Having preached on Genesis chapter 1 last week, I thought it might be worth spending some time reflecting on Genesis 2 this week.
These two passages are often harmonized in people’s minds, as though they are two parts two one story.
But many scholars would tell us that these are in fact two different and separate creation stories with two different separate authors, whose origins stand about 500 years apart. The most obvious clue that these stories were written by different people at different times is that in Genesis 2 a different name for God is used. In Genesis 1 the name that is used is Elohim. In Genesis 2 the name Yahweh (Yod-He-Vah-He) is used, sometimes in conjunction with the word Elohim, and sometimes by itself.
Another clue... In Genesis 1 the Hebrew word that is used when it says God created human beings is the word “bara”, whereas in Genesis 2 the Hebrew word that is used is yatsar. And so the two passages use different vocabulary.
Also, the style of writing and the way language is used is also different, Genesis 1 being rhythmic and poetic while Genesis 2 is a narrative, written in the form of a folk-tale.
In addition, there are some significant differences, one could even say discrepancies, in the details between these two creation accounts, most easily seen in the order of creation:
In Genesis 1, vegetation is created before the first humans,
In Genesis 2, the vegetation is created after the first human being is formed.
In Genesis 1, male and female are created together on the 6th Day.
In Genesis 2, male and female are created at different times possibly days, weeks or months apart.
In Genesis 1, the animals are created before the first human beings.
In Genesis 2, the animals are created after the first human being.
As I had suggested last week, Genesis chapter 1 does not give a scientific explanation of creation. Rather it was written as a form of poetry meant to inspire those who first heard it to find new meaning and purpose in the midst of the darkness and chaos of the lives they were living in exile in Babylon.
In a similar way, I believe that Genesis chapter 2 is not an historical account of the origins of humanity. Rather it is to be regarded as a sacred wisdom story designed to explore the meaning and purpose of life.
There are so many gems of wisdom hidden within this story, but for our purposes today, I would like to reflect on just three.
The first gem of wisdom comes in the name Adam. But in fact, the names that are used for the human beings in the story are not really names. They are a kind of play on words.
The name Adam as we know it comes from the Hebrew word: adam, which is a word-play with the Hebrew word ‘adamah’ which means ground or earth. The 'adam' is formed from the 'adamah', and so rather than being a proper name, the word ‘adam’ is meant to emphasize something of the nature of humanity. We are all 'adam', we are all earth creatures. In a way, that is a very apt description for our physical dimension. Physically speaking, every atom of our bodies comes from the earth. The well-being of our physical bodies is connected with the well-being of the earth.
And yet, this ancient Jewish wisdom story tells us that there is another dimension to our lives. The ancient Jewish story teller calls it wind, breathe, or spirit, and it comes from God. In verse 7, we read that Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim breathed into the adam. There is an inner spiritual dimension to our lives. Our bodies are made from the ground, but there is another dimension to us, an inner life that comes from God, and connects us with the Divine. As Jesus reminds us in the temptation story of Matthew’s Gospel, man or humanity cannot live on bread alone... There is a dimension to us that is beyond just the physical. To live a full and meaningful requires that we nurture not just the outer physical dimension of our lives, but that we also nurture and pay attention to the inner, invisible part of our lives that more directly connects us with the Divine, with Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim, the Divine Mystery from whom all life proceeds.
Secondly, Desmond Tutu reveals to us another gem of wisdom in this ancient story. Isn’t it interesting he writes, that in this passage that when Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim creates the woman, Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh Elohim does not create her from the man’s toe, so that she should be beneath the man, that she should be subservient to him. Neither does Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim create her from the top of the man’s skull so that she should rule over the man. Rather, significantly, she is formed from the man’s side. Male and female according to this ancient wisdom story are meant to stand as partners, side by side.
The fact that the woman is called ‘the helper’ in this passage is also not an indication of inferiority in this story, because further on in the Old Testament, God, Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim, is also referred to as our ‘helper’. In this passage, she is not the helper in that she stays at home and cooks for the male, rather, she is a suitable companion as one who can work side by side with the man in the task of working the earth and caring for it.
Lastly, when we think of paradise, utopia, most people would think that to live in paradise or utopia would be to live without work. In paradise, no-one will work according to our modern way of thinking. We will all laze around on the beech all day... But that isn’t what this ancient Jewish wisdom story suggests. When God places the adam, the earth creature into this new little paradise called the garden of Eden, the first thing that Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh, Elohim does, is to assign work for the 'adam', the earth creature, to do.
In verse 15, “The Lord God took the adam (earth-creature), and put him in the Garden of Eden, to work it, and to take care of it.”
Our real purpose in life is not to try and free ourselves from the responsibility of work. Work is part of what it means to be human according to this passage. Our real purpose is to find work that is meaningful and life-giving. To work and contribute to God’s creation is part of our dignity as human beings. It is part of what brings meaning and dignity to life.
As part of a psychology experiment to explore the nature of work in the lives of human beings, a psychologist employed a group of otherwise unemployed men to dig holes. They weren’t told what the purpose of the task was. They assumed it was for some larger purpose, and did so with enthusiasm. When they had finished digging the holes, the psychologist told them to now fill up the holes they had just dug, giving them no explanation. Even though they were being paid for the work they were doing, when it became apparent that this work was meaningless, no longer contributing to some larger purpose, the participants very quickly lost a sense of motivation and enthusiasm.
This ancient Jewish wisdom story suggests that there is human dignity in working (not just for money) but making a contribution in life. It suggests that the ideal life is not a life where work is absent, but rather where our energy and time are given in work for the benefit of something larger than ourselves. Work is not just about earning a living, work is meant to be earning a giving. Making a contribution.
The specific work that is assigned to the 'adam', the earth-creature in this passage is significant, especially in light of our current ecological crisis. The ‘adam’ the earth creature, is placed by Yod-Heh-Vah-Heh into the Garden of Eden with the purpose of taking care of it. The instruction in verse 15 is to work it, and take care of it.
The meaning is clear, the over-arching and guiding purpose of all human work, is ultimately meant to be towards the aim of caring for the earth. When we fail to care for the earth, we are falling short of our God-given, Divine purpose in life.
There is a strange notion in the world today that humanity is faced with a choice: either we can care for the earth, or we can care for human beings. But at the root of that notion is a fatal flaw in our logic. For it is to believe that human beings, who are essentially earth creatures, can somehow live without the earth. When you think about it, it is an irrational argument. Our well-being as earth-creatures is dependent on the well-being of the earth.
This little ancient Jewish wisdom story has enormous wisdom to share with our world today for it reminds us that we are earth creatures, who have been made for partnership, to work side-by-side with one-another in our God given vocation of working and caring for the earth. And the good news is that when we do so, we begin to connect ourselves again with our God given dignity, meaning and purpose.