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.