Commentary on Genesis 2:4-25

Last updated: April 18, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.

5When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, 6and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— 7then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. 8And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. 16And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely 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 surely die.”

18Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” 19Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. 21So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Notes

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens

Some scholars divide this verse in two. They believe that “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created” goes with 1:1-2:3 and that “In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens” goes with 2:5-25. For the following reasons, I am of the opinion that verse 4 should not be divided and that it goes with 2:5-25:

  1. The Masoretic Text (MT) has an end-of-paragraph mark after 2:3, suggesting 2:4 is the start of a new pericope1.

  2. The toledot formula serves to introduce new material in all of its other appearances in Genesis2 and therefore likely introduces a new story in 2:4.

  3. The “toledot formula is always followed by the genitive of the progenitor, never of the progeny. Thus the phrase the generations of the heavens and the earth describes not the process by which the heavens and the earth are generated, but rather that which is generated by the heavens and the earth. Quite obviously this would be a most inaccurate description of the process of creation as delineated in 1:1-2:3”3.

  4. Another indication that 2:4-25 is an expansion on chap. 1 is the similarity of 2:4 with Gen 5:1 and Num 3:1 in syntax and narrative function: the heading ‘this is the account of’ (toledot) is followed by a temporal clause ‘when’ (beyom). In Gen 5:1 and Num 3:1 the content of the ‘when’ clause refers to former prominent information, so as to bring it to the attention of the reader for understanding the conditions under which the following toledot sections occurs”4.

  5. The key Hebrew terms of 1:1 (“created”, “God”, “the heavens and the earth”) are repeated in reverse order in 2:1-3 thus forming an inclusio without 2:4a5.

  6. Genesis 2:4 contains a chiasmus with three corresponding elements, suggesting that the verse should not be split into two parts. The chiasmus can be seen as follows: “These are the generations (A) of the heavens (B) and the earth (C) when they were created, (C’) in the day that the LORD God made (B’) the earth (A’) and the heavens.”

But verse 4 does serve as a hinge between the two passages. The words “the heavens and the earth”, “created”, and “God” point back to 1:1-2:3 while the double divine name, LORD God, points to 2:5-3:24. The existence of this hinge means we should read 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25 as complementary accounts.

Starting in this verse and continuing on through chapter 3 (20 occurrences total), the deity is called yhwh elohim (“LORD God”). Yahweh is the personal name of the deity. The double divine name appears only once more in the Torah (Exodus 9:30) and about twenty times elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (mostly in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles)6. Why does this designation occur in 2:4-3:24? Why is only elohim used in 3:1-5 where the serpent and the woman talk? Victor P. Hamilton opines7:

In Gen. 1 the emphasis is on creation via the majestic God who speaks and it is done. The more generic name for God – elohim – fits this emphasis admirably. By contrast, the emphasis in 2:4ff. is more personal. The context here is not a universe but a garden. Also, the picture of man here is not of one with authority but of one under authority, a vassal in a covenant relationship. To be sure, Yahweh would be the proper designation for the deity at this point. The author proceeded, however, to append elohim to Yahweh to conjoin the concept of a God whose sovereign control extends to both the material and the moral world. At the same time, and this time only in this unit, the author abstained from using God’s name “Yahweh” in 3:1b-5. It would be anomalous to have the serpent quote Yahweh qua Yahweh, since it is cast in the role of divine antagonist. Instead he quotes elohim. The Bible’s first conversation about God is about elohim, not Yahweh.

Kenneth A. Matthews has a complementary view8:

Yahweh, the Lord of his people, is in fact the all-wise and powerful Elohim-Creator. Hence, the antecedents of Israel’s precious communion with its Creator and Covenant Lord had its inception in the garden when man first knew that fellowship. The personal presence of Yahweh-Elohim among his people Israel was not an anomaly but the pattern God inaugurated from the beginning. Conversely, the absence of the name Yahweh in the conversation between the serpent and the woman (3:1-5), where treachery is contemplated, shows that the relationship with God as Covenant Lord is under assault.

