The narrative of Genesis 1 is cosmic in nature; it features stars, days, the separation of the land from the water... Genesis 2 is much more focused on the creation of humanity. Earth is created, and then the adam-human-being. The stories are independent; in the first, the plants are created before the human being, but in Genesis 2, the adam is created first.  

The Chapters
Genesis Chapters 2 and 3 are the one story. The division into chapters happened over a millennium after the story was written down. The division is artificial: In what we call Chapter 2:25 the man and his wife are naked but not ashamed; in Chapter 3:7-10, they are naked and afraid. In 2:23 there is the joy of discovering "at last, bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh,"  but in 3:12 there is rancour; "she has become "the woman you gave me." This is all part of the same story.

Not Genesis 1
Bratcher says of Chapter 1

It is not really a story about creation. It is a story about the Creator… God is portrayed here as coming into the formless, empty, dark chaos and imposing his own order by a spoken word. He divides light and darkness, tames the waters, and establishes dry land. In other words, God establishes a safe place for human existence.

The second story deals much more with the human being. It begins with the creation of the earth almost as an aside!  It takes God's creation of earth as a given. It deals with the wonder of God's creation of the human being, which has somehow soured into the rancour, separation, and alienation in which we now live. The story goes from "at last, bone of my bone…" to blaming, and to the replacement of community and covenant (they become one flesh) by the abuse of power: "…your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Genesis 3:16) What went wrong? Why are we like this?

Notice that the chapter is not primarily about the fact of death. In fact,

… Genesis does not teach that the first human beings were created immortal and that death entered the world only after and as a consequence of their transgression. In Gen. 3:22–23 we read, “Then the LORD God said, ‘See, the ’adam has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and live forever’—therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden.” Here mortality is regarded as part of humanity’s original created nature. Indeed, the story presumes that the man and woman were created mortal; otherwise, the tree of life would be superfluous and God’s panic pointless…

What the man and woman experience on the day of their eating the fruit is not physical death but a kind of living death— an estrangement from God, the garden, and each other that brings with it the painful consciousness of their own mortality and its eventual outcome. Significantly, when God pronounces judgment on the man in 3:17–19, he does not list death as a punishment. The punishment lies rather in the area of work, not work in itself (after all, tending the garden was a kind of work), but the fuss and frustration of having to eke out an existence by tilling a cursed ground. The point of 3:19 (“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return”) is not that the man will die but that he will have to toil away until he dies. … According to Genesis, then, human death was a natural part of God’s created world, not part of the fallout of a fall.  (Harlow)

The Human Being
The human being is dust of the ground, although (Speiser, in his commentary Genesis, says the Hebrew is more accurately clods of earth. (2:7)

There is a pun here. The human being is adam; the earth is adamah.

This should not, however, be mistaken for mere punning. Names were regarded not only as labels but also as symbols, magical keys as it were to the nature and essence of the given being or thing… The closest approach in English [in this verse] might be "earthling: earth." (Speiser pp11)

What this means is that we are indeed "earthlings." We are clay beings.  We are not above the creation, or intrinsically different from it.  In today's terms, we, too, are animals. We are a species which could become extinct.

Our life is from God. God breathed life into us. (2:7) This metaphor reflects the grief filled bemusement with which we observe the body of a newly deceased loved one. This is them, yet it is not. The breath, the spirit, is gone. We are more than dust, even if from dust we come.

The man gives names to all the animals, (2:19) indeed, but he too, is an animal dependent upon God. We live depending on God's provision, and within the boundaries of the creation. We are neither autonomous, nor above the creation, in this story.

We hear at the beginning of the story, that there was no one to till the ground. (2:5) The Hebrew word for "to till" is also the word for "to serve."  Bratcher says

… creation is not complete without humanity. In this account, the man is created first and the world is then created for him; he is at the heart of creation… [But l]ater in this story the man is given a specific commission to care for what God has created for him (2:15). Creation is given to humanity to hold in trust. From the agrarian context of ancient Israel, tilling the ground is used as a metaphor for this trust that God has placed in humanity; it is symbolic of the relationship between human beings and God and of the commission given to humanity.

