence of God in the paradise of Eden. What could become a cause for failure in a place like that? How do we as believers squander our spiritual advantages?

As we move through Genesis, we will take care to note what larger narrative-account contains the verses we are considering. In this case, Genesis 2:4 says, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.” So, Genesis 2:7–9 stands in the first of the tôledôt divisions of Genesis discussed in the Introduction. Old Testament scholar Alan Ross offers a somber evaluation:

The first tôledôt traces what became of the universe God had so marvelously created: it was cursed through disobedience, so that deterioration and decay spread throughout the human race. . . . Whereas the word “bless” was used three times in the account of creation, the word for “curse” appears three times in this tôledôt.[1]

Since this section of Genesis extends to the end of Genesis chapter 4, the accuracy of Ross’s assessment will not immediately be obvious. Give it time.

This verse contains a phrase that first made its appearance in Genesis 2:4: “Lord God” (Hebrew, Yahweh ‘Elohim). This phrase occurs twenty times in Genesis 2-3, but it occurs nowhere else in Genesis. The question is: why?

Most evangelical scholars have adopted the views of the Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto that the appearance of the two names for God in this combination “is easily explained by Scripture’s desire to teach us that Yahweh, which occurs here [2:4] for the first time, is to be wholly identified with ‘Elohim mentioned in the preceding section; in other words that the God of the moral world is none other than the God of the material world, that the God of Israel is in fact the God of the entire universe, and that the names Yahweh and ‘Elohim merely indicate two different facets of his activity or two different ways in which he reveals himself to mankind.”[2]

In this verse and the ones which follow, we are told additional details about how both the first man and the first woman were formed. These two were unique in being the only two human beings not born of a human mother.

The initial focus falls on Adam, “the man,” whom God fashioned from ordinary soil. Old Testament scholar Victor Hamilton adds, “We should note that neither the concept of the deity as craftsman nor the concept of man as coming from earthy material is unique to the Bible.”[3] Various authors cite ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian stories as echoes of the account given here.

“Dust,” the traditional translation for what the NET Bible translates as “soil,” has been the subject of many sermons designed to highlight the insignificance of man. However, Hamilton strikingly notes that this viewpoint does not emerge from the biblical text:

Nowhere does Gen. 2 imply that dust is to be understood as a metaphor for frailty. . . . Especially interesting for possible connections with Gen. 2:7 are those passages which speak of exaltation from dust, with the dust representing pre-royal status (1 Kings 16:2), poverty (1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 113:7), and death (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). . . . Thus, the emphasis on the dust in Gen. 2:7, far from disagreeing with ch. 1, affirms ch. 1’s view of man’s regality. He is raised from the dust to reign.”[4]

Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke gives insight into the phrase “breath of life” by saying, “Animals also have breath, but it is the narrator’s intention to stress that human beings have the very breath of God sustaining them.”[5] This separates humanity from the animal part of creation.

The concluding clause “the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7b), has been translated in several ways with regard to the final English word. “Living being” is used by NET, NASB, NIV, and RSV. “Living creature” is the unusual choice of the ESV — odd because it fits no entry in the standard Hebrew lexicon for nephesh.[6] KJV has the well-known “living soul.” Waltke says, “Essentially [Heb.] nephesh means ‘passionate vitality.’”[7]

Genesis 2:8 introduces the Garden of Eden, which the NET Bible translates as “orchard” due to the dominance of trees in the subsequent verses (e.g., 2:9 and 2:16–17). However, it seems more likely that the account stresses the trees because two of them are central both to the garden and to the story. Wenham says: “gan ‘garden’ is an enclosed area for cultivation (cf. verses 5, 15): perhaps we should picture a park surrounded by a hedge (cf. 3:23). This seems to be the understanding of the early versions which translate gan as ‘paradise,’ a Persian loan word, originally meaning a royal park.” Adam was created in paradise! Eden has defied all attempts to define its location.