J. L’Hour thinks the serpent and the woman avoid using the name Yahweh because the “god they are talking about is malevolent, secretive, and concerned to restrict man: his character is so different from that of Yahweh Elohim that the narrative pointedly avoids the name in the dialogue of 3:1-5”9. Other biblical passages that use the name “the LORD God” express the conviction that Yahweh is both Israel’s covenant partner and God of all creation10.

5 When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground

“The word for ‘not yet,’ Hebrew terem, occurs twice in this verse, followed by the explanation that God has not ‘rained,’ Hebrew himtir, on the earth. This kind of pun, based on rearrangement of root letters (metathesis), occurs frequently”11.

The Hebrew word erets is often translated as “earth” but is translated as “land” here in the ESV. This translation is preferable. The human is created in some unnamed land and then moved to the garden of Eden (2:8). Later, he is banished back to the land from which he was taken in order to till it (3:23). We are not to believe he tilled the entire earth but only a region of land.

In the Levant it does not rain in the summer which means the land is barren at the end of the summer unless man waters the ground by irrigation. This verse says there were no plants in the land because God had not caused it to rain and because no man was working the ground. It does not say that plants were not yet created12 and therefore does not contradict 1:11-12. This passage has in view plants that grow through human cultivation13.

6 and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground

The Hebrew says that an ed was going up from the land. There is a question as to the appropriate translation of the Hebrew. Does it refer to a mist, a river, a flood, a cloud, or something else? Both the Septuagint (LXX) and the Vulgate interpret it as “spring” (but the LXX interprets the term to mean “cloud” in Job 36:27). The most likely meaning is that underground streams are coming up and covering the surface of the ground14.

7 then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature

There is a pun in this verse where “man” (adam) is created from the “ground” (adama). Elsewhere in the Bible, the notion of being raised from the dust means to be elevated to royal office, to rise above poverty, or to find life15. In this passage man is raised from the dust to control the garden. This affirms chapter 1’s view of man as the ruler of creation. God makes the man come alive by breathing into his nostrils. Animals are also described as living creatures with the breath of life (7:22). Man is different from the animals in that he is made in the image of God (1:26-28).

8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed

God planted a garden in Eden, meaning Eden is a geographical area of which the garden is a part. It is located east of Israel, the location of the author. The text does not claim the garden of Eden is a blissful paradise where there is no work or concerns. Man is placed there to till it and keep it (2:15).

9 And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The tree of life confers continued life but not necessarily instant immortality. We need not assume that the first couple never ate from it16. The first couple was not created immortal but that immortality was within their grasp.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, mentioned only in chapters 2-3, confers the knowledge of good and evil (3:22). What is the knowledge of good and evil? Why is it forbidden?

Victor P. Hamilton writes17:

What is forbidden to man is the power to decide for himself what is in his best interests and what is not. This is a decision God has not delegated to the earthling. This interpretation also has the benefit of according well with 3:22, “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” Man has indeed become a god whenever he makes his own will the center, the springboard, and the only frame of reference for moral guidelines. When man attempts to act autonomously he is indeed attempting to be godlike. It is quite apparent why man may have access to all the trees in the garden except this one.

Kenneth A. Matthews believes the tree bestowed divine wisdom18:

It has long been recognized that features of the garden story bear strong resemblance to wisdom literature and themes. The Wisdom tradition declares that wisdom is possessed by God (Prov 2:6; 8:22) and is humanity’s proper goal of attainment (Prov 3:13; 8:10-11). Proverbs indicates, however, that it must be achieved through the “fear of the LORD” and not through grasping it independently. Moreover, there is knowledge that God possesses that man should not seek apart from revelation (Job 15:7-9; 28:12-28; 40:1-5; Prov 30:1-4); to obtain this knowledge is to act with moral autonomy. By obtaining it through disobedience, the first couple expressed their independence of God and obtained wisdom possessed by God (3:5, 22) through moral autonomy. This autonomous action meant death because this wisdom was obtained unlawfully; transgression against the law of God carried the penalty of death.