There is no warrant here for the abuse of the environment; rather, the reverse.

In verse 10, after the man is placed in the garden, there is reference to the four rivers, including the Tigris and the Euphrates,  the key Rivers of Babylon and its Empire. I take it that this is a claim that God's creation flows even into the realms of the great Empires of the day. It implies that the verses which follow verse 10, also flow on to those Empires. The story is a universal claim about humanity.

Von Rad says of verse 15 (The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.) that "work was our sober destiny even in our original state." We are called to a "state of service and have to prove [ourselves] in a realm that was not [our] own possession." (Gerhard von Rad Genesis pp80)  

Genesis has no sense of us losing a work free paradise, which fits with our experience that those without meaningful for work are often unhappy and unhealthy.

Our Calling

3:15-17 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.  16And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’

Brueggemann says

These three verses together provide a remarkable statement of anthropology. Human beings before God are characterized by vocation, permission, and prohibition. The primary human task is to find a way to hold the three facets of divine purpose together. Any two of them without the third is surely to pervert life. It is telling and ironic that in the popular understanding of this story, little attention is given the mandate of vocation or the gift of permission. The divine will for vocation and freedom has been lost. The God of the garden is chiefly remembered as the one who prohibits. But the prohibition makes sense only in terms of the other two. The balance and juxtaposition of the three indicates that there is a subtle discernment of human destiny here. (Brueggemann Genesis Chapter 2, eBook edition)


Maybe the fact that we tend to focus on the one prohibition, the one forbidden tree, reveals something important about us. We too frequently see God as One who prohibits. But He is also the God who permits. Why do we not ask about all the other trees that are permitted? Why does the prohibition bother us so? This preoccupation with the forbidden moves to the heart of the story!

Brueggemann sharpens these questions as he reflects on vocation, freedom, and permission:

a. There is a vocation (v. 15). The human creature is to care for and tend the garden. The word pair, “till and keep,” may suggest a gardener or a shepherd. In either case, work belongs to the garden. Work is good, surely, to enhance the garden. From the beginning of human destiny, God is prepared to entrust the garden to this special creature. From the beginning, the human creature is called, given a vocation, and expected to share in God’s work.

b. There is a permit (v. 16). Everything is permitted (cf. I Cor. 6:12; 10:23). In the context of both Pauline references, the concern, as here, is food. Interestingly, in I Cor. 10:26, there is a quotation from Ps. 24:1 celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. Reference may be made to 1:1—2:4a, in which thanksgiving for food is seen as an acknowledgement of creation. The permit of creation is for elemental sustenance.

c. There is a prohibition (v. 17). Nothing is explained. The story has no interest in the character of the tree. What counts is the fact of the prohibition, the authority of the one who speaks and the unqualified expectation of obedience.

The story captures something essential about us: We bridle against prohibition. We want to do our own thing. Yet if there is to be compassion, community, justice— the essence of Jesus' teaching about becoming human, there must be boundaries and restraint.  

There is plenty on this earth to suit our needs
but there will never ever be enough to satisfy our greed.            
Weigh this heavy on me now until I can hardly breathe:
Love through me.

I've never gone a day without a meal because I couldn't afford it,            
stood on a corner and begged for pennies, holding out a sign.
Call me blessed, but it sure does feel pathetic,
children ‘round the world are hungry now

So would I give up:
Pillows and cable, clothing and candy
If a boy could rest his tired bones?
Would I lay down:
Making all this money, just to have my milk and honey,
if my fellow man could get the chance to watch his children grow?

