The Living Breath of God and the Three Steps in Fashioning Humanity
Rev. Eugen J. Pentiuc, Th.D., Ph.D.
I. THREE STEPS IN FASHIONING HUMANITY
The first two chapters of the Book of Genesis present the making of humanity as an act in three steps or phases. The text is silent with respect to the time elapsed between these steps or if there was such a time between them. With any fragment or link of creation there was only one act or word of God. For instance, the Creator says in the first day, “Let it be light. And there was light” (Gen 1:3). Or in the second day, the same Creator utters the powerful word, “Let be a vault. And God made the vault” (Gen 1:6-7). Just one word or one-step act for each link of creation. Contrary to this pattern, in the case of humanity, God uses a different way, a creative act in three phases or steps. This pattern shows how much care God allotted for the making of the humanity, and how deliberative was he in designing and casting in life his plan respecting the humanity.
1. First Step: Humanity as Reflection of the Triune God
What makes humanity quite different from the rest of the living world is the image of God according to, or in which this humanity has been created. Throughout time, the biblical concept of image of God has received various interpretations, some of them having nothing to do with or completely ignoring the sacred text in order to fit into one or another of the philosophical/systematic (dogmatic) schemes. The most popular interpretation remains the one that equates the image of God with the human soul or reason. Yet one of the unfortunate, practical consequences of such an interpretation is the dichotomy turning sometimes into a state of conflict between soul and body which at the best is alien to the letter and spirit of biblical anthropology with its known emphasis on the indissoluble unity between the two parts. If the image of God cannot and should not be restrained to the soul what else may this concept refer to? The image of God is, on one hand, unity in diversity (horizontal dimension), and on the other hand, a constant dialog between God and man (vertical dimension). By its horizontal dimension, the image of God connects us to one another as a large family whose unity is dynamically supported by the diversity of the human persons. By its vertical dimension, the image of God sets us in a living, hardly predictable, yet always wonderful, relationship with our Creator.
(1) Unity in diversity (Gen 1:26-27)
“And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness. It shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth and all creeping things that creep on earth.’ And God created humanity in his image, in the image of God he created it, male and female he created them.”
This short fragment speaks about God’s deliberation and humanity’s creation in the image of its creator. The plural “Let us make humanity” was variously interpreted by the ancient interpreters. From the onset, the explanation of the plural as a royal “we”should be avoided because this kind of plural is not quite frequent in biblical Hebrew. The singular “our image” instead of “our images” is a strong argument in defending the thesis that God spoke those words to an equal-in-rank person rather than to his servants. Ephraem the Syrian (Commentary on Genesis 1:28) explains, “The Father commanded with his voice; it was the Son who carried out the work.” As for our proposed rendition of Hebrew adam with “humanity” instead of “man” as some of modern translations choose to do, an observation is appropriate at this juncture. This translation is not determined by the author’s desire to be politically correct regarding the gender issues raised by the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. It is rather dictated by the peculiar character of the Genesis creation account which insists on humanity rather than individuals. While the extra-biblical evidence, and I am referring here to the most important ancient Near Eastern myths, proclaims in unison that gods created from the very beginning humans in one-act creation, the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 1-2) proposes a more complex view, first a genderless entity, then a male-female polarity. Gen 1:27 is supported by Gen 5:2 where the two humans, male and female, are called with the collective adam “humanity”: “Male and female he created them. He blessed them and gave them the name “humanity,” when they were created.”
The Hebrew word adam is a collective designating “mankind, humanity” or “people”; note that only lately and sporadically, adamconnotes “individual man” (e.g., Lev 22:5; cf. 13:2; Nu 19:14; Prov 27:19) and even in these instances the noun may also have a collective meaning. The Septuagint chose correctly the term anthropos “human being,” a person of either gender, and not aner “man, male,” to render the collective character of the Hebrew word.