Gordon J. Wenham also believes the tree bestowed wisdom and he explains why it was forbidden19:

It is easy to see that God has wisdom and that children lack it, but more difficult to see why it was forbidden to man. The acquisition of wisdom is seen as one of the highest goals of the godly according to the Book of Proverbs. But the wisdom literature also makes it plain that there is a wisdom that is God’s sole preserve, which man should not aspire to attain (e.g., Job 15:7-9, 40; Prov 30:1-4), since a full understanding of God, the universe, and man’s place in it is ultimately beyond human comprehension. To pursue it without reference to revelation is to assert human autonomy, and to neglect the fear of the LORD which is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7). “For the Yahwist the only proper posture of man if he would be truly wise and lead a full life is faith in God and not a professed self-sufficiency of knowledge. It is in this latter acceptation, then, that man is forbidden ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and bad’”. This interpretation appears to be confirmed by Ezek 28, the closest parallel to Gen 2-3, which in highly mythological language describes how the king of Tyre was expelled from Eden for overweening pride and claiming himself to be “wise as a god” (28:6, 15-17).

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers

It is unclear whether the source of this river is mentioned in verse 6.

11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold.

The Hebrew word for “Pishon” contains the same root letters as the word that describes the human becoming a living being. This river “may be the Karun in Elam or less likely the Kerkha, both of which once flowed through separate mouths into the head of the Persian Gulf”20 The Havilah (the definite article is present in the Hebrew) is probably a location in Arabia21.

12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there

Bdellium is probably a precious stone or an aromatic resin (Numbers 11:7). It is uncertain what onyx stone is, but it was used to decorate the tabernacle and the temple22 and in the priestly vestments23.

13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush.

The name “Gihon” is a pun on the word for “belly” (gehon) in 3:14. In the Hebrew Bible, Cush usually refers to the Upper Nile, but here the word kus may refer to the Kassites located east of the Tigris24.

14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

The letters in “Tigris” appear at the end of this story in 3:22 while the letters in “Euphrates” appear in the words of the snake’s curse in 3:1425. The reference to Assyria must be to the city of Ashur and not the Assyrian empire since the empire’s territory extended on both sides of the Tigris. The city of Ashur lost its importance around 1400 B.C.E. which may mean this tradition goes back to a time before Nineveh became the capital of the Assyrian empire. However, even after 1400, Ashur was the most important religious city of the region26.

15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it

The Hebrew word translated “work” (abad) is the normal verb meaning “to serve”. The Hebrew word for “keep” (samar) means “to exercise great care over”. The garden is something to be protected, not possessed. The same root is used in 3:24 where the cherubs are to prevent access to the tree of life27. This verse makes it clear that labor is not a consequence of sin. Rather sin spoiled the relationship between man and his environment (3:17-19, 23).

16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but 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 surely die.”

This is a covenant between God and the man. If the man fails to keep the covenant he will die, but if he keeps the covenant it is implied that his relationship with God will continue and he will have access to the tree of life. Some object to calling this a covenant because the word “covenant” does not appear and because there are no ceremonies ratifying the covenant. Neither argument is persuasive because a covenant can be described without using the term “covenant” (e.g., 2 Samuel 7) and not all covenants are sealed with a ceremony (e.g., Numbers 25:12-13). Both Hosea 6:7 and Sirach 14:17 recognize this as a covenant. The prohibition is in second masculine singular, meaning the “you” in question is the man. In 3:3 Eve appropriates this and uses the plural, meaning she has accepted the man as her representative in receiving the covenant28. The fact that Adam passed the covenant terms on to the woman implies that he accepted the covenant.