The only unusual feature of Genesis 2:9 is the phrase “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Of the many interpretations for this phrase, the best seems to be that offered by Hamilton:

“The knowledge of good and evil” represents moral autonomy. . . . It is our position that this interpretation best fits with the knowledge of good and evil in Gen. 2–3. What is forbidden to man is the power to decide for himself what is in his best interests and what is not. This is a decision God has not delegated to [the man].[8]

Humanity requires God’s guidance because we cannot fathom all that faces us. If only the first man and woman had been content to let God be God, how different things might have been!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 117.

[2] Umberto Cassuto, From Adam to Noah, trans. I. Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1961) 88.

[3] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 157.

[4] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 158.

[5] Waltke, Genesis, 85.

[6] HALOT, nephesh, living being, q.v.

[7] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 71.

[8] Hamilton, Genesis 1-17, 165-166. Waltke appears to hold the same view: Genesis, 86.

 

Exposition of Genesis 1–11: Genesis 1:1–3

Genesis 1:1–3
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
2 Now the earth was without shape and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the watery deep, but the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the water.  3 God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.
(NET Bible)

God Begins Everything

The Bible begins by asserting a fact: to answer those who wonder why anything is here at all, the author of Genesis says God created everything. Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham quotes another scholar in saying, “’The first subject of Genesis and the Bible is God.’”[1]

Of course, many scientists abhor the idea that Genesis 1:1 presents a definite beginning brought about by God. The agnostic astronomer Robert Jastrow has written:

When a scientist writes about God, his colleagues assume he is either over the hill or going bonkers. . . . However, I am fascinated by the implications in some of the scientific developments of recent years [i.e. the Big Bang]. The essence of these developments is that the Universe had, in some sense, a beginning — that it began at a certain moment in time, and under circumstances that seem to make it impossible — not just now, but ever — to find out what force or forces brought the world into being at that moment. Was it, as the Bible says, “Thine all powerful hand that creates the world out of formless matter”? No scientist can answer that question; we can never tell whether the Prime Mover willed the world into being or the creative agent was one of the forces of physics; for the astronomical evidence proves that the Universe was created 15 billion years ago in a fiery explosion, and in the searing heat of that first moment, all the evidence needed for a scientific study of the cause of the great explosion was melted down and destroyed.[2]

Many scientists earnestly wish scientists like Jastrow would not say such things. His remarks reveal that scientists rely on faith just as Christians do; only the object of faith differs. The event Jastrow describes is the “Big Bang,” the prevailing theory of how the universe began. Some scientists have strongly resisted the Big Bang model of origins because a definite beginning for the universe takes the discussion too far toward the words of Genesis.[3]

But let us turn from the committed skepticism of some scientists to gain a better understanding of the biblical text. The word for “God” in Gen. 1:1, Hebrew elohim, is the most common word for deity and can be used for any god. The author of Genesis intentionally used elohim to let it be known that the creator of the whole universe is the God he describes, not merely some local deity. In part, Genesis counters other religious views of creation common in the ancient east.

Wenham explains: “It is important to appreciate the fact that Hebrew elohim is not simply synonymous with English ‘God.’ Thanks to secularism, God has become for many people little more than an abstract philosophical concept. But the biblical view avoids such abstractions.”[4] While contemporary society tends to marginalize God, the Bible shows that he is central to all that happens.

In saying “the heavens and the earth,” the author of Genesis uses a figure of speech (merism) that means “the universe.” We use the same type of idiom today when we say we refashioned something from top to bottom.

The Hebrew verb b?r?’, (Gen. 1:1) means “God creates,”[5] which makes clear the lexical fact that God is the only subject of this verb in the Old Testament. (Verbs normally take more than one kind of subject.) Ross offers a significant word study of b?r?’, and concludes:

The word b?r?’ is used exclusively for the activity of God in which he fashions something anew. The word can be used for creating something out of nothing, but that idea must come from the context and not from the inherent meaning of this word.[6]

Genesis 1:1 tells us the world did not just happen by chance. At a stroke, Genesis 1:1 sweeps aside atheism, cynicism, pantheism, humanism and naturalism. In their place we have God!