“Rabbi Jeremiah b. Leazar said: When the Holy One, blessed be he, created the first humanity (adam), he created it an androgynous, for it is said, “Male and female created he them and called their name “humanity” (adam) (Gen 5:2). Rabbi Samuel b. Nahman said: When the Lord created the first humanity he created it double-faced, then he split it and made it of two backs, one back on this side and one back on the other side.” (Genesis Rabbah, 8:1)
According to the Hebrew text of Gen 1:26, the term tselem “image” is in apposition with demut “shape, likeness” (“in our image, according to our likeness”), both designating overlapping or identical entities. By inserting the conjunction kai “and”, the Septuagint renders the same phrase as a pair of two distinct concepts which can complement one another (“according to our image and according to [our] likeness”). Moreover, the Hebrew text of Gen 5:1 states that God created humanity “in his likeness” and not “in his image” as Gen 1:27 puts it. That is why the Septuagint of Gen 5:1 reads “in his image” in an effort to harmonize this text with Gen 1:27. From the Hebrew reading of Gen 1:26-27 and Gen 5:1 one may conclude that the notions of “image” and “likeness” used in the “Primeval History” (Gen 1-11) are interchangeable.
The text of Gen 1:26-27 deals with the notion of “image” under its horizontal dimension as diversity in unity of humans. In short, we are informed about the content of the diversity and how this diversity may be kept under control by the primordial unity. The diversity mentioned in v. 27 may be defined as a gender distinction. This is the only distinction willed and designed by God with respect to humans. As one knows, the “Documentary Hypothesis” labeled the text of Gen 1:26-27 as belonging to the Priestly Source due to its “majestic” or “abstract” outlook. Yet such a source-critical conclusion is contradicted by the presence of two graphic terms in v. 27 for defining the polarity male-female. One might want to mention that Hebrew has several pairs of words with respect to the man-woman distinction, as for instance, ish“male” (perhaps from -sh-sh, Arabic atta to grow profusely) and ishsha“female” (perhaps from a root *-n-sh “to be weak”), underscoring the social difference between man and woman. In our text, the author uses another pair, zakar “male” (basic meaning “phallus”, perhaps from z-k-rII “to be strong”) and nekeba “female” (Latin perforata, as sexual being, from n-k-b to make a hole, “to perforate”) with emphasis on gender distinction. The clear cut division of the text into “sources” advocated and performed by the proponents of the literary (source) criticism does not work in this pericope where graphic terms defining the male-female distinction coexist with God’s “majestic” description. At any event, the unity seems to precede and put its print on the gender differentiation.
(2) God’s “living breath” (Gen 2:7)
“And Yahweh God fashioned the humanity of the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breathing of life, so the humanity became a living breath”
Since the term neshama indicates a “movement of air” (cf. nishmat ruach 2 Sam 22:16/Ps 18:16), the whole phrase, nishmat chayyim,here in conjunction with the root n-p-ch “to breath,” should be rendered “breathing of life” (cf. Gen 7:22: nishmat ruach chayyim [of animals]; a similar phrase is found in the Amarna letters [14th century B.C.], e.g., EA 141:6: shar balati “breath of my life”; or EA 137:7 “the breath of the mouth of the king” [in both examples, of the sovereign king of Egypt]). The word nepesh may designate “throat, neck, breath, being” (from the root n-p-sh “to inhale, breath”). In Gen 2:7, the phrase nepesh chayyamay be translated “living breath” thus matching God’s act of “breathing” (neshama). Note the difference between the two phrases, nishmat chayyim and nepesh chayya; the first phrase indicates an action, “breathing,” performed by God, the source of “life” (chayyim), while the second phrase describes a component of God’s action, namely, the humanity, introduced metaphorically as a “living breath.” As one can notice, the biblical account has nothing to do with the philosophical dichotomy between soul and body, matter and spirit, with respect to human person. The humanity does not receive a soul, but rather it does become a “living breath (soul).” The adjective chayya “living” employed in the phrase nepesh chayya underscores that the humanity is a “living breath” since the first moment of its creation and it enjoys this dignifying nomenclature as long as it struggles to preserve this dynamic relationship with the source of life. Interestingly enough, the humanity in Gen 2:7 is presented not as a simple end-product of God’s action, as an object, integrating element of creation. The humanity is rather a part of the creative action of God, a living breath among so many other living breaths, all together constituting God’s breathing as an openness of the Creator towards the created world. Thus humanity’s portrayal is as fluid and as dynamic as it might be. Humanity’s fashioning does not stop with the sixth day. Once having entered in God’s breathing life, humanity is continually re-fashioned, accommodated to God, its prototype. Thus, the humanity is called to take active part in God’s creative and providential activities. In fact, one of the first duties of the humanity was “to work and to guard” the garden of Eden (Gen 2:15).