The last part of verse 17 (“in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”) has caused some confusion among English readers because Adam and Eve do not die within 24 hours of eating the forbidden fruit. We must realize that the phrase “in the day” can be used as an idiom meaning “when”29. In 1 Kings 2:37, 42 Shimei is threatened with death “on the day” he crosses the Kidron but the subsequent verses show he could not possibly have been executed “on the day” he exited his house. The phrase points to the certainty of death, not its chronology. In Exodus 10:28, Pharaoh threatens Moses by saying “in the day” he sees his face he will die, meaning Moses should not visit Pharaoh again. The Qal form of the verb “to die” indicates that the man faces divine punishment if he eats the forbidden fruit30. John H. Walton paraphrases the phrase as follows: “When you eat of it, you will be sentenced to death and therefore doomed to die”31.

The significance of this has some impact on theology. The theological logic that has been applied to this text in the past is that since Adam and Eve did not drop over dead on the first bite of the forbidden fruit or die shortly thereafter (“that day”), the warning from God must have referred to spiritual death. This is an excellent example of how exegetical shortsightedness can result in unwarranted theological conclusions. There is no reason to dispute the concept of spiritual death or to question that Adam and Eve’s sin eventuated in that condition. It is a mistake, however, to deduce that the warning of 2:17 had spiritual death in mind because physical death did not occur right away. In actual fact, the language of the threatened penalty did not imply that physical death would immediately ensue. This penalty was enacted when they were driven out of the garden and prevented access to the tree of life. Without such access, they were doomed to die.32

18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

This is the first time something is “not good” in Genesis. This alerts the reader to the importance of man having a helper. The Hebrew phrase translated “fit for him” (kenegdo) means that the helper will correspond to the man as an equal. The term “helper” does not denote a subordinate for God is called Israel’s helper33. The woman is a helper in that she will help the man fulfill his purpose (1:28).

19 Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.

By naming the animals man fulfills God’s directive in 1:26, 28 to exercise authority over the animals, for conferring a name is to speak from a position of authority or sovereignty.

Many commentators have maintained that in this verse one finds a classic illustration of a major conflict between the sequence of creation in 1:1-2:4a and that in 2:4bff. In one (1:24-25) animals precede man. In the other (2:19) animals come after man. It is possible to translate formed as “had formed” (so NIV). One can, however, retain the traditional translation and still avoid a contradiction. This verse does not imply that this was God’s first creation of animals. Rather, it refers to the creation of a special group of animals brought before Adam for naming.34

20 The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

This verse distinguishes the woman from the animals. She is a suitable helper while the animals were not suitable for helping the man rule (1:28), serve and preserve the garden (2:15), or be fruitful and multiply (1:28). “The Hebrew vocalization le-adam makes the word a proper name for the first time, probably because the narrative now speaks of the man as a personality rather than an archetypal human”35.

21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh

The Hebrew text says God took one of the sela from the man. This refers to the man’s side and not a rib bone.

22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man

Israel is unique among its neighbors in having a separate account of the creation of the female human36. This verse does not contradict 1:27 because 1:27 does not state how God created the humans or when he created them (simultaneously or sequentially).

23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

In addition to its literal meaning, this phrase “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is used figuratively for persons belonging to each other37 The pun with woman (issa) and man (is) exists in both English and Hebrew. The use of similar sounding words for “woman” and “man” may reflect the equality of the two humans. Note that in this passage the man is not naming the woman, he is indicating the category she belongs to38. The woman is named Eve in 3:20.

24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh

The verb “to leave” frequently describes Israel’s rejection of the covenant with God39 while the verb “to hold fast” frequently describes the maintenance of the covenant relationship40. Here we have the picture of a man severing one loyalty in order to commence another. Marriage is a covenant. Becoming one flesh points to the couple’s solidarity41. Marriage and family are the divine ideal for carrying out the mandate of 1:28.

In ancient Israel it was the woman who left her family to live with her husband’s family. For this reason, there is some confusion as to why this verse mentions the man leaving his family. Perhaps the narrator is saying that a man will feel that a part of himself is missing and go out and seek a marriage partner42.

