Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Understanding Genesis 2:5

One of the brothers at CADRE Comments is proposing a harmonization of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 by suggesting that the word eretz in Genesis 2:5 refers not to the cosmological "earth" but to the more limited patch of "land" that became the Garden of Eden. This has the effect, he believes, of reconciling the differing orders of creation in Genesis 1 (earth, plants, humans) and Genesis 2 (earth, humans, plants):

Thus, since the term "erets" can mean either the entire planet or a particular area, then the definition of the word in a particular verse must be based on its context.

...In fact, Genesis 2 begins with God planting a garden in a place called Eden, whose location is described in the text that follows.

...Thus, it is apparent from the context that when Genesis speaks in Genesis 2 of the fact that "no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground" in Genesis 2:5, it is referring to a localized area -- not the whole world. The localized area being referenced is the "land" where God was about to plant the Garden of Eden.

But this won't do. The word eretz does indeed indicate areas smaller than the cosmological earth, but almost without exception the reference is to large geographical or political areas. In fact the only example I can find of eretz applied to a small plot of land is in Gen. 23:15: "A piece of land (eretz) worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between me and thee?" (The other main usage of eretz is to indicate the physical soil itself.)

Therefore one would not ordinarily expect eretz to be used without qualification of a future garden site. Furthermore, as the writer notes, context is important in determining the range of reference; but he errs by saying that "Genesis 2 begins with God planting a garden." In fact, the section begins in Genesis 2:4b: "in the day that the Lord God made earth (eretz) and heaven." In such a collocation, only the cosmological earth could be in view. The sense of the eretz of 2:5 is thus established by the usage of eretz in 2:4, just as the sense of the same word in 1:2 is established by its meaning in 1:1.

The argument therefore fails. But what really troubles me is that such arguments still find a place in the apologetic enterprise. Apologetics is a worthy and important activity, but I regret that many of my co-religionists find it necessary to read and defend Genesis as straight, error-free, unedited reportage; and lurking in the background of this flat reading of the text is a "creationist"* (actually Young-Earth) account of cosmology. Fellas, that dog just won't hunt.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that a good design argument could be (and has been) deployed by apologists without reliance on a biblical exegesis that ignores the sciences of both geology and philology.

*The word "creationism" is now well established to refer to "Young Earth" theories, which strike me as a form of pseudo-science. Nevertheless, all Christians are necessarily "creationists" in some sense, if we take seriously the Nicene Creed ("creator of heaven and earth").


Jan Wim said...

In general, I would be cautious with rejecting harmonization attempts too easily (I do not speak about the underlying agenda). In my new book (a preprint is on my (as yet unfinished) website www.jwwesselius.nl) I point out that each and every one of the eight great biographies in Genesis – 2 Samuel, namely mankind, Abram, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Saul and David, starts with a thoroughly ambiguous introduction with two alternatives, which can either be harmonized or be declared contradictory, and which start two distinct narrative threads which run on throughout most of these lives. My assumption there is that this literary strategy serves to indicate God’s inscrutable choice of certain people and rejection of others, sometimes of the same: we know that it happened, but cannot fathom exactly how and why it happened. I think that harmonization of such passages is in itself a legitimate and invited reading strategy, albeit only one of several. Jan-Wim Wesselius, Theological University of Kampen

Tyler F. Williams said...

I think that a far more vaild apologetic would be to read the texts carefully in the light of their ancient Near Eastern background and recognize that what we have here are two alternative accounts of creation that are far more concerned with debunking polytheistic views of than providing a unified view of creation (that was a mouthful). Your alternatives between harmonization and contradition are not very useful IMHO. I think there is a third way.

EMC said...

Many thanks to both of you for your comments. Jan Wim, I look forward to your book. Tyler, I think I might agree with you on the thrust of the 2 creation stories. But the alternative accounts either contradict each other (if taken as literal accounts) or they don't. If they are not literal accounts, then their various incompatiblities are less important. The dilemma between harmonization and contradiction is the CADRE blogger's dilemma, not mine (or apparently yours).