Jenny and Tyler Somers, from the album "This isn’t a Dream"

Will we trust God for these restraints? Who or what will set our boundaries? Von Rad says, "God's prohibition placed before man (sic) decision and the serious question of obedience…" (Genesis pp80) As a species, our future as a species may depend on this obedience. Will we live within the dictates— I use the word deliberately— the dictates of our being formed from the earth, and therefore dependent upon it, or will we live as though we are autonomous, and abuse the earth?

Genesis 2 knows nothing of our ability to change the very climate upon which we depend. But it does speak to our apparent inability to accept boundaries. We know that the way we live is destroying the environment we need to survive. Yet we seem powerless before our own systems to change, and to live in ways that serve the creation.

Living outside the dictates of God has consequences described by Jeremiah. Speaking of Genesis 1:2 Bratcher says

It is significant that the same two Hebrew words translated "formless and void" occur again in the Old Testament in a different context. These are the exact words in Hebrew that the prophet Jeremiah uses when he wants to warn the nation of Israel of their sin (4:22-27a).

For my people are foolish, they know me not; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but how to do good they know not." I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. I looked, and lo, there was no man, and all the birds of the air had fled. I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger. For thus says the LORD, "The whole land shall be a desolation. . . ."

Jeremiah used the same creation language [as Genesis 1], but in a negative sense with a spiritual application, although a spiritual application that will have very real effects in the life of the nation. He is telling the people that if they do not repent and turn to God, they are unleashing a chaos into the world that will bring destruction, and will, in effect, reverse the creative activity of God. The imagery here is the same imagery used in Genesis 1, although the application is dis-creation.

The Second Creation (Genesis 2:18-24)
It is not good for adam to be alone. The animals are made of the same stuff as us; they are made out of the ground. But there is a difference. It is not until the woman is created that adam can say

Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
This one shall be called Woman (ishshah)
For out of man (ish) this one was taken.

As we noted above, this kind of word play speaks about the nature and essence of the two parties to the pun:  The woman is of the same essence as the man. She is not one of the other animals. There is no claim for the subordination of women here. We can tell this from the fact that domination comes later, as punishment. It is not part of the original blessing, but a consequence of disobedience. In the initial relationship between the two; the man recognises her as "flesh of my flesh." It is a relationship of joy, not subordination.

Trible points out that the creation of woman is a second full creation story which is necessary to the completion of creation (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978, Chap. 4). Woman is the crowning event in the narrative and the fulfillment of humanity (Brueggemann Genesis )


The phrase needing explication is "helper fit for him." In the Old Testament the word helper ('ezer) has many usages. It can be a proper name for a male.(7) In our story it describes the animals and the woman. In some passages it characterizes Deity. God is the helper of Israel. As helper Yahweh creates and saves.(8) Thus 'ezer is a relational term; it designates a beneficial relationship; and it pertains to God, people, and animals. By itself the word does not specify positions within relationships; more particularly, it does not imply inferiority. Position results from additional content or from context. Accordingly, what kind of relationship does 'ezer entail in Genesis 2:18, 20? Our answer comes in two ways: 1) The word neged, which joins 'ezer, connotes equality: a helper who is a counterpart.(9) 2) The animals are helpers, but they fail to fit 'adham. There is physical, perhaps psychic, rapport between 'adham and the animals, for Yahweh forms (yaar) them both out of the ground ('adhamah). Yet their similarity is not equality. 'Adham names them and thereby exercises power over them. No fit helper is among them. And thus the narrative moves to woman. My translation is this: God is the helper superior to man; the animals are helpers inferior to man; woman is the helper equal to man. (Trible)

We might also note that he recognises the wo-man when she is created, but that after the punishment he names her. The relationship has changed. (2:23, 3:20)

What is the story about?
Traditionally this story is read as "What went wrong?" While this may have been much of its original intention, I wonder if it might be better titled: "The Cost of Becoming Human."

What went wrong?
According to von Rad, we come to the point of the whole story in verse 24.

24Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (NRSV)

The story… was told to answer a quite definite question … the extremely powerful drive of the sexes to each other. Whence comes this love "strong as death" (S. of Sol. 8.6) clinging to each other…? It comes from the fact… that they actually were originally one flesh. (von Rad Genesis pp 84-5)

But it is not just the question of this attraction which is addressed. The story also addresses the perversion of domination of each other, particularly of women by men. (3:16)  It addresses the fleeting nature of our oneness; the desperation of our clinging; the shame which often follows so soon after, or which keeps us apart to begin with. Surely all this should not be happening in a world made for us, and where we are, as it were, made for each other! The story also addresses our alienation from God; we are locked out of the garden, and the man blames God for what goes wrong!

The author is clear on one thing: it is our fault. It is not God's fault; when the man tries to blame God—  the woman you gave me…  he is not passing the buck to the woman. He is blaming of God: If you hadn't given me this woman, then…

The role of the snake is downplayed. It's just a stooge, a player you need to have the story; someone has to ask the question of the woman. But the man and woman make their decisions in its absence. It is clever, but it has no real power.  The woman corrected its opening statement.

The message is clear. They knew what they were doing. They chose. They did it all themselves. In other words, the story says of all the discord we experience: it's caused by our disobedience and our lack of trust in God.

We should note that both of them knew what they were doing: and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. He made no protest. He remained silent.

Von Rad says that choice makes us like God.

Man (sic) has stepped outside the state of dependence, he has refused obedience and willed to make himself independent. The guiding principal of his life is no longer obedience but his autonomous knowing and willing, and thus he has really ceased to understand himself as creature." (pp97)

He says about the knowledge of good and evil,

… the Hebrew yd' ("to know") never signifies purely intellectual knowing, but in a much wider sense an "experiencing" a "becoming acquainted with," even an "ability." … so the serpent holds out less the prospect of an extension of the capacity for knowledge than the Independence that enables a man (sic) to decide for himself what will help him or hinder him. (pp 89)

What the serpent's insinuation [in its conversation with the woman] means is the possibility of an extension of human existence beyond the limits set for it by God at creation, an increase of life not only in the sense of pure intellectual enrichment but  also of familiarity with, and power over, mysteries that lie beyond man." (Ibid)

Our separation from God lies in our hubris. (pp91) We have an overwhelming pride that believes it knows better than God.

There is much truth in this. We are disobedient to what we know as better ways of living.  We are proud and self-centred. We do hate the discipline of community, and we do wish to do things our own way. We do forget that we are earthling creatures neither independent of, nor above, the rest of creation.

But is this because we have somehow overstepped the boundaries set for us? Are we really beings who were made in a state of goodness and obedience which we have abandoned, which is what von Rad's reading implies?

Our understanding of our biology suggests we ought to listen to the story under a different heading.

… a range of evidence establishes that virtually all of the acts considered “sinful” in humans are part of the natural repertoire of behavior among animals—especially primates, but also birds, insects, and other species—behaviors including deception, bullying, theft, rape, murder, infanticide, and warfare, to name but a few. The shared patterns of behavior, both “selfish” and “altruistic,” are homologous and owe at least in part to the common genetic heritage of all creatures, stretching back to the very beginning of life. Though not completely determined by genes, animal and human behaviors are strongly influenced by them. The source of the human inclination toward selfaggrandizement, then, is to be found in animal nature itself. Far from infecting the rest of the animal creation with selfish behaviors, we  humans inherited these tendencies from our animal past…  it [is] hard to imagine that the earliest human beings appeared on the scene in anything like paradisal physical or moral conditions. They would instead have had to struggle to sustain themselves, and to do so, they would have possessed strong tendencies toward the same types of behavior common to all animals. Only over time would they have developed a sufficient spiritual awareness to sense that many selfish behaviors are contrary to God’s will, and the moral imperative to transcend those behaviors. (Daniel Harlow)

Rather than "What Went Wrong?" should we title the story, "The Cost of Becoming Human?"