There is a seeming contradiction here since Hebrew d-v-k, “to cling,” essentially expresses the idea of two distinct entities becoming attached to one another while preserving their separate identities. To become “one flesh” refers to the physical aspects of marriage, as though the separated elements seek one another for reunification. The underlying meaning of the paradox is clear, if it is noted that the verb d-v-k is often used to describe human yearning for and devotion to God. Sexual relations between husband and wife do not rise above the level of animality unless they be informed by and imbued with spiritual, emotional, and mental affinity.43

25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed

Shame of their nudity comes when they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (3:7). “The common rendering ‘felt no shame’ may suggest to the modern reader that shame is primarily an emotional response to guilt; in the following narrative, however, it is their knowledge that led to their understanding of personal shame (3:7); thus they ‘were not ashamed’ (NRSV, NASB). True guilt is not manifest primarily in feeling but in knowledge”44. The word “naked” (arummim) is a play on the word “crafty” (arum), which describes the serpent (3:1). This verse serves as a transition between chapters 2 and 3.

Eden and the Tabernacle

There are connections between the garden of Eden and the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a place of communion between God and Israel. The garden of Eden is where God and man first enjoyed that communion. It is likely that the golden lampstand kept in the tabernacle was a stylized tree of life45. Gold and onyx, mentioned in 2:12, were used in the tabernacle and on the priestly vestments46. The verb “to serve”, mentioned in 2:15, can be used to refer to serving God or performing the tabernacle duties47. It also speaks of the completed work on the tabernacle48. The verb “to guard”, also mentioned in 2:15, can refer to observing religious commandments or guarding the tabernacle from intruders49. The two verbs are sometimes juxtaposed50. The man is to maintain the sacred space that is the garden.

Bibliography

CGLLTC: C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary, 2006

FCT: Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 2001

JPSTCGen: Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 1989

NACGen1: Kenneth A. Matthews, The New American Commentary: Genesis 1-11:26, 1996

NICOTGen1: Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 1990

NIVACGen: John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, 2001

WBCGen1: Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, 1987

1[CGLLTC] 40

25:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2

3[NICOTGen1] 151

4[NACGen1] 189

5[NICOTGen1] 114

6[NICOTGen1] 152

7[NICOTGen1] 153

8[NACGen1] 193

9[WBCGen1] 57

10Exodus 9:30; 2 Samuel 7:25; Psalms 72:18; 84:12

11[FCT] 16

12[CGLLTC] 111

13[NICOTGen1] 154; [NACGen1] 194

14[NACGen1] 196

151 Samuel 2:8; 1 Kings 16:2; Psalm 113:7; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2

16[NIVACGen] 170

17[NICOTGen1] 166

18[NACGen1] 205-206

19[WBCGen1] 63-64

20[NICOTGen1] 169

21Genesis 10:7, 29; 25:18; 1 Samuel 15:7; 1 Chronicles 1:9, 23

22Exodus 25:7; 1 Chronicles 29:2

23Exodus 28:9-14, 20

24[NICOTGen1] 170

25[FCT] 18

26[WBCGen1] 66

27[NICOTGen1] 171

28[CGLLTC] 114

29[NIVACGen] 174

30[NICOTGen1] 172-174

31[NIVACGen] 175

32[NIVACGen] 175

33Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalms 33:20; 115:9-11; 124:8; 146:5

34[NICOTGen1] 176

35[JPSTCGen] 22

36[JPSTCGen] 21

37Genesis 29:14; Judges 9:2; 2 Samuel 5:1; 19:13; 1 Chronicles 11:1

38[NIVACGen] 178

39Jeremiah 1:16; 2:13, 17, 19; 5:7; 16:11; 17:13; 19:4; 22:9

40Deuteronomy 4:4; 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; 30:20

41[NICOTGen1] 181

42[NIVACGen] 178-179

43[JPSTCGen] 23

44[NACGen1] 225

45Exodus 25:31-35; Leviticus 24:1-9

46Exodus 25:1-14, 20

47Numbers 3:7-8; 4:23-24, 26; Deuteronomy 4:19

48Exodus 39:32, 42

49Genesis 17:9; Leviticus 8:35; 18:5; Numbers 1:53

50Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-7

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