In order to understand better the humanity’s place and role within God’s creation, one might take a brief look at another realm, that of the other living creatures. According to Gen 1:20-24, 30, the living creatures, namely, beasts, birds, reptiles, fish, all have or possess a ‘living breath’ (nepesh chayya). Nowhere in the Book of Genesis are we told that the living creatures, except humanity, ‘became’ (h-y-h) a ‘living breath’; rather, they simply possess or contain such a principle of life. Genesis 1:30 equates ‘every thing that creeps upon earth’ with every thing thathas life in it (bo). Thus, the living creatures, except humanity, represent end-products of God’s creative action and not components or co-sharers with him in his creative activity as is the case with the humanity.
Breathing into humanity’s nostrils means on the one hand, that the new creature is not only touched, but rather informed, infused, filled with God’s living breathing. On the other hand, the image underscores the personal relationship between Creator and its creature. God treats the humanity with respect, as a partner of dialogue, looking at it face to face, as a person to another person.
The paradigm for humanity is that perfection can be acquired in time. If the other living creatures were made in one instance, humanity was created in three steps. The perfection was given in time. Hence, the steps/phases of development of human person. For animals, perfection was given in the moment of creation. The serpent tries to inoculate humans with a paradigm of perfection as something that could be acquired at once. Eve falls in this trap, eager to be read of anxiety immediately.
2. Second Step: Reshaping the Face of Humanity
If one may use the metaphor, God, the Great Artist, painting the humanity by striking a few brushes, the second step in humanity’s creation is when the artist looks at the canvas with new eyes. He is content with the freshness of the first brushstrokes but at the same time he lives with a sentiment of unfinished work. Something is missing so that the canvas may look like a painting and not simply like a palette overcrowded with beautiful color drops yet with no order, no harmony, at all. Details in content and nuances in shape are to be added to his painting. This is the moment when God realizes no matter how reliably his mysterious way of being (unity of nature and diversity of persons) is reflected in humanity, the latter will not be able to survive in a real world where multiplication is the rule of the day. Moreover, the humanity has had a strong personal / dialogical tendency since its first breath, hence its imperious longing for dialogue. The second step of humanity’s creation translates into the fashioning of an opposite help from inside the humanity that will fulfill both needs.
(1) A help like humanity’s opposite (Gen 2:18)
“And Yahweh God said, ‘It is not good for humanity to be isolated. I will make for it a help like its opposite’
While for each day, except the second day, God reiterated that each fragment of creation was “good” (tob), namely, fitting (according) to his plan, and at the end, as a general observation, that everything he had created was “very good” (tob meod) (Gen 1:31), in Gen 2:18, for the first time, the Creator realizes that something is “not good” (lo tob). Note that “good” here has an ontological connotation, namely, in harmony with God’s design, plan or will. Note also, that the text does not use here the term “bad, evil”
(ra), for it would mean that the creation or part of it is bad and God’s work of fashioning humanity is bad too.
The word lebad, commonly rendered “alone, solitude” (from bad “part, portion”) should be translated in the present context “isolated, separated” (cf. Arabic budd part [of a thing]). God is not a selfish creator. He understands that the humanity, even though reflects the divine unity shared equally by the three persons, cannot survive within a living world dominated by multiplication. Humanity is “isolated” might refer to both isolation from the rest of the living creatures in terms of mechanisms of procreation, and to a “solitude” which can be one of man’s great burdens. As humanity was fashioned by God as a dialogical person, looking face to face into his Creator’s face, woman was created to substitute for the Creator; hence woman’s great role in history of salvation as man’s equal companion.