Many scholars have debated the complex details of Gen. 1:1–2, which is not surprising. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke presents the most convincing conclusion, held by many, when he says:

The evidence, therefore, seems convincing that verse 1 should be construed as a broad, general declaration of the fact that God created the cosmos, and that the rest of the chapter explicates [expands] this statement. . . . It is concluded, therefore, that the structure of the account of the creation of the cosmos is as follows:

I. Introductory summary statement, 1:1.

II. Situation prior to the creation, 1:2.

III. Narrative of creation, 1:3–31.[7]

The Unformed Earth

The NET Bible Notes describe the state of the earth before the creative activity of God (Gen. 1:2): “What we now know as ‘the earth’ was actually an unfilled mass covered by water and darkness.”[8] In such a world there was nothing to distinguish any point from any other point; it was an empty, lifeless wasteland. Only later would God add an abundance of life to the oceans (Gen. 1:20) — but not yet.

Concerning Genesis 1:2, which he headlines as the “Negative State of Earth before Creation,” Waltke says: “The starting point of the story may be somewhat surprising. There is no word of God creating the planet earth or darkness or the watery chaos. The narrator begins the story with the planet already present, although undifferentiated and unformed.”[9]

In addition to being featureless and empty, the primeval earth was shrouded in “darkness,” waiting for God’s light-bearing word (Gen. 1:3). Most of us live in cities filled with ambient light, even at night. But this darkness (Hebrew, roughly k?shek) was pitch black; when it occurred during the plague of darkness in Pharaoh’s Egypt, the Egyptians had to grope for anything they sought (Exod. 10:21). Their eyes were useless! Ross says, “Darkness throughout the Bible represents evil and death — it is not conducive to life.”[10]

In this featureless gloom over the primeval world, the Spirit of God “was moving” over the surface of the water just as surely as darkness covered the surface of the deep. The Spirit moved in readiness (Gen. 1:2) to breathe life into the creation in a similar way to the Lord God subsequently breathing into Adam’s nostrils “the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Nothing comes about in either case apart from the creative activity of God! The key activity in Gen. 1:2 is the “moving” of the Spirit of God; apart from the Spirit’s presence, the earth would have remained lifeless and shrouded in darkness.

The “God said” formula occurs ten times in chapter one (verses 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29), and in every case immediate change results. In Gen. 1:3, the author even uses short forms of the verbs to make the sentence as powerfully brief as possible. The Net Bible Notes say these verbs “form a profound wordplay [yehi ’or vayehi ’or; “let there be light and there was light”] to express both the calling into existence and the complete fulfillment of the divine word.”[11]

Wenham points out: “Throughout Scripture the word of God is characteristically both creative and effective. . . . But in this creation narrative these qualities are even more apparent.”[12]

In relation to “light,” Wenham says, “Light is often used metaphorically for life, salvation, the commandments, and the presence of God (Ps. 56:14; Isa. 9:1; Prov. 6:23; Exod. 10:23). It is the antithesis, literally and metaphorically, of k?shek ‘darkness.’”[13] For those who are wondering what the source of light might be, Waltke says, “Since the sun is only later introduced as the immediate cause of light, the chronology of the text emphasizes that God is the ultimate source of light.”[14] In Gen. 1:4, “God saw how beautiful the light was” (Hamilton’s translation).[15]

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Word Incorporated, 1987) 14, quoting O. Procksch.

[2] Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, Second Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) 9–10.

[3] Hugh Ross, “Big Bang Model Refined by Fire,” Mere Creation, ed. William A. Dembski (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998) 363, 369.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 15.

[5] HALOT, bara’, God creates, q.v.

[6] Alan P. Ross, Creation and Blessing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1988) 728.

[7] Bruce K. Waltke, “The Creation Account in Genesis 1:1–3; Part III,” Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 132, num. 527 (July-September, 1975) 227–228.

[8] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 1:2.

[9] Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 59. Hamilton reaches the same conclusion (Genesis, 117); so does Ross (Creation & Blessing, 104–107).

[10] Ross, Creation & Blessing, 106.

[11] NET Bible Notes for Genesis 1:3.

[12] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 18.

[13] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 18.

[14] Waltke, Genesis, 61.

[15] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990) 118.