A Reflection on Genesis 2

At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up, for Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil. Instead, water flowed out of the ground and watered all the surface of the soil. Yahweh God formed a man from the soil of the ground and blew the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being.Yahweh God planted a garden in Eden, which is in the east, and there he put the man he had fashioned. From the soil, Yahweh God caused to grow every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

(Genesis 2:4b-9)

What does the bible have to tell us about Climate Change and about the rights and wrongs of how we treat each other and the natural world? Such a question has no straightforward answer. The bible is a complex multi-authored text in which later writers comment on earlier. So perhaps a good place to begin is at the very beginning.

The book of Genesis begins with two complimentary stories of creation, the first story is found in Genesis 1:1 – 2:3; the second follows in Genesis 2:4b-24. Neither creation story is literally true according to our modern way of thinking about true stories, but both are, in a deeper sense, true stories. They communicate to us some very old and very deep truths.

Confusingly the second story (2:4b-24), which is partly printed above, is in fact the older of the two. It was likely passed down through many generations of Oral storytelling before being committed to writing perhaps in the 6th or 7th Centuries BC.

The story is a symbolic narrative. The text comments on reality using symbols.

In verse 7 we read:

Then Yahweh God formed an Haadam (man/human) from the dust of the Haadamah(earth/ground) and breathed into his nostrils the nismat (breath) of life, and the Haadam became a living being.

In the Hebrew text there is a word-play which is completely lost in our English translations. The Haadam is formed from the Haadamah.

The Haadam, usually translated into English as ‘man’ or as the name ‘Adam’, in fact denotes something wider than just one individual, God is creating, at the same time, both one individual and symbolically all of humanity. The Haadam is an archetypal symbol of all of humanity.

The Haadam is formed from the dust of the Haadamah, the ground, the land, the earth. The Haadamah is the basis of the all natural life, from it the plants grow and on it the animals live. So this story tells us that Humanity, from its origins, is intrinsically linked to the earth and is formed from the same raw material as every other living thing.

No argument for this position is made by the author of the text. Such a symbiotic relationship between land and humanity would have been, and still is, known implicitly by a people whose sustenance is drawn directly from the land rather than the supermarket.

The human formed from the earth is given life by the nismat, the divine breath blown into the nostrils of the human being. This act of divine life-giving creates a beautiful three-way relationship,we are created from the earth, to be animated by God who is the source of all life, and to live in harmony with the earth.

This three-way harmony is by its very nature creative. The setting up of this relationship is followed in Verses 8-9 with the planting of a garden in which ‘grows every kind of tree’. In verse 15 the Haadam is given the responsibility to serve and take care of the Garden.

For later biblical authors this first vision of God, humanity and the natural world in creative harmony became an ideal to be recaptured and rebuilt.

The subsequent story of the humanity being sent away from the garden (3:17-19) includes a curse for the Haadamah (3:17); no longer will the ground and humanity be partners in creation. This cursing of the ground leads directly to the tragedy of Cain and Abel (4:1-16).

We can also see this theme of human alienation from God leading to pain for the natural world in Jeremiah, who takes up the theme of disharmony between humanity and the earth in this text probably written in the aftermath of the Babylonian Invasion:

I raise the wail and lament for the mountains,The dirge for the desert pastures, for they have been burnt: No one passes there, the sounds of the flocks is heard no more. (Jr 9:9a)

Humanities alienation from the land, God and from each other is the wound which God is continually attempting to heal throughout the bible and up to our present day; the healing of these relationships cannot be achieved in an atomised way, salvation for one is salvation for all, for both humanity and the natural world.

God does not give up on humanity. The continued creative work of God and his messengers is to draw humanity back into this first vision. So we can read in the Prophet Isaiah a litany of the promised natural restoration which will come hand in hand with God’s hoped-for political and spiritual initiatives on behalf of ancient Israel, the first verse of this litany are:

Let the deserts and dry lands be glad,Let the wastelands rejoice and bloom;Like the asphodel, let it burst into flower,Let it rejoice and sing for joy. (Is 35:1-2a)

Good news for humanity is intrinsically connected with Good News for the earth.

Living in our complex twenty-first century world it is very easy to pour scorn on the old, seemingly simplistic, stories of our tradition. But we should be wary of rejecting such stories too quickly.

Perhaps it is time we took time to listen a bit more carefully to the truths written down by our older brothers and sisters in faith? Perhaps it is time for us to allow an older wisdom to challenge our modern culture of destructive over-consumption and addiction to economic growth. Maybe embracing a much older and bigger vision of earthly community might equip us better to live out a much more universal understanding of salvation? And in turn give us the empowerment we need to be healers of our world.

Written by Matthew Neville