Genesis 2:18 uses the term ezer meaning “help, assistance” rather than “helper” as some of the modern translations choose. The Scripture is again ambiguous because the term ezer “help” is somehow abstract. The accent falls not that much on the concrete profile or purpose of this help, but rather on God’s promise that “I will make a help” or “I will help” humanity so that it might correspond to God’s designed standards.
The word negdo may be rendered “its opposite” (from the verbal rootn-g-d “to be in front”). The Pseudo-Jonathan Targum has qblyh “in front of it,” while the Septuagint opts for “according to him” (kat’ auton). The Septuagint reflects the attitude of Hellenised Alexandria towards women, viewed as servants whose purpose was to meet man’s needs.
We may note that in Gen 2:18, far from being a weak, changeable person, God comes across as a living one, who is ready, out of pure love, to admit that something did not go well or according to his towering intention and thus he takes the necessary measures to adjust the situation. God is not a selfish artist who would like to be admired. He is a caring, loving father, for whom the well-being of his children represents the most important purpose. Second, this text shows that perfection in man’s case occurs in time; it is a process rather than a datum as in animals’ case. Humanity may be labeled good only after Eve’s shaping.
(2) A help from inside the humanity (Gen 2:21-22)
“So Yahweh God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the humanity; and, while it slept, he took one of its ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot. And Yahweh God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the humanity into a woman; and he brought her to the humanity”
Up to Gen 2:18, the Septuagint follows closely the Hebrew Text and views the first human entity as a neutral (genderless), collective entity, hence the Septuagint’s rendition of the Hebrew adam as anthropos“human being, humanity.” Starting with v. 19, where this entity exercises its power over the rest of the living creatures, the Septuagint switches from anthropos to Adam written with capital A, pointing to a male individual, “Adam.” Thus, in the Septuagint reading of v. 21, God takes the rib, out of which He will fashion the woman from “Adam,” the man, not from “humanity” (adam) as in Masoretic Text’s reading of the same verse. This lexical choice of the Septuagint was most likely triggered by the folk etymology of Gen 2:23b which plays on the similar-in-sound words ‘ishsha “woman” and ‘ish “man, male”: “This one shall be called “woman” (‘ishsha) for from “man” (‘ish) was she taken.” Yet, as one knows, there is no etymological relation between these words.
Targum Onkelos adds “(“God fashioned the rib”into a woman) for marriage (l-ntw)” in order to show that by fashioning Eve, God meant to provide man with a wife or to preserve the unity of the first entity through marriage. The above ancient Jewish interpretation is based on the biblical text itself which reads that the Creator “brought Eve to the humanity” showing that the Creator is above all interested in preserving the horizontal dimension of the image of God in humans, namely, the unity in diversity.
“God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the humanity.” It is a lesson of humility from the part of the Creator. The humanity is brought now to a complete state of passivity so in the future it might not accredit Eve’s creation to itself. The word tardema “deep sleep,” deriving from the root r-d-m which connotes the idea of numbness, reflects quite precisely the humanity”s state that appears similar to lethargy or numbness. The humanity has no share or role in Eve’s creation. Both, male and female, are creatures and precedence in time of the humanity does not necessarily translate into a sort of gender superiority of its default, namely, the male element.
Verse 22 represents the climax of the second step in re-fashioning humanity: the creation of the helper from inside rather than outside the humanity. Creating a helper from inside the humanity, God shows that he wants to preserve the unity of the two, so that both may share the same nature, the nature of the humanity.
