Reading Genesis 2 “Literally”: The Adventures of Mud-Man and His `Ezer Kenegdo, Ish-shah
As a follow-up to “Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally,'” I thought I would write my thoughts on Genesis 2, the second creation account. Scholarship (almost unequivocally) agrees that Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Genesis 2:4b-25 are written by separate authors in completely different times. Generally, Gen. 1:1-2:4a is ascribed to the Priestly author, and Gen. 2:4b-25 is ascribed to the J writer. Regardless, nearly everyone believes that they were written by two different authors.
Genesis 2 is a playful account. The author is a punster, but unfortunately these puns don’t get translated into the English. I’ve tried to use some similar playful wording to help us appreciate the “punniness” of the account. I wish I could draw comic-book style, but, alas, I don’t have that skill. So, I’m doing some more iPad art, and I’m really bad at humans, so be gentle art critics.
The second creation account begins, as did the first, with a pre-creation situation: a dry, barren earth; no rain, just mist; with some sort of subterranean water that flooded the ground (2:4b-6).
The LORD God had not yet sent rain because there was no one to “till” the earth (v. 5). “Till” is an unfortunate translation because Eden will be a fruit tree garden, not a field. The better translation for abad is “to serve.” God wanted a caretaker, not a farmer.
So God took some dust of the earth and formed Mud-Man (Gen. 2:7a).
This is one of those wonderful Hebrew puns. “The LORD God formed ‘adam from the dust of the ‘adamah.” When the words are transliterated rather than translated you can see the pun. Thus, I’m calling the creature Mud-Man to recreate the pun in English (“Dust-Dude” would be a little closer, but I like the sound of Mud-Man better).
The word “form” yatsar comes from the world of pottery (Isa. 29:16; 41:25; Jer. 18:4, 6; 1 Chron. 4:23; Lam. 4:2), though occasionally it is used for carving (Isa. 44:9; 44:10, 12; Hab. 2:18). In this story, God is a potter, molding a human figure out of dirt. The pottery figure is animated by God’s breath: “And [the LORD God] breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the ‘adam became a living being” (2:7b).
God then plants a garden in Eden and puts Mud-Man there (2:8). Out of the same ground from which Mud-Man was created, God caused all sorts of trees to grow—trees pleasing to the eye and good for food. Two trees are singled out but not explained: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). We’ll skip vv. 10-14 for now, because these verses deserve a post of their own. We’re told in vv. 15-17 that God commanded Mud-Man that, while he could eat from any of the trees of the garden, he could not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. “For in the day you eat from it dying you will die.” I just love that Hebrew idiom, “dying you will die.” You won’t just die, you’ll be certifiably dead. Why? We’re not told. But Mud-Man is given limits.
Then God notices something “not good” (2:18a). This contrasts with the first creation account where everything was good. And what is not good? Mud-Man is alone. It’s important to remember this. What God is about to do is create something that will remedy Mud-Man’s aloneness. God does not create a being to help with the work of the garden or else the animals would have been sufficient.
So God says, “I will make for him an `ezer kenegdo.” When we read the text in English, our translations usually render the Hebrew phrase,`ezer kenegdo, as “helper suitable.” In virtually every English translation the word “help” or “helper” is used. This is unfortunate, because in English, the word “helper” has connotations that the Hebrew word lacks. In English a “helper” is a subordinate—someone who is inferior to the one being helped. That is not what the word `ezer means.
An `ezer in the OT is one who has strength that the other lacks. In a few cases, an `ezer is an army that is supposed to come to the aid of another army (Isa. 30:4-5; Ezra 12:14; cf. Dan. 11:34 but read the entire chapter for context). But in the vast majority of uses, `ezer refers to God (Exod. 18:4; Deut. 33:7, 26; Pss. 33:20; 70:5; 115:9-11; Ps. 146:5); and no one suggests that God is subordinate to those God helps.
Like God, Mud-Man’s `ezer will have the strength he lacks on his own. Unlike God, Mud-Man’s `ezer is also kenegdo, which means “similar to and opposite him.” The `ezer kenegdo will not be superior or inferior but the mirror image of Mud-Man: a companion; a partner; the one who will alleviate Mud-Man’s aloneness.
God next creates the animals in exactly the same fashion as Mud-Man: they are formed out of the dust of the earth (2:19a). This leads us to expect that the `ezer kenegdo will be one of the animals; after all, they are created out of the same stuff as Mud-Man—they are like him. God brings them to Mud-Man to see what he would call them (2:19b). Although many interpreters assume that, by naming the animals, Mud-Man asserts authority over them, I question that interpretation. I simply don’t see it borne out elsewhere. For example, when Rachel and Leah have their baby wars in Genesis 29-30, they name their children, not as an act of authority but as a representation of their battle with one another. In Gen. 16:13, Hagar names God El-Roi, and no one argues that she asserts authority over God by doing so. Mud-Man’s naming of the animals is an act of identification—he identifies them all, and in so doing, it is discovered that none are the `ezer kenegdo (2:20).
So, the LORD-God put Mud-Man into a deep sleep and performed a bit of surgery (2:21). Taking one of the man’s ribs, God built a woman. Yes, the Hebrew word means “built.” Here, God is portrayed as architect, building a woman out of the man’s structural body parts: a rib (2:22). Hmm. A woman is birthed from a man’s side. How unusual and definitely not scientific. At least Mud-Man got divine demerol.
When Mud-Man saw the woman he busted out in poetry:
And flesh from my flesh!
This shall be called Ish-shah
Because from Ish this one was taken!”
More puns! Just as ‘adam was formed from the dust of the ‘adamah, so was Ish-shah formed from Ish! Ish-shah, to be clear, isn’t her name. It’s simply the feminine form of Ish. She’s a she-Ish; a Wo-man. By identifying her so, Mud-Man recognizes that she’s the `ezer kenegdo.
The narrator explains the meaning of what just took place. “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and sticks to his woman, and they become one flesh” (2:24). By creating male and female, God created sexuality. Strikingly, in this text, sexuality is not for the purpose of procreation. Rather, its purpose is to recreate the original oneness of the human beings. In the act of intercourse, they become one flesh. God’s desire to remedy Mud-Man’s aloneness is accomplished. This is an incredibly sophisticated view of sexuality!
Although 2:25 is usually viewed as the end of the narrative, it really is not. Genesis 2 and 3 are inextricably linked, but unfortunately chapter divisions in modern Bibles obscure this. The narrator says, “And the man and his woman were both naked (`arummim) but were not ashamed.” And 3:1a says, “And the serpent was the most crafty (`arum) of all the living beings of the field that the LORD God made.” Notice that there’s yet another pun. In each case when the writer has used puns, he has done so to connect one thing to another. In this case, the couple’s nakedness is connected with the serpent’s craftiness. With astute foreshadowing, the narrator lets us know that the unashamed nakedness of the couple will soon be destroyed by the serpent’s craftiness. But that is a story for another post.
For further reading: Phyllis Trible: God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Overtures to Biblical Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978).