The Cost of Becoming Human?
This is not an approach without precedent in church history. Irenaeus was born around 130CE.

Irenaeus is of the view that Adam and Eve were children in the garden, not adults. They weren't made fully fledged perfect human beings in a static sense. Creatures only learn things over time and so in the Garden they were effectively small children (and maybe even physically so). Hence their disobedience was not calculating adult rebellion. It was the weakness and ineptitude of the young. It was tragic, but just a little bit less culpable.

There is more.

What do we make of God's decision to withhold the tree of life from Adam and Eve after their disobedience? The Western tradition generally sees this as judgement--Adam and Eve have the possibility of eternal life taken away. Irenaeus sees this act as an act of mercy. If they ate of that fruit they would live eternally in their current state. And what could be worse than eternal life under the tyranny of Satan rather than under the rule of the One who is Life and Blessing? So this, in Irenaeus, is mercy, not judgement. [von Rad alludes to this also, pp97]

Similarly, Irenaeus makes much of the fact that the curse falls on the ground rather than on Adam directly. He sees this as further evidence that when God deals with Adam and Eve in their primordial sin, the traits of patience, mercy and forgiveness are in the foreground. He sees Adam and Eve hiding and making fig leaf clothes as signs of repentance, not just shame. And argues that this repentance moderates God’s judgement on Adam, in contrast to unrepentant Cain (and we should note in passing that even there judgement is mitigated). He is also unequivocal that Adam is included within Christ’s salvation. (Mark Baddely)

Going back to Daniel Harlow's article we see that today some theologians propose

… that original sin is a biologically inherited state, a byproduct of billions of years of evolution. Intrinsic to the process of evolution is the inclination toward self-preservation at the expense of other creatures. Yet selfish behavior did not become sin (culpable wrongdoing) in human beings until the evolution of their self-consciousness (and God-consciousness) allowed our remote ancestors to override their innate tendency to self-assertion by the exercise of their free will. The same is true of us today, as, at a certain age, we reach moral awareness. So understood, original sin is not the result of a single fall but of repeated falls in the life of every human being and of their cumulative, systemic effects in society and culture. And humanity’s constant falling away is not a descent from some primordial state of integrity but a failure to live up to a divinely posed ideal.

The cost of becoming human is to learn and experience alienation and limitation, and to know of our coming death. It is to know better than we can be; that is, to fall far, and constantly, short of what we know would make us more human.

The cost is unavoidable. In the Hebrew there is another pun.

Adam and the woman were naked (arûmmîm) and not ashamed. (2:25) Then the serpent is introduced as the sliest (arûm) of creatures. (Gen 3:1) … this pun suggests the serpent will undo eros. (Bellis, Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes, Second Edition: Women's Stories in the Hebrew Bible, quoting Phyllis Trible pp40)

Intrinsic to becoming human is a loss of innocence which enters even our bliss; eros is indeed undone. But to remain innocent would be to refuse the gift of becoming human. (For a different reading of the pun, see here.)

I am indeed created from the ground. I name the animals, yet am of the same substance. I am given immense freedom; I can plan, dream, long for better. I can live in moments of oneness with my partner.

I know vocation. I have the blessing of finding work which enriches me, and the community in which I live.

I know good and evil;  I know the prohibition of which Brueggemann wrote (above). And as von Rad says, I decide for myself what will help or hinder me. This is beyond "pure intellectual enrichment" and brings me into the presence of "mysteries that lie beyond [humankind.]" Often with hubris, as von Rad said, but also with a growing humility and wonder. And as a calling to come closer to God, to be more conformed to God's image.

But the cost is always there. I know fear and shame beyond the surge of panic which comes when an animal is attacked by a predator; this human fear preys on me for decades; shame subverts my best desires as I often live out of woundedness instead of freedom. And eventually, if we are to survive, I must live within the boundaries placed upon me by the God who has created this earth.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!






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