As one can see, in humanity’s case, a lot of emphasis is put on the unity of nature. When God created the living creatures, he created them according to their kinds/species (e.g., Gen 1:21). Thus in the living creatures’ case, the emphasis lies with the diversity of species. Living creatures are created from the very first moment in this diversity, while humanity appears first as a unity implying gender diversity and only after God’s realization that the humanity cannot be isolated; the diversity of now both genders and persons becomes a reality of “flesh and bones” (Gen 2:23). One may add that in humanity’s case the diversity cannot be reduced to genders. The humanity is created as a person by God, in a face-to-face dialogue of “breathing of life” (Gen 2:7). So when this humanity is reshaped as male and female, the gender distinction enriches itself with a personal dimension. The other living creatures do not have such a personal distinction because they are brought into existence by a simple creative word/act of God without his personal involvement as in humanity’s case (compare Gen 2:7 with, for instance, Gen 1:20-21). If the living creatures have a unity, this is a unity of species and not a unity of nature God intended for humanity.
One may note that the word for rib,’ tsela, is used frequently with the meaning “side” (of a mountain: 2 Sam 16:13; of a building: 1 Kgs 6:5, 8). In this semantic context, Eve’s creation presents itself in a more ambiguous light. She is not simply a “rib” from the humanity but one of its “sides.” And if Eve is a side, the perfect image or portrait of humanity may be obtained only by considering both sides, male and female. The following text from a midrash on Genesis underlines God’s thoughtfulness in choosing humanity’s part to turn into a woman: “Rabbi Joshua of Siknin commenced in Rabbi Levi’s name: Thus it is written, “And the Lord built the rib” (Gen 2:22). This is written wayyiben, signifying that He considered well (hithbonnen) from what part to create her. Said He: “I will not create her from [Adam’s] head, lest she be light-headed [frivolous]; nor from the eye, lest she be a coquette; nor from the ear, lest she be an eavesdropper; nor from the mouth, lest she be a gossip; nor from the heart, lest she be prone to jealousy; nor from the hand, lest she be light-fingered; nor from the foot, lest she be a gadabout. But [I will create her] from the modest part of man, for even when he stands naked, that part is covered” (Genesis Rabbah, 80:5).
3. Third Step: Humanity’s Unity Regained
Becoming “one flesh” (Gen 2:24)
“Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh”
Marriage (conjugal union) was instituted in the garden of Eden as a mechanism or means to keep the initial unity together (Gen 1:27). The Book of Genesis hints to the natural character of this institution since the words reproduced in 2:24 are a continuation of man’s statement in v. 23. Whether it is natural or not, marriage appears in the context of narrative on man’s creation as surely intended by the Creator to keep together male-female polarity. Unfortunately, this mechanism did not prove too long successful. Man’s transgression of God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil determined a rapid and deep fragmentation of the created world beginning with the union between male and female. Adam’s accusation of Eve in front of the Creator (Gen 3:12) mirrors this fragmentation. Moreover, God’s sanctioning Eve’s misdeed (Gen 3:16) outlines a gloomy future of the conjugal union. This will be marked by a tense situation. To woman’s longing (teshuqa “longing, burning desire” [cf. Is 29:8: pulsating throat; from the root shaqaq “to strive, long for,” a by-form of sh-w-q II]) for her man, which can be seen also as a counter-effect to the initial woman’s ignorance of Adam in the moment of transgression, man will respond with a rude attitude, trying to rule (mashal) over her. Interestingly, the same pair of words (teshuqa ‘mashal) is used to define the relationship between man and the personified Sin in Cain’s story (Gen 4:7). Strangely, woman’s longing for man is compared to Sin’s longing after the human being, while man’s domination over his wife is seen in terms of man’s ruling over Sin. In these circumstances with an impaired conjugal union the unity in diversity of humanity is menaced with a deepening crisis. The image of God in humanity is at risk.
Marriage is depicted here as a tight intertwining of male and female resulting in basar “flesh.” Based on Gen 2:7 where humanity is introduced as a “living breath” (nepesh chayya) of God, one may expect that the unity of male and female will end up in a “living breath.” Contrary, we are told that they become a “flesh.” The use of this imagery is to underline the concrete, tight union between the two, which actually was meant to restore and preserve the initial unity of humanity with the two genders implied. Thus “flesh” reminds one that the purpose of such conjugal unity is to restore the humanity in its primeval beauty: a perfect, yet real, unity in diversity.